"I'm Back" - Michael Jordan's famous return to basketball

"I’m back for the love of the game.” - Michael Jordan
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later

Body

Michael Jordan made his famous return to the hardwood in Indiana, letting the world know of his return by simply saying, "I'm Back."

Camera flashbulbs were blinking so incessantly it seemed like the sun exploded. No one had seen anything like that before as the Bulls prepared for the March 19, 1995 game in Market Square Arena. "It was strange," recalled Steve Kerr. "No one had ever taken photos of me like that."

They still weren't. It was that other Bulls guard whom the cameras—and the largest regular-season game TV audience in NBA history—were watching, Michael Jordan in his first game back in the NBA after a nearly two-year "retirement."

Thursday is the 25th anniversary of that famous day which began with a 10-day media frenzy about an imminent return that included President Bill Clinton joking in a press conference Michael Jordan's return to the NBA would help national employment figures. Everyone's eyes were on Mike, as always.

It first helped drive him away after the 1992-93 season, but he was Back, as the pithy March 18 release stated.

Jordan was mostly mortal that afternoon in Indianapolis, shooting a rusty seven for 28 for 19 points as everyone gasped in delight with the jump shots he did make. His first points didn't come until the Bulls trailed by 18 points, and then it was Scottie Pippen with a three and a game-high 31 points who sent the game into overtime. The Bulls lost 103-96 as Reggie Miller scored 28 points. Jordan noted afterward in his on-court TV interview with pal Ahmad Rashad that Reggie seemed particularly "fired up."

Michal Jordan and Reggie Miller

Miller was just one of many. Dreams did come true. Michael Jordan, a wishful baseball player, was back in the NBA.

The "I'm back" declaration that Saturday morning also was when the Indiana Pacers first learned, by the way, the biggest sports story of the year is coming to your arena. Tomorrow. See if you can make arrangements.

By game time, Pacers public relations chief David Benner was assigned security guards to protect him from angry media members denied access to the arena floor. From a routine dozen or so media credentials, the Pacers suddenly scrambled to issue 350 that day. Their Market Square Arena couldn't accommodate that much media with space inside the arena on short notice. This also quickly became a hot ticket with scalpers getting more than $1,000 in lines of sellers blocks from the arena. So an auxiliary area was set up to watch the game on a screen. The response wasn't actually one of understanding.

It was a frenzy the Bulls had become accustomed to as Jordan's legend and the team's success grew with the three championships from 1991 to 1993. It would grow exponentially with the second threepeat also featuring Dennis Rodman that had never been seen before and never could be matched again in American sports. The crowds in recent years greeting the champion Golden State Warriors were curry restaurant lines in comparison. They were starting to refer to the Bulls as a circus because it truly was the Greatest Show on Earth.

Michael Jordan

It once didn't seem like it would ever resemble that even as Jordan became a sensation virtually from the day he began to play for the Bulls. That famous No. 3 overall NBA draft selection and 1984 Olympian was drawing national magazine covers weeks into his first season, the famous extended tongue and slam dunks surpassing in interest the fabulous play of the Celtics and Larry Bird and the Lakers and Magic Johnson. I did some freelance work back then for US magazine, the rival of People, and both were quick to seek out Jordan stories with US calling. "Who's this Jordan guy everyone is talking about," they wanted to know in New York.

David Falk and his marketing efforts with ProServ were special as Jordan not only partnered with Nike for the famous shoes and Spike Lee commercials, but with so-called wholesome products like Chevrolet and Coca Cola. Jordan also endorsed Johnson Products from the nation's largest black-owned company, a star for everyone. Still, it was the shoes, the famous Nike Air Jordan that cost a ridiculous $65 back in 1985. Who was going to pay that much for sneakers?

Jordan probably wouldn't have. Actually, he really preferred the Converse he wore in college, though his mother insisted he take that trip to meet with the Nike people. Mike just wanted to play ball. He went somewhat reluctantly, though it's worked out for both pretty well.

Michael Jordan and Spike Lee

It didn't seem so the next season when Jordan broke his foot. Not only were the Bulls asking him not to play, the initial source of a disagreement with general manager Jerry Krause, but Falk also was against Jordan's return. Air Jordan's were being discounted. Was Mike the next Macarena?

Not when the NBA banned the Air Jordan as a non-conforming sneaker—everyone loves to get on the wild side—and David Letterman and Jordan had some fun on Letterman's show when Jordan explained the red and black design without white. "Like the NBA," Letterman quipped. And then Jordan scored 63 points against Bird and the Celtics in a 1986 playoff game, Julius Erving was retiring and handing the face-of-the-NBA baton to Jordan and Jordan was just a team away from stepping fully into the spotlight. Darned, those Detroit Pistons. It took three frustrating playoff years filled with Jordan's 50s and 60s and poster dunks and body slams until 1991 when the Bulls swept across the NBA landscape to beat the East Coast Knicks and then finally the Midwest Pistons and extend Jordan's magic to the West Coast and the first of what would be six championships and the unofficial beginning of the greatest ever debate.

"I hope Pip and BJ and Phil all are back, but it's not my place to make those decisions. I'm back for the love of the game."

Michael Jordan

Others got close in 1992 and 1993, mostly the Knicks and Trailblazers, and eventually the Suns. And then Jordan was done after nine fabulous seasons, leaving the game on top and on his terms like Jim Brown some years before in the NFL. Brown would go into acting, Jordan to acting like a baseball player. And despite the occasional scorn (and record minor league attendance), Jordan became a pretty good baseball player and actually was about to earn a legitimate chance to be a late-season White Sox callup if he stuck through the 1995 season.

He didn't; baseball survived. The NBA prospered.

Jordan had a famous and unique so-called "Love of the Game" clause written into his first professional contract, which essentially meant he could play basketball anywhere and any time without team approval. There had been all sorts of reports amidst Jordan's speculated return in 1995 that he wouldn't have come back if Scottie Pippen had been traded in 1994 as the Bulls tried, or B.J. Armstrong let go, as he soon would be in the expansion draft. No, Jordan told buddy Ahmad Rashad in the post-game interview following that first game against the Pacers. "I'm back for the love of the game," Jordan said. "I hope Pip and BJ and Phil all are back, but it's not my place to make those decisions. I'm back for the love of the game."

Believe it.

Michael Jordan and BJ Armstrong

"I was happy for him coming back," Armstrong said. "I saw the whole process being there before he left and when he came back (along with Will Perdue and Pippen). I remember saying to him, ‘You have all this money and free time. What are you going to do with yourself?' To see him come back and thrust himself self back into the mix I was happy for him, for the team. Happy for him because he was engaged again."

Armstrong had stayed closest to Jordan during his hiatus and saw all that tension that Jordan was holding in finally evaporate. He saw Jordan face the death of his love and find it still was alive. "There was this innocence about him, a certain humbleness when he came back," Armstrong said. "He had a renewed sense of energy from missing the game."

Jordan's life in the 94-by-50 was uncomplicated: play, love, win. It was all the other stuff, the controversies about gambling and his demanding nature, the public demands of the next great show. Give us more, more, more. Jordan had enough, and then it was too much when his beloved father and best friend, James, was murdered that summer of 1995. Jordan told Falk to tell Reinsdorf to tell Phil.

And then Jordan was gone, never to return again, he insisted, except if he chose otherwise. Jordan explained at his going away media conference with his number to be retired and a statue erected that retirement meant you could do whatever you wanted when you wanted. He added almost in a postscript that perhaps someday he may need that challenge again.

And so came March 19, 1995, in Indianapolis.

"He had a renewed sense of energy from missing the game."

BJ Armstrong

"At first it looked like chance on the schedule," said Bill Wennington, among those many new guys Jordan didn't know, or how exactly to play with. "The more I thought about it, it did seem planned. It was Reggie Miller and not a home game, so a chance to shake the rust off before going back to the United Center."

Which also was a new destination for Jordan, whose last home game was in the Chicago Stadium.

Jordan struggled when he started with Birmingham in AA baseball. Hardly surprising as he'd finished his baseball career when he was about 12, a pretty tough pitcher. He and James had talked with Reinsdorf about perhaps a summer in A ball after a season, but it never worked out. Jordan was getting a lot better, batting .252 in the Arizona fall league up from .202 in Birmingham. Now it was a challenge. Jordan was headed for AAA, but the 1994 baseball season had been shortened by a strike. There still was no agreement when the 1995 spring training resumed. Jordan refused to become a replacement player. So he left Florida and began to show up at Bulls practices.

He asked Jackson about maybe playing in the playoffs. Jackson said he couldn't do just that, but it also signaled to Jackson what was Jordan's plan. He was coming back.

Phil Jackson

"Those two weeks were a whirlwind," recalled Wennington. "It was a secret to us for a little while. But we were realizing he was practicing way too hard to be just coming in to work out like he did sometimes. We realized maybe the second or third practice something was going on. But everyone was afraid to say anything because we didn't want to jinx it; eventually, Phil said something.

"Michael brought the intensity level up," said Wennington. "We practiced hard because Scottie was like that. But then to have two guys going at each other that way really raised the intensity level for everyone. It was great to be a part of. You'd heard the stories from the guys who had been there before, saying practice had been battles and it became that. And then the attention of that two weeks was everywhere you went."

And then to Indianapolis, Jordan on a sponsor's private jet with Rashad for NBC. The rest of the team arrived separately that morning.

It had been an ugly 1994-95 season. The previous season when Jordan left, doom was predicted. But the Bulls put together one of their greatest non-championship seasons with 55 wins, Pippen the All-Star game MVP and third overall in league MVP voting. To this day, many blame a questionable official's decision for ruining a chance for the Bulls to return to the NBA Finals without Jordan. Amazing! The Bulls were convinced Jordan wasn't returning. His infatuation with baseball was a new challenge he was determined to conquer. Seattle agreed to a trade of Pippen for Shawn Kemp before the 1994 draft. Though Pippen was excused in Chicago, his refusal to enter a 1993 playoff game because he wasn't getting the last shot lingered around the NBA. When news leaked of the trade, Seattle fans flooded local radio and TV with so many complaints, the Supersonics backed out of the deal.

It thus infuriated Pippen, who returning for the 1994-95 season demanded to be traded. Then he began to feel the weight of expectations that Jordan carried so masterfully for years. Pippen was ejected from games several times, once even with a famous Bobby Knight-like chair toss onto the floor as the Bulls hovered around .500. Most were happy to see Jordan return. Pippen was especially relieved and slipped into anonymity he never knew he enjoyed so much.

"I remember how nervous he was. He wasn't in basketball shape. He was someone who always was prepared. He'd always pretend before the game like he was in the back laying down, casual, nothing bothering him."

BJ Armstrong

The heat was back on Jordan. He loved it, but it was hot.

Armstrong said he saw something in Jordan that March day in Indianapolis he'd never seen before.

"I remember how nervous he was," Armstrong recalled. "He wasn't in basketball shape. He was someone who always was prepared. He'd always pretend before the game like he was in the back laying down, casual, nothing bothering him. But he was preparing for the game when no one was looking. He'd wait for everybody to leave and watch the scouting report, watch everything. He was so thorough and detailed. But he liked to act like he didn't do anything.

"Always so cool, everything calm; nothing bothered him. This was the first time I saw him anxious," Armstrong said. "Before games, he'd always go to the restroom, but this time he was participating in everything like he usually didn't. I remember thinking that was odd for us who knew him, different. And he had on 45, so that looked odd, too. But once the game started, he settled in. Just needed reps."

Jordan had said in tribute to his father he was wearing a different number, 45, which his older brother had worn and which Jordan wore in baseball. It wouldn't be long before Jordan changed back to 23 when Orlando's Nick Anderson joked after a win in which Jordan fumbled the end of the game that 45 didn't look like 23.

Jordan was No. 45 in Indianapolis, but No. 31 was ready.

Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller

The talkative Miller hadn't had much success against Jordan, and now was a chance. Reggie took it on, carrying the Pacers to that big second-quarter lead as the Bulls had just 15 points to start, Jordan without a first-quarter field goal. Jordan finally scored to stop a 15-3 Pacers run that gave them a 42-24 lead.

Jordan even with all those threes against Portland in the 1992 Finals wasn't a three-point shooter, and he mostly was taking short jump shots. He'd finish seven of 28, missing his four three-pointers. He'd say afterward his shots were short and his layups were long.

But there were moments, a double team with Pippen that led to a turnover and full-court Jordan run out for a finger roll score. Jordan finished with three steals, six assists, and six rebounds to go with his 19 points. It was similar to his line in his first-ever NBA game, 16 points on five of 16 shooting with two steals, four blocks, seven assists and six rebounds. Maybe a little nervous that game, too.

But later in the Indianapolis game, Jordan responded to the double team with a pass to Wennington for a dunk to end the third quarter, presaging their connection for the game-winner 10 days later in New York when Jordan had his spectacular "He's Really Back" 55 points.

Michael Jordan

The Bulls without Horace Grant, who'd gone to Orlando as a free agent, weren't very good that season. Though the Bulls finished 13-4 with Jordan's return, he shot a career-low 41 percent and averaged a career-low in steals. Jordan's 26.9 scoring average for those 17 games was his low for the rest of his time with the Bulls. Toni Kukoc was drafted to start at power forward against the Pacers with Perdue starting at center.

The fifth-place Bulls barely survived a 50-win Charlotte team in the first round of the playoffs with some officials' help, and then lost in six games to Grant and the Magic in the conference semifinals. Jordan wasn't in basketball condition, rhythm and timing. He'd go to California to film the Space Jam movie with the proviso that during breaks there would be a basketball court for games and intense workouts. Players from around the league arrived with the most special invitation of the summer.

Reggie got him that day and Shaq and Penny did in May. But not again, at least not with the Bulls jersey on. A few days later, Jordan had a game-winner in Atlanta and then the 55 in New York. Watch your speed. There was a 12 in there and a couple of more uncharacteristic scoring-in-the-teens games before the turn in Hollywood and the dreams it produces.

When the end came that evening in Indianapolis, Jordan was relaxed and smiling.

"Hey, I'm back," he said. "That's all that matters."

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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