Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf: Michael Jordan's will to win made him the best

Michael Jordan Hall of Fame
Michael Jordan and the Bulls

Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf used to tell Michael Jordan that he reminded him of Jake LaMotta.

Jordan’s initial response was, “Who?”

Perhaps better known as the Raging Bull, the Bronx-native LaMotta was a middleweight who fought in the 1940s and 1950s.

Reinsdorf explained, “He was a boxer who was never knocked off his feet, but lost a number of fights on technical knockouts while he was standing and being pummeled. You had to kill him to beat him. He refused to lose.”

It was his will to win that Reinsdorf saw in Jordan, a trait that Reinsdorf believes drove Jordan to be the best of the best.

“There probably have been players with similar skills to his, although I doubt there has ever been a player as good offensively and defensively as Michael,” Reinsdorf said from his U.S. Cellular Field office. “The thing that separated him from all the other athletes I’ve ever seen was his desire to win.”

That Reinsdorf would own the team Jordan would play for and eventually become one of basketball’s dynasties, according to him, was a stroke of “dumb luck.”

At the time Reinsdorf’s group made the agreement to purchase the Bulls in September 1984, it was about three months after then General Manager Rod Thorn drafted Jordan with the third overall pick in the draft.

“Nobody had the slightest idea of what he was going to be,” acknowledged Reinsdorf. “I think if the old owners realized what they had, they certainly would not have sold. In college, he was an outstanding player, but not a franchise player.”

Jordan became an All-Star his rookie season, and it quickly became obvious Reinsdorf and his partners had struck a deal at just the right time.

The timing, however, was not quite right for the three coaches Jordan played for early in his career—Kevin Loughery, Stan Albeck and Doug Collins. Although Jordan’s Bulls continued to progress as the 1990s approached, management decided to let Collins go and hire Phil Jackson prior to the 1989-90 season.

“Phil believed that basketball was essentially a defensive game,” Reinsdorf said of the decision. “His emphasis was on defense and rebounding. His offensive philosophy was one I liked, and that was running the triangle, which essentially involved players moving off the ball and a lot of ball movement.”

Before making a final decision, though, Reinsdorf consulted with his best player about the hire of Jackson, who had been on board for two seasons as an assistant, and Jordan was in favor of it. Jackson got his shot, and the Bulls never looked back, winning three straight world championships to start the decade.

Jordan and the Bulls meet President Clinton

Jordan, Reinsdorf and the Bulls had several opportunities to pay the White House a visit in the 1990s.
(Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images)

Then, suddenly and abruptly, the game’s greatest player decided to walk away from basketball in 1993.

“I was stunned,” said Reinsdorf. “But when he explained to me why, I understood.”

As it turned out, Jordan had dropped a few hints along the way. In 1990, Reinsdorf, who also owns the Chicago White Sox, invited Jordan to come to Comiskey Park and take batting practice, an experience Jordan greatly enjoyed. Jordan always had an interest in baseball, and his father had wanted him to become a baseball player.

Then, in the spring of 1993, Jordan went to Reinsdorf and asked if he could go to Kannapolis, the Class A affiliate of the White Sox, to play for the summer.

Reinsdorf was skeptical, saying, “I think you’re kidding yourself and I don’t think you can do it, but if you want to try, go ahead and try.”

Jordan’s baseball aspirations were tragically put on hold, when in July, his father, James, was killed. Several weeks later, Jordan and his agent, David Falk, again met with Reinsdorf, this time to inform him that he would retire from basketball. On October 6, 1993, the announcement was made. Furthermore, Jordan was ready to give baseball a shot.

That following March, Michael Jordan reported to spring training with the Birmingham Barons of the Southern League. Reinsdorf had agreed to continue to pay Jordan based on his NBA contract, so it’s safe to say he was one of the wealthier minor leaguers. Yet, all he wanted to be was one of the guys.

“His teammates loved him,” said Reinsdorf. “I’ve talked to a number of players who were on that team—some that made it to the big leagues—and it was a great summer for them. Michael loves the company of the guys. In basketball, you show up for the game, play it, and leave. In baseball, there are long hours at the ballpark where guys just hang out and talk, and he really liked that.”

Terry Francona, who went on to manage the Boston Red Sox to two World Series titles, was his manager. During Jordan’s time with the Barons, they never played before an open seat, home or away. While Jordan was criticized by the media for his attempt at baseball—Sports Illustrated’s “Bag it, Michael!” cover infuriated Jordan—Reinsdorf credited him for his efforts.

“He worked so hard at trying to become a baseball player, and he wasn’t too bad,” he said. “Had he stayed with it, I think he had a decent chance to get to the major leagues, not as a star, but as an extra outfielder.”

Jordan returned to the Bulls on March 18, 1995 and he let the world know with those two simple words: “I’m back.”

Jordan played under his old contract, which was a seven-year deal that replaced his original contract after his fourth season. When that was up at the end of the 1995-96 campaign, it was a matter of negotiation with Jordan and his agent, David Falk. The group decided on a salary of approximately $30 million for the 1996-97 season, and approximately $33 million for Jordan’s last with the Bulls in 1997-98.

While the numbers were unprecedented at the time, “Michael was worth every penny we paid him over those two years,” said Reinsdorf.

Jordan’s will to win and ability were probably enough to make him the best player in the game, but as Reinsdorf pointed out, he was also a great leader. Reinsdorf recalled the 1993 NBA Finals, when Chicago won the first two games in Phoenix. The Bulls needed to win two out of three at home to clinch the title and their first three-peat. Instead, Chicago lost two of three at the Stadium, including a triple-overtime thriller in Game 3.

“We were up 3-2, but we had to go back to Phoenix and it is very hard to win on someone else’s court, especially in a seventh game,” said Reinsdorf. “We felt we had to win Game 6. But, I had a really, really bad feeling about what was going to happen in Phoenix.”

When the team got to the plane, morale was down and no one looked forward to the trip out West. One of the last to arrive at the airport that day was Jordan. As he boarded, everyone noticed the big cigar in his mouth. What is that for, someone asked?

“It’s my victory cigar,” Jordan said. “I’m going to smoke it after the game tomorrow night.”

“You could see that it changed the whole mood,” recalled Reinsdorf. “He got a card game going, and by the time we got to Phoenix, everyone was loose. I then had the feeling we were going to win that game.”

But all good things must come to an end. For Michael Jordan, it was June 14, 1998. His “final shot” in Utah led the Bulls to their sixth world championship in eight seasons, and the speculation concerning whether he and Jackson, along with free agents Scottie Pippen, Luc Longley and Steve Kerr, would quickly return.

Jordan made it clear in a meeting with Reinsdorf in July: If Phil wasn’t coming back, he wasn’t coming back. Reinsdorf could see that the final championship took a toll on Jordan, but talked him out of announcing anything concerning his retirement until that year’s NBA lockout was resolved. We’ll see what the world looks like then, he told Jordan. But in the end, was there even a remote possibility that Jordan would return for another season?

“There wasn’t a chance in the world,” Reinsdorf said. “Michael was very burned out. The last one was probably the toughest championship for him. He carried the team more that year than he had any other year.”

In addition, Jackson was adamant about not coaching through a rebuilding phase, and was going to retire as well. With Jordan and Jackson suddenly out of the equation, it meant that keeping Pippen, Longley and Kerr were simply not viable options because their value in the open market was well in excess of what they would have been worth to Chicago.

“No one broke up the team,” said Reinsdorf. “The guy that got Michael to retire was Phil, because he said he wasn’t going to come back.”

Upon the lockout’s resolution, Reinsdorf made one last attempt to talk Jackson into coming back, but he wasn’t budging.

Furthermore, there were injury complications, as Jordan had sliced the tendon in his right index finger with a cigar cutter and required surgery. His status for the season would have been in doubt.

Jordan’s second retirement was announced on January 13, 1999, two days before the team named Tim Floyd its new head coach. A week after that, Pippen was dealt to Houston as part of a multi-team deal.

Though Jordan finished his playing career with the Washington Wizards, the impact he had on the Chicagoland community, and the sports world in general, is unparalleled.

“Watching Michael play was like watching Babe Ruth play,” said Reinsdorf. “A couple guys have hit more home runs, but there’s never been another Babe Ruth. Ruth was by far the greatest player of his era. He routinely hit more home runs than teams hit. The separation between Michael and the next best player was enormous. He was a major part of people’s lives.”

Most everyone has their favorite Jordan moment, and Reinsdorf is no exception. For him, it was before the championships, when the Jordan’s Bulls were still on the rise, a moment known as The Shot.

During the 1988-89 season, the Cavaliers had beaten the Bulls five times. Heading into the fourth game of their first round playoff game in Cleveland, Chicago led, 2-1. Game 4 was played at the Chicago Stadium, and Jordan missed a free throw in the last two minutes that cost the Bulls the game.

“We had to go back to Cleveland, and I don’t think anyone in the sporting world believed we would beat them,” said Reinsdorf. “We were down by a point with seconds to go, and everyone in the building knew the ball was going to Michael. It did, and yet he made the shot over [Craig] Ehlo at the buzzer. That shot started us off on the run, because it showed that not only could we get into the playoffs, but that we could win.”

On the bus to the airport after the game in Cleveland, Jordan approached Reinsdorf and asked if he could have a suite in New York, their next opponent, so he could bring guys to his room, loosen them up, and keep everyone together.

He told Michael, "After making that shot, you can have anything you want."

With Jordan set to take his place in basketball’s Hall of Fame, Reinsdorf can’t help but wonder if it’s enough.

“I don’t think this is a big deal in Michael’s life,” he said. “How can he not be in the Hall of Fame? They ought to have a Hall of Fame just for Michael, and then one for everybody else. He was just so much better than everyone else. I wish he were the only one going in this year, so that all the attention could be focused on him.”