Part IV: Jordan's sophomore season with a footnote

Michael Jordan Hall of Fame

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By Sam Smith | | 08.26.09

Michael Jordan was getting a pretty good idea by October of 1985 he would be suffering the dreaded sophomore jinx, though not under the normal circumstances.

We were getting the idea pretty quickly nothing would be conventional about Jordan’s career. He didn’t hit any rookie wall, averaging 28.2 points per game and setting franchise scoring records as a rookie. In fact, the training staff marveled that as the season went on, Jordan actually seemed to get stronger.

The sophomore season is supposed to be the one when the league catches up with a rookie star and adjusts. Defenses never really did, at least not with Jordan. But events began to overtake the young star and begin some of the fissures with General Manager Jerry Krause that would be an ongoing theme for much of Jordan’s career.

The Bulls failed to win a preseason game, going 0-8 after 5-2 in Jordan’s rookie season, when Quentin Dailey went back into drug treatment. Seeking to make up for the backcourt loss, Krause traded David Greenwood for George Gervin. Yes, the Gervin whom Jordan believed was one of the key players in the conspiracy to embarrass him at the 1985 All-Star game. And as it later would come out, Gervin also was experiencing drug issues at the time.

Jordan simply told reporters he was “unhappy” about the deal. The same day the Bulls placed forward Rod Higgins on waivers. Not only was Higgins Jordan’s only friend on the team, but Higgins was the best person, a conservative, religious man.

The season was getting off on the wrong foot, and foot soon would be the theme of the season.

But as Jordan always said—and did—on the basketball court, he put everything out of his mind but the game. He came to play and compete and win, and the Bulls opened with an overtime win over the Cavaliers as Jordan had 29 points. The Bulls went off to a 2-0 start as Jordan scored 33 points and added seven rebounds, six assists and three blocks the next night at home in a win over Detroit. It was a classic early career game for Jordan, who constantly beat Pistons defenders and attempted 16 free throws. The feud with the Pistons that also would define a major aspect of his early career only increased.

Jordan was taken down by Bill Laimbeer late in the game on a drive to the basket, and Jordan, no doubt, fingered Isiah Thomas for some responsibility following the alleged All-Star freezeout from the previous season. Laimbeer made no effort to go for the ball and took Jordan out of the air, if not the game. Both benches emptied in the pre-suspension era, with even coaches Chuck Daly and Stan Albeck going at one another.

It was perhaps another harbinger of a season to forget.

It didn’t take long to find out why. Talk about your bad Western Conference trips.

In the second quarter at Golden State on Oct. 29, Jordan went down with what was initially thought to be a mild ankle injury. It wasn’t even the major story coming out of the game, as that was the day the Bulls signed guard John Paxson as a backup. Jordan was told to use crutches, but was downplaying the injury. It turned out Jordan had broken a bone in his left foot and would be out months. Jordan was devastated and couldn’t even stand to be around the game. He left and went home to North Carolina. Jordan said he could rehab better back home. The Bulls asked him to stay with the team. He refused, and this, too, would be just the beginning of another bizarre episode.

The Bulls collapsed without Jordan and were a 17-33 mess heading into the All-Star break. Despite the injury, Jordan was picked for the All-Star team and decided to attend. This time he froze himself out, it seemed. Jordan had started to befriend rookie forward Charles Oakley and took Oakley to the All-Star game with him. Jordan began to see the rugged Oakley as the kind of tough guy he and the team could use to fight off the goon tactics he was starting to face from teams like Detroit. It was just one reason Jordan again reacted so angrily when the Bulls traded Oakley in 1989 for Bill Cartwright, once again removing his best friend from the team.

Back in North Carolina, unbeknownst to the Bulls and team doctors and even against the advice of his agent, David Falk, Jordan began to play pickup games. It was a staggering prelude to what would come, one of the most dysfunctional basketball situations imaginable.

The problem was Jordan began to feel better despite the fears of doctors. The key moment was a conference call March 13 with Jordan, the doctors and Bulls management. The doctors advised Jordan, like just about everyone else, to sit out the season. Jordan wanted to play. The speculation was the team, already seemingly out of playoff contention, preferred to remain that way and get a lottery pick and perhaps another top player. There was a chance to get in the lottery and a shot at North Carolina center Brad Daugherty. No one realized it at the time, but it would be a notorious draft with Len Bias dying after a drug overdose and two other lottery centers, Chris Washburn and William Bedford, going into drug treatment. The Bulls would get the ninth pick and select Brad Sellers just ahead of Johnny Dawkins, who was Jordan’s choice and recommendation.

But the Bulls truly felt they had Jordan’s best interests in mind. The doctors said on the call there was a 10 to 20 percent chance of a re-injury, and if it did occur, it was possible it could be career-ending, sort of a Grant Hill scenario of later years.

But Jordan saw it the other way, that there was an 80 to 90 percent chance he wouldn’t have a problem. Given his enthusiasm for the game and desire to play, it seemed to him like a small risk. The compromise with the specialists was playing limited time, first seven minutes per half.

Jordan returned March 15 against the Bucks and had 12 points in 13 minutes and averaged about a point a minute the rest of the month. The Bulls had won three straight before Jordan’s return playing more half court isolation, but then lost five straight when Jordan returned, coming into games and picking up the pace and then leaving with a minute or two left with his minute quota expired. Teammates began to complain he was disrupting their chemistry, though with that team there were plenty of chemicals in use.

Coach Albeck was caught in the middle, with Jordan pleading to play more and stay in to finish games. Albeck tried to finesse it by gradually keeping Jordan in games longer, but was warned by management to accede to the plan. The breaking point was probably a game at Indiana April 9, with Jordan then allowed to play 14 minutes per half. The Bulls had come from behind with Jordan scoring 15 fourth quarter points. But Jordan’s minutes allotment ran out with about 30 seconds left after the Pacers took a one-point lead. Albeck lifted Jordan from the game for Kyle Macy. Jordan was furious, screaming at Albeck to leave him in. Albeck knew then he was coaching his final games with the Bulls. There was no pleasing both sides. GM Krause’s belief was Albeck was trying to show up the team and make a point. Albeck felt he was following the mandate. Paxson made a jumper with seven seconds left for the win, but Albeck’s fate probably was sealed. The compromise pretty much was abandoned after that as Jordan complained publicly again and got his first start since the injury April 7 against the Bucks.

With the time constraints lifted, the Bulls won four of their last six to ease ahead of Cleveland for the last playoff spot with a 30-52 record.

Jordan then may have played the most impressive playoff game anyone has ever seen.

The Bulls drew the shortest straw in facing the team many regard as the best ever, the 1986 Celtics, who were 67-15 and 40-1 at home. But the Celtics were facing the player who would become in most eyes, the best ever, one who was very well rested after missing most of the season and only playing regularly the last 10 days. Jordan was too quick for any defense when the defense was on even footing. Now, the Celtics, as great as they were, had been through the 82-game grind. Jordan was basically starting his season after a long hiatus.

So the Bulls and Jordan went into the Boston Garden and Jordan scored 30 points in the first half of Game 1 as the Bulls trailed by two after halftime before losing 123-104. It was merely the appetizer.

Game 2 was the masterpiece, regarded by many as Jordan’s greatest game ever, though the Bulls lost 135-131 in double overtime.

Boston threw everything it had at Jordan without any success.

Jordan scored a playoff-record 63 points, shot 19-of-21 free throws and 22-of-41 from the field. He had six assists, five rebounds, three steals and two blocks. He made a steal at the end of regulation and was fouled and made two free throws to tie the game and had the game winner in the first overtime barely miss.

It was memorable to watch Jordan dribbling between his legs and around Larry Bird, zooming past Dennis Johnson, double pumping to fake Kevin McHale, jumping over Robert Parish. It was on and on and Boston could do little but try to match scores. There really never has been a playoff performance like it. Celtics coach K.C. Jones would relate afterward that players kept looking away like when a teacher wants to get an answer in class and no one wants to make eye contact. No one wanted to go into the game to try to guard Jordan.

Exhausted and harassed all over the court, Jordan had just 19 points in Game 3 and fouled out late in the fourth quarter as the Bulls lost 122-104. Yet even at his worst, Jordan missed a triple double by one assist with 10 rebounds and nine assists in the loss.

The Bulls were done for the season, but Jordan had made his point while making his points.

He knew what was best for him and he never was going to give up on a season or a game or a moment. And if he could do this against perhaps the best the NBA had ever seen, well, were there any limits?

It was time to show the world what Michael Jordan could do over an entire season.