What do you do when you’ve got a bad dose of the flu? Stare vacantly at your bedroom ceiling? Binge-watch Rick and Morty? Text your mates, rack up some sympathy?
If you do not tend to do one of those things, then you might be tapping into the Michael Jordan psychology. When Michael Jordan has the flu, he does not choose to tuck himself away under the covers of his sickbed. He goes to the court and drops 38 points in a high-stakes NBA finals game.
On the Classic Game Club this week, we went back to 1997 to re-watch that Game 5 epic between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz. This is Jordan in the middle of his second three-in-a-row NBA Championship run, close to the most terrifying point of his career. He was a machine with no weakness. Except, of course, for pizza. Yes, a hot, delicious slice of Utah’s finest pie was almost the undoing of Michael Jordan.
Tim Grover, former trainer to Jordan, unveiled the pizza theory in 2013:
“So we order a pizza, they come to deliver it, five guys come to deliver this pizza. And I’m just… I take the pizza, and I tell them, I said, ‘I got a bad feeling about this,’” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2013.
“I said, ‘I just got a bad feeling about this.’ Out of everybody in the room, he was the only one that ate. Nobody else. Then at 2 o’clock in the morning, I get a call to my room. I come to the room, he’s curled up, he’s curled up in the fetal position. We’re looking at him. We’re finding the team physician at that time. And immediately I said, ‘It’s food poisoning.’ Guaranteed. Not the flu.”
Grover's story is well-sourced and it seems the most plausible, but Jordan’s former teammate Steve Kerr seemed unsure of the exact details in an interview with Bill Simmons in 2017, suggesting altitude played a factor. Jalen Rose, meanwhile, reckons it was a hangover. Maybe it was the Nerdlucks from Space Jam who tried to derail the life of Michael Jordan by giving him the flu?
We might never know the full truth of Jordan’s exact diagnosis on that day in 1997, but we do know he was suffering pretty badly. Anyone who claims that he was feigning sickness needs to go back to studying chemtrails. A basketball player feigning illness in order to lull his opponents into a false sense of security could be the premise for the worst underdog movie ever made, never mind putting Jordan in the underdog role.
In a perverse way, it is possible to think that Jordan potentially embraced the situation he found himself in Utah back in 1997. John Stockton and Karl Malone? Good opponents. John Stockton, Karl Malone AND flu-like symptoms? Bring it on.
Jordan’s head could have been an attraction at Niagra Falls, such was the level of sweat he was producing. After some of his contributions, he staggered away from the hoop as if he had just stepped off the Waltzers at the fairground. In his mind, he was possibly thinking “I’ve just gotta get through this.” But it was probably more along the lines of: “Screw these guys, I’m a shadow of a man and I’m still going to crush them all.”
38 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 1 block is quite the stat line from a shadow of a man. It was Michael Jordan being Michael Jordan. But the game allows us to see beyond that freakishly competitive mask, too. We see something we don’t often see from Jordan: Vulnerability.
At one stage deep into the second half, a knackered Jordan sinks into the bench beside Scottie Pippen. Pippen shares the look of someone who has just taken their friend out of a nightclub after a heavy, heavy effort on the tiles. But, instead of getting him home to bed, he has to get back into the club. The slouch on the sideline turns into a killer’s snarl on the court. Pippen paves the way, and Jordan is untouchable down the home stretch.
It helps when a certain Dennis Rodman is on your side, too. He was detailed with trying to stop the 1990s version of The Mountain, Karl Malone. Malone was great in the first half, but had a bang-average second half, which was a significant factor in Jazz losing the clash. A lot of that is on Malone himself, but let’s give some credit to Rodman, who had enjoyed a few heavy nights in Vegas in the lead-up to the game. Maybe Jaylen Rose got his hangover stories mixed up.
Between trips to Vegas and flu-like symptoms causing endless narrative around this Bulls team, they powered through to kill off Utah eventually. With the 1997 Championship ring in the bag, it was onto the final season of Jordan dominance. “The Last Dance,” if you will.
ESPN’s 10-part megaseries is more than likely going to give us a greater understanding of how Michael Jordan achieved what he did. It’s easy to say “well, he’s clearly a generational talent.” But how did he ensure he squeezed every last ounce out of that talent? What was the fire that kept the engine running in the late 90s? How can a man with four championship rings find the capacity of a 38-point game in the middle of a bout of illness?
It is unclear what specifically caused the “flu” back in 1997, and it is even less clear how Jordan managed to respond the way that he did. If The Last Dance manages to clear up those questions, it will have already been a worthwhile exercise.
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