Inside Michael Jordan's Rookie NBA Season
We know how the Michael Jordan story ended — as the consensus Greatest of All Time — but how many remember or even know how it began over 35 years ago?
The Jordan legend was born in a tumultuous 1983-84 NBA season of tanking, two All-American centers, somebody named Tom Owens, lies, an epic mistake, a draft for the ages, a famous tongue, a budding rivalry, jealousy, conspiracy, payback, a pair of shoes, a sale, a pink slip, a meltdown, a playoff series and a major procedural change.
Oh, and would you believe a little bit of O.J. Simpson, too?
Now fasten your seat belts and enjoy the ride.
Editor's note: Paul Ladewski was the only Bulls beat writer to cover Michael Jordan's career in Chicago from start to finish. While with the Daily Southtown (1979-2008), Ladewski also served as sports editor and columnist.
The Nightmare Before
One season before Michael Jordan arrived via the NBA draft, the 1983-84 Chicago Bulls were a shipwreck in a hurricane. The collection of mostly failed draft picks was remarkable only for its utter lack of experience, chemistry and defense.
At 27, center Dave Corzine was the elder statesman. Only he, forward David Greenwood and star guard Reggie Theus had been in the league as many as three seasons. The Bulls' 27-55 record was the continuation of a downward spiral that began three seasons earlier.
Far worse, there was no end in sight.
A Reggie Ruckus
To compound matters, the 1983-84 season began with a full-blown controversy when top gun Reggie Theus lost his starter job to rookie Ennis Whatley, a more conventional point guard.
"Rush Street" Reggie was a gifted athlete, not to mention a popular figure in town, but Kevin Loughery wasn’t enamored with his domination of the ball and passive defense. The clash came to a head in early February, when Theus attempted one shot in seven minutes in a victory over the San Diego Clippers at home.
He was traded to the Kansas City Kings in return for reserve center Steve Johnson and a second-rounder the next day, hardly the kind of return one would expect for a former ninth pick of the draft.
Race for No. 1
When the Bulls lost 11 of their next 13 games after the Theus trade to fall out of the playoff race, general manager Rod Thorn and his co-conspirators turned their focus to the annual draft.
A coin flip between the teams with the worst records in each conference would determine the first pick.
The rest would be in inverse order of record.
Remember Tom Owens?
In June, 1981, the Portland Trail Blazers sent 31-year-old journeyman center Tom Owens to the Indiana Pacers in return for their 1984 first-round draft. Who knew that, years later, it would become one of the biggest deals in basketball history?
At the 1984 All-Star break, the Pacers owned a 12-29 record, the second-worst mark of any Eastern Conference team. The Cleveland Cavaliers were only a half-game worse. Suffice it to say, the Trail Blazers would have a keen interest in Pacers games for the remainder of the regular season.
Like many teams, the Trail Blazers were in the market for a center. Not the Pacers, though. They already had recent first-round draft pick Steve Stipanovich and veteran Herb Williams in the middle. Their most urgent need was at off-guard.
What if the Owens trade had never happened? Can you say Michael Jordan, Indiana Pacer, boys and girls?
An overtime victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 20 dropped the Bulls to fifth in the order, at which point coach Kevin Loughery and general manager Rod Thorn finally had enough.
From that point on, Loughery made even more bizarre personnel moves than usual late in games, a devious scheme so obvious that it drew public criticism among media and rival coaches alike.
"That question is very insultive," Loughery told beat writers in his best Brooklynese after another forgettable loss.
The Bulls dropped 14 of their final 15 games to land the No. 3 pick.
Go Big or Go Home
It was a different NBA at the time.
The 3-point shot was only in its fifth season. Teams still were built from the inside out. In a copycat league, the last three champions boasted an All-Star center — Robert Parish (Boston Celtics), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Los Angeles Lakers) and Moses Malone (Philadelphia 76ers).
So while Jordan would make a nice runner-up prize, most agreed, his 6-foot-6 size worked against him. Instead, Bulls management had dreams about "The Dream," 7-foot Nigerian Akeem (pre-Hakeem) Olajuwon, the consensus best center and safest pick on the draft board.
Rockets Flame Out
Meanwhile, out West, Houston Rockets general manager Ray Patterson and his co-conspirators were fully intent to land local star Akeem Olajuwon (Houston) at the No. 1 pick themselves.
On March 3, the Rockets were three games better than the San Diego Clippers, only to drop 17 of their final 22 to finish with a conference-worst 29-53 record. That left them one game ahead of the Clippers (30-52) in the draft race. The free-fall was of considerable interest to the Philadelphia 76ers, who owned the Clippers’ first-rounder as part of the World B. Free trade.
"They [the Rockets] completely died," Philadelphia 76ers general manager Pat Williams told The Sporting News in 2014. "Blatantly, really. Tanking is not new. That was the ultimate case."
Michael: The Player
At 21, Jordan had the kind of background that made him a highly attractive draft prospect. He played under a legendary coach Dean Smith in an elite program at North Carolina against big-time competition in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
As the joke went at the time, Smith was the only person who stopped Jordan in his college career. Yet because of the coach, Jordan was well-schooled in fundamentals, discipline and teamwork, which made him more NBA ready than most his age.
Michael: The Athlete
It was outrageous athleticism that separated Jordan from the rest of the draft field.
At Laney High School in Wilmington, North Carolina, he was known as "The Rabbit" for obvious reasons.
When the 17-year-old enrolled at North Carolina, he was clocked at 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
By the time he landed in Chicago, his 46-inch vertical was in rarified air.
Michael: The Winner
Because the North Carolina offense was so deep and balanced, Jordan seldom took over late in games.
But he didn’t shy away from big moments. Witness his cold-blooded game-winner in the final minute of the 1982 national championship game.
"It was destiny," Jordan said. "Ever since I made that shot, everything has just fallen into place for me. If that shot hadn’t gone in, I don’t think I would be where I am today."
Michael: The Suspect Prospect
Not everyone was sold on this Jordan kid, though. The junior won the 1984 Naismith and Wooden Awards as the best player in college basketball, but he and his team went out with a whimper in their final game.
He also never averaged as many as 20 points or 30 minutes per game in any of his three seasons with the Tar Heels. Did the North Carolina system hold him back? Or did he thrive because of it?
At 6-foot-5, 185 pounds, he was a young pup, more skin and bones than sculpted muscle. Could he withstand an 82-game grind? There was some doubt about his ability to shoot the ball consistently at the perimeter as well.
Some predicted that he would be a classic ‘tweener, a guy who could play multiple positions but none at an elite level.
Another Doctor In the House?
Even before the coin flip, the Bulls began to receive feelers for the third overall pick.
The Philadelphia Sixers liked center Akeem Olajuwon a lot, but in Jordan, some envisioned the next Julius Erving, who turned 34 shortly after the 1983-84 season.
Dean Smith also was certain to have input on the matter. Not only did he coach Jordan at North Carolina but Sixers bench boss Billy Cunningham as well.
"We were torn — Olajuwon or Jordan," 76ers general manager Pat Williams said. "But that North Carolina bond runs very deep as you know."
The Big Lie
The Portland Trail Blazers also had Akeem Olajuwon at the top of their wish, but they needed a fall-back plan in the event that the Rockets won the coin flip for him. While Sam Bowie was the consensus choice as the next best prospect at the center position, the 7-foot-1 Kentucky star had a recent history of shin and leg problems.
That made the Trail Blazers a bit squeamish. Seven years earlier, they had drafted UCLA All-America center Bill Walton, who never played a full season with them because of a similar health issue. After team officials put Bowie through an extensive physical exam, they believed he had passed beyond a reasonable doubt.
Years later, however, Bowie admitted that he fibbed to protect his draft status for the good of family members. Rip City fans shouldn’t be too distraught, though. Trail Blazers coach Jack Ramsay said that forward Charles Barkley (Auburn) and not Jordan probably would have been their pick had Bowie been out of the picture.
"I can still remember them taking a little mallet, and when they would hit me on my left tibia, and 'I don’t feel anything,' I would tell 'em," Bowie recalled in "Going Big" on ESPNU in 2012. "But deep down inside, it was hurting. If what I did was lying and what I did was wrong, at the end of the day, when you have loved ones that have some needs, I did what any of us would have done."
Bulls general manager Rod Thorn: "About a month before the draft, I had a conversation with Stu Inman, who was the GM in Portland. He and I were good friends. I asked him if he had decided who he was going to draft. He said that if (Sam) Bowie passed the physical, he would draft him.
"So about a week before the draft, I called again and asked if Bowie passed the physical. He said yes. Sometimes, people aren’t always honest with you. But based on our relationship, I felt very confident."
Tails, They Lose
On May 22, the coin flip to determine the No. 1 pick of the draft was held at NBA headquarters in downtown Manhattan. The Portland Trail Blazers called "tails," commissioner David Stern flipped the coin, and fate landed on "heads." The Houston Rockets owned the first pick and center Akeem Olajuwon for all intents and purposes. The Trail Blazers would choose second.
The Bulls were the real losers. Or so it seemed at the time. If the Trail Blazers had won the toss, then the Rockets almost certainly would have passed on center Sam Bowie at the second pick. That would have allowed the Bulls to select Bowie in the third spot, then trade him to the Seattle SuperSonics as part of a package deal the included veteran center Jack Sikma, the popular veteran with downstate Illinois roots.
Now that Olajuwon and Bowie were almost certain to be unavailable, that plan no longer was an option.
Trade Winds in The Windy City
Interest in the third pick picked up around the league before the draft.
The Philadelphia 76ers put a standing offer of guard Andrew Toney and center Clemon Johnson on the table. The Atlanta Hawks bid center Tree Rollins, the veteran rebounder/shot-blocker. The San Diego Clippers dangled 22-year-old forward Terry Cummings, the former DePaul star who came off two solid seasons.
But as the hours dwindled, it became more apparent that it would take a blockbuster offer for general manager Rod Thorn to move off his spot. It appeared the Bulls would be stuck with the third pick, after all.
The Q Factor
As D-Day neared, the thought of Michael Jordan in a Bulls uniform created a growing buzz around the toddlin' town. That he would be a popular choice among fans and media was no small consideration for general manager Rod Thorn and company.
Two years earlier, they chose guard Quintin Dailey (San Francisco) at the seventh overall pick despite his involvement in a sexual assault to which he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. Within hours, the organization had a public relations nightmare on its hands.
Jordan represented a welcomed opportunity to do something popular for a change. Or execute another massive screw-up.
The Night Before
Rod Thorn and his co-conspirators spent the eve of the draft at the team offices, where they discussed the rebuild plan. He also touched base with a few other general managers throughout the day, but the 11 p.m. trade deadline passed quietly around the league.
The consensus was unanimous in house. The organization would hitch its future to Jordan, the former 5-foot-10 high school sophomore who couldn’t make his varsity team only years earlier.
"Our first priority was to shore up at center, but it’s such a difficult thing," coach Kevin Loughery told the Chicago Tribune in 1984. "Michael’s a terrific athlete, and we’re hoping he has the ability to come in and be a starter right away."
Assistant coach Mike Thibault put it this way: "This franchise has had an air of futility for the last eight months. I’ll be disappointed if Jordan doesn’t have the kind of impact to pull us out of it."
The Bowieburg Disaster
After the Houston Rockets chose Akeem Olajuwon at the No. 1 pick, a smallish man with glasses and a porn star mustache stepped to the podium at draft headquarters in New York. (Hey, wait — that was commissioner David Stern!) He was about to announce what many would consider the biggest mistake in pro team sports history.
“Portland selects Sam Bowie, University of Kentucky.”
Then the commish could have screamed, "There’s smoke and there’s flames . . .! Now — and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast! Oh, the humanity, and all the passengers screaming around here!"
USA Network draft commentator Al Albert: "Sam Bowie, the young man who came back from a stress fracture injury of the shin bone. ... He was out two seasons, redshirted, and he's come back strong."
USA Network analyst Lou Carnesecca: "[Trail Blazers coach] Jack Ramsay likes to use the center as a passer, a blocker, a post man. I think he'll work very well."
Bowie: "As far as I'm concerned, I'm 100 percent sound (physically)."
Moment of Truth
Immediately, the Bulls faithful began to make their decision known at a draft party at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in the Chicago Loop.
"Jor-din! Jor-din! Jor-din!"
Several seconds of suspense pierced the air. Finally, in the team war room two floors above, GM Rod Thorn said the magic words that would shape an organization, a league, a sport, a city and even a world to epic proportions.
Thorn: "We picked [Jordan] because you can't pass up a great player. If we were a great team, we could have drafted for need. We need a center. We're going to have to get one. There just wasn't one there."
More Thorn: "If we had our choice between Bowie and Jordan, we would still have taken Jordan. But Olajuwon was the big prize."
And more Thorn: "[Jordan’s] a very good offensive player, but not an overpowering offensive player."
Coach Kevin Loughery on where Jordan would play: "Big guard, small forward."
Houston Rockets Dream Team?
In his memoirs years later, Olajuwon painted a salacious scenario that would have resulted in the mother of all draft hauls. He claimed the Portland Trail Blazers had offered to send guard Clyde Drexler and the No. 2 pick to the Rockets in return for center Ralph Sampson.
The Rockets would select Olajuwon and Jordan with the first two picks — except they preferred to pair Olajuwon and the 7-foot-4 Sampson on a skyscraper front line.
His Airness, Clyde The Glide and The Dream on the same team? How many Larry O’Briens would those three have won together?
The Summer Games
The basketball world would see a Jordan preview at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The Bob Knight-coached team was heavily favored — it featured a half-dozen NBA first-rounders — but the No. 3 pick stood out with his ability to blend individual skills and a team concept.
"I’ve talked with other athletes who have been watching some of our games here," Team USA teammate Leon Wood told the Chicago Tribune in 1984. "A lot of them are saying that Michael is the best athlete they’ve seen here in any sport from any country. I tell them they ain’t seen nothing yet."
That was a popular opinion of those in the know.
"In two or three years, there will be a major controversy in the NBA," Team USA assistant coach George Raveling said, according to "The Chicago Tribune Book of the Chicago Bulls: A Decade-by-Decade History" (a 2016 book). "It will concern how Michael Jordan was allowed to be drafted only third instead of first or second."
I Dub Thee Knight
The Olympic experience wasn’t all fun and games for Jordan and his teammates. It could never be that with potty-mouthed Bob Knight in the role of head dictator.
After Jordan committed six turnovers in a hard-earned victory over West Germany in the quarterfinals, Knight made him feel lower than a manhole cover in front of teammates. There was a method to the madness, naturally. Jordan responded with only one turnover in each of the next two games and a game-high 20 points in the championship match.
"It’s been an experience having [Knight] as a coach," Jordan told the Chicago Tribune. "I’m sacrificing a little. We all have, but that’s fine. I’ve heard some of the words before that he’s used, but never from a coach. At North Carolina, Dean Smith never swore. Coach Knight is a lot more blunt."
That was an understatement.
"Bobby Knight, he got after us. ... He told Michael that’s the worst he ever played," Team USA teammate Sam Perkins said on SiriusXM's "Above The Rim" program in 2016. "Now, Michael’s going to deny this, but he cried. He cried after the game [versus West Germany] because of the fact that Bobby Knight told him, 'You should apologize to everybody in here.'"
It's Shoe Time
Jordan had his heart set on Adidas sneakers in the NBA because they were built lower to the ground than other models. (Imagine that.) But Adidas didn’t want him, it turned out.
None other than O.J Simpson was among the biggest Jordan fans. The former NFL star was a vice president with Spot-Bilt, which made a bold offer for his services. But neither Spot-Bilt nor Adidas had the urgency or marketing potential of Nike, a fast-riser that was determined to reverse its first quarterly loss.
Equally important, Nike had Jordan’s agent David Falk in its corner. Several of his clients were Nike guys already, and he was relentless in his pursuit of another deal even if Jordan wasn’t much interested at the outset.
Finally, Jordan became sold enough on Nike to accept its five-year, $2.5 million offer, but not before he gave Adidas the right of first refusal, which it declined. He would realize as much as $7 million with stock options if he met certain performance standards, a figure that was unheard of at the time.
The deal blew away that of Los Angeles Lakers star and former college teammate James Worthy, whose eight-year, $5-million deal with New Balance had been the most lucrative previously.
Bulls for Sale
The Bulls franchise had taken in a lot of water since the 1970s glory days. Home attendance had shrunk to 6,000 and change per game in the 1934-84 season, a figure that ranked 21st out of 23 teams.
Now there was growing talk that the ownership group of Chicagoans Arthur Wirtz, Lester Crown, Phil Klutznick and Jonathan Kovler and New Yorker George Steinbrenner (yes, that George Steinbrenner) were ready to cash in their chips. They had a potential taker in Chicago White Sox co-owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who had forgotten more about real estate than he knew about basketball.
"I thought that the Bulls were an under-managed, under-operated team and that it could be a very successful franchise if run properly," Reinsdorf told NBA.com in 2013.
The Sign of All Time
After the Olympics concluded, Jordan and Bulls management began contract negotiations. Five weeks later, on Sept. 12, the parties agreed to a five-year, $6 million deal. It included a $1 million signing bonus and two option years.
The financial commitment was a rather steep one. The $1.2 million annual salary represented nearly 40 percent of the team salary cap, while the total amount eclipsed the previous team record of $4.5 million offered to center Artis Gilmore after the 1976 ABA-NBA merger. Only Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon had richer rookie contracts in NBA history.
"When you win only 55 games in two years, you don't get well all at once," Bulls general manager Rod Thorn said. "Look, when Isiah Thomas went to Detroit, he improved them, but it took two years to make the playoffs. We've taken a step in the right direction. Jordan isn't going to turn this franchise around. I wouldn't ask him to. I wouldn't put that kind of pressure on him."
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
The Bulls opened preseason camp at Angel Guardian Gym, their practice site on the far North Side. The quaint barn once housed the largest orphanage in the city, which made it perfect for the team in recent years, critics liked to point out.
Yet no sooner did Jordan set foot inside the place than a different vibe filled the air. He played with the utmost confidence and a will to win that was readily apparent in one otherwise routine scrimmage.
Team Jordan owned a comfortable lead as would become the norm. In an attempt to level the field and extend the competition, coach Kevin Loughery told Jordan to switch sides. The rookie loudly voiced his displeasure with the slight, but he played on and even ran the required laps when his team lost.
"At that point, we knew that we had a young guy who was different than any we had seen before," Thorn said. "After about one practice, it was obvious to us that Michael was our best player."
Jordan was ready to lead.
"My leadership qualities had to come to the forefront," he said. "Once you show that, then other guys gain that same type of confidence. 'We’re gonna win this game. We’re gonna do everything we can. We’re gonna dive on the floor for loose balls. We’re gonna come up with loose rebounds. We’re gonna make our free throws. We’re gonna play hard defense.' And that has to start with my leadership on the basketball court."
What Do We Have Here?
Bulls general manager Rod Thorn knew that his team had a prize in Jordan right away. How big of one, he had no idea. He was intrigued, even a bit anxious, almost like he had the first five numbers in a six-number lottery.
I vividly recall this conversation at Angel Guardian Gym in the first week of preseason camp.
Me: So how good can this Jordan kid be?
Thorn in his West Virginia drawl: "Hard to say. We know Michael is a terrific athlete. He loves to compete. His teammates seem to like him a lot. But until we see him play in real games for a while, I can’t answer that. There are a lot of questions to be answered yet."
Me: Like what, for instance?
Thorn: "Where will he fit best? Is he a guard? A forward? How consistently will he shoot the ball? Physically, how well will he handle the 82-game schedule?
Me: Minimum, he’ll be a starter for a long time in this league?
Thorn: "Yes, I can see that."
Persistent me: A 20-point scorer?
Thorn: "I would say he’s capable of that at some point in his career."
Very persistent me: Twenty-five points and an All-Star?
Thorn: "I wouldn’t rule out anything, but again, it’s too early to say for sure. I can tell you this much — Michael absolutely hates to lose. And we need more of that."
Breath of Fresh Air
In the preseason opener, Jordan scored 18 points in 29 minutes against the Indiana Pacers in Peoria, Illinois, but the performance was overshadowed by the Chicago Cubs of all teams.
The Cubbies were in the midst of their first postseason appearance in 39 years, a feat almost as rare as a Bulls league championship
On Oct. 5, shortly after agent David Falk had come up with the Air Jordan name, Nike unveiled the sneaker that would revolutionize the industry.
Three days later, however, the NBA outlawed the red-and-black model because it wasn’t a suitable match for the red-and-white team colors.
The company paid the $5,000-per-game fine and turned the controversy into a commercial.
The Oct. 24 date that had been circled on basketball calendars for months was here at last. After a whirlwind five months, the basketball world was able to see what this Michael Jordan kid had to offer in a real NBA game. Only the few Washington Bullets fans at Chicago Stadium came away disappointed after the 109-93 rout was in the books.
Jordan resembled a young stallion that had been let out of the stable for the first time. He wasted no time to showcase his arsenal — fakes, spins and double-clutches, bank shots, lays-in and dunks. His final line was as out of control as he was oftentimes — 16 points on 5-of-16 from the field, seven assists, six rebounds, four blocked shots, two steals and five turnovers in 40 minutes.
Although Jordan’s debut wasn’t a paint-by-numbers masterpiece, it looked far better in the big picture. It took about, oh, half a quarter to realize that he was the best athlete on the court. Then there was the boundless energy and competitive spirit and ability to raise the floor around him.
Of note was that the game attracted 13,913 fans, roughly 6,000 more than the 1983 home opener versus the New Jersey Nets but still nearly 5,000 less than the stadium capacity. A lot more work would need to be done.
"What surprised us was his drive to succeed," Bulls general manager Rod Thorn said of Jordan. "He set the tone immediately to the point that, by the time we played our first regular-season game, he already was the team leader. Almost every great player is a great competitor, but I’ve never seen anyone more competitive than Michael before or since then."
First Baby Step
Jordan played his second game against the rival Bucks at the Mecca in Milwaukee. The visitors trailed 108-106 in the final minute, when the rookie had his first opportunity to be a hero in the pros. The rookie rose in the air and hoisted a shot that ... never struck iron before it hit the floor. The first Air Ball, one might say.
Jordan wasn’t down for long, though. Two days later, he scored 22 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter of a 116-100 win over the Milwaukee Bucks at home. It would be the shape of things to come.
"That is when I felt like I earned my stripes, and the city of Chicago started to believe we could change the fortunes of the Bulls," he said.
In Rod He Trusts
Jordan was born in Brooklyn, but he was a small-town kid at heart. He grew up in North Carolina, where his family had moved when he was a toddler. He attended high school and college there. So while Jordan made the transition to the NBA rather seamlessly, the one to Chicago posed a larger challenge at the outset.
The Bulls were a predominantly young bunch who enjoyed the nightlife. Some, a bit too much. While player salaries shot up in the 1980s, drugs became the habit of choice around the league. Yet as Jordan was well aware, he had more to lose than any of them.
Even at a young age, he knew the importance of his brand, something he would protect as passionately as the ball on the last possession of a tie game. The kid was no shrinking violet, all right, especially when it came to attractive women, but he wasn’t one to follow the crowd. What’s more, he didn’t trust easily. His inner circle would always be an exclusive group.
Jordan did find someone that he could relate to in preseason camp. The person was forward Rod Higgins, who was three years older. Higgins attended high school in southwest suburban Chicago and knew the lay of the land. A second-round draft pick who played college ball at Fresno State, he was a low-key, happy-to-be-here guy, and Jordan felt comfortable around him.
The same couldn’t be said of teammate Quintin Dailey, who was among the few teammates who were a bit put off by the Jordan hoopla so early in his career. Dailey had another reason to have a jaundiced eye — he would compete against Jordan for minutes at the off-guard position.
"At the end of all three of our physicals, Michael needed a ride back to the hotel," Higgins said. "When I dropped him off, he asked me if I would come back and pick him up for practice the next morning. The rest is kind of history. We developed a great friendship. That fall, right before the season, he ended up buying a condo right next to my condo. We were teammates, we became friends, our families became close."
Like Old Times
How lucky could Kevin Loughery be? He coached Julius Erving with the ABA New York Nets, and in Jordan, he inherited a similar lifeline in the other league. He wasn’t about to let go of it, either.
Jordan was given a lot of leeway at the outset, a move that proved to be wise on two fronts: (1) it allowed the rookie to be creative in a leadership role and (2) it kept the best player on the team happy, never a bad thing in this league.
"[Loughery] was a player’s coach," Jordan said. "He liked my game and wanted me to be a leader."
There was something else that was uniquely Jordanesque on the court.
It was his tongue, the one that would wag on everything from dunks to free throws.
"As far as I can remember, it originated from my grandad," Jordan explained. "My grandad stuck his tongue out, and if I’m working on my car or something around the house, I find myself sticking my tongue out really concentrating."
A Rivalry Is Born
Jordan and the Bulls were off to a 13-9 start when they hit their first rough patch of the season, one that coincided with the return of Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons to his hometown.
For Thomas, who grew up in the shadows of Chicago Stadium on the tough West Side, where he literally fought for his dinner on the streets, these visits would become bittersweet. Not long ago, he was the toast of the town.
Three years earlier, the rookie was greeted by a rousing ovation in his Chicago debut. But the arrival of Jordan had changed all that. Now Jordan was the chosen one. Thomas was old news, soon to become an outright villain.
When the teams met for the first time in Pontiac, Michigan, one month earlier, Thomas admittedly tried to do too much in a 122-118 loss. He scored 35 points but hoisted 42 total shots and coughed up nine turnovers.
This time, the veteran guard was under control, and when his team needed him in the fourth quarter, he carried it to a come-from-behind 108-101 victory.
The loss against the Detroit Pistons was the first of five in a row for the young Bulls team. The last was a 104-96 decision against the Houston Rockets that saw Akeem Olajuwon outplay Jordan in the first matchup of their careers.
On a team that still had its share of warts, the Jordan-Quintin Dailey conflict was the most unsightly of all. Jordan had settled into the off-guard spot where Dailey also was most effective. That forced Dailey to spend some time at point guard, where he was sorely out of place.
What the guy did best was shoot the ball and shoot it some more — an unconscionable 29 field-goal attempts per 48 minutes in 26 games to date. Defense? He didn't have a single blocked shot.
It had become obvious that something had to change in the backcourt for the team to take the next step forward.
Jordan showed up at the 1985 All-Star workouts in his Nike warmup suit and some gaudy bling, a fashion statement that didn’t sit well with many of the old-school players in attendance. There are several interpretations of what took place at the game the next day. As one who was there, I can give you mine.
Contrary to what some may believe, I doubt that good buds Isaiah Thomas and George Gervin and to a lesser extent Magic Johnson concocted a plan to freeze Jordan out of the offense. (He scored seven points on 13 total shots in 22 minutes.) But there’s no doubt in my mind that there was some mention about this Jordan kid among them.
Call it sheer jealousy or veteran pride or a little of both, but they weren’t about to let some rookie steal what they considered to be their show. That couldn’t have been more obvious than when Thomas ignored him on a pair of fast-break opportunities.
I also observed a West team that targeted Jordan at the other end. Specifically, that meant Gervin, who scored 23 points, several of them in isolation at his expense. With Johnson in the role of ball distributor, of course. But the chance to exploit a matchup against an inexperienced player had more to do with sound strategy than the opportunity to embarrass someone.
"I thought [Jordan] may have been a little nervous because of what had happened that whole weekend," Thomas told NBA.com in 2003. "When he came to Indianapolis, if you remember, there was the big controversy with Nike, his warm-up suit, his gold chains. That whole weekend, he was in some controversy. I thought at the start of the game, Gervin came out and was into his thing, [Larry] Bird was ready, Dr. J [Julius Erving] was ready, and in the All-Star Game, it was their show."
The only thing longer than Jordan’s wagging tongue was his memory. He would transform even the slightest of slights into motivation to up his game. So while media and fans debated whether Isiah Thomas and his pals conspired behind the scenes to embarrass Jordan at the All-Star Game, the rookie had made up his mind already.
The first chance for payback against Thomas and the Detroit Pistons came only two days later, this time at Chicago Stadium. The Bulls rallied for a 139-126 victory in overtime, but the game within the game couldn’t have been more one-sided.
Jordan went off for 49 points, which would be his highest output of the season. He also had 15 rebounds, five assists and four steals in 45 maniacal minutes.
Thomas was held to 19 points and nine assists before he fouled out.
Meet the New Boss
On March 1, the sale of the franchise to a group headed by Chicago White Sox co-owner Jerry Reinsdorf became official. He purchased 56.8 percent of the team for $9.2 million, the biggest heist in the league since Havlicek Stole The Ball.
Twenty-five days later, Jerry Krause replaced Rod Thorn as general manager. It was the second go-round for Krause, a squat, slovenly man with the people skills of a piranha. While Krause liked to brag that he discovered every hidden gem in NBA draft history, he was best known for the dispute that he had with Ray Meyer, the legendary DePaul coach, in Krause's first go-round as Bulls GM (the title was director of player personnel) in 1976.
Meyer disclosed that Krause had offered him the job of Bulls head coach, a claim that Krause tried to deny in public. That the decision wasn’t his to make peeved off the high-ups even more. He was fired soon after that.
Reinsdorf had big plans as new owner, but even he didn't know how good Jordan was. "While we closed the transaction in March , the deal was actually agreed upon in September of the prior year , when Michael hadn’t played yet," Reinsdorf said. "None of us knew what we had in him."
Krause put it more bluntly in "Michael Jordan: The Life," Roland Lazenby's 2014 book: "The way I figured it, we had a whole bunch of Fords making Cadillac pay. It was selfish. Everyone was playing for themselves."
Air Jordans Take Flight
The much-anticipated Air Jordan sneakers hit the market at a price that made parents cringe — 65 bucks a pair. Come May, Nike had sold $70 million worth. The brand made more than $100 million in revenue by the end of the year.
"Would the brand have been as strong if it was Adidas? We'll never know," Jordan said. "In hindsight, it was perfect for me because (the Adidas rejection) made my decision that much easier, and I ended up with Nike."
Jordan had never played more than 36 games in any college season. But if there was any question about how he would handle the 82-game grind, it was answered in March rather emphatically.
While his 48.5 field-goal and 81.1 free-throw percentages represented slight dropoffs from previous months, both were more than respectable.
If anything, he had become a more complete player. He averaged more rebounds (7.8 per game) and assists (7.3) than in any month to date.
Playoffs?! Yes, Playoffs!
In Game 77, Jordan and the Bulls clinched a playoff berth with 100-91 win over the Bullets in Landover, Maryland.
At face value, the feat was no biggie — eight of the 11 teams qualified in each conference.
Still, for a team that hadn’t made a postseason trip in four years and only one in the last seven, it marked a large step forward.
When the final week of the regular season began, the Bulls were in a three-way dogfight for the Nos. 5-7 Eastern Conference playoff seeds. They also had a favorable schedule. Of the three possibilities, a 4-versus-5 matchup against Detroit Pistons appeared to be the most advantageous. The teams split the six games played thus far.
It wasn’t to be. Inexplicably, the visitors came out flat in a 109-104 loss against the last-place Pacers in Indianapolis. In the home finale four nights later, they allowed the fourth-place Atlanta Hawks to outscore them 34-15 in the fourth quarter of 119-108 crusher. The next night, the Nets rallied to beat them in New Jersey, 123-111, but it didn’t matter when the Washington Bullets won their game to claim the sixth spot.
The Bulls had few complaints, though. Their 38-44 record marked an 11-game improvement over the previous season.
Next, they would meet a Milwaukee Bucks team whose 59-23 record was second-best in the league.
One And Done
The battle-tested Milwaukee Bucks were a tough draw for the Bulls in round one of the playoffs. Coach Don Nelson’s team was deep and experienced and had advanced to the conference finals one year earlier.
Sure enough, the Bucks held serve in the first two games at home. After Jordan practically willed a 109-107 victory with 36 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in Game 3 at Chicago Stadium, the visitors closed the deal in the next game.
While Bucks guard Sidney Moncrief gave Jordan all he could handle at both ends, teammate Terry Cummings exposed what had been a soft spot at small forward the entire season. The same Terry Cummings whom the San Diego Clippers had offered to the Bulls in return for the third pick in the draft only months earlier.
The Jordan Effect
That Jordan would be the Rookie of the Year had been a foregone conclusion for months. On May 16, in the midst of the conference finals, the league confirmed as much. Jordan was named on 57 1/2 of the 85 ballots. Houston Rockets center Akeem Olajuwon (20.6 points, 11.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists) received the other 27 1/2 votes.
As if Jordan's 28.2/6.5/5.9 slash line wasn’t impressive enough, he became the third player in league history to lead his team in points, rebounds and assists. He also set six team records.
Jordan had lifted a franchise and captivated a city. The Bulls were 11 games better than the previous season. Home attendance shot up 90 percent to 11,885 per game, ninth-best in the league.
It was OK to be a Bulls fan again.
Greatest Draft Class Ever?
Decades later, the 1984 draft class would still be recognized as one of the best, if not the best, in NBA history. It featured no fewer than four future Hall of Famers in Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and John Stockton as well as mainstays Sam Perkins, Alvin Robertson, Otis Thorpe, Kevin Willis, Jay Humphries, Michael Cage, Vern Fleming and Jerome Kersey.
And what about Sam Bowie, who was selected one spot ahead of Jordan in the draft order? The brittle big man produced a respectable, if not prodigious, 10.0/8.6/2.8 slash line in 77 games. He would take part in only 63 games over the next four seasons, which prompted the front office to select yet another center (Arvydas Sabonis) in round one of the 1986 draft.
"I think my year was very, very experimental for me," Jordan said. "I’m very happy to achieve so much. And, hopefully, next year will be more promising. If not, then maybe’ll I’ll retire after two years."
Jordan played another 14 seasons. He retired in 2003 after averaging 30.1 points per game, winning six NBA championships, five league MVPs and six Finals MVPs.
New commissioner David Stern was partial to the owners, and more than one didn’t like the way the 1984 draft went down. At their annual June get-together, the late fade that allowed the Houston Rockets to secure the No. 1 pick and center Akeem Olajuwon was a hot topic for discussion.
The owners decided to replace the coin flip with a lottery to determine the draft order in the future. The next year the New York Knicks claimed the first pick and center Patrick Ewing despite 14 percent odds. That fueled one of the greatest conspiracy theories in league history — that the league used a frozen envelope to bring Ewing to the No. 1 market in the country.
"What Houston did was enough of an eyesore for the NBA that they jumped to action," 76ers general manager Pat Williams told The Sporting News. "They did not put together a task force. They did not have a long, drawn-out period of careful consideration. In that owners meeting, they said, 'That’s it — no more coin flips. We are going to institute a draft lottery.' They could not afford another Houston dump. That was it — it was instituted immediately."