The recent Madison Square Garden exploits of Kobe Bryant (61 points) and LeBron James (52 plus a triple-double) succeeded in conjuring — as singularly great performances often do — memories of Michael Jordan. In particular the Kobe/LeBron feats drew favorable comparisons to MJ’s legendary Double Nickel game against the Knicks way back in 1995.
Now, before I get into this, you need to know two things. First, I was still a fresh-faced schoolboy when that game happened. Back then, the world seemed much larger to me, the NBA felt grander and more majestic. Basketball players were superheroes. And I mean that literally: They were out there saving the world, man. (Ever hear about how Brad Daugherty turned back that alien invasion? Well, it happened.) That was when the NBA was televised on NBC and Bob Costas provided wildly epic pregame intros, which themselves would fade into the too-awesome-for-words Roundball Rock theme. Listening to that song still gives me chills.
Second…I hated the absolute living hell out of Michael Jordan.
See, Jordan was always standing in my way. I used to worship Magic Johnson. Jordan defeated Magic’s Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals. I was a huge fan of Clyde Drexler. Jordan downed the Glide’s Blazers in the 1992 Finals, castrating Drexler in the process. I freaking loved Charles Barkley. Jordan eliminated Chuck’s Suns in the 1993 Finals, invalidating Barkley’s regular season MVP award along the way. Every time I rooted for a particular player or team, Jordan was there to beat them and spite me. As a friend said after Jordan defeated his team — the Cleveland Cavaliers — in the ’92 Eastern Conference Finals: “I wonder if Mike realizes how many people’s dreams he’s crushed over the years?”
That’s just how it was in the 90’s. Michael Jordan wasn’t going to let your team win. It was that simple. And that frustrating.
So quite understandably, I was thrilled beyond words when he retired after the 1992-93 season. It seemed too good to be true. But it was: Jordan had left the building (in this case, the old Chicago Stadium) in favor of a minor league baseball stadium. Suddenly, all bets were off and anything was possible. Unfortunately for me, Hakeem Olajuwon stepped in to fill the Jordan vacuum, defeating Barkley and the Suns in the 1994 and 1995 playoffs. But that’s another story.
Chicago’s first post-Jordan year went better than anybody could have expected. They won 55 games and pushed the Knicks — who would go on to lose a hotly contested championship series to Hakeem’s Rockets — to seven games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. And, to be frank, they might have beaten New York if not for a small handful of iffy calls. But, again, that’s another story.
The Bulls’ second post-Jordan year went decidedly less well, mostly due to the loss of Horace Grant, who had signed with the Orlando Magic. They hovered around .500 for most of the year until the un-retirement announcement heard ’round the world. Said MJ: “I’m back.” Said me: “Aw, crap.”
My fears seemed unjustified after Jordan’s first comeback game, a road loss to the Pacers in which Mike scored only 19 points on 7-for-28 shooting. I rejoiced! Jordan may have been back, but Jordan clearly was not Jordan. He was human after all. And although he scored 27, 21 and 32 points in his next three games, it was obvious that he was a step slow, a tad out of sync.
Then he traveled to MSG for a nationally televised game against the Knicks, the Bulls’ arch-nemesis. No team during Chicago’s first three-peat challenged Jordan the way New York did. And this was a Knicks team that had been in the Finals the previous season and would go on to win 55 games. They also happened to be the best defensive team in the NBA. And it was a pretty sure bet that they’d want to lay the smack down on a rusty Jordan.
Instead, Jordan laid the smack down on them: 21-for-37 from the field, 3-for-4 from beyond the arc, 10-for-11 from the free throw line, 55 points. It was a clinic. And as I said, those Knicks were the best in the league at stopping people, a physical, aggressive team. They were like a dog that clamps its jaws down on your throat and just gnaws you to death. For this game, Knicks coach Pat Riley chose not to double-team Jordan, instead opting to use John Starks in single-coverage. Ouch. Let’s just say that it’s probably no coincidence that Starks lost a testicle a few years later. Said Jordan afterward: “I could read Starks’ every move. I basically had him at my disposal.” That would have come off as pretty arrogant if it hadn’t been so true.
As unstoppable as Jordan was in that game, even more amazing was how he finished off the Knicks: By dishing the ball to a wide-open Bill Wennington for the game-winning dunk. Nobody expected the Double Nickle, just as nobody expected him to pass the rock in the closing seconds with the game on the line. But that was Jordan. He made dreams come true…even as he was crushing mine.