(Originally published to The Bulls Zone)
You’ve seen this clip a million times:
Nick Anderson stole the ball from a rusty Michael Jordan wearing #45. Nick Anderson told reporters after the game: “No. 45 doesn’t explode like No. 23 used to. No. 45 is not No. 23. I couldn’t have done that to No. 23.”
The very next game, Michael Jordan returned to his old number 23, but simply throwing on what seemed like a retro jersey wouldn’t be enough for the Bulls. The Magic defeated them 4-2 and sent the Bulls into an offseason full of doubt. There was plenty of reason for doubt. In the 17 games he played in the 1994-1995 season, Jordan only averaged 26.9 points per game, 6.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 1.8 steals while shooting a career worst 41.1% from the field. Yes, those numbers on the surface are fine for any other player, but this was Michael Jordan! The greatest player of all-time, the man who seemed unstoppable just a season and a half prior, but now he seemed human. Sure, we saw flashes of his brilliance: The Double Nickel at Madison Square Garden, rattling off 32 points at the Omni against Atlanta (18 in the 3rd quarter) and a buzzer beater. But we didn’t see it consistently. He did pick it up in the Playoffs, averaging 31.5 points per game, 6.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.3 steals, 1.4 blocks, and shot 48.4% from the field, but he also averaged a career worst 4.1 turnovers per game in the postseason and his Playoff PER is the second lowest of his career other than his rookie season (24.8). Also, the Bulls lost for the first time in their dynasty. Were they too old? Could Jordan ever regain his magic? Local media was asking the same questions:
“That is the challenge,” he [Jordan] says. “It’s a whole new beginning.”
I am afraid it is not. I am afraid that it is a story as old as time. Here is the truth. Jordan’s hour has passed, as did Wilt’s and Oscar’s and Dr. J’s, as did Bird’s and Magic’s. This is just the way it is. What was obvious between the Bulls and Orlando, between the Bulls and Charlotte for that matter, is the hunger and the wonder.”
“Oh, Jordan’s skills are still considerable and he can have moments of rare spectacle, but not 82 games, not 164 games, not however many games Jordan has left as a Bull are enough to redo what was.”
“Pippen and Jordan are enough if they were only 25 again. But they are not. And there is not enough time and maybe neither enough commitment nor front office genius to figure this out before Jordan is gone again.
This is what awaits him. Jordan is going to be the marquee attraction he always was. The United Center will fill and the Bulls will trot Jordan in and out of arenas around the league to be admired and to be remembered, kind of a living museum piece. But the league will belong to another generation, for worse or better. The next couple of years will be the farewell tour Jordan never had. Whether he will settle for that, only he knows. This was worth doing, this comeback of his, for now we know and so he does he what a brave thing it truly was.
“Maybe expectations were too high,” Jordan says.
Impossible.” – Bernie Lincicome. Chicago Tribune. May 21, 1995
There was doubt that the Bulls could ever be those Bulls again, that Jordan’s time had passed, and the new generation was about to assert its place in NBA lore. However, Michael Jordan wasn’t ready to relinquish his throne just yet.
The 1995-1996 season began with a bang from MJ. The Bulls started 5-0 and Jordan was reflective of his usual self averaging 32 points per game, 3.6 rebounds, 5 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.6 turnovers, and shooting a fiery 53.3% from the field, 45.5 from 3pt, and 85.7% from the free-throw line. No longer was Jordan’s athletic ability his greatest weapon. Instead, his mind was and the results were evident: He picked spots more often of when and where he would attack the rim, he utilized his jumper more often, he was posting up more frequently and had become a master at it. He was mentally picking guys apart and destroying them on the court. Watch the video below and notice how much different this Michael Jordan looked than the one we are accustomed to before the 1995-1996 season:
As Michael Jordan had done many times before, he had silenced his critics, he erased doubts of his and the Bulls demise, and began his path towards one of the most magnificent seasons in NBA history.