‘The Last Dance’: Michael Jordan Reveals The Real Story Behind His Legendary ‘Flu Game’
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Even the casual NBA fan has heard about Michael Jordan’s ‘flu game’ on June 11, 1997 — Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz. MJ went off on a tear, despite being gravely ill. He revealed the truth in ‘The Last Dance’ on May 17.
Michael Jordan put decades of speculation about his famous “flu game” to rest during episode 9 of ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary on Sunday. It turns out that MJ didn’t have the flu — he had food poisoning. He explained what led to him throwing up for hours before Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz.
June 10, 1997: “I’m at the Marriott Suites, George [Koehler], myself, Tim [Grover] and I think a couple of my security guys,” Michael said. “It’s 10, 10:30 at night. We’re hanging out in the room. I’m hungry.” George, a good friend of Michael’s, was his personal assistant at the time.
Tim, Michael’s close friend and trainer, went on to explain that MJ was hungry, so they were calling a bunch of nearby restaurants. “No room service, Michael gets hungry. We’re calling all these different places. George and I are looking around. We find one pizza place open. One,” he recalled.
George explained, “So he ordered pizza. And when the pizza came there was four or five guys outside the door. It’s very rare you get five delivery guys from the pizza place to bring you your pizza.”
“They’re all trying to look in, and everybody knew it was Michael,” Tim said. “So I take the pizza, I pay them, and I put this pizza down and I say ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this.’”
Michael added, “I ate the pizza. All by myself. Nobody else eats the pizza. I wake up about 2:30 throwing up left and right.”
Tim got a call in the middle of the night with notice that Michael was extremely sick and throwing up. “Three o’clock in the morning I get a call, ‘come to the room right now.’ He’s literally curled up in a ball shaking. He says, ‘man find a team doc, now,’” he remembered.
“So really, it wasn’t the flu game, it was food poisoning,” Michael finally confirmed.
Jordan’s mother, Deloris recalled talking to Michael before Game 5 of the NBA Finals. “‘Mom I have to play,”” Michael told her. “And I’m thinking, he should not play,” he said.
Ahead of Game 5, “I stayed in bed all day. I couldn’t eat anything, hold anything in or down,” Michael recalled. He was hooked up to an IV ahead of the game. His teammate Bill Wennington described MJ’s face as looking “chalky white.”
“I’m going to try, it’s Game 5,” Michael said when coach Phil Jackson asked if he could play. “If anything, I can get decoyed. I’m gonna go out and play.”
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 17, 2020
It was game time and Michael looked washed. “Every time the whistle would blow for a time out, it was almost as if the life came out of his body,” Bill said.
“He was in pretty bad shape, but a lot of times when you’re sick you’re able to find something deep down inside that you didn’t know was there and I think it was one of those games that he wanted to win so bad and he just stayed with it,” Scottie Pippen recalled.
After a time out in the second quarter, MJ went off. It was like he flipped a switch. He started nailing shots and carrying the team. Eventually, the game was tied, 85-85 and MJ was at the free throw line. He missed one and immediately got the rebound and scooped up the loose ball with 40 seconds remaining. With 10 seconds left on the shot clock, Jordan hit a 3. — At this point, he’s playing extra playoff minutes and has 38 points in 44 minutes.
MJ carried the Bulls to a Game 5 win over the Jazz, 90-88. The Bulls led the series 3-1. And, you know what happens in most cases when a team is up 3-1 in a playoff series. — It’s usually a wrap.
“He has shown that no matter how sick he was, he’s still the best player in the world,” Scottie said.
ESPN’s aired the final episode of its 10-part docuseries, The Last Dance on May 17 — which explored the 90s Chicago Bulls dynasty and the team’s final championship run against the Utah Jazz before the team split up.
After a grueling battle, the Bulls closed out the series in Game 6, 87-86, winning their sixth NBA championship in eight years. — The team’s second 3-peat. By no surprise, MJ won Finals MVP.
That was the last dance. After the iconic win, Phil Jackson was replaced as head coach (he was asked back by Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, but said he needed a break); MJ went back into retirement; Scottie Pippen was traded; Dennis Rodman was released; Steve Kerr was traded.
Despite going into his second retirement, Jordan admitted in a confessional in present day that he would have returned on a 1-year contract because he believed his Bulls, with Scottie, Dennis, Steve and Phil, could’ve won a 7th title.
“In ’98, [Bulls General Manager, Jerry] Krause already said at the beginning of the season, ‘Phil can go 82 and 0 and he’s never gonna be coach. And, when Phil said this was ‘the last dance’ it was the last dance,” Michael said. “We knew they weren’t going to keep the team. Now, they could’ve have nixed all of it in the beginning of ’98. Why say all of that in the beginning of ’98? If you ask all of the guys who won in ’98… ‘we’ll give you 1-year contracts to try for seven.’ Do you think they would’ve signed? — Yes, they would’ve signed. Would I have signed for 1-year? Yes, I would’ve signed for one year. I was signing 1-year contracts after that. Would Phil have done it, yes. Now Pip, you would’ve had to do some convincing. But, if Phil, MJ, and Dennis were gonna be there to win 7, Pip was not gonna miss out on that,” he explained.
Michael continued, “[In] ’91 and ’92 I was young, full of energy, hungry. In 98, winning six out of 8 and yet being just as dominant was you were in ’91, that’s where the craftsmanship came in. I think ’98 was much better than in any other years because of how I was able to use my mind as well as my body.”
“Was it then satisfying to leave, or was it maddening?” director Jason Hehir asks MJ in a present day confessional.
“No [I wasn’t satisfied],” Michael admitted. “It’s maddening because I felt like we could’ve won 7 and I really believe that. We may not have, but man having just enough to be able to try, that’s just something I cant accept for whatever reason. I just can’t accept it.”
In the conclusion of episode 10, Steve Kerr explained that Phil held an emotional send off to close the chapter on the team’s last dance. He asked each player to bring in anything they wanted to write about what the team meant to them. They were going to read the papers out loud before burning them in a coffee can.
“I remember Michael actually wrote a poem… that day showed his compassion and empathy for us,” Kerr said. “It was a depth of emotional that you never knew he had,” Phil added.
“Phil had this knack, no matter how big you are, or how big you think you are, to always draw you in to be a part of the process. I wrote what I felt at the time,” Michael said. “We’re always going to be bonded. Say thanks for the past, enjoy the moment and let’s make sure we end it right.”
“When I look back, it’s very gratifying to come from Wilmington, North Carolina and never been in Chicago and that became my home, and became part of my history,” MJ said. “My passion on the basketball court should’ve been infectious because thats how I tried to play. I played for them. It started with hope. We went from a sh–ty team, to one of the all time best dynasties. All you needed was one little match to start that whole fire.”