Growing up in Boston in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Michael Jordan’s 63-point night at the Boston Garden was taught and talked about like an #86Celtics archetype. After all, those Celtics were the consummate team, and Game 2 of their first-round series against the Bulls -- a 135-131 double overtime win -- was the shiniest example. For young basketball players, it was Exhibit A for the power of teamwork, like “Hey kids, so you see No. 23 out there for the Bulls? You see him running down the court, scoring at will? He looks pretty cool, but guess what? He lost this game. That’s because while he was out there doing everything by himself, the five guys in green did it together. Remember that: Five always beats one. Nothing beats TEAM.”
There was obviously more nuance to the story, but nothing that my pre-teen brain could comprehend. Instead, for a number of years I lived with the misconception that if the #86Celtics represented the right way to play basketball, then Jordan represented the wrong way. That if the Celtics were “team”, then Jordan -- given the arc of the story -- was “anti-team.” Of course I can sit here today and tell you that’s garbage. Even in real time, most mature basketball fans realized that Jordan’s performance was nothing less than a clear indication that basketball would never be the same. “The hoop world knows that every other player and every other team is on borrowed time,” Bob Ryan wrote that next morning in the Boston Globe. “The Celtics, Lakers, Hawks, Rockets and every other 1986 title aspirant had better seize whatever opportunity they can -- Now! -- because we are clearly at the dawn of the Age of Jordan.”
But Ryan’s magical words can’t change that wasted time when my snotty little self thought otherwise of His Airness. I’m still embarrassed for myself and anyone around my age that fell into that trap. So to make amends I’m using this week’s #86Celtics space to tell you (or just remind you) that if not for Michael Jordan’s legendary competitive spirit and spot on convictions about the “right way” to play basketball, that Bulls/Celtics series never would have happened, and the legacy of the #86Celtics wouldn’t be nearly as strong as it is today.
For a little background, Jordan was only 23 years old the night he dropped 63 on the Celtics. That’s the same age that Anthony Davis is right now. Also, thanks to injury, Jordan entered the 1986 playoffs with only 100 regular-season games under his belt. By comparison Marcus Smart played his 118th career game on Wednesday against the Raptors. So, Jordan was young, and Jordan was inexperienced, but under that shiny exterior lived the same ruthless, cut throat ass-kicker that would spend the next dozen years changing basketball forever.
Jordan ran away with Rookie of the Year honors that previous season, averaging 28.2 points per game (still the fifth-best rookie average in NBA history). With his help, the Bulls improved from 27 to 38 wins, made the playoffs for the first time in four years and only the second time in eight years. That offseason Chicago drafted a young beast named Charles Oakley with the ninth overall pick. They also traded for 33-year-old future Hall of Famer George Gervin. No one confused the Bulls with contenders heading into that 1985-86 campaign, but they were getting better, and that was obvious right off the bat. In Game 1, Jordan scored 29 in an overtime win over the Cavs. In Game 2, Jordan scored 33 in a win over young Isaiah’s Pistons.
In Game 3 against the Warriors, Jordan broke his foot.
Straight up broke it.
The Bulls held on to win that game but then lost 17 of their next 22. Between January 14 and February 17, as Jordan rehabbed in Chapel Hill, Chicago lost 15 of 17 games -- and at this point two distinct camps formed within the organization. First there was young Jordan, who looked at the standings and saw his team, despite a horrible record, somehow only a few games out of the eighth seed. Then there was owner Jerry Reinsdorf and GM Jerry Krause, who looked at the standings and saw their team, horrible record and all, only a few games “ahead” of the Knicks in the race for the NBA’s worst record.
For some reason (probably just the state of media coverage) there’s a sense in basketball circles that tanking is a new fangled NBA phenomenon, but it’s not. In 1986 there were two players, North Carolina center Brad Daugherty and Maryland swingman Len Bias, labeled with a can’t-miss tag and the Bulls’ front office wanted one of them. They figured why risk the future rushing Jordan back from a foot injury when they can sit him and potentially earn another young superstar for their trouble?
But Jordan wasn’t having it. After weeks of unsuccessfully begging the Bulls to let him back on the court (as David Halberstram details in his book “Playing for Keeps”), Jordan demanded a conference call with Reinsdorf, Krause, head coach Stan Albeck and three different doctors, where he once again insisted he was healthy enough to play. By the end, the team agreed to let Jordan return (they really had no choice), but only on an extremely conservative minute restriction, which Jordan agreed to (he really had no choice). On March 14, after a 64-game absence, with the 24-43 Bulls sitting two games back of the eighth-seeded Cavs, and 3 1/2 ahead of the NBA-worst Knicks, Jordan returned.
And it didn’t go well.
He came off the bench to play 13-16 minutes a night over his first five games, and the Bulls lost all five. It was just awkward. Jordan was never out there long enough to find rhythm, and despite the fact that he felt great, management wouldn’t budge on the minute restriction. On April 1, Jordan scored 28 points in 26 minutes against the Bucks, but the Bulls blew an eight-point lead in the last five minutes to fall to 2-7 since Michael’s return. And that was the last straw.
Jordan went off.
"I've been jerked around big time," he told reporters.
For one second, just remember that Jordan was only 23 years old here. He was a year older than Marcus Smart. He was a year younger than Jared Sullinger. Can you imagine if a young player - or any player -- spoke out like this in today’s media landscape?
“All the other coaches can see I'm not tentative and that I'm as aggressive as ever,” he said. “You would think that the Bulls' front office would see that.”
Honestly, what would we do? How would we survive? At what point would the Hot Takes burn out the sun?
“Krause avoids me,” Jordan continued. “He knows what I'm going to talk about. He walks right by me.”
I’LL TELL YOU ONE THING, SKIP BAYLESS. IF MICHAEL JORDAN EVER TALKED TO ME LIKE THAT -- I’D SLAP HIM. YUP. RIGHT HERE REAL QUICK PUT THE CAMERA ON MY FACE.
NOW I’M GONNA STRIP DOWN TO MY BOXER SHORTS AND SCREAM THIS PART THROUGH A MEGAPHONE SO YOU KNOW THAT I’M SERIOUS.
YOU DON’T WANT THIS, MICHAEL.
THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS, MICHAEL.
“If they really wanted to make the playoffs, I'd be in there when they have a chance to win a game,” Jordan said. “It's not a medical decision anymore. It's all business.”
Anyway, *something* clicked after Jordan’s outburst. The minutes restriction magically disappeared. From there the Bulls won three straight, and four of their next five games, with Jordan playing 28-plus minutes and scoring 26-plus points a night. The last win came in the second to last game of the season against Washington, and that combined with a Celtics win over Cleveland clinched the eighth seed for Chicago.
It took every ounce of mental, physical and emotional will in Jordan’s 23-year-old body — but the Bulls were back in the playoffs.
Up next: A first-round date with the #86Celtics.
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Even today, if you ask someone who’s old enough to name one game from the Celtics run to the 1986 NBA title, there’s a decent chance they’ll fall back on Game 2 of the first round against Chicago -- the night that one of the best teams in NBA history overcame the greatest individual playoff performance in NBA history.
Part of that is because, aside from the Jordan game, there was very little drama or fanfare along the playoff path to Banner 16. The Celtics only lost one game on the Eastern Conference side of the bracket. By the time they reached the Finals, everyone was so shocked not to see the Lakers there that that series turned a little anti-climactic. In a weird sense, the 1986 Houston Rockets were the 2004 St. Louis Cardinals. They were faceless foes in the shadow of something much bigger. And with that said it’s fair to wonder how differently we might remember the #86Celtics if not for the night God fell at the Garden.
What would we latch onto if they’d swept the nameless Cavs in the first round before dispatching the forgettable Hawks, Bucks and Rockets?
How would we know they were truly great had they never been tested by true greatness?
Well, thanks to Michael Jordan, his legendary talent, psychotic competitive streak and refusal to play basketball any way but the “right way”, those questions don’t need answers.