Editor’s note: Sports Uncovered, the newest podcast from NBC Sports, will shine a fresh light on the most unforgettable moments in sports. The first episode, “I’m Back,” tells never-before-heard stories about the two-word fax from Michael Jordan that changed the course of NBA history.
It was only two days in the Bay. A couple practices with the Warriors that, really, materialized from the thin air in the stratosphere of Michael Jordan’s aura.
There was some golf. Some catching up with friends. Some laughs. No, a lot of laughs.
There was a purpose, too. MJ had ulterior motives. When did he not? This was 1994 and he had been away from the NBA for nearly two years, devoting most of that time to playing minor-league baseball. He wondered if at age 31 he could recover the supernatural skills that had allowed him to conquer every challenge the league had to offer.
Jordan had connections with the Warriors. He was close with Rod Higgins, a former Bulls teammate who in 1994 was an assistant coach under Don Nelson. Jordan also was friends with Chris Mullin, a teammate on the Dream Team in 1992.
Jordan did not know the Warriors’ newest baller, 24 years old but already an All-Star. That made him a target. MJ figured the first onramp of his journey back to the NBA should be Latrell Sprewell.
“One morning when Michael was visiting, he calls me,” Higgins recalls. “I was on my way to practice, and he called and said, ‘Do you think it’s alright if I practice with you guys?’ And I said, ‘I don’t think so, but let me call Nellie.’”
Higgins phoned Nelson, who has a rich appreciation of history and a richer fondness for greatness. Nellie’s response: “Hell, yeah.”
Eric Housen, then the Warriors’ equipment manager and now director of team operations, outfitted Jordan with a jersey, shorts and wristbands. MJ borrowed shoes from Mullin. After everyone was dressed, the Warriors and their temporary teammate took the floor for a closed-door scrimmage at Oracle Arena, near the Oakland Coliseum Arena.
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“We had Tim Hardaway and Latrell Sprewell at that point in time and they might have been popping off a little bit,” Mullin recalls.
Hardaway, a point guard with hubris beyond measure, was 28 and a three-time All-Star. At 6-5 and wiry strong, Sprewell had a Jordanesque physique and nearly as much athleticism. As a shooting guard, he was the matchup, if you will, for Jordan.
“MJ really wanted to play against Hardaway and Sprewell because Sprewell was kind of like the new ‘it’ so to speak in terms of the ‘2’ guards,” Higgins says.
Among Jordan’s teammates were center Rony Seikaly and Mullin, who was rehabbing a knee injury sustained in the preseason. The others were reserves.
“And then Sprewell and Hardaway played with other players, which I don’t know how those groups fared out,” Higgins says. “But once Michael got warmed up, you could tell his objective was to basically kick Spree and Tim’s behind and talk trash to them.”
“He just took over our practice,” Hardaway says.
Jordan is a challenge hound. Always has been. If he sees an obstacle, real or imagined, clearing it becomes an obsession. He wanted to see what young Sprewell had. MJ also wanted to know where he stood in comparison to the greatness displayed 16 months earlier, as an eight-time member of the All-NBA first team.
“What I remember is him walking on the court after not playing, probably played 36 holes of golf the day before, and dominated,” Mullin says.
“How graceful he was ... shooting step-back jump shots, faking, dunking on people,” Hardaway recalls. “He made that team, that wasn’t playing a lot, show the coach that they should be playing.
“So, we knew he was coming back. I knew, at that particular time, he was coming back.”
Jordan’s team won. Of course. As an assistant coach, Higgins hoped Hardaway and Sprewell, with friction diminishing their fabulous talent, would learn the importance of cohesion and commitment to the team.
It didn’t quite work out that way. After a 7-1 start, the Warriors went into an epic tailspin, losing 22 of their next 25 games. In early February, a couple months after Jordan’s cameo, Nelson resigned. The Warriors finished at 26-56.
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In February 1996, Hardaway was traded to Miami. Sprewell made two more All-Star teams but was suspended after attacking coach P.J. Carlesimo in 1997 and traded in January 1999.
As for Jordan, we know what he did a few months after working out with the Warriors.
He announced his return by fax: “I’m back.” And he led the Bulls to championships in 1996, ’97 and ’98.