Over 25 years, Bill Wennington has used some variation of the same line. But given the magnitude of the occasion, it still hasn’t grown old.
Do you remember the time Michael Jordan and I combined for 57 points?
Still, with Saturday marking the actual 25-year anniversary of Jordan’s famous 55-point outburst against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden in his fifth game back from a 17-month retirement, it was nice of Wennington to offer up something new.
“My line at the time was, ‘What was Patrick Ewing doing leaving me at the basket? It’s not like Michael had 55. Oh, that’s right. He did,’” Wennington joked in a phone conversation.
Yes, 25 years have passed since Jordan’s double-nickel game, the grandest of grand statements that Jordan was back from his minor-league baseball experiment.
“There are some players who are simply unique and transcend every aspect of the game,” Knicks coach Pat Riley said that March 28, 1995 day. “And he’s the only one in the history of the game who has had the impact he has had all the way around.”
Indeed, Wennington recalled Jordan making that impact immediately, even in practices at the old Berto Center in Deerfield, Ill.
“I had heard what it was like through the first three championships were and how practices were. As soon as he came back, all the stories were true. He just raised the intensity level up,” Wennington said. “And the intensity level was already higher than some other teams I had been on because Scottie was carrying on the tradition and keeping things competitive. But when Michael came back, it went up twofold.”
Jordan had scored 19, 21, 27 and 32 points in his first four games back, but shot just 39.3 percent as he tried to find his legs and rhythm after such a long layoff. Plus, his body had been conditioned for baseball.
That’s what made his 55-point explosion on 21-for-37 shooting all the more shocking.
“Seeing him play that well that quickly was pretty amazing. He did whatever he wanted on the floor,” Wennington said. “But he had talked about that game. He wanted to play in the Garden. He liked playing in the Garden. He thought it was a great place to play, especially with the rivalry that had grown between the Bulls and Knicks.”
Wennington laughingly pointed out that he only played because both starter Will Perdue and reserve Luc Longley fouled out trying to stop Patrick Ewing, who scored 36. But the crucial reserve for the second three-peat pointed out he had been in that position before.
“That’s where Phil (Jackson) was so good. He made sure guys understood their roles and how they fit in. So it wasn’t hard to stay ready,” Wennington said. “Not that I thought I’d have to do much with the game that Michael was having. I just knew I had to play my role and get out of the way with proper spacing.”
Which is exactly what Wennington did on the game-winning basket. John Starks fouled out Perdue with 14 seconds left and sank both free throws to tie the game at 111-111. In the ensuing timeout, Jackson reminded Jordan, wearing No. 45, that Ewing had left his man to double-team on the three previous possessions.
“I’d be lying if I said I was coming out to pass the ball,” Jordan said that day. “I was coming out to score.”
Jordan drove on Starks and rose for a shot as Ewing came to contest.
“The play was for Michael obviously to make it happen and win the game. It was just one of those things where we run the play and I'm going out to the weakside down low, and Patrick just leaves me. So I go down by the basket to put myself in a position to either get a rebound or be available for a pass,” Wennington said. “And Michael passed.”
Wennington slammed home Jordan’s second assist of the day, with little fanfare afterward.
“He slapped me on the head, said, ‘Good shot.’ It was a do-your-job type thing,” Wennington said. “That was what Michael was all about. If you talk about guys who played with him and the reputation that he was tough on players. It was really only that he expected you to do your job. If you didn’t do your job or hold your own, you’d hear it. Because he was always focused on winning.
“I don’t think he ever got mad at me for having someone score on me. But if I did something goofy like take my eye off the ball and lose the ball or not be in the right spot at the right time, he’d let you know about it. That to me is an extension of him wanting to win.”
The Magic eliminated the Bulls in the second round of the 1995 playoffs. But Wennington points to the double-nickel game as a harbinger for what was to come. The Bulls set an NBA record by going 72-10 in 1995-96, Jordan’s first full season back, and winning the first title of a second three-peat in the 1990s.
“That game helped us realize that our team could be really good if we got on the same page,” Wennington said. “And the following season, we got on the same page.”
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