The Golf Club was just four years old in 1995, a state-of-the-art, celebrity-friendly Tom Fazio-designed course on 317 acres only 30 minutes west of Greer Stadium, home of the Nashville Sounds in Tennessee, the Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. In short, it was the perfect course for the Sounds’ projected starting left fielder, Michael Jeffrey Jordan.
So on February 1, 1995, Jordan applied for, and received, a membership for $20,000.
“He didn’t want to go to some other club around here and ask (to play),” then-Golf Club pro Will Brewer said last month. “He wanted a place where he could call, come on through, play 18 or 36 and then go play baseball that night.”
Jordan had reason to believe a lot of tee times at The Golf Club were in his immediate future. He infamously hit .202 with the Double-A Birmingham Barons in 1994, but that was a stat only novices clung to. He excelled in the Arizona Fall League later that year, batting .252. Through a combination of will, humility and a grinding training schedule, Jordan had turned himself into a legitimate ballplayer with a shot to join the White Sox as early as the end of the 1995 season.
“I’d like to get to the majors and play for a couple of years,” he told Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene in February 1995. “That’s how I’d like it to end — earning my way to the White Sox, and being a true major-league player for two or three years, and knowing that I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.”
Back in Chicago, his former Bulls teammate Scottie Pippen was not nearly as happy. On February 11, the day before White Sox general manager Ron Schueler hinted that MJ could be in the majors come September, Pippen told a national television audience he hoped to be shipped out of Chicago before the February 23 NBA trade deadline.
“I hope I am (traded),” Pippen said in an interview with TNT’s Craig Sager during All-Star Saturday Night. “I’m hearing a lot of rumors and a lot of speculation, and I’m hoping the right opportunity arrives for the Bulls and for me.”
At age 29, Pippen was at the height of his powers, yet by league standards, he was grossly underpaid. If the team renegotiated his contract, might Pippen be happy in Chicago?
“I would have to say no at this point,” he said. “I want to go and play somewhere else.”
That was just fine with Bulls head coach Phil Jackson. While Pippen had three more years on his contract, Jackson only had one and was undecided on re-signing. He believed a basketball coach could only keep his team’s attention for seven years, and 1995 was his sixth with the Bulls.
Jackson told the team he would return beyond 1996 only if every remaining player from the championship years was gone. The three remaining were B.J. Armstrong, Will Perdue and Pippen.
At the top of this pyramid of athletic uncertainty was Jerry Reinsdorf. As chairman of the Bulls and the White Sox, he was dealing with both Pippen’s public trade demands and the MLB players union in contentious labor negotiations during the sport’s longest-ever work stoppage. His basketball team, so recently the kings of the NBA, would enter March under .500 for the first time since 1986. The team’s star was disgruntled and its coach was restless. Michael Jordan was going to return to that?
So yes, Jordan saw a future in Nashville. And quite frankly, he could have stayed in baseball. And the Bulls could have traded Pippen. By 1996, instead of winning 72 games and a fourth NBA championship, Jordan might have been loving life as an outfielder and Pippen might have been soaking up the sun in the Western Conference.
On Feb. 1, 1995, a second three-peat didn’t merely seem unlikely; it was nothing anyone would ever imagine.
Yet 45 days later, on March 18, Pippen was still a Bull and Jordan’s two-word faxed press release, “I’m back,” forever changed sports history.
This is the true story of what happened in between.
February 1 to February 17: Michael Jordan the baseball prospect
To imagine a world in which Michael Jordan stayed in baseball in 1995 and perhaps beyond, you first have to realize he was making progress as a prospect. In fact, the only reason the White Sox signed him to a minor league deal in the first place was because he showed enough skill to give baseball a try.
“In the beginning, it wasn’t very pretty,” Schueler told NBC Sports Chicago recently. “The pitching machines were overmatching him. For being probably the greatest basketball player alive, I think there was a little more humility in baseball.”
But baseball was Jordan’s dream, and Reinsdorf asked Schueler to evaluate Jordan in drills, see if he was good enough to sign and find a place in the farm system where he could compete and grow without taking anyone’s spot.
“I went through all of our rosters … and the only spot where I could see him competing and getting a chance to play was ... in Birmingham,” Schueler said.
Jordan’s 1994 season batting average of .202 belied his progress: He hit .150 in May, .188 in June, a dip to .148 in July and then .276 in August. He was renowned for his early morning batting cage routine. He was the same coachable, malleable player in baseball that he was under Dean Smith and Phil Jackson — moreso, really, because Jordan would sometimes push back against coaching philosophies in basketball, where he operated at a genius level.
In just one year of baseball, though, he soaked up lessons from every instructor he worked with, including hitting coach Walt Hriniak with the White Sox in the spring of ’94, Barons manager Terry Francona and hitting coach Mike Barnett, and Francona again with the Arizona Fall League Scorpions. In the spring of ’94, Jordan was doing 6 a.m. cage workouts with Hriniak, going through his full day of practice and then going back into the cage. Barnett’s contribution was to help Jordan make better use of his basketball body, moving him closer to the plate and working on his stride into the ball.
Larry Schmittou, then-general manager of the Sounds, never met Jordan but saw him play in 1994 when the Barons would visit the Double-A Nashville Xpress, who also played at Greer Stadium.
“I will say this: the eight days that I saw him, he worked very, very hard,” said Schmittou, now the owner and managing partner of Strike & Spare Family Entertainment in the Nashville metro area. “He’d come in very, very early, earlier than most visiting teams would come in, and maybe spend an hour down there with the hitting coach working in the batting cage.”
By 1995, Jordan still had flaws. His poor throwing arm meant he would probably play left field, and his eye at the plate still left a lot of room for improvement. But as a result of his work ethic and his progress, when he arrived in Sarasota, Florida, for his second spring training, one thing was decidedly different from a year before.
For the first time in his adult life, Michael Jordan was a real baseball player.
Schmittou says he did not know for sure in February 1995 if Jordan would be assigned to the Sounds, but all signs pointed that way. Schueler even told Schmittou that the Sounds should start looking for housing for him. The Tennessean reported early that month that ticket sales jumped 15% just based on the speculation that Jordan might join the club.
“He’d have to fall on his face for us to send him back to Birmingham,” Schueler said at the time.
Reinsdorf was more measured, but also indicated that Jordan was moving up.“If he makes progress, we’re still willing to stand by him,” Reinsdorf said. “But if he can’t compete at Class AAA, then he’s got a problem.”
While Jordan was coming along, negotiations between MLB and MLBPA were not. The players' strike, which had started in August 1994, was in its seventh month. Jordan, as a minor league player with serious gate appeal, represented a massive wild card in the labor dispute.
Yet despite what Jordan’s star power could mean for ticket sales at 35th and Shields, Reinsdorf and Schueler said that the White Sox organization would not ask him, nor force him, to be a replacement player in major league games.
“Michael will be in camp and participate in spring training games, but when April 2nd comes, we will not let Michael play on the replacement team,” Schueler said on February 16, the day after Jordan reported to camp.
Instead, he would spend the spring and summer developing alongside an assortment of other outfield prospects. The players ranged from 24 to 34 years of age, and though some had prior MLB experience, none ever reached the majors after the Sounds. The notion that Jordan could have been called up to the majors in September 1995, or make it in 1996, isn’t absurd.
“He just looks like a different hitter,” White Sox manager Gene Lamont said in 1995 spring training. “Even different in the field. He’s got quite a ways to go defensively, but if you remember last year, if the ball went up, it kind of, well… not an ‘adventure,’ but it wasn’t a sure thing. Now he’s got his feet underneath him pretty good. But the biggest thing is at the bat. He looks more confident and he swings better.”
On February 17, 1995, Michael Jordan’s 32nd birthday, pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. The strike had shut down major league baseball, and if it was still underway come April when the games began, minor leaguers would have to decide whether to take an opportunity to play in the majors in defiance of a union that they might one day want to join, or stand with the union and stay in the minor leagues where the lights are dimmer and the paychecks smaller.
Jordan was not in that boat. And though he felt the urgency to reach the majors, he also wanted to work on a slower developmental timeline that made sense for his level of play. He wanted to spend that season in Nashville, with an eye toward daily improvement and a goal of the major leagues.
“People thought I’d embarrass myself, and that hasn’t happened,” Jordan said on February 12. “And now I’ll go to spring training with a lot more confidence. I’m not going to feel lost this time.”
February 10 to February 23: Scottie Pippen, the trade chip
In 2008, J.A. Adande of ESPN asked Michael Jordan if he would have returned to the Bulls in 1995 had Pippen not been on the team.
“Probably not,” Jordan told him.
Adande was referring to the 1994 near-trade that would have sent Pippen to the SuperSonics in a package for Shawn Kemp. When that deal failed — because the Sonics, not the Bulls, backed out — it intensified Pippen’s desire to leave and created a showdown with Bulls GM Jerry Krause that led to him trying to get himself traded in 1995 — and the Bulls nearly making it happen, one week before Jordan ended up quitting baseball.
There are three things you should know about Scottie Pippen in February 1995.
First, by any measure, he was one of the five best basketball players on the planet. He was the only player named All-NBA first team and All-Defensive first team in both 1994 and 1995. He led the NBA in steals in ’95, led all forwards in assists and ended up just shy of leading all small forwards in rebounds, with 8.1 a game. In those two seasons, he was one of four players 6-foot-8 or under averaging more than one block per game, and he was the only one scoring 20 points a night.
Second, as previously mentioned, Pippen was underpaid. Days after the team’s first championship in 1991, he signed an $18 million contract extension through 1997-98. At the time, Pippen called it “a great contract.”
But when he came to Phoenix for All-Star weekend in 1995, he was the 89th-highest-paid player in the league at $2.225 million that season. He was the 45th-highest-paid player in his conference. He was 21st among small forwards. He was 19th among the All-Stars. He was last among the five players selected to the All-NBA first team that year. And he was fifth on his own team, trailing Ron Harper, B.J. Armstrong, Toni Kukoc and minor league outfielder Michael Jordan, who remained on the team’s payroll at around $4 million during each of his two baseball seasons.
Put all that together — Pippen’s high talent and low pay — and we get to the final fact: Scottie wanted out of Chicago and would try to make it happen himself if he had to.
After the rocky relationship between Pippen and the Bulls reached a peak in June 1994 with the Kemp deal, Reinsdorf tried to calm the situation by paying Pippen $3 million that was due to him later in his deal. But Pippen still wanted out.
“Trade me or trade Krause,” Pippen said in January. “I was with this team when we won titles, and now I’m on a team where I have to do everything because we lost the greatest player in the game and one of the best rebounders (Horace Grant). If this organization is so good, why are players like that leaving? Good organizations keep good players.”
Reinsdorf, meanwhile, reiterated that the Bulls did not have plans to renegotiate Pippen’s deal, and that he wouldn’t be strongarmed into trading him.
“There’s certainly nothing imminent,” Reinsdorf said mid-January about a possible Pippen trade.
“But every player, with the exception of Michael Jordan, is tradeable.”
Trade talks were in fact happening. GMs for the Bullets, Nuggets and 76ers all said they’d spoken with the Bulls about acquiring Pippen.
Scottie’s public demands were on display All-Star Weekend, where the latest unsubstantiated rumor was Pippen to the Suns in a package for fellow All-Star Dan Majerle. Meeting the press that Friday, Pippen said playing for the Suns would be “paradise,” with Charles Barkley adding, “I’d take Scottie in a minute.”
“I’ve heard the rumors like all of you,” Pippen said to the press on the Friday before the All-Star Game. “People here today were saying Majerle and Person. But I don’t have any substantial evidence.”
The next night, during All-Star Saturday, Pippen went on TNT and practically begged any Western Conference team to trade for him.
Majerle was allegedly so upset by the trade rumor that Suns owner Jerry Colangelo had to personally assuage him.
A week later, the source of the Pippen-Majerle talks was revealed.
“I started it,” Pippen said, as reported by Lee Shappell of The Republic in a column on February 19. “I’ve been kind of stuck with a lot of rumors and speculation all year and I tried to have some fun with it.”
Bulls teammate Steve Kerr admitted that he heard Pippen mention the trade to a Chicago reporter a few days before the All-Star break, hoping the rumor would spread.
“I just laughed about (it),” Kerr said. “Scottie is starting his own trade rumor.”
Scottie was not laughing.
“This is a wasted season,” he said. “It all started last summer when they tried to trade me behind my back, never came to me about it and then lied to me when I asked them about it. I was so upset I hardly worked out. I did not report to camp in good shape and things just got worse. Now I see what Michael went through when he first came here,” he said. “He sacrificed a lot of his game to make his teammates better. I’m sacrificing in some areas for the same reason but not getting the same result because we no longer have as much talent.”
The biggest loss was Horace Grant, who guided his own departure from the Bulls the summer before. Bill Cartwright, John Paxson and Scott Williams were gone too, as was Jordan, looking more like a legitimate baseball player every day.
The impact of the losses showed. Pippen was playing spectacular basketball and would become the second player in league history to lead his team in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
But his patience was shot. He was ejected from games twice before the All-Star break, most infamously on January 24 against the Spurs, when two quick technicals led to Pippen heaving a chair onto the court on his way to the locker room.
Pippen had one final shot at a trade before the February 23 deadline.
On February 22, the Bulls were a game under .500 and 4-6 in the month, and the team, including Pippen and Jackson, was splintering. The Pippen trade talks continued, this time with the Clippers. The details of the trade differ depending on the source, and the day, but multiple first round picks were discussed.
The Clippers were taking the offer seriously. Their lone hesitation was that they wanted assurances that Pippen would not hold out. As Sam Smith tells it in “Second Coming,” Clippers executives Elgin Baylor and Andy Roeser were trying on deadline day to get in touch with Pippen, who was in Miami for a game the next day against the Heat, and enjoying drinks at a hotel bar with Kukoc and Harper. Harper, who’d left the Clippers to come to Chicago and had likened his time there to a jail stint, resulting in a suspension, was making clear to Pippen that no matter how bad life was with the Bulls, nothing could prepare him for being on L.A.’s “other” team.
As Smith writes, just minutes before the trade deadline, Pippen called his agent Jimmy Sexton, who told Pippen that the deal to the Clippers was off.
“Good,” Pippen reportedly said.
Reached recently for comment on the deal, Roeser said, “I don’t think it was ever that close.”
However it happened, Pippen stayed in Chicago. The trade deadline passed. By the end of it all, there were rumors of moving Pippen to the 76ers, Bullets, Lakers, Nets, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Warriors, and of course the Suns and the Clippers.
Pippen’s teammates were thrilled he was staying. Pippen seemed indifferent.
“There’s a side to me that wants out and a side to me that doesn’t mind playing the rest of the season (in Chicago) either,” he said on the 23rd. “I’ve had fun with it to some degree up until now, like in Phoenix, and I intend to enjoy this summer.”
About the team’s prospects for the rest of the season, Pippen expressed hope.
“We feel we can move up in the standings if we start playing a little better,” he said. “We’re not that far from the top now."
February 18 to March 2: Michael Jordan, the strike pawn
Donald Fehr probably never knew he would trigger an NBA three-peat.
But when Fehr, executive director of the MLBPA, raised the ante in the baseball strike on February 19, that’s exactly what happened.
For several months to that point, the MLB work stoppage was merely an unpleasant storm cloud in Michael Jordan’s life. At risk was the possibility that the strike would continue into April, when the regular season began.
If that happened, the owners could conceivably fill their rosters with so-called replacement players, better known in the labor world as strikebreakers, or scabs.
Michael Jordan did not want to be a scab.
And up until this point, Reinsdorf and Schueler did not want him to be one, either.
“The type of players I’m after are in a position where they almost have to say ‘yes,’” Schueler said on January 14. “I wouldn’t ask Michael to (play as a replacement player). He’s too high profile and I know he wouldn’t cross.”
On February 18, Jordan again made his position clear, one that he believed came with the approval of the club.
“I always told management I don’t want to do anything to infringe on what the players are going to do,” Jordan said. “I don’t anticipate and hopefully I’m not put in that predicament. I’m a minor leaguer and I’m staying away from that stuff.”
But it was here that the cracks in MJ’s well-laid minor league plans began to show. The question of what did or did not constitute strikebreaking was tricky. Jordan noted that playing against minor leaguers should be fine, but playing against replacement players might constitute a violation of the union. He noted he did not think playing in spring games would be against “the rules,” but if he learned otherwise, he would “re-evaluate.”
The very next day, Fehr took this question of rules and used it against the minor leaguers, Jordan included.
“Our view is that any spring training game that is played at either the major league site or for which admission is charged is a replacement player,” Fehr said on February 19.
With those 27 words, Donald Fehr rewrote Bulls history.
Before, a clear delineation existed between what did and did not constitute a replacement player. A minor leaguer suits up for the big league club during the regular season — THAT’S a replacement player. A minor leaguer plays in a spring game, even next to or against guys who had already committed to break the strike — that was maybe a grey area, but only by folks getting technical. Spring training was, after all, a space for minor leaguers to improve.
Fehr’s gambit removed all that. A scab was now a scab in March, not just in April. Jordan intended to adhere to the union. Reinsdorf and Schueler intended to push minor leaguers to compete as replacement players.
This was partially for the players’ own good — minor leaguers benefit from spring games and tutelage under major-league coaching. But Reinsdorf also wanted to counter Fehr and the union. Reinsdorf was a master negotiator and it’s a good bet that he was not going to let Fehr dictate terms to him.
On February 20, for the first time in 1995, the Sox’s official stance on who was or was not a replacement player seemed murky, and set the stage for the battle ahead. To his credit, Reinsdorf argued the case for the minor leaguers.
“They’re not members of the union,” Reinsdorf told the Chicago Sun-Times on February 22. “They’re just being asked to do what they normally do, which is to play in spring-training games.”
Some were calling the union’s redefining of who was and was not a strikebreaker as “the Jordan Rule,” because it would keep MJ — the only minor league gate attraction — out of MLB.
For the first time, Jordan stated explicitly that “I’d rather step aside” in the event that the two factions placed him in the middle, a stance that led his fellow Sounds outfielder, 31-year-old Dann Howitt, to declare his intention to not be a replacement player by telling reporters, “I want to be like Mike.”
On February 23, as Pippen’s future with the Bulls hung in the balance, the union announced a trio of meetings in the upcoming week to educate players on their options. Jordan stated that he would not attend, as he already had decided he would not play spring games come March.
Reinsdorf and Schueler countered the union on the 25th. Schueler wrote the minor leaguers a one-page letter explaining the team’s position and encouraging them to “show us the same type of commitment” that the team had shown them. He also noted that “no more than 10 players” would be exempted from the replacement games, and the rest would be considered “on strike.”
On February 26, the White Sox did something they had not done to that point: sent a player home from spring training for refusing to be a replacement player, Jordan’s Barons teammate, 25-year-old pitcher Barry Johnson. With union meetings launching the next day, the Johnson move put minor leaguers on notice.
Jordan’s notice came the next day.
On Monday, February 27, Schueler said Jordan was now firmly in play as a minor leaguer whom the team would send home. Jordan took the threat seriously, saying he would “probably” be sent home if he refused to play, which he planned to do. Asked for his plans should he leave baseball, Jordan was clear.
“Go play golf,” he said.
Schueler gave minor leaguers until Thursday, March 2 to make their decision about replacement games. Jordan had always said he would follow the lead of his fellow minor leaguers, and a survey that day of the 62 on the roster showed that 28 would play while 20 would refuse.
On Wednesday, March 1, Schueler announced that now, no players were exempt, while Jordan said he was 85% sure of what he was going to do, but that he would wait until Friday to make his decision.
Instead, on Thursday, Jordan left camp.
“Schueler called me to say, ‘Michael is going back to basketball — we had a dispute,’” Schmittou recalled. “I think it was about parking privileges.”
It was. Yes, Jordan was upset about the club pushing him to be a replacement player, but at the time, many speculated that the final straw was the team relegating non-replacement players to a smaller locker room. But there was something else.
“The thing that made me mad is something most people don’t even know about,” Jordan told Greene. “They made a rule that if you wouldn’t play in Sox games, then you couldn’t park your car in the lot. You had to park down the street,” Jordan said. “Schueler had to know that for me, that meant something completely different than for other players.”
This was a players-only, fenced-in lot, guarded by security. Jordan parking his car on the street and leaving it there during games brought a whole slew of new problems. He said he never brought it up with Schueler, though the morning of March 2, Jordan was in uniform, at practice, when he and Schueler were seen on the field together.
“Jordan appeared furious,” Greene wrote. “Jordan walked silently toward the clubhouse, his rage apparent. Within the hour he was gone from camp.”
Jordan felt he had never asked for special treatment and always tried to follow the minor league pack. Yet he wondered how Schueler, after a year, could honestly not know the daily impact on Jordan and his car if the team banned him from the players lot.
“If he knew, then he was doing it on purpose, to put the pressure on me to play in those games,” Jordan said. “If he didn’t know, then that told me something too.”
And with that, he was gone.
“I no longer trusted him,” he told Greene about Schueler. “And with me, once you feel you can’t trust a person you once trusted, then it’s over forever. I had to get out of there.”
So he did. And Phil Jackson, whose team was now 28-30 after an abysmal February, had an idea of what Jordan would do next.
March 3 to March 17: Michael Jordan, the free agent
He could have golfed.
And maybe, had Scottie Pippen been on the Clippers, he would have.
But once MJ left the White Sox, there was chatter that he might return to the Bulls. That made sense to Jackson. For one thing, Jackson had always suspected that the pressures of basketball were becoming too much for MJ in 1993, that he might want a break, that baseball would provide solace — but that ultimately, basketball’s allure would be too great.
For another thing, he had started lightly discussing a comeback with Jordan in September 1994. Jackson had invited Jordan to the Berto Center to discuss the team’s upcoming ceremony to retire Jordan’s number. But he had another plan: to feel out Jordan about his interest in the Bulls season ahead.
“I always thought he might think that no one had ever returned from retirement before, and that he could lead a team to a championship again, win another scoring title after retiring,” Jackson told Sam Smith. “That’s something he could want to do.”
Jackson asked Jordan if, should the strike extend into February, he might consider returning to the Bulls in March for the last six weeks of the season and the playoffs.
“That’s too long,” Jordan told him.
“But as soon as he said that,” Jackson told Smith, “I realized it wasn’t an outlandish thought. I saw him four or five more times over the course of the next few months and always kidded him about it, and I could see basketball was still alive in him.”
Jackson could see it. Reporter Cheryl Raye-Stout could hear it.
Then at WMVP-AM 1000, Raye-Stout is credited as one of the first to break the “Jordan is coming back” story. Starting with a 6 a.m. call early March to B.J. Armstrong, asking if they could meet at the Berto Center for some one-on-one, Jordan was practicing in secret with the team. Jordan’s presence at Bulls practice was fairly standard — Toni Kukoc recently estimated it at once-a-month throughout Jordan’s baseball career.
What was different this time was that he was no longer in baseball. Raye-Stout (then Cheryl Raye) was a veteran of the Bulls beat and a Jordan confidante. They even shared a birthday. Raye-Stout broke the Jordan-to-baseball news in early 1994, and her familiarity with Jordan gave her a leg-up on his next career move. As she told NBA historian Adam Ryan in 2018, by the time Jordan was in his secret workouts, the Bulls beat had dwindled. She recalls being one of five reporters at the Berto Center one day during practice, and as was standard, a drawn curtain prevented reporters from seeing in.
“But what I heard on the other side (of the curtain) was what I used to hear when Michael played,” she said. “It has a loudness that you can’t compare it to, and it had a sound that, only if you’ve heard it before, you knew it was him.”
Raye-Stout confirmed Jordan’s presence, first with a player’s friend she knew, and then by asking both Jackson and Armstrong, who offered coy, non-denial denials.
By Wednesday, March 8, speculation of a potential Jordan return was rampant. While Schueler said he still expected Jordan to return to training camp, even suggesting that Jordan, as a minor leaguer, had a deadline of Saturday to comply (with what penalty, he never said), he was seemingly the only person anywhere with any expectation, much less any hope, that Jordan had more baseball ahead of him.
On the 9th, you could forget about speculation. The secret was out. The Tribune ran a headline in its evening edition, “It’s Michael mania,” and reported on two official MJ-Bulls practices that week — Wednesday and Thursday — along with an MJ workout at the Berto Center on a non-practice day, Tuesday the 7th. The possibility alone of a Jordan comeback injected the city with a verve that, if you weren’t there, you almost can’t believe. A previously down-and-out Bulls team went on a tear, beating the 76ers and Trail Blazers in the first week of March by 12 and then 20 points, respectively.
Then came the powder keg day: Friday, March 10.
First, Jordan released an eight-paragraph statement announcing his retirement from baseball. Then, Gatorade fast tracked the printing of t-shirts that read “MICHAEL CHILLS… CITY SWEATS” and spent all weekend passing them out on Michigan Avenue. Several hundred Bulls fans gathered outside the Omni Chicago Hotel on Huron, where Jordan was inside, and chanted, “Come back! Come back!”
Fans of other teams began to check their schedule to see if the Bulls, just 30-30, were coming to town. The Hawks sold 1,800 tickets in seven hours for the Bulls trip to Atlanta March 25, while the Pistons sold 2,000 tickets for Chicago’s game in Detroit April 12.
“As of today, the economy has produced 6.1 million jobs since I became president,” President Bill Clinton said that day during a press conference announcing a decline in the U.S. jobless rate. “And if Michael Jordan goes back to the Bulls, it will be six million, one hundred thousand and one new jobs.”
That night, the Bulls crushed the Cavaliers at home by a fitting 23 points to go one game over .500 for the first time since January. Pippen, who just weeks earlier was creating his own trade rumors, wore Air Jordan 10s in the game and famously held up his shoe for a camera to catch the Air Jordan logo on the sole, as he grinned at the camera, pointed to the logo and gave a “come hither” finger waggle to, presumably, an audience of one.
At this point, everything Bulls-related felt hyper-charged. The Tribune was running front page stories in the front section, Sports section and even the Tempo section to explain the impact of Michael’s return on all areas of life. From March 8 to the 15, five companies that Jordan endorsed — Nike, Sara Lee, McDonald’s, General Mills and Quaker Oats — gained a combined $2.6 billion in market value, outperforming the S&P 500. A Bigsby & Kruthers ad of Jordan on a building over I-94 added the word “Yes.” On March 11, the Bulls lost their three-game winning streak by blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead to the Lakers in a three-point loss to move back to .500, yet the energy in the city was unchanged, with Jordan now a fixture at Bulls practices.
“I’ve never, ever had practices like those — they were just like games,” Harper said March 12. “At the end of the first one, MJ said, ‘You better go home and get some rest because I’ll be back.’ I had to rest all day.”
But, Harper added, “It made (the Cavs) game easier.”
Jordan was back at the Berto Center on Monday, March 13. Raye-Stout’s pack of five reporters from just a week earlier was now up to 100, after a rumor spread that Jordan would field a press conference. He didn’t. But he was closer than ever to a return.
“He just said, ‘Do you think I should come in and work out?’” Jackson said about MJ’s participation at practice March 13. “And I said, ‘Yeah, if you think you’re gonna play ball, you probably should come and work out.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll be there.’”
“He was there a lot,” Luc Longley told Adam Ryan in 2015. “But at the end of the day, MJ’s not coming to practice with us and going head to head with Scottie in scrimmages and all that just for fun. He’s a calculating guy. I think we all had a sense that that’s what it was about. He just didn’t want to make it official (yet). He was just building up the turbo. He was getting himself up to pressure and up to speed, and recalibrating everything, so that when he did come back, he was ‘Michael Jordan’ again.”
The Bulls’ playing schedule resumed on Tuesday the 14th, and the team ripped off another three-game winning streak to go 34-31, three games above .500 for the first time since early January. Jordan was still weighing the pros and cons, and as a fan watching from the outside, this stretch from March 10 until his official announcement felt endless.
“I spent three very arduous days with him trying to play devil’s advocate with him and suggest to him that perhaps it might not be the right environment to make the right decision right now because it was so close on the heels of his retirement from baseball,” his agent, David Falk, explained pregame on WGN during Jordan’s first game back in Chicago on March 24. “He said, ‘There’s nothing you can say, there’s no question you can ask, I really want to come back.’”
At a practice not long before he returned, Jordan jumped on Longley’s back and said, “I’m with you guys.”
“By Friday, I became convinced that’s really what he wanted to do,” Falk said. “And he went ahead and put it in motion the very next day.”
That day, Saturday, March 18, forever changed Bulls basketball and the NBA. Falk knew this announcement had to put a button on not just the weeks of speculation, but the 17 months that Jordan had been retired, and even the 21 months since he’d last played. So Falk wrote a couple of versions of the press release and gave them to Jordan to select one.
“He didn’t like the feel of them,” Falk said in 2015. “He said, ‘I’ll do it myself.’”
Jordan took a piece of paper and wrote two words:
One year later, when he was All-Star MVP, when he was the MVP frontrunner, when his Bulls were charging toward 70 wins, when his Bulls were his Bulls again, Michael Jordan was nostalgic.
“I miss the fun things that would go on throughout the day at spring training,” he told Greene, whom he called at a hotel in Sarasota, just to talk about baseball. “The standing out there in the sun, the learning aspect of it. What a lucky thing that was for me to be able to do — I think about it now, and I can hardly believe it happened to me.”
Jordan marveled at having played and learned from Frank Thomas and Ozzie Guillen. He was in awe that guys at that level would go out of their way to help him become a better ballplayer.
And his feelings toward Ron Schueler?
“All forgotten,” Jordan said. “All forgiven.”
“I think it was one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me in my life,” he said about baseball. “I honestly don’t know what my future would have been, or if I had one. I may not have had any realistic baseball future.
“But I look at the TV coverage of spring training after I get home from Bulls games, and I see the baseball fields and I think:
“Amazing. I was actually out there.”
Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, and author of the forthcoming “6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game.” His newsletter, “A Shot on Ehlo,” brings readers inside the making of the book, with original interviews, research and essays. Sign up now, and say hey at @readjack.