Before Michael Jordan returned to the Bulls from his first retirement in the spring of 1995, he was a Golden State Warrior for 48 hours.
In NBC Sports’ “Sports Uncovered” podcast, members of the 1994-95 Dubs detailed, for the first time in 25 years, Warriors practices Jordan dominated weeks before even rejoining Bulls practices — and the motivation behind them.
“I might get in trouble for this,” said Tim Hardaway, then Golden State’s star point guard. “Him and (Warriors assistant coach) Rod Higgins are really, really good friends. He (Jordan) came and practiced with us two or three times.”
Indeed, Jordan dialed up Higgins while on a quick trip to California during the MLB strike of 1994-95 to see if he could lace up and run with the Warriors in secret. Upon receiving head coach Don Nelson’s enthusiastic approval, Higgins invited Jordan over, assistant equipment manager Eric Houssen outfitted him in Warriors threads and the games began.
“What I remember is him walking on the court, after not playing, probably playing 36 holes of golf the day before, and dominating,” Chris Mullin, injured at the time but still an observer of the practices, said on the podcast.
That Warriors team featured a host of NBA greats, from Hardaway to Mullin (a future Hall-of-Famer) to Latrell Sprewell and more. Three years into his career and just 24, Sprewell, specifically, was already a two-time All-Star and 20-point scorer — a budding star in the league at the shooting guard position.
Runs matched up with Sprewell were about more than just getting a sweat on to Jordan.
“MJ really wanted to play against Hardaway and Sprewell,” Higgins said, “because Sprewell was the new ‘it,’ so to speak, in terms of the two-guard.
“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 basically measured Spree up.”
For Jordan, poking his head back into basketball, even for just a moment, was about delivering a message, both to his adversaries and himself. He needed to know how he stacked up before formally attempting a return.
“He wanted to go after the best, youngest player he thought could be better than him,” Mullin said of Sprewell. “And he (Jordan) put it to rest that day.”
“Latrell was one of the more explosive, more athletic, and he was probably one of the better players during that short run that he had,” said Tim Grover, Jordan’s longtime trainer. “So what Michael needed to know: even though I took the time off, can I still come back and kick his ass... and in his mind he’s like, ‘I’ve been gone from this game for how long? And he’s supposed to be the top player? Alright.’ He wasn’t testing himself against Sprewell, he was testing himself against himself.”
To all in attendance, it cemented that Jordan’s return to the game was a matter of when. Not if.
“I always thought he was coming back, but a day like that…” Mullin said. “He was just so fit, so it wasn’t a physical thing. But seeing him on the basketball court and playing against Sprewell, who was a really good player and he was in midseason form, for him to do that, I thought, it’s just a matter of time.”
Mullin was right. Jordan returned to the Bulls on March 18, 1995, with a two-word fax that changed sports forever. Glory wasn’t in the cards for the Bulls that season, but three championships (and two more MVP awards for Jordan) ensued from 1996-98.
We can all thank Rod Higgins, Latrell Sprewell and the rest of the ‘95 Warriors for their role in that.