With the Charlotte Bobcats amassing a 7-58 record in the first 65 games of their 2011-12 season, and only one game remaining in the strike-shortened regular season, the Bobcats were at risk of posting the worst regular-season record by winning percentage of all-time. With only a Thursday night game against the playoff-bound Knicks standing in between Charlotte and basketball infamy, team majority owner and pro-hoops legend Michael Jordan made the controversial and much-publicized decision to suit up for the team’s final contest, in an attempt to help shield them from ending up on the wrong side of NBA history. Here’s how it went down.
Monday, April 23rd. The Bobcats play their 64th game of the season against the Washington Wizards in DC. Despite facing a team that has been dysfunctional all year and will end up with the second-worst record in the league, the Bobcats fall easily, with Washington outscoring Charlotte 63-39 in the first half and ultimately winning 101-73. A disgusted Michael Jordan is shown sporadically on the sideline, until he is seen leaving the building halfway through the third quarter.
After the game, Michael Jordan calls a press conference for the next day. No explanation is given to the press as for the reason why, though Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports offers the following Tweet:
You guys are not going to BELIEVE what I’m hearing this MJ presser is gonna be about.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) May 6, 2012
Tuesday, April 24th. From the press room at the Amway Center in Orlando, where the Bobcats will be playing the Magic in their penultimate game the next night, Michael Jordan sits with a room two-thirds full of reporters. Those in attendance will later say they assumed that Jordan was either going to announce that he was stepping down as head of operations of the team, that he was selling his stake in the team, or that he was planning on firing Paul Silas and stepping in as head coach for next season. Instead, the Hall of Famer takes the podium and reads the following statement:
It’s been a hard season for all of us in the Bobcats organization, from Coach Silas to [general manager] Rich Cho, to our guys on the court. And as team owner and head of operations, I think it’s been hardest of all on me. I knew going into this season that we were a young team, and we were gonna have to take some lumps, suffer some growing pains, maybe miss the playoffs … but I never thought I’d be sitting here, two games to go in the season, and we’re knocking down the door of history with just how bad we’ve been.
You all know me, you know what I competitor I am, you know how much I hate — hate — losing. And in over 30 years of basketball, I’ve never, ever had to deal with losing like this.
Now, I’m not blaming our guys, who have had to deal with a lot of injuries, a lot of tough losses, and have continued to play hard, to try to grow as a team, even with all the setbacks. When you lose this much, it goes beyond the team, beyond even the coaching staff. When you lose this much, it’s on the owners — it’s on me — for not putting this team in a position to win games. I take full responsibility for the team’s record up until this point.
And that’s why it breaks my heart to see our guys, to see Kemba, Gerald, D.J., Bismack, going out there and competing every night, and have nothing to show for out. And now they’re not just fighting Orlando and New York in their last two games, they’re fighting history. I’d do anything … in my power … to save them from having to be associated with that kind of history.
That’s why I’ve called you all here to announce that, if we lose tomorrow night here in Orlando, I will be temporarily joining the Bobcats’ active roster for our game in New York against the Knicks. I will attempt to do for this team on the court what I was unable to do from the front office — to help them win enough games to avoid earning the distinction of having the worst record of any team that ever took the basketball court.
After Jordan finishes his statement, there are a couple seconds of awkward silence, as if the reporters in attendance temporarily forget what normally happens at this point in press conferences. A selection of some of the questions eventually asked and Jordan’s answers.
Q: Just to be clear, you … you’re saying that you’re planning on playing in the Bobcats’ final game if they lose in Orlando tomorrow night?
A: Yes, that’s correct.
Q: Have you talked about this with Commissioner Stern? Have you cleared it with him that this is allowed?
A: Yes, I’ve talked with David. We’re good.
Q: Do you consider yourself to be in game shape? Do you think you’re still ready for the rigors of playing in today’s NBA?
A: Um, yeah, I think so. I’ve been practicing with the team a little bit the last few weeks, and, you know, it’s pretty clear that I’m not 25 anymore, but I still got some moves, still got the jumper. I feel good.
Q: Have you talked with the guys on the team about this? How do they feel about you coming back to play with them?
A: Uh, yeah, I’ve talked with some of the guys a bit. They’re pretty down about all the losing, of course, but I think they’re excited about me suiting up with them. Some of them even been giving me a little guff about it, y’know, “Oh no, MIchael coming back, better have some Depends in the locker room!” That kinda thing. But no, I think they’re excited. Though they’d probably rather win tomorrow night and make it a, uh, moot point.
Q: Did you get the OK from Coach Silas before making this decision?
Within twenty minutes of his conference, Jordan’s announcement becomes one of the five most tweeted-about moments in sports history. Trending topics include “MJ Says,” “Jordan Rules,” “#ifthebobcatswin,” and both “Bryon Russell” and “Mark Hendrickson.”
Wednesday, April 25th. With the entire sports world on fire about Jordan’s announcement, the nation’s focus turns to Bobcats-Magic. “Pardon the Interruption” devotes their entire first segment to talking about Michael, the game and its implications, Bill Simmons makes reference on Twitter to betting heavily on the Bobcats (calling it “emotional hedging”), and tickets on StubHub go from $15 to over $100 at the absolute cheapest. Before the game, Jordan is interviewed by Charlotte’s local TV affiliate, and asked if there’s any chance that he might play on Thursday even if the Bobcats win tonight. “No,” snaps Michael with a palpable sense of irritation. “I’m not doing this for publicity, for my ego. I’m doing this so my guys don’t need to feel what it’s like to be known as the worst team ever. If they can get out from that without my help, even better.”
The Wednesday night game, between a team that recently clinched a playoff appearance and one who clinched the NBA’s worst record weeks before, has a definite playoff atmosphere. The crowd is obviously pro-Magic, but seems uncharacteristically invested in a game without playoff implications, getting as loud for every mini-run as Magic employees can ever remember it getting in the Amway Center. After a rough first quarter, the Bobcats battle back, keeping the Magic from ever pulling away, but the Magic still scratch out the 102-95 win, clinching the six seed in the postseason. At the final buzzer, the crowd erupts like the team just beat Miami in game seven of the Eastern Conference finals.
Unsurprisingly, after the game, nearly everyone wants to talk to MJ. “Yeah, sure,” answers Jordan when asked if he he still plans on playing the next night. “I’d have loved to see the team get the W tonight, and I thought the guys played well. But yeah, we couldn’t quite get it done tonight, so I’ll be suiting up for the game tomorrow, see what I can do.” Another reporter asks if Jordan knows whether or not he’ll be starting the game. “That’s something I need to discuss with Coach Silas,” responds MJ, before cracking a rare smile. “But I wouldn’t bet against it.”
Thursday, April 26th, Pregame. With a number of teams still battling for postseason positioning on the last game of the season, all anyone wants to talk about is the Knicks-Bobcats game. John Hollinger has a column up on ESPN where he projects what a full 66 games of MJ playing at age 49, based on the SCHOENE projection system analyzing his last few years with the Wizards and concludes that MJ would play about 30 minutes a game, average 11 points on 45 percent shooting, with four rebounds, three assists, and a PER in the low 14s. “Basically, he’d be a slower and less athletic — albeit much smarter, and much nastier — version of Gerald Henderson,” concludes Hollinger. Bill Simmons posts a column on Grantland ranking the 20 most-anticipated comeback games of his lifetime. He ranks Jordan’s imminent return at No. 3, behind only Magic’s first post-HIV appearance at the ’92 All-Star Game, and, of course, MJ’s debut in his first return from retirement against the Pacers in ’95.
The building in Charlotte is absolutely packed for shootaround, already the highest-attended game in Bobcats history, even before tip-off. The crowd watches, spellbound as MJ trots through the layup line and pulls up for some jumpers on the wing, “guarded” by assistant coach Ralph Lewis. The building softly ooohs with each made jumper, and at one point with MJ practicing his layups, the crowd starts chanting “DUNK IT! DUNK IT! DUNK IT!” Michael refuses to acknowledge them and heads towards the bench, where he talks with teammates Derrick Brown and DeSagana Diop.
The most notable thing about the crowd at Time Warner Cable Arena is the highly uncharacteristic number of jerseys in the audience. Bloggers in the crowd note note that there are about three times as many jerseys of Charlotte players like D.J. Augustin, Tyrus Thomas and Kemba Walker as most games, but that most people are wearing Michael Jordan jerseys, mostly from his time with the Bulls (predominantly 23s, though there are a handful of 45s), but also some from the Wizards, the U.S. Olympic team, UNC, and one or two from the Toon Squad. One group of a half-dozen or so fans have even made mock Jordan Bobcats jerseys, though they all use the No. 23, rather than the No. 8 that MJ has adopted for the night, for obvious reasons.
Before the opening tip, a video montage plays of all the predictable MJ highlights: The Shot, The Shrug, The Hand-Switch Layup, The First Championship, The Flu Game, The Other Shot, even The Time He Scored 51 with the Wizards just for the sake of diversity (and relative modernity). Despite the fact that every single one of the highlights came for a different team and from before the Charlotte Bobcats franchise even existed, the highlights are met with thunderous cheering, though naturally, the smattering of moments mixed in from Jordan’s UNC days get the biggest reception.
During player introductions, Michael is announced second-to-last, having insisted pregame that DJ Augustin be the last one introduced, being the longest-tenured Bobcat in the starting lineup. The cheering for MJ remains so loud after his introduction that Augustin’s name is barely audible over the loudspeaker.
Game Time: Bismack Biyombo takes the opening tip against Amar’e Stoudemire. (The Knicks are resting starting center Tyson Chandler, along with leading scorer Carmelo Anthony, due to Orlando’s clinching the sixth seed over them with their win against the Bobcats the night before.) Biyombo wins the tip and the ball falls in the hands of Augustin, who dutifully hands it over to Jordan for the game’s first possession. The crowd is already roaring as he dribbles to the top of the key against Knicks perimeter stopper Iman Shumpert. Jordan pulls the ball back as if to start a drive, but then collects it entirely and dishes to Tyrus Thomas on the wing. Time Warner Cable Arena awwwwwws with disappointment, and Thomas clanks a jumper.
9:32, 1st: Jordan’s first shot of the game is a fadeaway jumper on the wing against Shumpert. He gets decent separation for the shot, but it falls short, bouncing off the near side of the rim to Stoudemire, who outlets to Landry Fields leaking downcourt for an easy fast break layup. Michael, who does not even attempt to get back in transition, grimaces and shakes his head slightly.
7:40, 1st: Michael scores his first bucket on a switch that leaves him guarded by undersized Knicks point guard Mike Bibby on the wing. He backs Bibby down into the post, then spins around for another fadeaway jumper, which bounces gently around the rim and backboard and falls in. You can hear the crowd’s collective breath being held as the ball bounds around the cylinder, then hear them release into total mania when it drops through. Augustin lightly slaps Jordan’s chest on the way back down the court, as if to say “Way to go, boss.”
5:44, 1st: MJ’s first dime of the game comes on a gorgeous alley-oop to Bismack Biyombo, who spins on Stoudemire in the post to go up for the lob. (“Something me and ‘Smack been working on in practice,” MJ will explain after the game.) Biyombo is so amped for the oop that he swings on the rim a beat too long, getting called for a tech in the process. The crowd nonetheless roars in appreciation.
4:06, 1st: Gerald Henderson checks in for Jordan, who heads to the bench with four points (1-3 shooting), two rebounds, and the assist to Biyombo, as the Bobcats trail 19-15. Jordan gets the first of his many standing ovations to the night as he heads to the bench, getting the first of many obligatory ass-pats from Coach Silas (and some overly aggressive cheering from teammate Matt Carroll.)
9:51, 2nd: When Jordan checks back in, it’s as part of a three-guard lineup with Henderson and rookie Kemba Walker. The lineup is an immediate success for the Bobcats, as they roll off a 10-2 run to take their first lead of the game. One play finds Henderson feeding Jordan on a seal in the post for an easy deuce, and he returns the favor a few plays later, hitting Henderson open behind the arc with a skip pass, resulting in a three. “UNC to Duke for the trey!” exclaims Marv Albert on the TNT call. “Separated by a quarter-century, but hooking up on that one!”
7:18, 2nd: Responding to the undersized Bobcats lineup, New York also decides to go small, and Jordan suddenly finds himself matched on defense with Knicks swingman J.R. Smith. MJ shows his age against the quick, crafty Smith, getting crossed up particularly badly on one play that leads to an open three for Smith. On the other end, Shumpert has begun to really bother Jordan, picking him up at near halfcourt and getting into his shorts when he has the ball, daring him to try to go past him, and pestering him into two straight turnovers.
3:29, 2nd: Still with just the one bucket in the quarter, MJ gets an easy one when he pokes the ball away from Landry Fields on defense, then releases on the break as Augustin collects the ball and hits him in stride, with no defenders between him and the basket. The crowd hums in anticipation as Jordan gears up for the dunk, which he delivers as a cocked-back two-hand slam. The building erupts, though perhaps with a slight mumur of disappointment that the dunk wasn’t delivered with more flair or authority.
Halftime: At the break, Charlotte is trailing 45-39, and Jordan has 10 points on 4-11 shooting, with three rebounds, two assists, and three turnovers. Marty Snider interviews Jordan at the half and asks him how he’s feeling. “I’m feeling good,” says MJ. “Had a few looks there that I feel like I should’ve hit, but I’m getting into the flow of the game, trying to find my teammates, you know … just playing basketball. Same as it ever was.” Snider asks Jordan if he anticipates tiring some in the second half. “No. I’ll be fine.”
Back in the TNT studios in Atlanta, Ernie Johnson asks Kenny Smith what he thinks of his fellow Tar Heel’s performance. His answer is quickly interrupted by Charles Barkley.
“He em-ba-rassing himself out there, Ernie. Michael, I love you like a brother, but get your behind back to the front office. Ain’t nobody wanna see your 49-year-old ass out there on the court.”
Johnson goes bug-eyed at this. “Nobody wants to see him?? Have you heard that building tonight? Did you see how many…?”
“Yeah, but listen, Ernie. Listen. Those idiots in the crowd, they not here to see a basketball game. They here to see a freak show. They here so they can go home and tell they kids, they co-workers, they dogs, whoever, that they saw the greatest basketball player of all-time get his ass whooped by a bunch of kids!!”
“Well, he had some good moments. That steal and dunk, the alley-oop to Biyombo…”
“Yeah, but he getting outplayed by J.R. Smith. You think Michael at 25, at 30, at 40, would let himself get burned by J.R. Smith?? He too old. Hey, nothing wrong with that. I’m too old, too! But if Doug Collins call me up last week and say ‘Hey Chuck, we getting killed out there, you feel like suiting up for Philadelphia again?’ I’d laugh him off the damn phone!”
Ernie, sensing a lost cause, turns to Shaquille O’Neal. “What about you, Shaq? The Magic need a center this postseason, what if they gave you a call and asked you to put on your old Superman cape for the playoffs?”
Shaq pauses for a second, as if thinking, “Hmm, I did not consider this.” Snapping back to life, he mumbles unconvincingly, “Naw. Naw, that ain’t me.”
10:50, 3rd. Jordan hits his first three of the game, spotting up behind the arc off a broken play where Augustin temporarily loses the ball, then regains possession and kicks out to a wide-open MJ. The three brings the Bobcats to within 45-44, the closest they’ve been to the Knicks since midway through the first. He lets his three-point pose linger for a couple steps as he trots back on defense, soaking in the rapturous applause from the Charlotte crowd.
6:18, 3rd: Still stuck at 13 points for the game, Jordan follows up two bricked jumpers with a sprawling drive to the basket, bodying the defender Shumpert and hurling up the ball in an attempt to draw a foul, but getting no whistle. The Bobcats are staying in the game, thanks to one of Biyombo’s strongest offensive efforts of the season, clearly helped out by the attention drawn by Jordan, but on the other end, Amar’e Stoudemire has started going off for the Knicks, and they’ve now opened their lead to 58-51.
3:43, 3rd: Michael has officially gone ice cold, missing all six of his shots since that swished three in the corner, though he has picked up another couple assists, and got to the line for a pair of free throws. The worst miss comes when an offensive rebound jumps out to him 12 feet away from the basket, and his uncontested look barely clangs off the front of the rim, eliciting a very audible groan from the crowd. A half-minute later, Michael heads to the bench, mumbling and shaking his head. His teammates do not dare to go near.
9:48, 4th: With Michael on the bench, the Knicks expand their lead to 13 points. Jordan motions to Coach Silas that he’s ready to check back in, and does so. He comes out aggressive, attempting to take his defender (again matched up with Smith) off the dribble and roaring to the basket, but his layup attempt bounces around and off the rim, and he’s slow to get back on the other end as Steve Novak gets an open three on the fast break. The next possession, he again tries to get past Smith, but can’t find room, and with four seconds left in the clock, leaves his feet to pass to a guarded Kemba Walker. Walker is forced to jack up a three, which misses badly. Jared Jeffries gets a tip-in for the Knicks, and now New York has an 18-point lead.
6:16, 4th: With the Knicks up 25, the game is now officially out of reach for the Bobcats. No Charlotte player has scored more than eight points in the half, and with MJ going 1-4 in the quarter, he is now at a paltry 6-21 for the game. Silas calls a clearly wiped-out Jordan to the bench to put in Corey Higgins, a rookie 27 years his junior, giving him the kind of pat on the behind of a manager saying to his starting pitcher, “Good effort, kid, but tonight just wasn’t your night” before calling in relief. The crowd nonetheless gives Jordan a huge ovation, though again, he refuses to acknowledge them, or any of his teammates.
3:03, 4th: With both teams now playing their scrubs, and the game not any closer, the chant begins to reverberate throughout the Time Warner Cable Arena — “WE WANT MI-CHAEL!! WE WANT MI-CHAEL!!!” The chant grows to a deafening shout, as Jordan’s teammates come over and begin playfully smacking his chest and trying to push him out of his chair. Eventually, MJ relents, strips off his warm-ups and heads to the scorer’s table, the sight of which gets the biggest cheer of the night. Silas shrugs and calls for Higgins to come back to the bench.
2:05, 4th: On Jordan’s first play back in, the other four Bobcats on the court dutifully clear out for Michael at the top of the key, content to stand by and watch as Jordan tangos with the defender Smith. With about eight left on the clock, MJ rises up and releases an 18-footer, hitting it off the back of the rim and in. The crowd erupts in a cheer that continues through the Knicks’ next possession, in which Jerome Jordan gets swallowed on a layup drive and coughs up the ball. Again, the Bobcats clear out for Jordan against Smith at the top of the key. Again, Jordan dances around with Smith, before beginning a layup drive, then almost instantaneously pulling it back for a fadeaway jumper. He swishes it, sending the crowd absolutely bonkers, and eliciting a MI-CHAEL JOR-DAN!! chant.
With less than a minute to go, Novak misses a three for the Knicks, and as Kemba Walker dribbles the ball up the court, the crowd starts to hum with anticipation, knowing for sure what’s coming next. Indeed, Jordan sets up against Smith for a third time, dribbling and dribbling as the shot clock dwindles and the building rises to its feet. With five seconds left, he rises up on Smith and releases. The shot bounces along the inside of the rim and then falls out, eliciting another thunderous AWWWWWWWWW from the crowd. Grappling for the offensive rebound, Diop fouls the Knicks’ Jeffries, and as the two teams walk to the other end of the court, the crowd’s disappointment turns back to applause and cheering for the display they just witnessed. Getting back on defense, Jordan can’t help but smile.
0:17, 4th: With The Bobcats getting the ball for a final possession, the crowd tries to will Jordan into setting up for one more shot, but he won’t do it, instead dribbling out the clock as the Bobcats’ season comes to a close. Charlotte loses the game 99-77, and seals the worst winning percentage in NBA history with their 7-59 season, but as the players head off the court, the crowd is still cheering as if the team just clinched a playoff berth. “A historic night for so many reasons,” comments Marv Albert on the call. “One thing’s for sure,anybody who was at this game tonight will remember it for the rest of their lives.”
After the game, Michael is first up to field questions from the media.
Q: Given the outcome of the game and your rough shooting night, any regrets about coming back?
A: No, absolutely not. Sorry I couldn’t help the guys get that win, and wish I’d had a little more time to get myself back in game shape, but I loved being out there on that court, and I’m grateful that my team supported me and allowed me to, uh, do what I could to help out.
Q: Now that you’ve gotten a taste for playing again, do you think you’ll try for a full-season comeback next year?
A: No, this is it for me. I’m retired, and me and Rich [Cho] have a draft and free agency. Lotta work to be done in the offseason to make sure we get a whole lot more than seven wins next year.
Q: What did you say to your team in the locker room after the game?
A: I just told them to, uh, keep their heads up, work hard in the offseason, remember the taste of this evening and use that as motivation to make sure it don’t happen again. Everybody loses, it’s how you bounce back from that that defines you as a player and person. I’m proud of the way our guys fought tonight, and I look forward to seeing how they do next year with another year of experience, and hopefully some new pieces that me and Rich bring in through the draft and free agency to help out.
Q: This is the fourth time now that you’ve claimed to be retiring—why should we believe that this time, it’s actually for good?
A: Believe what you want to believe, man. I’m done.
Q; Got any words for J.R. Smith?
A: Yeah, don’t sweat the technique, J.R. Come by my place anytime this off-season, we’ll have ourselves, you know, a little re-match.
Told of Jordan’s comments in the visitors’ locker room, Smith laughs and comments “Aw yeah, I see you, Mike. I’ll get at you soon. Real soon.”
Thursday, April 26th. The day after the game, one of the 5-by-5 questions in ESPN.com’s daily blogger review is “Should the Bobcats retire Michael Jordan’s number?” Four bloggers say no, one says yes.