The Last Dance docuseries enlightened millions of Millenials and Gen Z sports fans about the mythical career of Michael Jordan, his obsession with winning, and how that obsession translated to unrivaled success, an undefeated Finals record and shaky personal relationships with his teammates. Some have even called MJ a “bully.”
Conflicting opinions aside, everyone is in agreement that the impact of his career hasn’t been duplicated since. Within that career are some iconic moments that are forever a part of NBA lure.
The “Flu Game” is one of those moments.
But prior to Game 5 in Salt Lake City, Michael Jordan was felled by flu-like symptoms that seriously compromised his physical well-being. Most mortal men would have remained at the team hotel under the care of medical professionals.
But Jordan was no mere mortal.
Looking nothing like the most dominant player in the game who was building a resume as perhaps the greatest of all-time, Jordan looked like the last place he needed to be on earth during that first quarter was a basketball court. Looking drained, ill and like a shell of his normal self, he didn’t score a single point in the first quarter.
In the second quarter, he proceeded to erupt for 17 points. After halftime, he once again looked as if he made the wrong decision by choosing to play, going scoreless once again.
But for those who’d watched Jordan since his days at North Carolina, it was well-known that he did his damage when it counted most. And with Utah holding a 77-69 lead in the fourth quarter, even the flu could not hold the ultimate competitor back. He scored seven points during a 10-run that allowed Chicago to get back in command.
His 3-pointer in the final half minute gave Chicago a lead it did not lose, followed by Scottie Pippen having to physically help him off the floor.
“Probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” Jordan said afterward. “I almost played myself into passing out just to win a basketball game.”
“This was a heroic effort, one to add to the collection of efforts that make up his legend,” Bulls coach Phil Jackson said afterward.
Scottie Pippen was off that game, shooting 5-of-17 from the field for 17 points, but he played his normal brand of all-around ball with 10 rebounds and five assists. But in order for Chicago to grab the commanding 3-2 series lead and head back to Chicago with the hopes of closing out John Stockton, Karl Malone and their Jazz squad, Jordan dealt with his flu-like symptoms like Tom Brady deals with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs, leading the Bulls to the 90-88 victory.
Jordan hit 13 of his 27 shots. He was 10-of-12 from the free throw line. He tallied 38 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three steals, and a block, and at every timeout, he looked like he was on the verge of dying on the Bulls bench.
His Game 5 scoring output tied his series high, as he’d also dropped 38 in Chicago’s Game 2 win. In Game 6, he once again proved why he was the baddest man on the planet as he scored 39 points en route to his fifth NBA championship.
If Jordan sits out the flu game, Utah wins Game 5, and maybe wins the series. But Michael Jordan was seemingly willing to die to make sure his legacy didn’t include any maybe’s. And that’s why this game will forever go down as the one that separates him from any others.
Was It The Flu?
Until The Last Dance docuseries reopened that wound for Utah Jazz fans, Jordan’s illness was considered just one of those things. 23 years later, according to an account in Episode 9 of The Last Dance, Jordan may have been poisoned.
Jordan grew hungry by about 10:30 p.m. and told the team to order a pizza.
“There was no room service in the hotel so they call out,” Jason Hehir, the director of The Last Dance, said on Jalen & Jacoby. “When the pizza shows up, Michael says, ‘Everybody, do not touch this pizza, this is mine. You didn’t wait for me [for dinner], don’t touch this.’ So he spits on the pizza.’”
“Was that pizza spiked? I don’t know. I do believe that nobody else ate that pizza.”
According to Tim Grover, Utah’s trainer at the time, Jordan ate some of the pizza and proceeded to get very sick.
“One hundred percent it was food poisoning, 100 percent,” Grover said on Barstool Sports Pardon My Take podcast. “But obviously it just sounds better to be the ‘Flu Game’ than the ‘Food Poisoning Game.’
Maybe. Either way, it couldn’t stop MJ, who was curled up in a fetal position prior to the game and it was unsure if he would even play. The stories of legends — on the battlefield or the basketball court — take on a life of its own through the years depending on who is telling the story.
Regardless of whether or not it was the flu or food poisoning — or even a hangover as some have suggested — MJ overcame a terrible physical condition to do what he’s done time and time again and will his Chicago Bulls team to victory.