After the Chicago Bulls won their third consecutive championship in 1993, a whirlwind of events happened in Michael Jordan’s life. His father, James Jordan was tragically killed in July 1993, and then three months later M.J. shocked the world when he announced his retirement from the NBA, citing his lack of motivation and his father’s death as reasons why he wanted to step away.
Indiana Pacers. However, when he took the court that night in Market Square Arena, he wasn’t wearing the widely recognized No. 23 that had become synonymous with his name. Instead, Jordan was wearing No. 45. In Sunday’s upcoming episode of “The Last Dance,” Jordan explains why., as a member of the Birmingham Barons, the Double-A affiliate for the Chicago White Sox. The Bulls legend eventually got the itch to return to the NBA, and did so on March 19, 1995 on the road against Reggie Miller and the
“I didn’t want to go to No. 23 because I knew my father wasn’t there to watch me, and I felt it was a new beginning,” Jordan said. “And 45 was my first number when I played in high school.”
While fans packed inside the arena in Indianapolis that night, trying to get a glimpse of Air Jordan for the first time since he hoisted his third championship trophy in 1993, Jordan was dealing with a flurry of emotions. This was the first game that he would play without his father, and it was also his first game back from an early retirement.
“I was nervous because I hadn’t played competitive in a long time, and I just felt naked because my father wasn’t there,” Jordan said. “It just seemed so different.”
Despite all the anticipation of Jordan’s return, that night didn’t end on a positive note. He finished with 19 points on 7 of 28 from the field in a 103-96 overtime loss to Indiana. Nine days later, Jordan had his highest scoring game at Madison Square Garden when he dropped 55 points, now known as the “Double-Nickel Game,” while wearing No. 45. It was a return to form for the Bulls legend, and he did it on the biggest stage in professional basketball.
Jordan proceeded to wear No. 45 for the remainder of the the regular season, and the first round of the playoffs against the Charlotte Hornets. When he got to the conference semifinals, though, against the Orlando Magic and former teammate Horace Grant, things changed.
In Game 1 of that series, the Magic looked like the superior team. The Bulls were getting outpaced by Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, Nick Anderson and Grant, but the Bulls were able to hold a late lead. Chicago was up 91-90 with 22 seconds left, and as M.J. was bringing the ball up the floor, Anderson picked his pocket which led to the Magic taking a one-point lead. On the following Bulls possession, Jordan turned the ball over, effectively clinching the game for Orlando.
After that game, Anderson got a little too confident. Grant retells the story in the documentary, quoting Anderson for saying “45 isn’t 23,” and pointing out that Jordan didn’t have the same explosion he possessed before retiring. Now, if there’s one thing we know about M.J., it’s that he’ll use any little sleight at him as motivation to destroy the opposition. Which is exactly what happened in Game 2. Not before changing his jersey number back to 23, though, which resulted in a $25,000 fine from the league.
It didn’t matter, though. Jordan proceeded to torch the Magic for 38 points to pull the Bulls even in the series. He diced up Orlando’s defense every trip down the floor, and finished the game with four blocks, including a couple on a young Shaq. After that game, Bulls coach Phil Jackson summed up Jordan’s performance and the reason for the jersey change perfectly.
“He was responding to the comments that he’s not the same old 23,” Jackson said via the New York Times. “I think that was his response. ‘OK, check this out.’ That’s my opinion. Michael said he was hitting .202 with No. 45 on his back in baseball, and I said, ‘You’re shooting about the same percentage, too. It’s about time you get back to 23.'”
While Jordan and the Bulls went on to lose that series in six games, that loss to Orlando served as fuel for M.J. to come back even better. The fact that he was even able to play at the level he was performing at after having just played baseball for a year and a half, is just another testament to the worth ethic and pure talent Jordan possessed.
Anything less that first place, though, wasn’t what he wanted. Jordan’s long time personal trainer Tim Grover detailed in episode 7 of the documentary how committed M.J. was to getting back into basketball shape for the upcoming season as soon as that final buzzer sounded in Game 6 of the series against the Magic.
“After the season, usually there’s a time period where Michael takes some time off,” Grover said. “The night they lost to Orlando, I said ‘Michael I’m about to get out of here, let me know when you want me to see you.’ He goes, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’ Michael had an obligation to himself, the fans, his teammates, the organization, his family, everybody. He said if you’re going to sit down and take three hours out of your day to watch me on TV, I have an obligation to give you my best all the time.”
His best is exactly what we got the following season. When Jordan came back for the 1995-96 season, he won his fourth league MVP trophy, and led the Bulls to a record breaking 72-10 season. Not to mention, it jump-started the beginning of Chicago’s second three-peat. His patchy return in ’95, and the Bulls subsequent loss to Orlando in the second round of the playoffs, clearly served as motivation for M.J. to become the best player in the league again.