June 11, 1997. I was a talkative 8-year-old kid who loved sports, particularly basketball. The NBA Finals were happening. The Utah Jazz represented the Western Conference and were led by the likes of Karl Malone, John Stockton, Jeff Hornacek, Antoine Carr, and Duncanville, Texas’s own Greg Ostertag (which, as a fun aside, is German for “Easter Day.”) From the Eastern Conference were the Chicago Bulls, with familiar names such as Randy Brown, Jud Buechler, Dickey Simpkins, and rookie sensation Matt Steigenga. The Bulls also had some great role players like Steve Kerr, Ron Harper, and Luc Longley.
Oh, yeah, they also had Dennis Rodman, Ron Harper, Scottie Pippen, and some baseball player from North Carolina named Mike Jordan.
The series was tied 2-2 going into Game 5 on June 11. The game was played in Salt Lake, and the Bulls were staying in a local hotel. The evening before the game, Jordan decided he wanted some pizza, so he had some delivered to his hotel. Then later that night, around 2:00 a.m., Jordan’s personal trainer was summoned to MJ’s room where he found His Airness lying in the fetal position, sweating and suffering from tremendous discomfort. Team trainers told Jordan it was unlikely he’d be able to play in Game 5, but Jordan being Jordan, he was determined to make an impact and help his team pick up a crucial win in Salt Lake City.
The Flu Game
Being only mostly human, Michael Jordan started Game 5. Presumably he drank a lot of Gatorade, likely in an effort to both rehydrate and as a means of swallowing his Imodium, and just reached deep down into that part of his subconscious that hyper-successful athletes have. But he looked weak. He was uncomfortable, slow, low-energy, and generally not the Air Jordan that everyone had become so used to seeing. The Jazz took advantage of Jordan’s sluggishness and jumped to an early 36-20 lead at the beginning of the second quarter.
The something happened. Jordan, whether through some sort of secular will, divine interference, or pagan voodoo, began to hit shots. He was still slower than he normally would have been, but the shots were falling and Michael Jordan at 60% was probably still one of the ten best basketball players on Earth at the time. He scored 17 in the second quarter and by halftime the Jazz lead was down to four points.
Commentary from Marv Albert and Bill Walton, who were part of the television broadcast, focused primarily on Jordan’s health. Speculation over his minutes, health, and the Bulls’ chances of winning dominated the halftime show. I don’t know this for a fact, but I would imagine Bill Walton compared it to the Grateful Dead performing at the Winterland Ballroom despite Jerry Garcia feeling the effects of too much whiskey and greasy food in 1971. Every basketball fan on the planet knew of Jordan’s issues and were wondering how the world’s best hooper would show out in the second half.
But regardless of the speculation, the second half started and the Jazz took advantage of a clearly tired Jordan getting extended rest on the bench and stretched their lead to 8. In the fourth quarter, Jordan used what little energy he had to score 15 additional points (giving him 38 for the game). Jordan tied the game at 85 with a free throw with about 45 seconds left, and after the Bulls secured the rebound on Jordan’s missed second free throw, Jordan hit a three to put the Bulls up 88-85. Greg Ostertag scored for the Jazz, but Luc Longley answered in kind on the other end of the floor. John Stockton, a career 83% free throw shooter, missed a free throw in the waning seconds, and the Bulls held on to win 90-88.
The Bulls would win Game 6 and in doing so the NBA Finals two days after the Flu Game, in front of their home crowd in Chicago. The Flu Game became just another Michael Jordan legend that in the 24 years since has taken on occasional mythical qualities. Thirty-eight points from a guy running a fever and playing through severe gastrointestinal issues. A fifth NBA title and the second of what would be his second three-peat. Nobody wanted to win more than Michael Jordan, and that’s what he proved.
In the critically-acclaimed and all-around awesome docuseries The Last Dance, released last year, Jordan clarified that it wasn’t the flu at all but rather food poisoning from the pizza he had delivered to his hotel room in Utah. For the record, I had a slice of pizza at a bar in the Salt Lake airport in October with no complications. But either way, with that revelation the Flu Game has been exposed as a misnomer. However, “Flu Game” sounds better than the “Food Poisoning Game” or the “Pepto-Bismol Game” or the “Hot Snakes Game” or whatever.
Michael Jordan, even in 1997 already on a pedestal and considered one of the best basketball players to ever live, expanded his own legend. The Shot. Sixty-three at Boston Garden. Shooting free throws with his eyes closed. Giving the finger-wag to Mutombo. Dunking from the free throw line. Countless game winners. Innumerable big defensive plays. Tip-slamming a missed free throws. The gambling. The trash talk. The Dream Team. Space Jam. McDonald’s commercials. Trash-talk. And the Flu Game. It was nothing more and nothing less than a classic Jordan performance.
And it all happened on this day in 1997. To commemorate this event, I suggest watching some NBA playoff basketball and ordering some pizza, unless you’re in Salt Lake City.