A Look Back At Michael Jordan’s Flu Game 20 Years Later

An unknown stat makes that legendary game even more impressive and helps explain why fans get angry when stars rest.

(Originally published June 8, 2017, at the now defunct 16WinsARing.com)

If you want to fully understand Michael Jordan’s “Flu Game,” you first have to understand one of Michael Jordan’s greatest statistics: 357.

It’s a stat that is rarely discussed. The number most associated with MJ, besides 23, is 6. As in “6 rings.” Once upon a time, MJ’s career was defined by a melange of numbers. People thought about 63 and 69. They pictured him in 9 and 45. They were astounded by 7, and later 10, for his scoring titles. They grimaced at .202 and glowed with pride over 72–10.

Now, it’s 6. The only number of consequence. The one MJ chased more than any other. The one to which he drunkenly crooned after reaching it in 1998. He started counting after the first championship, flashing victorious fingers. Two in 1992. Three in ’93. Four in ’96. Five in ’97. Six in ‘98.

No number in NBA history serves as more of a mic drop in current hoops debates than MJ’s 6. The figure may be augmented in different ways, like “6–0” (his Finals record) or “6 for 6” (his Finals MVPs). But, unquestionably, 6 is the number. He likes it like that.

I like it too. I also like 357.

To me, that’s Mike’s hidden gem. And really, it’s 357/358. That’s MJ’s run of Bulls games played after baseball, from March 19, 1995 (“I’m back.”) to June 14, 1998 (“The Last Shot”).

Three-hundred fifty-seven out of three-hundred fifty-eight games, from age 32 to age 35. That’s 263 of 263 regular season games, three of three All-Star games, 68 of 68 postseason games, and 23 of 24 preseason games.

The Flu Game was game number 245 — his 245th consecutive NBA game since returning from baseball.

That game, which was 20 years ago June 11, is now an archetype. Any player faced with illness in a big game is said to be experiencing his own “Flu Game.” The backlash against current players over missing games to rest is a direct result of our feeling that Michael Jordan never rested.

“Hell,” we say, “remember the Flu Game?”

Part of why we remember is that it solidified what we already knew: Jordan was a winner and a man who never quit. From his post-baseball return to Game 6 of the 1998 Finals, his teams went 283–74, a winning percentage equal to a 65-win NBA season. He led the East to wins in all three All-Star games. His Bulls swept their three first-round series, won all three second-round series in five games, and played in a Game 7 only once.

He dominated individually, too. In his three post-baseball seasons, Jordan went three for three on scoring titles, three for three on championships, three for three on Finals MVPs, two for three on MVPs, and two for three on All-Star MVPs.

I mean damn, in the one All-Star Game from ’96 to ’98 where Jordan didn’t win MVP, he notched the game’s first-ever triple-double.

Even in the 1995 playoffs, a supposedly “rusty” Jordan averaged 31.5 points per game, second only to eventual Finals MVP Hakeem Olajuwon’s 33.0. In those playoffs, Jordan was sixth in PER, second in usage, fifth in plus/minus,and ninth in VORP. He also had the postseason’s highest-scoring game, with 48 in the opener against Charlotte.

To put it lightly, from 1995 to 1998, Michael Jordan was a machine. And not just in games. Teammate Jud Buechler recalls times when Phil Jackson would let MJ take it easy in practice the day after a late game. Jackson focused that time on scrimmages with the lesser players, only to have Jordan demand to tap in. Practice or game, the NBA Finals or a Wednesday against Vancouver, Jordan suited up.

“The guy amazed me — he never took a night off,” Buechler told Sam Smith for Smith’s 2014 Jordan oral history There Is No Next. “I think a lot of these guys now say, ‘Hey, I’m a little banged up, this game doesn’t really mean anything. They don’t need me tonight. Let these other guys go.’ He never did that. He’s the star and he’s playing the most minutes. … It was a sense of ‘the Bulls are coming to town and Michael Jordan’s coming to town’ and he knew that that place was going to be sold out. It’s like, ‘I’m gonna entertain these people. They’re coming to see me.’”

Now, an argument can be made that Jordan’s first retirement was the rest he needed to complete 357/358. While I acknowledge that minor league baseball (and the expectations on Jordan within it) cannot match the physical intensity of an NBA season (and the expectations on Jordan within that), I will note that in 1994, Jordan led the Birmingham Barons in games played (127) and was second in plate appearances with 497, followed by another 123 at bats in the Arizona Fall League, which closed out his one full year off the hardwood.

In 1994, Jordan was the only member of the Barons over the age of 25 to play 100 games. He was 31.

The man had a motor, and then some. He played and he won, no matter the circumstances. That’s why 20 years later, the Flu Game sits at the heart of “6.” It epitomizes our Jordan experience. That he could do anything. That he was indestructible.

June 11, 1997. The Delta Center. The night a legend became a myth. The night Jordan’s mind hit the manual override on his body.

“Let’s just say, if I had to go through it again, I’d miss it. That’s how sick I was,” Jordan told SLAM magazine during the 1997 offseason. “I jeopardized my health, more so than I should have. And true, we won a championship … but hindsight tells me I must have been a fool, and I don’t think I’d do it again if I had to.”

He couldn’t think that way while curled in a ball on the floor of a hotel room in Park City, Utah, suffering from food poisoning and wondering why oh why he’d eaten that pizza. Tip-off for Game 5 was about 15 hours away. After taking a 2–0 lead at home, the Bulls dropped Games 3 and 4 to the Jazz. They’d faced a 2–2 tie in the Finals only once, five years earlier against Portland. They hadn’t lost three straight non-preseason games with Jordan since starting 0–3 in 1991.

Jordan was old. He knew that. Before the season, he told Spike Lee that the Bulls’ collective age meant no one should assume they would win “automatically.” Their advantage was not athleticism. They succeeded because of talent, intelligence, experience, structure and resilience. Their edge was the ability to overcome mental and physical challenges, meaning Jordan simply had to power through what would be a grueling 18 hours or so, from waking up sick in the hotel, until the end of Game 5.

That’s where it started — the hotel room. According to reporting before the game from Ahmad Rashad and Marv Albert, Jordan woke up at 3:30 in the morning with “flu-like symptoms” including a stomachache and a headache. He vomited all night. He stayed in bed all day. He didn’t eat. He didn’t practice. He missed the pregame shoot-around. Until he came to the court just before the jump ball, he stayed in a dark room in the stadium “trying to get some rest,” he told Ahmad, while still vomiting.

“You get the idea he’s having difficulty just standing up,” Albert noted in the game’s final minute.

“I really feel horrible,” Jordan told Rashad before the game, about which Ahmad astutely reported: “And in his history, in games when he has either been hurt or sick, it’s been bad news for the opponent.”

Michael Jordan Flu Game 1997 NBA Finals (Getty Images)
Michael Jordan catching his breath during the “Flu Game” — Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals. (Getty Images)

Bingo. Jordan scored a game-high 38 points in 44 minutes, playing more minutes than any Utah player and fewer only to Pippen’s 45. What enhanced the power of his performance was the transparency of his exhaustion. Jordan went full steam between the lines, and then during timeouts would sag on the bench with an icepack on his neck or head. He took it easy in the first and third quarters (with four and then two points) and played big in the second and fourth quarters (with 17 and then 15 points).

In one famous sequence, he picked off Stockton’s pass, eluded Bryon Russell by dribbling behind his back and crossing back over to start the break, tossed a pass to a streaking Pippen, and then followed Pippen’s missed layup with a rebound and a dunk.

Then he landed, and his body seemed to power down like a cell phone that was on 1 percent battery for the final 20 minutes of a phone call. Hang up the phone, and it dies on the spot.

That was Jordan that night. His physical state was such that at halftime, Bulls trainer Chip Schaefer told Ahmad: “He’s exhausted, totally dehydrated, and a little bit out of it.”

Still, the game would not be remembered as arguably Mike’s masterpiece if he wasn’t able to close the deal. With 45 seconds remaining in the 4th quarter, he tied the game with a free throw, missed the second free throw but got his own rebound, and then in the same possession, drilled a tie-breaking three with 25 seconds to play.

“He looks like he’s a boxer just hanging on along the ropes,” Albert said after the shot.

The Jazz got a dunk with 15 seconds left to pull within one, and then botched the closing sequence, as Malone — with five fouls — declined to foul Pippen. The Bulls passed their way down the court and got a dunk of their own, going back up by three with 6.2 seconds left.

And this is the origin of the defining image of the Jordan-Pippen relationship: Jordan slumping into Pippen’s arms as the two men walked off the court. That image endures both because of what it says about the Jordan-Pippen partnership and because the sight of MJ’s physical dependence was the final confirmation of the severity of his illness. That image finalized for the public the degree of difficulty Jordan faced, and thus how much he’d overcome.

The Jazz split a pair of free throws to end the game, with the Bulls winning 90–88. Two days later, Jordan hit Steve Kerr for a Finals-winning assist, capturing ring №5. Michael’s next Bulls game was the 1997–98 preseason opener, which he played without Pippen (who had foot surgery four days before the preseason started) and Rodman (who didn’t re-sign until the final two preseason games).

Jordan kept playing. He played the first three preseason games in the U.S., then led the Bulls in the two-game McDonald’s Championship in Paris. Back in the states for a pair of games against the 76ers, Michael finally missed his first and only game since returning from baseball, sitting out the sixth preseason game of 1997–98 after having surgery on both feet to remove ingrown toenails.

He was supposed to rest until the regular season started, but the team’s next preseason game was in Chapel Hill, home of Michael’s alma mater UNC and, well, Mike didn’t want to let anyone down.

He played that game and the final two, then started the regular season while Pippen recovered from his surgery. Jordan led the Bulls to a 24–11 record without Pip, played 13 more games with Pippen until the All-Star break, won the All-Star MVP, played 33 consecutive games to finish the regular season, won his 10th scoring title and fifth MVP, and then played 21 playoff games at a team-high 41.5 minutes while scoring 32.4 points per game.

At long last, in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals and game number 357 out of 358, a 35-year-old Michael Jordan played a game-high 44 minutes and scored 45 of his team’s 87 points, including his famous game-winner. He clinched ring No. 6 in a performance nearly as improbable as the Flu Game.

In the 1980s, Jordan’s above-the-rim majesty was viewed nearly as sorcery. “Come fly with me,” the video tape invited, but we couldn’t. No one could, because only Jordan could make the impossible seem routine. He had — the people exclaimed — mastered gravity.

I never would have thought it was possible at the time, but today, we remember the Flu Game with more reverence than the day he scored 63. Larry Bird called it “God disguised as Michael Jordan.” An apt description. That 63-point game felt like witnessing the power of a god. The Flu Game felt like witnessing the power of a man.

Jack M Silverstein is a sports historian with Windy City Gridiron and author of “How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls.” Say hey at @readjack.

A special thank you goes to Todd Spehr, who collected game logs for all of MJ’s non-NBA regular season and postseason games — high school, college, Olympics, charity games, other exhibition games, and NBA preseason games — and to the always invaluable Basketball Reference, which published the game log, and served as the source for nearly all of the other statistics in this story.

2 Replies to “A Look Back At Michael Jordan’s Flu Game 20 Years Later”

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