When Michael Jordan exploded to the brink, it seemed like he was floating on a different plane of existence than any other NBA player. Jordan wore a leotard, shorts, and sneakers like everyone else, but this guy just wasn’t the same as these other mere mortals.
But even Superman could be tripped by Kryptonite, and Jordan could be tripped by…a threat to his immune system? On June 11, 1997, Jordan added an unforgettable chapter to his legacy with one of the most iconic performances in NBA Finals history.
Yes, we’re talking about The Flu Game.
Aside from the basics of Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals – Jordan led the Bulls to a 90-88 win despite feeling battered – what do you really know about The Flu Game? Let’s go back 25 years and revisit what happened in Salt Lake City.
1. Michael Jordan didn’t actually have the flu.
OK, maybe you know this part. However, there has been so much talk about the background of The Flu Game that you may have mixed fact and fiction together.
Before Game 5, play-by-play announcer Marv Albert stated that Jordan was suffering from “flu-like symptoms.” After the game, Jordan said he was “almost dehydrated” and felt like he “can’t breathe.”
But the truth came out years later. In 2013, Tim Grover, Jordan’s former personal trainer, said on TrueHoop TV that Jordan was actually dealing with food poisoning, not the flu. With room service unavailable, he had ordered a pizza to the team’s hotel the night before Game 5.
“So we order a pizza, they come in to deliver it, five people come in to deliver that pizza,” Grover said. “And I’m just … I’ll take the pizza and tell them, I said, ‘I have a bad feeling about this.’ I said, ‘I just have a bad feeling about it.’ Of everyone in the room he was the only one eating, no one else…then at 2am I get a call to my room.
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“I come into the room, he’s curled up, he’s curled up in the fetal position. We’ll take a look. We are looking for the former team doctor. And immediately I said, ‘It’s food poisoning. Guaranteed. Not the flu.”
During the ninth episode of ESPN’s The Last Dance, Jordan himself confirmed that food poisoning is the real problem.
However, “The Food Poisoning Game” does not sound so smooth, so this famous description will not change.
2. The cops were strategic in how they used and protected Michael Jordan.
There was no doubt Jordan was struggling going into Game 5, so the Bulls tried to limit his workload on and off the ground. In a 2012 interview with ESPN, Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson explained that the team kept him away from the media before the game. He checked Jordan out ahead of the tip, saying he would play despite feeling “like crap.”
As for strategy on the field, having Scottie Pippen, one of the greatest defensive players of all time, allowed Jordan to focus on what he did best – getting the ball in the basket.
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“Scottie was like, ‘We’ll take care of defense. Don’t waste yourself. Save yourself for the other end of the floor where you can score. We know you can finish this game and I’m going to help you out part time and cover my man,'” Jackson said. “And Scottie set him up by pulling the doubles team and bringing the ball back to Michael [on offense].”
Jordan had enough in the tank to give the Bulls 38 points (13 shots of 27), seven rebounds, five assists, three steals and a block in 44 minutes. His scoring came in spurts as he had 17 in the second quarter and 15 in the fourth quarter, including a clutch 3-pointer after a pass from Pippen. In the last frame, he almost surpassed the Jazz (16).
3. Scottie Pippen’s perspective on Michael Jordan and The Flu Game has changed.
Pippen was undoubtedly Jordan’s best teammate during the Bulls’ multiple three-goal fouls, and he literally carried Jordan to the finish line in Game 5. One of the most incredible images of Chicago’s dynasty is Jordan collapsing into Pippen’s arms as they walked toward the bench.
But Jordan and Pippen don’t get along well now. Since the release of “The Last Dance,” Pippen has shot Jordan for everything and everyone. He openly criticized the documentary series, calling Jordan “selfish” and “condescending.”
He even downplayed the legacy of “The Flu Game” during an interview with SiriusXM Radio, comparing his back problem in the 1998 NBA Finals to Jordan’s illness.
“Is it easier to play with a herniated disc or the flu?” said Pippen. “Well, I don’t see a lot of bad back games, but I do see flu games. Flu, come on.”
Will Pippen and Jordan ever reconcile? Charles Oakley, who played for Chicago from 1985-88 and is one of Jordan’s close friends, expressed his doubts during an appearance on The Bill Simmons Podcast earlier this year. He believes Pippen remains frustrated that he didn’t get more airtime on The Last Dance.
“I think, you [covered] Dennis Rodman more than Scottie — and Steve Kerr,” Oakley said, referring to two key members of Chicago’s second three-peat. “But my thing is Kerr has done a lot more off the court than Scottie. Dennis probably too. But on that pitch, Scottie did a lot more than either of them, but Scottie felt like he was out there. And he felt like Jordan wouldn’t have six rings if it wasn’t for him. …
“[Jordan] always praising Scottie, always praising Scottie He’s never spoken badly of him, but I don’t know what’s happened since The Last Dance. It seems like things are simple — he was probably saying, ‘Okay, Scottie said that stuff about me. OK, I won’t say anything.’ He won’t say anything in the press, none of that, try going back to Scottie. He’ll just keep doing what he’s doing – golfing, fishing, relaxing and smoking cigars.”
It might be an unfortunate ending for one of the most successful pairings in NBA history, but last but not least, Pippen and Jordan will always have that image from The Flu Game.