How many instances, during the vast history of professional sports and pivotal playoff contests, have star players been hit with unexpected ailments on the day of a big game? Even just a few days ago, LeBron James was hit with paralyzing leg cramps – a pain so immense that the Miami Heat star was forced to sit on the bench during crunch time. But the list of handicapped star athletes really goes on and on, and while Jordan wasn’t the only one to climb triumphantly over an injury, he did it in such style that it transcends epic playoff game performances.
Images of MJ slumped over on the bench and appearing as sickly as we’ve ever seen the man are permanently imprinted in the history books of sports. Birthed from that memorable performance from seventeen years ago is one of the most familiar nicknames in Air Jordan history – the “Flu Game” aptly named by that classic 38-point performance. Let’s take a look back at what many call the best NBA Finals performance in history, and let us know what your personal memories are from that Bulls vs. Jazz showdown.
The 1997 NBA Finals was unquestionably the “fairest” fight that the Chicago Bulls had faced in the Finals thus far. The Utah Jazz were an offensive powerhouse led by Karl Malone, John Stockton, and a roster of role players that helped the squad to a then-franchise best 64 wins, . The defending Champs were already prepared to have their work cut out for them, but prior to the series, Michael was given an extra push of motivation.
A few days before the Finals tipped off, the NBA named Karl Malone as the league’s MVP – an award that many to this day believe should have gone to Michael. Malone’s stats were incredible, but Jordan’s were, well, Jordan-esque, and the Bulls won an astounding 69 games while missing two key players to injury for a good chunk of the season. It’s tough to say that an accomplished player like MJ had something to prove, but maybe it was that extra chip on his shoulder that gave him the necessary fuel to win a fifth title.
The first game of the ’97 Finals went at an unexpected pace as the two teams, who lead the NBA in points per game, were deeply entrenched in defensive battles. With under ten seconds left in the game, the Jazz had an opportunity to break the tie and take a late lead, and with their best player headed to the free-throw line, the visiting team was poised to steal a victory on the road. Prior to Malone’s free-throw attempts came Scottie Pippen’s famous “The Mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays” (Game 1 was on a Sunday), and shockingly, the MVP, who thrived at the charity stripe all season, missed both. The advantage swiftly swung back to the Bulls; with the ball in MJ’s hands, the game ended in typical fashion for Chicago, which won the game on Jordan’s buzzer-beating 20-foot jumper. Jordan celebrated calmly, holding his fist in the air. Would every game be this close? Would his heroics be needed every night?
The Bulls pulled to a 2-0 Series lead, but Utah put up some amazing defense against Chicago during the following two games in Utah. Playing at the Delta Center was tough for any visiting opponents for the Jazz were a raucous Home crowd. During the live telecast of Games 3 and 4 on NBC, decibel meters were displayed on the screen to show just how jarringly loud the atmosphere was for the Bulls. The Home advantage proved to be a useful one, because the Jazz evened the Series at two games a piece, whittling down the Finals to a best-of-3 – new territory for the Bulls.
“Game 5” of any best-of-seven playoff series is unofficially called a “Swing Game”. Statistically, the team that gains the 3-2 advantage goes on the win the series 75% of the time. Numbers and FYIs aside, any team in an NBA Finals situation must consider every game a must-win, and with Game 5 at the Delta Center, it appeared that Utah would be the one to pull ahead and grasp the lead. Game 5 was the perfect opportunity for Michael Jordan to rise to the occasion and tell the world once again that he was the single best player in the world despite the NBA’s specific award for that title going to an opposing player. Little did they know, the Bulls would not be with their usual Michael.
Early in the morning prior to the game, Michael Jordan called the team trainers to his hotel room, where he was found lying on the floor in fetal position, sweating profusely. He was diagnosed with a stomach virus, allegedly from bad pizza he ate the night before (what do you expect – it’s Utah), and the trainers informed the team brass that it was very much possible that their leader would miss Game 5. What’s more is that once Michael’s sickness quelled a few degrees, he instantly fell asleep and didn’t wake up until 5:50 PM, just hours before the game, and his sickness had improved very little.
Michael took the court visibly impaired, and the Jazz were ready to attack its weakened opponent. As early as the second quarter, the Utah Jazz pulled ahead by sixteen points. Jordan lacked his explosive speed and unrelenting defense, and the rest of the Chicago team couldn’t keep up with Utah’s fine play on offense. But at the moment of Utah’s largest lead, Michael began hitting his shots and miraculously ended up tallying seventeen points in that quarter, narrowing the gap and giving Chicago hope at halftime. He scored efficiently throughout the rest of the game, somehow landing on his two weakened legs after every jump-shot and lay-up and hobbling back on defense. A clutch three-pointer by MJ with under a minute to go was the definitive basket for the Chicago Bulls, and led by their ailing star, the Bulls won the game when everything in the cards said they would not.
The “will to win” was never more present in an athlete than it was in Michael during that pivotal Game 5, and the momentum was strong enough for the Bulls to take Game 6 and their fifth NBA title in seven years. Many say the entire series was won in Game 5.
38 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and 1 block in 44 minutes is what Michael’s stat-line looked like at the end of the “Flu Game”. This incredible combination of offense and defense mixed in with a sickness that would’ve rendered anyone else inactive is why this performance is simply the stuff of legends. Images of Michael slumped over on the bench, leaning on Scottie’s shoulders, and limping to the sidelines during time-outs are forever ingrained into the annals of sports. Gatorade, one of Jordan’s biggest sponsors at the time, revisited that moment for an inspirational ad campaign called “Win from Within”.
The Black/Red Air Jordan 12 permanently adopted the same nickname, with a 2009 Retro release paying tribute to perhaps the best Finals performance ever. Recently, the actual shoes that Michael wore that game netted more than $100,000 at auction. The Flu Game isn’t just a catchy moniker meant to catch you’re attention – it’s merely a means to briefly state that even a flu-ridden Michael Jordan was the best player in the game.
Pictured above are three renditions of the famed “Flu Game” Air Jordan 12. The left-most version is the original that released when Michael wore these shoes during the ’97 NBA Playoffs. The middle version was identical to the OG and released in 2003 – the first-ever Air Jordan 12 Retro release in history. The right-most pair was drastically different, using black nubuck instead of leather and highlighting the actual Flu Game with a special logo on the tongue as well as the 97 38 detail on the heel denoting the year of the game as well as the number of points scored.