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Michael Jordan’s Break

From 1993-1995, the best player left the NBA, defining his legacy as much as the incredible stats.

Memphis Chicks v Birmingham Barons Photo by Jim Gund/Getty Images

The summer of 1993 began with Michael Jordan, fresh off watching his Tar Heels win Dean Smith’s first national title in 11 years, capping off a ridiculous twelve months by taking down Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns to win the third NBA title of his career. As he had in the previous two titles, Jordan celebrated in the locker room with his father, James.

The bond between Michael and James has been well-chronicled, and it doesn’t need a repeat here. It’s fair to say that Michael had no problem letting the world see how much his father meant to him, which is why what happened a few weeks later all the more tragic.

On July 23rd, James was murdered after falling asleep in his car on the side of the road. He was found on August 3rd floating in a swamp in South Carolina, and his murderers were eventually found and convicted. A rock in Jordan‘s life was suddenly gone, and as a chunk of the NBA offseason was over, Jordan was faced with having to gather himself to handle the grind all over again.

Keep in mind, not only had Jordan played all out in every season since joining the NBA, he’d had an especially exhausting period leading up to that moment. He was a member of the inaugural Dream Team in 1992, and while their games weren‘t exactly difficult, the month-plus lost to training and traveling with the team had to make recovering for the ‘92-‘93 season more difficult. He had to have been looking forward to a summer to fully recharge, when that was the last thing he ended up getting.

Thus, on October 6th, a little over two months after his father‘s murder, Jordan announced he was retiring from the NBA. It shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was. Someone who was so competitive just hadn’t been able to fully recharge, and like his mentor Dean Smith, he just didn’t feel it was fair to go out there and play unless it was going to be 100%. If you’ve suffered loss in your life, think back to how you felt about two months later. Now try imagining doing that job with millions of people watching and expecting you to go all out. For me, that three month mark was probably the bottom of how I felt, and I didn’t have nearly the weight of the world that Jordan had.

However, the story doesn’t end there. Time moves on, and at some point you start to think about “what’s next?” Jordan’s adult life had been defined by the routine of going out to practice or play basketball, and once the cloud of grief starts to lift, the fire had to start coming back to Jordan. What to do?

Why, play baseball, of course!

Sure enough, in February 1994, Jordan signed a contract with the Chicago White Sox, and just like that he was a baseball player. Just about everyone thought it was a joke, and no one gave him much of a chance to do well. That presented just the challenge that Jordan would thrive on, plus it allowed him to pursue the sport his father liked seeing him play.

If you haven’t seen Ron Shelton’s great 30 for 30 “Jordan Rides the Bus,” I’d recommend the watch. It does a wonderful job delving into what life was like for Jordan during that 1994 season when he was down in Birmingham, AL, playing for the White Sox’s AA affiliate. The big take from this time: Jordan struggled as someone who hadn’t played baseball in years, but he was getting better as the season progressed. There’s also great footage of Jordan watching the 1994 NBA Playoffs and seeing his Bulls lose.

Those playoffs saw the Houston Rockets ascend to take over as the kings of the league. As the 1994 NBA season loomed, it really seemed like Jordan was gone for good. He even joined Chicago’s Fall League team in Arizona, and there was talk during that fall he would be promoted to AAA for 1995. If not for another big thing that started in 1994, we may still talk about the “what if” of Jordan after those three titles.

Anyone younger than thirty probably has a hard time remembering just how devastating the MLB strike was in ’94. It wiped out a World Series, and still hadn’t been solved by March, 1995. The owners, not ready to have another season wiped out, started fielding replacement players, and since Jordan had signed a major league contract, he was facing the prospect of playing in a minor league only camp or playing with a bunch of replacement players, neither of which was his goal.

Thus, with a simple fax, Jordan came back in time to play 17 games with the Bulls in 1995. Now, almost two years removed from his father’s death and with his competitive fire for basketball rekindled, Jordan was ready to return to his rightful place on top of the league, and by 1996 Chicago was back on top.

Would Jordan have won eight straight titles had he not left the NBA? It’s a difficult question, because as Golden State has shown, it’s tough to go all out year after year. Jordan’s cast for ‘96-’98 was very different than ‘91-’93, and there’s a reason why the Houston Rockets managed to win in the two years Jordan was in baseball.

Would Jordan have been a good baseball player? Scouts seemed to notice that Jordan was improving at the time, and given a full offseason to do nothing but train for baseball, it would have been interesting to see what he would have learned. There was even speculation that had the strike not happened, Jordan would have been a September call up in 1994. Getting a taste of play in the majors may have been enough to keep him from going back to the court, and knowing his desire to improve it’s tough to know exactly what his ceiling was.

What is for sure is that the break represents one of the biggest oddities of Jordan’s career, one that has been ripe for speculation. The move was so odd, it bred all sorts of theories beyond what was the simplest explanation. That Jordan wasn’t able to break out and be a .300 hitter immediately will always make that move seem like a failure, but it provided the break Jordan needed to finish grieving his father and get back on the court. I’m guessing the rest of the NBA wishes he had succeeded.