Michael Jordan's 63 turns 25
Even 25 years later, it's difficult to guess what exactly fueled Michael Jordan to his NBA playoff record 63-point performance in a double-overtime loss against the Boston Celtics at Boston Garden.
Michael's jump shot was really iffy and really, really sketchy and streaky. But he started making that jump shot and then he got out on the floor, attacking, making free throws. He just got into a rhythm that was unbelievable.” -- Kevin McHale
Was it a desire to show the world that he had arrived at superstar status in his second NBA season, and had recovered fully from a broken foot that caused him to miss 64 games that season?
Was he trying to prove to the great Celtics team of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish that he and the eighth-seeded Chicago Bulls were to be taken seriously in their first-round series after losing by 19 points in Game 1? The Bulls were 30-52 in the regular season, which was the second-worst record for a playoff-qualifying team in NBA history at the time, so maybe overcoming that stigma was the motivation.
Or was he still trying to get in the last word with Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Jerry Krause?
"Probably," Reinsdorf said Wednesday on the anniversary of Jordan's feat. "The biggest part of Michael's greatness was his will to win and to prove himself, and I'm sure that was part of it. ... We got lucky that everything worked out, but the risk was crazy. He shouldn't have played at all the rest of that season."
Two weeks earlier, Jordan and Bulls management had battled publicly over the team's decision to limit Jordan's minutes after he got his cast off.
Team physician John Hefferon was quoted then as saying he told both sides that a CAT scan showed "some improvement," but they had to decide on playing time. But the final interpretation of three doctors' evaluations caused a rift that was slow to fade throughout Jordan's career.
"I don't have a choice," Jordan said in a contentious news conference on April 5. "They say I'm a frustrated 23-year-old, but my frustration ended when my cast came off. Now it's more of a confusion. Why can't I play more minutes when I feel I'm healthy enough to play? I think it's stupid."
In their discussion about risk-reward, Reinsdorf reiterated Wednesday that he offered Jordan an example of having 10 pills in front of him to help a headache, "but one pill would kill you."
"I said, 'I don't think it's worth the risk,' " Reinsdorf recalled. "And Michael said, 'It depends how bad the headache is.' ... Years later we were talking and he acknowledged I was right. It was silly to take that risk. We weren't going to win."
But a quarter-century later, all anyone remembers is that game.
"It was really special," said then-Bulls forward Charles Oakley. "When Michael came back from the injury and all the hype, he told them, 'If I play, I'm going to play,' and that's when the show started.
"He was a winner. He knew he could do the job. He felt he had his mind, body and his game in top condition, and what better place to do it than in Boston in prime time?"
Jordan's points came in a variety of ways. He was 19-of-21 from the foul line and 22-of-41 from the field. He had five assists, four steals and two turnovers in 43 minutes.
"KC Jones, our coach said, 'Hey, we'll just play standard defense, just make him shoot over the hand. We're not going to double-team him,'" McHale recalled Wednesday on ESPN 1000's "Waddle & Silvy Show." "And actually, we were looking beyond Chicago a little bit, trying to get healthy and get our rotation down.
"The first game he goes for like 40 [actually 49] and we're all like, 'Man, this guy is really good.' And then the second game we didn't make any more adjustments."
After the game, Celtics players raved. Bird, renown for his dislike of opposing players, spent 45 minutes talking in reverent tones about Jordan.
"I think he's God disguised as Michael Jordan," Bird said at the time. "He is the most awesome player in the NBA. Today in Boston Garden, on national TV, in the playoffs, he put on one of the greatest shows of all time. ... I didn't think anyone could do that against us."
The record, though it took 10 extra minutes in two overtimes, eclipsed the one set by Elgin Baylor in 1962, also in the Garden.
"I can remember comparing that to Baylor's 62," said Tommy Heinsohn, who was on the broadcast team for the Bulls-Celtics game. "[The Lakers] lost that game too. I played in that one."
Bulls executive vice president John Paxson, Jordan's backcourt mate, said Jordan's motivation that day likely stemmed from a lot of things.
"Michael was always a big stage guy," Paxson said. "You have to remember, this was just his second playoff appearance [he played in four games his rookie season against Milwaukee], so the playoffs were still very, very new and fresh to Michael. And I always felt the fact that he missed so many games to injury that season and missed out on a good portion of things like the All-Star Game and things of that nature, that when he did get to the playoffs, he was focused on trying to do something big." Jordan's teammate Dave Corzine remembers the mood of the Boston fans that day.
"I think the crowd got caught up in the game," Corzine said Wednesday. "It was so good, they wanted it to keep going. They were like, 'Wow, we never saw anything like this before and we may never see it again, let's keep it going.'"
Parrish and Bird marveled that Jordan actually got his points "in the flow of the game," and some of Jordan's teammates were actually amazed afterward that he had as many as 63.
"I remember a lot of mid-range, 12- to 15-foot jump shots, one or two dribbles and him elevating up and over the defense and being able to make those shots," Corzine said. "And obviously, finishing at the rim."
"Back then," McHale said, "Michael's jump shot was really iffy and really, really sketchy and streaky. But he started making that jump shot and then he got out on the floor, attacking, making free throws. He just got into a rhythm that was unbelievable."
Jordan hit two free throws to send the game into overtime but proved to be human in the end, missing on a 15-footer that would have won the game in the first overtime. Boston reserve Jerry Sichting ended up the unlikely hero, hitting the game-winner in the 135-131 victory for the Celtics, who finished off the Bulls in Chicago in Game 3. Jordan, under considerably more defensive pressure, ended up with only 19 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.
Reinsdorf, who was watching on television that day, compared the will to win of Jordan to current Bulls superstar Derrick Rose.
"Derrick wants to beat you," Reinsdorf said with a laugh, "Michael wants to kill you."
Either way, Reinsdorf couldn't enjoy one of the greatest performances in NBA history.
"I was scared to death he was going to be hurt again," he said, "and that would be the last we'd ever see of Michael Jordan."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.