When Derrick Rose went down with a torn ACL last April, during the first round of the NBA Playoffs, his career took an unmistakably Jordanesque turn. Michael Jordan, of course, also suffered a career-threatening injury, when he broke his foot during the 1985-86 season.
“I have a unique perspective,” Jordan told ESPNChicago.com last August, referring to Rose. “I’ve been a player, I’ve been in that scenario.”
True enough. But the way both Rose and the Chicago Bulls have handled this injury impasse over the last nine months has been a study in contrast with what transpired during Jordan’s comeback 28 years before. Rose, who is expected to return to the court soon, has been a model of patience; and the Bulls have more than held it together in his absence. Young Michael, on the other hand, was alternately pushy, demanding and petulant as he nursed himself back to health.
To be sure, Jordan went on to become the greatest basketball player in the history of the NBA — so there’s that. But seeds of discord were sown during his trying year of recovery that would never thereafter be unsown — and ultimately had a part in the team dismantling prematurely after its sixth NBA championship.
Rose would be lucky for his post-injury career to be half as fruitful as Jordan’s. But at least in this one regard, the current basketball star of Chicago already has a leg up.
The 1985-86 Bulls featured Jordan and All-Star Orlando Woolridge, but with little else, they were far from being considered an NBA contender. The fact that the team took a flier that year on Quintin Dailey, a troubled guard from the University of San Francisco, gave a good indication about the state of things in Chicago.
As the season commenced, both Woolridge and Dailey would prove to be distractions: Dailey did some time in rehab for substance abuse while Woolridge decided to sit out for a while in protest of his contract negotiations. (Woolridge, who later on coached in the WNBA, died last year.) Jordan, though, was the reigning rookie of the year, and had the Bulls off to a 2-0 start when they took on Golden State towards the end of October 1985.
It was late in the second quarter, when Jordan landed awkwardly on his left foot and left the floor for the rest of the game, a Bulls victory that pushed them to 3-0. Initially, the expectation was that Jordan might miss just a couple games and be back on the court a week later.
“It’s improved from Tuesday night because I can put a little pressure on it,” he told the Chicago Tribune a day after the Warriors game. “If I can walk without crutches, I’ll try playing. But I don’t know what good I am. There is always a chance I could reinjure it.”
But any hope Jordan’s time on the bench would be brief were dashed a week later, when a CAT scan revealed a break in the navicular bone in his left foot. The injury was expected to sideline him for six weeks, or between 22 and 25 games, according to the Tribune.
To replace Jordan on the roster, the Bulls signed veteran guard Ron Brewer, who played the previous season for New Jersey, and handed Jordan’s starting job to George Gervin, who at 33 was a faded version of the finger-rolling Iceman from San Antonio. Predictably, the team struggled, losing eight of its next nine.
By early December there was hope Jordan would come back around New Year’s Day. But hopes for a quick return were dashed on Dec. 12 when it was discovered the bone wasn’t fully healed, putting Jordan back in a cast for two more weeks. From the sidelines, he carped about the effort of his teammates.
“They can be at least .500 from now until I come back,” Jordan, who had been rehabbing in Wilmington, N.C., told the Tribune. “It’s just heart. It’s all in their minds. It looks like they were going back to the days before I was here. They’re not going out and accepting the challenge.”
Jordan’s transitioned to a walking cast on Dec. 26, and Feb. 1 became the new target date for his return.
“The injury has healed nicely,” Bulls team physician John Hefferon said to the Tribune.
The Bulls were 11-21 by that point, but publicly, players tried to find a silver lining.
“I think we’re a better team now, a little deeper, and Michael’s return will be that much more of a positive force,” guard Kyle Macy told the Tribune.
But on Jan. 9, 1986 and again on Feb. 13, Jordan’s return was delayed. By then, it was well known his agent, David Falk, wanted Jordan, his star client, to sit out for the remainder of the season. A 104-88 loss to Indiana on Valentine’s Day dropped the team to 17-36. Two days earlier, Jordan announced he would miss four more weeks.
“I listened to the advice of the three doctors I consulted, and in what is an emotional decision, I have decided the best course is not to play until I go through another examination in four weeks,” Jordan said, according to the Tribune. “I will be doing the physical therapy work that my doctors have outlined.”
Finally, in early March, Hefferon determined that while Jordan wasn’t completely healed, he could likely handle playing. A conference call was set for Wednesday, March 12, between Jordan, Hefferon, two other orthopedic surgeons, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, and the team’s vice president of player personnel, Jerry Krause.
But by that point, another controversy began to brew, one that would come to define the relationship between Jordan and the team for the rest of his career in Chicago.
Falk wasn’t the only person who thought Jordan shouldn’t play. Reinsdorf, who had purchased a majority share of the team earlier that season, also was of the mind to give Jordan to rest of the season off in order to prevent the chance of further injury. Krause, who was in his first season running the Bulls, agreed with Reinsdorf.
“I have one major concern,” Krause told the Sun-Times. “That’s Michael Jordan’s future. His future is tied into the future of this franchise.
But Jordan was getting restless. He had already been playing in intense pick-up games back home in North Carolina and felt he was ready to go. To Jordan, missing the season was not an option – and he issued an ultimatum.
“I don’t even want to think like that,” he told the Sun-Times. “I can play. I’m going to fight about it. If they don’t let me, they’re going to have one upset man on their hands.”
Not surprisingly, the injury conference call was tense and at times heated. The Bulls stated their case but Jordan was unmoved.
Reinsdorf felt like he was in a box. He told the Tribune that “owners and coaches around the league” couldn’t believe the Bulls would let Jordan play. “We’re in a no-win situation,” he said. “If we bring him back, people will say we’re trying to hype the gate and sell tickets. If we keep him out, people will say we’re trying to get into the draft lottery.”
Jordan returned to the court for the 68th game of the Bulls season, a match-up on March 15 against Milwaukee. They entered the game with a woeful 24-43 record, but were still just two games out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Fans expected Jordan’s return to get them over that hump.
But Reinsdorf and Krause still were wrestling over longer-term concerns: They ordered Bulls coach Stan Albeck to keep Jordan’s playing time under seven minutes-per-half of the game.
Jordan entered the game against Milwaukee with 5:59 remaining in the second quarter; Chicago Stadium went wild. He scored 12 points in his return, but was confined to the bench as the game went to overtime and the Bucks pulled out the 125-116 victory.
He complained about this to reporters.
“I don’t know if I’m supposed to, but I’m going to try to call Mr. Reinsdorf and Krause. I’d like to go up to 10 minutes (a half),” he said, according to the Sun-Times.
That didn’t happen right away, and neither did any improvement for the Bulls. They lost Jordan’s first five games back, with Jordan playing less than 17 minutes in each contest. After a 123-97 loss on March 22 at Cleveland, which dropped the Bulls to 24-48, Jordan wondered aloud if his limited presence was doing more harm than good.
“It confuses my teammates if I continue to go in and come out. Either let me go back to playing a full game, or forbid me from playing at all. I feel I am at that stage,” he told reporters. “Let me play, or ban me from playing.”
After the Cleveland game, in which Jordan scored just eight points, his playing time was set to increase to 10 minutes per half, and the Bulls responded by beating the New York Knicks. In the next game, a loss to New Jersey, he pleaded with Albeck to keep him on the floor longer than prescribed, but the coach wouldn’t disobey the orders from above.
The Bulls were 2 1/2 games behind Cleveland for the final playoff spot with eight games remaining. And Jordan was fuming.
On April 2, he blasted Reinsdorf and Krause over his playing time, saying he was getting “jerked” by management. Jordan and Krause clashed, and Hefferon was caught in the middle.
It was on the team bus after a loss to Milwaukee when Krause finally told Jordan that he wouldn’t play a full game that season. Jordan responded by accusing Krause of trying to tank the team in order to move up in the lottery draft.
“Losing games on purpose reflects what type of person you really are,” the star player told the press. “No one should ever try to lose to get something better. You should always try to make the best with what you have. If they really wanted to make the playoffs, I’d be in there whenever we had a chance to win a game.”
Finally, the team increased Jordan’s minutes — and to its benefit. The Bulls went 5-3 to close out the season, passing Cleveland for the final spot in the East. Jordan averaged 25 points per game over that stretch and saw his playing time jump to 37 minutes in a win over Washington on April 11 that clinched the playoff berth and a date with the Boston Celtics.
Jordan scored 49 points in Game 1 of the playoff series, a 123-104 loss. His legend was fashioned in Game 2, where he piled on 63 points, albeit in a 135-131 double-overtime defeat.
“I think he’s God disguised as Michael Jordan,” Larry Bird would say afterwards. “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.”
Bird and the Celtics finished off the Bulls two days later with a 122-104 romp at the Chicago Stadium. The season was over, but the drama wasn’t.
Albeck was fired on May 19. Reinsdorf said he and the coach had philosophical differences. Albeck felt victimized, and made his feelings known.
“I feel betrayed from the standpoint that there was a wedge driven between myself and Reinsdorf by Jerry Krause,” Albeck told the Tribune. “I honored the fact that he was the general manager, and I never leapfrogged over anybody. Lots of times I covered up for his mistakes and briefed him on what was the right approach…. I feel betrayed. Looking back, it was probably a mistake to trust him.”
Albeck wasn’t the only one who had developed a distrust of Krause; the season had unalterably frayed relations between the executive and Jordan.
The rest, of course, is history — and some very good history for Chicago fans. But the episode still leaves a bitter taste of regret, which Reinsdorf alluded to last summer.
“I’m not going to let (Rose) back until the doctors tell me that it’s absolutely safe for him to come back,” he told ESPN. “I made that mistake with Michael Jordan years ago where I think we let him come back too soon. It worked out OK, but it might not have.”