When Michael Jordan Refused to Tank

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MJ preferred playoffs action at Boston Garden to a better draft pick in 1986.

If you were following pro basketball in 1985 then you probably remember when Michael Jordan broke his foot. MJ wasn’t quite the world icon that he would soon become, but he was a big star, and clearly on the rise. The year before, he won Rookie of the Year and 2nd Team All-NBA honors. He put up huge numbers on an immediately-improved Bulls team. Fans already knew Jordan from his college days at North Carolina. He hit a game winner as a freshman in the NCAA Finals and later became an All-American. So when the Bulls young star fractured the navicular tarsal bone in his left foot in just the third game of his second professional season, it was a huge bummer for the NBA and its fans.

I don’t remember it. I was barely three years old in October of ’85, and my first memories of watching Jordan involve him shoulder shrugging his way past Cliff Robinson in Portland and — the next year — kicking it out to Paxson for three, in Phoenix. This void of knowledge about the most athletic days of the most successful basketball player of my lifetime led me to read David Halberstam’s “Playing for Keeps.”

The story of Jordan’s broken foot, as told by Halberstam, touches on a pressing issue in modern NBA discourse:

Tanking.

The 64-game, Jordan-less stretch in 1985-86 was stressful for everyone involved. Chicago was worried about the health of its franchise player. Jordan quickly grew so restless that he moved back to Chapel Hill for his rehab, and had frequent spats with Jerry Krause about when he could return to action. Jordan would explain how he knew his body better than anyone else, and he was ready to play. (He was sneaking in five-on-five runs back at UNC, during his time off from the Bulls.) Krause wanted to err on the side of caution. He was never good with player relations, and even regrettably told Jordan that he and owner Jerry Reinsdorf would make the decision about his return because Jordan was their property. (MJ apparently never forgot nor forgave that one.)

But there was another factor at play in the decision to keep Jordan on the shelf while his team piled up losses.

Halberstam explained:

Jordan came to believe — and most people who followed the team thought he was almost certainly right — that the Bulls’ management had another reason for keeping him out. The Bulls had won their first three games with him. Without him, they had lost eight of their next nine, and by the time he was finally allowed to play, with severe limits on his minutes, they had a record of 24-43. Krause and Reinsdorf were, Jordan and others believe, content to keep him out not just to protect his foot but to secure a place in the lottery where the seven NBA teams with the worst season records had a chance to draft the best college players available that year. With the lottery, the Bulls might get a chance, however slim, at picking Brad Daugherty or Len Bias, the two best players coming out that year. To someone as competitive as Michael Jordan the idea was simply sinful; it meant that the people who employed him were not as committed to winning as he was, that they accepted the idea of defeat as he did not, and that they were willing to bag the current season and any chance at the playoffs in order to improve their roster for the future. Even on a bad team with marginal players like the early Bulls, the remarkable thing about Michael Jordan was that he never accepted the idea of defeat. He believed that as long as he played, the Bulls could still make the playoffs, and that if they got there, he would carry them on to victory.

Jordan eventually would come back, and — after the severe Krause-induced minutes restrictions were lifted — help lead the Bulls to the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. They edged out Cleveland by one game.

A few things about Jordan refusing to tank away that season:

Instead of improved draft position the Bulls had a matchup with the Boston Celtics, the best team in 1986 and possibly the best team of all time (until MJ’s ’96 Bulls team anyway). Boston had the original Big 3 of Bird-McHale-Parish. It had a quality veteran backcourt, a great sixth man in Bill Walton, and it had all of the tradition of the Celtics franchise that greatly raised the stakes of a playoff matchup for young Michael Jordan. The overmatched Bulls were swept in three games, but not before one of the most memorable MJ games ever: his 63-point breakout game at Boston Garden in Game 2. Jordan was so great that day that Larry Bird — MVP of the league for the third consecutive season — told reporters afterward, “That was God disguised as Michael Jordan.” Three games — no matter how great one of them was — probably didn’t seriously affect the rest of Michael Jordan’s career. But there are worse ways for a young star to cut his teeth than going all out against the ’86 Celtics.

The story touches on a common issue in today’s NBA, where some of the best young players begin their careers on terrible teams with an incentive structure that makes *staying terrible* a prudent course of action – at least for a few years. The Thunder Model is all the rage for shitty teams hoping to pile up future star players in the draft. Teams like the Wizards, Wolves and Cavs have had recent stretches of drafting really high in the lottery. Meanwhile, their best young players — John Wall, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving — have yet to sniff any playoff action like what Jordan experienced at Boston Garden in ’86. Maybe none of those guys are as maniacally-competitive as MJ. (Who is?) But the tension between a front office’s “long view” and the franchise player getting his ass kicked all season without enough help is hardly uncommon and continues to exist in different organizations around the league.

A final point worth mentioning is that in 1987 the Bulls used the fifth and tenth picks in the draft to acquire Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. With Jordan, these two formed the nucleus of the Bulls first “threepeat” and some of the best teams in league history. Pippen is on the very short list of the best players of the 1990s. Grant was a defensive beast and an All-Star in 1994. If there is such a thing as Basketball Karma, perhaps Jordan’s refusal to dishonor the game by tanking in ’86 was rewarded with a stellar supporting cast in ’87.

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