The day was June 16, 1996.
Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were one win away from completing the greatest season in the history of the National Basketball Association.
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After setting an NBA record with 72 wins in the 1995-96 season, the Bulls pummeled their way through the Eastern Conference Playoffs, en route to an NBA Finals match-up with Gary “The Glove” Payton, Shawn “Reign Man” Kemp and the high-powered Seattle Supersonics.
From Game 1, the Bulls controlled the tempo and the series. The Bulls took the first two games at home, then dominated Game 3 with a 108-86 blowout victory.
The stage was set for a coronation inside the loudest arena in the NBA for Game 4. That coronation would have to wait, as the Sonics took control and won Games 4 and 5 to send the series back to Chicago for Game 6 (and a Game 7 if necessary).
I can still hear Bob Costas’ pre-game words on the NBC broadcast for Game 6:
"Destiny had a date with the Chicago Bulls. Now, it flirts with the Seattle Sonics. Now the Bulls’ place along-side NBA legends seems like such a burning question. The only thing burning is the Bulls’ 3-0 lead, that’s suddenly down to 3-2."
The doubts were creeping in. The Bulls were seen as a pressure-filled bunch that was aging quickly. A series that appeared to be a four-game romp by Chicago, was turning into one of the greatest comebacks in the history of basketball.
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But, this was the Chicago Bulls. This was the team that won three of the six titles in the 1990’s until this point. This was the NBA’s next dynasty. Plus, they had Michael Jordan.
Although it wasn’t the prettiest game (especially for Jordan, who shot 5-for-19 from the floor), the Bulls clinched their fourth title in a six-year span with an 87-75 win in Game 6.
As the celebration began, the tears began to fall for the game’s greatest player.
June 16, 1996 was Father’s Day. Michael Jordan’s father, James Jordan, was shot and killed three years prior at a rest stop in North Carolina.
Jordan’s fourth title was the first he had won since his father’s death.
MJ had been on an emotional roller-coaster since his father’s untimely death on July 23, 1993. He had done it all. Jordan had just come off winning three straight titles with the Bulls and was beginning to feel like there was nothing left for him and the game of basketball.
Jordan retired later that year.
In the prime of his legendary career, the world’s greatest athlete walked away.
Six months later, he was playing the game that was his first love: baseball.
The thing I always loved about MJ was his willingness to attack a challenge head-on. That’s how Michael saw the game of baseball: a new challenge and a new opportunity. But after 11 months of riding the buses and struggling in the minors, Jordan returned to where he belonged.
This may be the Bulls fan inside of me, but I don’t count the 17 games he played in the 1994-95 season (not including the second-round exit at the hands of the Orlando Magic in the playoffs). He came back with a new number and was lacking the killer instinct we had seen so many years prior.
(Although I don’t count those 17 games, one in particular was quite special:)
But once again, the challenge arose and Jordan faced it without fear.
Some (including myself) would say that the 1995-96 season was the most important season in Michael Jordan’s hall-of-fame career. Dealing with a new contender in the Eastern Conference and playing without the guidance of his father, Jordan found a way to have one of his best seasons of his 15-year career.
MJ played all 82 games, averaged 30.4 points per game and won his fourth NBA Most Valuable Player Award.
June 16, 1996 was not just a day of remembrance for Michael Jordan. Father’s Day 1996 was the completion of a 35-month journey back to the top.