It’s the 30th anniversary of the first retirement of Michael Jordan. Jack M Silverstein sits down with Pierce and Scott to uncover some of the conspiracies surrounding the first time MJ walked away from the game of basketball.
It’s the 30th anniversary of the first retirement of Michael Jordan. Jack M Silverstein sits down with Pierce and Scott to uncover some of the conspiracies surrounding the first time MJ walked away from the game of basketball.
On the 200th episode of RAOP, Amp and Devin take the show on the road for the first time in front of a live audience at FilmGate Miami. We chat about why are fine women so annoying, why Space Jam was garage and other questions from the audience, who also share why they love RAOP, plus a whole lot more!
Thanks once again to everyone that came out to our live show; it meant a ton to us. And thanks to all the supporters that weren't there who held us down. WE LOVE YOU ALL!
I can’t think of a more sobering highlight of the intertwining history of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers than Gar Forman’s 20th anniversary of Bulls employment occurring while Lakers fans prep for LeBron James.
Yes, Gar Forman’s first day on the job with the Bulls was August 1, 1998, less than two months after the last day of the dynasty. He was hired as a scout by Tim Floyd, of all people, making Forman the longest standing link to the darkest days in the franchise.
I mention LeBron James in relation to Gar because the Lakers’ answer to their own dark days is always to acquire arguably the game’s best player. You want to talk dynasties? In 70 seasons, the Lakers have won the championship more times (16) than they’ve missed the playoffs (10). When they do miss the postseason, they typically come back with a vengeance by acquiring one of the league’s best players.
The first time they missed the playoffs was 1958. They went 19-53, got the first pick in the draft, and took Elgin Baylor. Their next missed playoffs was 1975. They went 30-52 and traded for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They missed the playoffs in 1976 and then didn’t miss again until 1994, three years after Magic Johnson retired due to HIV. Two years later they signed Shaq to the richest contract in sports history. They essentially re-launched the franchise after 2004 by choosing Kobe over Shaquille, lost Phil Jackson, missed the playoffs in 2005, convinced Phil Jackson to return, and rode Kobe and Phil to two more rings.
And now, after missing the playoffs for five straight seasons (as many as they’d missed previously, all together), they’ve signed LeBron James.
The key difference between the Bulls as a franchise and the Lakers as a franchise is that the Bulls were a dynasty, but the Lakers are a Dynasty — big D. They’ve done this in three related ways:
An unending pursuit of superstars
An unwavering pursuit of championships
Using the former to gain the latter and the latter to gain the former
Look at this list of the Lake Show’s owner, GM and coach year by year, and then add to that an imaginary fourth column of its star players. What the Lakers have done consistently as well as if not better than any professional American sports franchise ever is use the goodwill and victory-driven capital of one era to build the next.
When GM Max Winter resigned in 1954, owner Ben Berger lured recently retired star George Mikan into the front office. Mikan ran the team for three years and had a horrific coaching stint in the 1958 season, going 9-30, but that down year brought Baylor. Two years later the franchise moved to Los Angeles, but not before landing the #2 pick in the draft and taking West Virginia star Jerry West.
When Baylor and West got tired of losing in the Finals — they were 0-5 together in their first eight seasons — they signed off on a trade to bring three-time reigning MVP Wilt Chamberlain on board. Three seasons later, Wilt and West led the Lakers to the franchise’s first championship in Los Angeles. West retired in 1974, and in 1976 — the year after trading for Kareem — the team moved coach Bill Sharman to GM and hired West as coach.
In 1979, West retired as coach, yet the franchise drafted Magic Johnson first overall. West replaced Sharman as GM in 1982, the year after team owner Jerry Buss signed Magic to a 25-year contract for $25 million. We’ll come back to Magic shortly, but keep in mind that as a high-ranking executive from 1982 to 2000, West oversaw the drafting of James Worthy, the signing of Shaquille O’Neal, the draft-day trade for Kobe Bryant and the hiring of Phil Jackson, meaning he had a hand in eight Lakers titles from 1985 to 2010.
Despite flirtations with other franchises, Kobe ended up remaining with the Lakers his entire career, from his draft trade in 1996 to his 60-point finale in 2016. Less than a year after Kobe’s retirement, the Lakers hired Magic Johnson as president of basketball operations.
For those scoring at home, since the 1948-49 season, the only seasons the Lakers have not employed in some capacity George Mikan, Jerry West, Magic Johnson or Kobe Bryant are 1959 and 1960 (Elgin’s first two years) and 1975 and 1976 (Kareem’s first two years).
That's what I mean by Dynasty vs. dynasty. The subtext to all of the 20-year retrospectives that I and others have written about the Bulls since 2011 is the grim reality that six championships in eight years were a basketball dead end.
To see the starting point, let’s jump back to 1981 and Magic Johnson’s historic 25 years, $25 million contract. When team owner Jerry Buss announced the deal, he said that he was already grooming Magic, then 21 years old, for a post-playing position with the club.
“He may even be my coach, or general manager,” Buss said. “Or maybe he’ll run the team and I’ll just sit back and watch. Magic is a bright kid and I plan to make him my protege, teach him the business aspect of sports. I realize this is a very unusual contract because we’re talking about a kid whose college class just graduated. But what it comes down to is that Magic is part of the family.”
Buss said that about Magic after two seasons — the first was a championship, the second was a three-game first-round sweep to a team with a sub-.500 record.
Now look at what Jerry Reinsdorf said about Jordan to Jordan in July 1996 — one month after MJ brought the Bulls back to the promised land with their fourth championship in six years — as Reinsdorf signed Jordan to a one-year, $30 million deal, the richest one-year deal in sports history:
“I might live to regret this.”
That quote was Reinsdorf’s clarification to author Roland Lazenby, to which Jordan replied: “Actually, he said, ‘Somewhere down the road, I know I’m gonna regret this.’ It demeaned what was happening. It took away from the meaning of things. The gratitude seemed less because of that statement.”
Again, Jerry Buss, about a 21-year-old Magic Johnson with one championship: “Magic is part of the family.”
Jerry Reinsdorf to a 34-year-old Michael Jordan with four championships: “I might live to regret this.”
But the Bulls didn’t just miss out on becoming a Dynasty because of a feuding Jordan and Reinsdorf. For the final season of the greatest run in the modern era of professional American sports, Jackson, Jordan and Scottie Pippen were each locked in public, separate yet interconnected blood feuds with the Jerrys, all rooted in contract negotiations. Krause drew the visceral hatred — even Phil publicly called Krause “the only dark spot” on the 1997-98 season — but Reinsdorf’s leave-your-emotions-at-the-door approach actually cut deeper on a personal level, because Jordan and Jackson held an affinity and respect for Reinsdorf that did not extend to his general manager.
To put it plainly, those guys liked Reinsdorf, which made his approach to negotiations all the more injurious.
“He’s loyal, he’s honest, he’s truthful,” Jackson told Lazenby about Reinsdorf. “But there’s something about going in and trying to get the best every time. Winning the deal. When it comes to money, to win the deal. … He has actually said those things, according to people I’ve been close to, and those things really hurt, because most everybody likes Jerry Reinsdorf.”
The second three-peat Bulls splintered along several internal fault lines, so I think it’s tricky to blame any one person for the breakup. And considering that Phil Jackson originally planned to end his Bulls coaching tenure after seven years, which would have been 1996, Reinsdorf, Krause, Jackson, Jordan and Pippen could have all gotten along famously and Phil still could have decided to retire for at least a year after the sixth title.
But based strictly on the inherent power dynamic of a professional sports team, it’s difficult to look at the past 20 years of ring-less Chicago Bulls basketball as anything other than a result of the decisions made by ownership and management in 1998.
It’s easy to imagine a world where the goodwill and excellence of the 1990s Bulls led to a subsequent run of titles. Instead, in July of 1998, just one month after MJ dragged the Bulls to ring #6, Phil was retired and Jerry Krause’s two-year pursuit of his friend Tim Floyd of Iowa State was chugging toward fruition. That month, a reporter asked Jordan if hiring Floyd would be akin to pushing Jordan out of basketball.
“I think that’s exactly what it is,” Jordan said. “It’s very obvious that my feelings haven’t really been considered when they’ve made coaching decisions. Jerry (Reinsdorf has) always been a man of his own. He’s never really been influenced by too many people, and I wouldn’t expect him to be influenced by me. If that was the case, Phil wouldn’t ever have gone.”
“I don’t want to play for a college coach, and no, I don’t want to play for any other coach. I’ve always said that I want to play for Phil Jackson. That hasn’t changed. (Krause) made the stance on Phil Jackson, and that pretty much made the stance on me.”
The next week, the Bulls hired Floyd as something called “director of basketball operations,” with Reinsdorf stipulating that, “Should Phil not return by the end of the lockout, Tim will succeed him as head coach.” Jackson and his agent found this comical, since Krause at the start of the 1997-98 season had told Phil, “I don’t care if (the Bulls go) 82-0 this year, you’re fucking gone.”
As for Floyd, his take on MJ was as simple as it was naive, considering Jordan’s public comments one week earlier that he would not play for Floyd, any college coach, or any coach other than Jackson.
“I know this much: I was not about to take this job if I felt it would affect, in any way, Michael Jordan’s return to the game,” Floyd explained.
Sure enough, Jackson did not return, and on January 13, 1999, with the NBA lockout ongoing, Michael Jordan announced his retirement. The dominoes fell from there in the most stunning roster changeover in NBA history:
January 15: Bulls name Floyd head coach
January 21: Bulls renounce the rights to six players including Jordan and Rodman and trade Steve Kerr to the Spurs
January 22: Bulls trade Pippen to the Rockets
January 23: Bulls trade Longley to the Suns
Incredibly and tragically, these 10 days ended up defining the franchise rather than the 10 years that came before them. The Lakers have always reloaded by either trading for or signing arguably the best player in the league (Wilt, Cap, Shaq, Bron) while also drafting franchise-changing Hall of Famer (Elgin, West, Magic, Kobe).
Yet in 20 years since ruling the sports world, the biggest veteran acquisitions the Bulls have pulled off are Ron Mercer, Jalen Rose, Ben Wallace, Carlos Boozer and Pau Gasol. There are many reasons for this failure, but perhaps the most damning is the ongoing, league-wide perception that the organization did the dynasty years dirty.
“I think the biggest question (about the Bulls) that you think about has to be loyalty," said Illinois-native Dwyane Wade in May of 2010, as he and his future teammates LeBron James and Chris Bosh were in the process of choosing their next team, heavily weighing both the Heat and the Bulls. “I see Michael Jordan is not there, Scottie Pippen is not there. … You know, these guys are not a part (of the franchise). That is probably one of the biggest things for me, because I am a very loyal person."
The irony is that in many ways, Jerry Reinsdorf is one of the most loyal owners in sports. He paid Jordan the two richest single-season contracts in NBA history. He hooked up Pippen ($67.2 million over 5 years), Longley ($30 million over 5) and Kerr ($11 million over 5) with lucrative sign-and-trades in January of 1999 that vastly increased their salaries despite getting barely anything of value for them. In the post-dynasty world, he spent heavily on extensions or long-term deals on Derrick Rose ($94.8 million over 5), Luol Deng ($71m/6), Joakim Noah ($60m/5), and Kirk Hinrich ($47.5/5).
The Bulls under Reinsdorf have also been spectacularly loyal to many retired players, most notably John Paxson, who has worked with the organization in various capacities since his retirement in 1994, meaning he has been with the Bulls since 1985 when he arrived as a free agent from the Spurs. Among the other ex-Bulls who played during Reinsdorf’s ownership years and went on to work for the team: B.J. Armstrong, Randy Brown, Bill Cartwright, Horace Grant, Stacey King, Toni Kukoc, Pete Myers, Scottie Pippen, Bill Wennington, and of course Fred Hoiberg, who played for Floyd both at Iowa State and with the Bulls.
Lastly, there is the loyalty Reinsdorf showed Krause, and the loyalty he has since shown both Gar and Pax, for whom 2018-19 will make a combined 55 consecutive seasons of Bulls employment.
Yet when it came to the three most critical pieces of the most dominant NBA run since Russell’s Celtics, loyalty took a backseat to business. After 1996, Reinsdorf and Krause feared that the Bulls would slowly decline the way the 1980s Celtics did in the early 1990s, and thought that being proactive about turning the page would keep the team relevant.
Instead, the franchise has been doomed by 20 years that have vacillated between supreme irrelevance and mostly mid-tier playoff performances. Oh, the dynasty has had its impact, both that has been largely financial, where the United Center keeps cranking out sellouts, the team keeps churning out merchandise, and new global sponsorships come aboard led by CEOs who want to bask in the glory years.
“The Bulls are an American legend, a pop-culture icon,” said Vice President Piotr Kicinski in November 2015 when his Cinkciarz, a Polish currency exchange company, began a partnership with the Bulls that is now locked in as a seven-year deal. “It means many positive things in Poland. My generation was brought up on the Chicago Bulls playing in the ‘90s.”
So yes, the dynasty still resonates. Yet incredibly, the Bulls have managed to remain deeply loyal to the dynasty years without actually benefiting from them. We haven't been able to sign a single top tier free agent on the strength of those six rings. The team’s best player since Michael and Scottie was Derrick Rose, who was only secured in the draft when the ping pong balls came our way despite only a 1.3% chance at the #1 pick. And like Jordan, Pippen and Jackson, Rose’s Bulls tenure ended in animus.
Gar Forman justified the Rose trade by saying it helped the team get “younger and more athletic,” the most infamous assertion by a Bulls executive since Krause’s “players and coaches alone don’t win championships — organizations do.” The link between these two comments is more than just thematic. Krause’s insistence that “organizations win championships” was driven by a hubris that turned that mantra into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That attitude led to him pushing Phil Jackson out the door. He replaced him with Tim Floyd. Floyd’s hiring pushed out Jordan. Floyd also hired his former Iowa State assistant coach Gar Forman on Aug. 1, 1998, and Gar has been winding his way up the team’s food chain ever since, getting his wings in 2009 as general manager, Krause’s former title.
Which brings us back to the Lakers. The day Floyd hired Forman, the Bulls had six championships. If you remove the Lakers’ Minneapolis titles, all of which came before the shot clock, on Aug. 1, 1998, the Lakers had six championships too.
Less than a year later, Jerry West hired Phil Jackson as the Lakers’s new head coach, setting the stage for the next five Lakers championships. In the Minneapolis days, the Lakers were led by George Mikan, DePaul University alumnus and former star of the Chicago American Gears of the National Basketball League. The Lakers beat the Bulls in the playoffs four times between 1968 and 1973. In 1979, the Lakers beat the Bulls in a coin toss for the right to draft Magic Johnson. And in both 2004 and 2007, Kobe Bryant took serious steps to joining the Bulls before being lured back to L.A.
But the history-altering event that stings most is the Lakers hiring Phil in 1999, an underrated seismic shift in the NBA landscape of the past two decades. Phil is a huge part of the reason that Kobe Bryant spent his entire career in the Purple and Gold, and Phil was only available because while the Lakers build generational success, the Bulls act like Orson Welles’s talented, tortured hero of “Citizen Kane.” One era of success built their mansion, and now they’re going to die in it.
The city of Chicago is a basketball pillar, with an NBA franchise whose glory should regenerate every 10 years. Instead, all we have are the memories. Every few years they give us a new coach and a new young talent. They sign the available free agents and pack the UC nightly.
And the marketing team rolls out a new slogan. And young fans buy young jerseys. And management tells us of “The great tradition of Chicago Bulls basketball.”
And they smile. And nod. And count the gate receipts.
Jack M Silverstein is a sports historian covering the Bears for Windy City Gridiron. He is the author of “How The GOAT was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls” and proprietor of Chicago sports IG account @AShotOnEhlo. Say hey at @readjack.
It's the season finale of Ball Don't Lie! Author & creator Al Patron (@Al_Patron) joins the crew to wrap up the NBA season. Are the Warriors a dynasty, and how long will their window be open for? We also talk about the ridiculous of LeBron James stans and has the GOAT debate finally been laid to rest? Also what's our overall grade on the NBA, did Drake catch the biggest L in Hip-Hop history, and our final Goofy Mogs of the season.
Follow Scott: @Scott_CEOofSUH
Follow Joe: @FlowsAndolini
Follow Pierce: @HennyOmega
Today, seeing the familiar swoosh or those three words - Just Do It - symbolizes only one company - Nike. It's one of the most recognizable companies in the world and has been so for the last 30 years thanks to its a rapid ascent in the 80s due in part to a basketball player named Michael Jordan (you might have heard of him) and his signature shoes and landmark commercials.
Before then, commercials had not been a major marketing ploy for shoe companies, but because Nike had a signature athlete, they broke the norm and over the next thirty years would create some of the most influential commercials on American pop culture. Here's our list of the greatest Nike commercials of all time.
Bo Knows – In the 80s and 90s, Bo Jackson was unlike any athlete anyone had ever seen. An outfielder for the Kansas City Royals and a running back for the Los Angeles Raiders, it seemed there wasn’t anything Bo couldn’t do. If he could play two professional sports, simultaneously, then what else could he do? It’s as if he knew everything.
Nike Freestyle – At the turn of the century, the worlds of basketball and hip hop were starting to merge. Ballers were trying to rap and rappers were trying to be ballers, and an underground movement highlighted by little known shoe company And 1 led to the marriage of the two lifestyles. In 2001, Nike released a commercial spotlighting this new wave, starring NBA players & street legends. It perfectly enthralled the hip hop audience of basketball and became one of the most popular Nike commercials ever.
5. Chicks Dig The Long Ball
This 1998 commercial featured former Atlanta Braves pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Around this time in baseball, home runs were en vogue and everyone was fascinated with the moonshots and high home run numbers that were happening around the league. Drawing in women viewers to a sport is always a plus and in baseball, which is seen as boring, if you can do so, you’re winning. Nike saw this and capitalized.
4. LeBron’s first
There is no athlete that had as much hype and attention starting their professional career as LeBron James. NO ONE. The scrutiny he was under in high school was unlike anything any of us had ever seen before. Even Sports Illustrated put him on the cover saying James would be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft as a high school junior. Leading up to his debut, many wondered would he live up to the hype? Would he be a cautionary tale? LeBron and Nike gave a “what if” glimpse into LeBron’s debut with a hilarious ending.
3. Earl and Tiger
In 2009, Tiger Woods’ fall from grace started. Once one of the most beloved and admired athletes on the planet, Woods became embroiled in a scandal that revealed him being unfaithful to his wife. After the public beating & the apology tour he embarked on, Nike released a 30+ second commercial. Shot in black & white, the commercial shows Woods staring into the camera as a 2004 audio clip from his late father, Earl, is mixed in. Eerily, his father seems to be asking him “if he’s learned anything”. Tiger and his father had an extremely close relationship and if someone gets in any trouble, they’ll look to their parents for solace. Earl passed in 2006 but this commercial brought that fatherly advice, if you will, together. It personally gave me chills.
2. It Must Be The Shoes
In 1988, Michael Jordan and Spike Lee were known but not the names they are now. Once this commercial hit the small screen though, their stock rose immeasurably. Lee, playing the part of overzealous fan Mars Blackmon, just had to know the source of Jordan’s talent on the court. How is he dunking so easily? How is he flying through the air? It’s gotta be the shoes! But Jordan insisted otherwise. A landmark commercial which launched the careers of both men and the company.
1. I Am Not A Role Model
There hasn’t been a commercial that has sparked as much social and political debate as Nike’s 1993 I Am Not A Role Model commercial featuring Charles Barkley. Barkley emphatically stated that “just because I dribble a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids”. The commercial started a series of conversations across the country about whether or not athletes should be role models or not. That’s another article for another day but there’s no denying the impact of the commercial.
The guys @Scott_CEOofSUH & @Mariannoo are back & this week on #TheThirdPick they discuss the Bulls horrible job at tanking, why Lauri isn't resting the final games, Kyrie injury, Scott goes on a full blown rant about the MJ/LBJ debate plus much more
Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant. Madison Square Garden. February 8, 1998.
Do you like a good NBA conspiracy theory? Then boy oh boy, have I got one for you.
Let’s go back to the fall of 1997. For a league that had just enjoyed one of its most memorable NBA Finals ever and its second best TV rating since the NBA-ABA merger, life was rocky. The league's signature team was in disarray. Imagine if the 2018 Warriors had the drama and discord of the 2018 Cavs, and you can picture what the 1998 Bulls looked like.
What do I mean by “drama and discord”? Well, 11 days after Scottie Pippen sealed championship #5 for the Bulls with a steal for the ages, Jerry Krause tried to trade him.
That fell through in part because Michael Jordan put his foot down. But if Jordan was running the show, it was news to him. In October, during the preseason, a reporter asked Jordan if he would try to pressure Jerry Reinsdorf into re-signing Phil Jackson, whose contract (along with MJ’s and Pippen’s) expired after the 1998 season.
“You see how Jerry Reinsdorf operates,” Jordan said. “My influence doesn’t have anything to do with his decision-making.”
And if Jackson didn’t return?
“I would quit,” Jordan said.
On that particular day, Rodman remained without a contract. Pippen was debating whether to have toe surgery. The name of Iowa State University head basketball coach Tim Floyd was circulating as the probable replacement for Jackson. Krause and Jackson were publicly feuding. Jordan was angry with Rodman and possibly Pippen, who went through with the surgery, costing him the season’s first 35 games. Pippen was angry with Krause and Reinsdorf. Jackson looked like he was in a lame-duck season, meaning Jordan was too.
This was the most popular team in sports.
At the same time, the league itself looked like a lame-duck season. A lockout loomed at the end of 1997-98, with commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Russ Granik openly discussing the work stoppage as “something we’re going to have to consider.”
Then on December 1 sprang the wild card: an NBA player choked his coach.
This was the famous Latrell Sprewell - P.J. Carlesimo encounter, an incident so upsetting to league order that the league suspended Sprewell for the remainder of the season — 68 games. An Associated Press story at the end of the calendar year summed up the league’s troubles:
HEADLINE: NBA ‘97 — from unbeaten Bulls to Sprewell
SUBHEAD: A seemingly stable league experiences growing pains
On Dec. 31, 1997, the Bulls were 20-10, but struggling, and were coming off a loss in Minnesota the day before caused in part by Jordan’s panic at a hoax phone call to the stadium claiming that MJ’s mother was in the hospital. Pippen had not yet played. John Stockton was just back from injury. Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, and Shaquille O’Neal were injured.
The old guard was crumbling and you couldn’t even say “wait till next year.”
The young guard was a dunk champ gunning for 6th Man of the Year, and on Dec. 17, 1997, he gave the world a show. I would say “Kobe Bryant and the Lakers came to Chicago,” but you tend not to say “Player X and his team” when Player X comes off the bench.
This is what the stats of the 18-5 Lakers looked like when they took the United Center floor against the 14-9 Bulls:
- Shaquille O’Neal — 8 games, (8 starts), 35.6 min., 24.5 pts (injured)
- Eddie Jones — 23 games, (23 starts), 36.3 min., 19.0 pts
- Kobe Bryant — 20 games, (0 starts), 26.0 min., 17.4 pts
- Nick Van Exel — 23 games, (23 starts), 32.6 min., 15.5 pts
- Elden Campbell — 22 games (16 starts), 28.3 min., 14.8 pts
- Rick Fox — 23 games, (23 starts), 30.7 min., 11.2 pts
- Robert Horry — 21 games, (21 starts), 32.2 min., 7.9 pts
- Derek Fisher — 23 games, (0 starts), 16.0 min., 4.9 pts
Bryant was not a starter, but he was a star. He was the league’s reigning dunk champ and a smash hit in commercials. He offered a G-rated counter to the league’s best young scoring guard, fellow second-year player Allen Iverson of the 76ers, who the day of that Bulls-Lakers game was 8th in the NBA in scoring yet made news for issuing an apology to his head coach for missing practice a few days prior, and serving a one-game team suspension.
Bryant was a kid-friendly dunker. He was the latest in a string of players dubbed the “Next Michael Jordan,” but unlike the others his anointment made sense from a basketball standpoint. They had similar bodies and similar games. The hype wasn’t just in Los Angeles, which was to be expected. On the day that the Lakers came to Chicago, the Tribune sports section ran a front-page spread called “Kobe Bryant: The Air apparent?”
In his column, Sam Smith wrote that Kobe “may be the closest talent to Jordan to come into the NBA in the last decade.” Lakers GM Jerry West called Kobe “simply the best prospect we ever worked out,” while Pacers GM Donnie Walsh said that Kobe “does something every game I see him that’s Michael Jordan stuff.”
The sports section ran statistical comparisons between Kobe and Jordan as rookies and in that season, and on the inside of the paper named Kobe the “Player To Watch,” writing:
“Dare we say that the teen sensation is beginning to look like a precocious Michael Jordan?”
Remember: they were talking about a 2nd-year, 19-year-old backup.
With Shaq out and starting guards Jones and Van Exel combining against the Bulls for 14 points on six of 25 shooting, Kobe took control: 12-20 off the bench, shooting 3-5 from three and 6-9 from the line for a team- and career-high 33 points. Jordan had 36. The Bulls won by 21.
In the fourth quarter, with the Bulls comfortably ahead, Jordan asked Jackson to be put back into the game. He wanted to guard Kobe. It wouldn’t be the last time.
On Dec. 23, one week after the Jordan-Bryant matchup, the first results in the All-Star voting came out. And this is where we get to our conspiracy.
Here were the West guards:
- Gary Payton, Seattle: 89,262
- Eddie Jones, L.A. Lakers: 78,138
- Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers: 68,163
- Stephon Marbury, Minnesota: 64,445
- Jason Kidd, Phoenix: 54,338
- Nick Van Exel, L.A. Lakers: 50,160
- John Stockton, Utah: 36,585
- Clyde Drexler, Houston: 31,952
Here were the guards on Dec. 31:
- Payton: 106,536
- Jones: 93,674
- Bryant: 82,591
- Marbury: 73,962
- Kidd: 66,030
On Jan. 8, 1998, Kobe was down to 4th:
- Payton: 131,487
- Jones: 98,381
- Marbury: 90,757
- Bryant: 87,484
- Kidd: 84,553
On Jan. 18, as reported by the L.A. Times, Bryant was down to 5th, with Marbury now starting opposite Payton and Jones 3rd. (Vote totals weren’t published, unfortunately, nor was the 4th place guard.)
And then, on Jan. 22, seemingly out of nowhere, with no significant game to point to that would indicate a leap, he was 2nd.
Four days later, the voting was over.
- Payton: 555,715
- Bryant: 395,686
- Stockton: 344,259
- Marbury: 331,749
- Kidd: 305,834
- Jones: 300,658
- Drexler: 238,150
- Van Exel: 232,274
Just like that, Kobe Bryant was an All-Star starter at age 19, the youngest starter in the game’s history. He was third on his team in scoring with 17.3 points per game, and had come off the bench in all 38 games he’d played. Among his fellow players who had yet to start a game, he was the NBA’s leading scorer.
“It was a goal of mine,” Kobe said after the voting was finished. “Now that it has become reality, it’s more gratifying than anything.”
For what it’s worth, I did not set out to write a conspiracy story. I just wanted to write a story about the impact that the ‘98 All-Star Game had on the league in the two decades to follow due to the Jordan vs. Kobe storyline. And we’ll get to that.
But when I started looking at the vote totals and how they progressed, and added that to what we know about how the NBA under David Stern manipulated events to create outcomes that were favorable to the league, I started to wonder.
So I’ll ask point-blank: did the NBA fix the voting to push Kobe Bryant into the starting lineup and hence the All-Star Game, since he obviously would not have been selected by the coaches? Let’s look at both sides.
REASONS IT MIGHT NOT BE TRUE
1. Even at 19, Kobe was hugely popular, so him snagging a starting spot in a popularity contest is not impossible. And since we don’t know how the vote totals are counted, perhaps there is a logical explanation for the drop from 3rd to 5th and then the rise from 5th to 2nd.
2. He was averaging 17 points per game at the time, and had dropped 33 on the Bulls on Dec. 17, so he was clearly talented and was a future star. If the lockout hadn’t wiped out the ‘99 All-Star Game, Kobe almost certainly would have made it even as a coach selection.
3. Gary Payton was the runaway leading vote-getter among West guards, but the competition was open after that. Other than Kobe, the guys who at various points either held the #2 spot or fought for it were Eddie Jones, Stephon Marbury, John Stockton, and Jason Kidd. Good players, but nobody who was truly crushing it in either play or popularity.
4. Part of my reasoning for why it might be true is that the voting numbers look weird, but again, I've never looked closely at the week-by-week totals, so perhaps this is just how it goes sometimes. Additionally, I can only think of three instances in which the league might have been inclined to fix the voting, and in each case it went the way that might not be best for the league:
● 1992, Magic Johnson (He was voted a starter despite being retired following his HIV announcement. I could see this argued either way: that either the league thought it would be good for him to play so that everyone could get used to seeing him on the court in preparation for the Olympics, or that the league would NOT want him to play because he was A. retired, and B. had HIV.)
● 2003, Michael Jordan (He was not voted a starter, despite everyone pretty much knowing that it would be his final All-Star Game. The coaches rightfully selected him to come off the bench, and then the public basically bullied the East starters into relinquishing a starting spot, which Vince Carter did.)
● 2004, LeBron James (You could argue that the league would want its “new” future to start in his rookie year, especially with Kobe going through his rape case. But LeBron finished 4th among East guards and was not selected by the coaches.)
REASONS IT MIGHT BE TRUE
1. We know that the NBA is proactive in its efforts to control its outcomes, and considering that the prevailing wisdom at the time was that 1998 would be MJ's final All-Star Game, adding one more piece of the league's future to the game in a marquee position seems like something the league would manipulate.
And to get Kobe in, they would have had to manipulate it. Among the top eight vote-getters for Western guards, Kobe was 5th in scoring upon the announcement of the starters. Since scoring was just about all he did at the time, it’s unlikely that the coaches would have selected him.
- Gary Payton — 19.4 pts, 5.0 reb, 8.8 ast (42 games, 42 starts)
- Clyde Drexler — 19.4 pts, 4.9 reb, 5.8 ast (33 games, 33 starts)
- Stephon Marbury — 18.5 pts, 2.8 reb, 8.3 ast (40 games, 39 starts)
- Eddie Jones — 18.2 pts, 3.6 reb, 3.0 ast (41 games, 41 starts)
- Kobe Bryant — 17.3 pts, 3.2 reb, 2.3 ast (38 games, 0 starts)
- Nick Van Exel — 15.5 pts, 3.4 reb, 7.6 ast (40 games, 40 starts)
- John Stockton — 12.6 pts, 2.6 reb, 8.1 ast (22 games, 22 starts)
- Jason Kidd — 10.2 pts, 6.4 reb, 9.1 ast (39 games, 39 starts)
2. Let's say for a second that Kobe was elected fair and square. The league showed its interest in showcasing the "old vs. new" battle between Jordan and Kobe by announcing Kobe last among West starters. There was no real reason to do this other than setting up the parallel between Kobe and Jordan, who was announced last for the East (and last overall).
Kobe was clearly the low man on the West starter totem — it would have made much more sense to save that last announcement spot for Karl Malone (reigning MVP) or Shaq (arguably the game's biggest star after Mike).
Now, you might say, "Yeah, but because Jordan was announced last, they had to announce a West guard last." First of all, no they don't. It's an All-Star Game. No one would blink if they announced Malone last for the West, considering he was the league MVP and the best player on the reigning West champs.
But if you need to announce a guard last, you've got Gary Payton, who was the leading vote-getter among West guards by more than 160,000 votes, was in his 5th All-Star Game, was a former DPOY and Finals contestant, etc. Announcing KG last for the West under the idea of “He’s the future” would have made sense too.
3. Going along with the league's interest in promoting "MJ vs. Kobe," the broadcast focused heavily on that connection. They interviewed Kobe four times:
The players knew about the Jordan-Kobe hype. Here's Reggie Miller that day:
"I kind of looked over at Jordan and he had this look in his eye. He was like, 'You're right, they are trying to plug this as Kobe going after Michael.' We all took that personal."
Or David Robinson:
"I think there was a little too much of that stuff (i.e. talk about Kobe vs. Mike). It's hard. Some of us mid-generation guys, we're all about trying to win the game and aren't into that one-on-one kind of deal."
4. The league already had KG, Penny, and Grant Hill in the starting lineup, and I'll bet they had a good sense that the coaches would pick the rookie Tim Duncan for the West bench, which did indeed happen.
But they may have also known that...
...the league was headed toward a 1999 lockout, and that said lockout might even knock out the 1999 All-Star Game, which it did.
...the Bulls were really heading toward a breakup after 1998.
So David Stern might have wanted to highlight one more young player on a national stage to give fans something to be excited about when the lockout ended and the Bulls were no longer a factor.
5. Lastly, and most significantly, Kobe had a sudden surge of votes down the stretch, moving from 5th among West guards on Jan. 18 to 2nd on Jan. 22. (Curiously, or not, Shaq also had a sudden surge. He trailed David Robinson for the entirety of January, and then when the final vote totals were announced, he was the winner.)
Like I said, since we don’t know how the votes are counted, or when, this could be coincidental. But it stood out to me and I wanted to share it.
Okay, here’s why this doesn’t matter: Kobe lived up to the hype! He was awesome in this game. He scored his first points on an early jumper, dazzled the crowd with an alley-oop from Kevin Garnett and an alley-oop to Kevin Garnett, had announcer Isiah Thomas talking breathlessly about Kobe delivering “the oohs and the ahs,” and never for one moment looked like a 19-year-old. He led the West with 18 points without playing the 4th quarter. Only Jordan scored more points that day. He had 23 and won the game’s MVP award.
In other words, if the NBA did in fact fix the voting to promote a young star as the next Jordan, they picked the right young star. By 1999, Kobe was a legit All-Star, had the game been held. By 2000, he was the 2nd best player on an NBA championship team and 1st team all-defense. By 2001 he was a top-10 MVP candidate. By 2002 he was top-5.
And the league was right about the impact that the ‘98 game would have on our memory of both Jordan and an entire era. The Bulls did indeed win another championship and proceed to break apart piece-by-piece. The league owners did indeed lock out the players, shortening the 1999 season to 50 games. The lockout did indeed knock out the ‘99 All-Star Game.
By 2000, several of the biggest stars of the Dream Team era who were All-Stars in 1997 were either out of the league (Drexler) or no longer among the league’s best (Olajuwon, Pippen, Ewing, Barkley). But the impact of that loss was stymied by the promotion of new stars, most notably Kobe, whose 1998 All-Star Game start served as a bridge from the final MJ-as-a-Bull All-Star Game to the first post-MJ All Star Game.
If Kobe hadn’t made the team in ‘98, he would be yet another new face in the game, along with Allen Iverson and Vince Carter. Instead, he, Hill, Garnett, and Duncan helped fans in 2000 feel the continuity from 1998 to this new era of the NBA.
By 2000, from a marketing standpoint, the league was on board with Kobe Bryant, NBA Superstar. By 2002, his production fully matched his hype. Even when he was not the league’s best player, he was always one of its marquee faces, and remained one until his final NBA game.
But on that day in 1998, in the building MJ called “the Mecca,” Kobe would have to wait.
“I was trying to fend him off as much as I could,” an ill Jordan said after winning the game’s MVP following a bout with, once again, the flu. “He came at me pretty early, which I would too if I was him. If I see someone that’s sick, or whatever, you have got to attack him. He attacked.”
I can just see Jordan smiling as he delivered this next line.
“You know? I like his attitude.”
Jack M Silverstein is a sports historian covering the Bears for Windy City Gridiron. He is the author of “Our President” about Barack Obama supporters and “How The GOAT was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls.” Say hey at @readjack.
All clips taken from Newspapers.com