Welcome to the Butterfly Effect, examining moments in sports history and the ripple effects that would result if they turned out differently. Today’s edition will focus on legendary NBA superstar, shoe mogul, and current NBA franchise owner, Michael Jordan.
In 1993, Jordan announced his retirement from the NBA to pursue a professional baseball career. Jordan’s jump from the hardwood to the field, however, proved short-lived and ill-fated. For this, Chicagoans, and sports fans generally, are forever thankful, as Jordan returned to the NBA less than two years later and went on to win three more championships with the Bulls. In doing so, Jordan cemented himself as the greatest NBA player of all time.
But…what if Jordan had stayed in baseball?
Setting the Stage
In a world where Jordan never returns to basketball, the August sun is shining on Comiskey Park in Chicago in late July. ‘Now Batting seventh for your Chicago White Sox, number 23 Michael Jordan!’ The former NBA superstar is more than half way through his third year of professional baseball since abruptly leaving the NBA. Jordan, in completely unknown territory, has lost pivotal playoff matchups to New York and Cleveland. At the end of the season, he officially retires in the hopes of improving his golf game and reaching the PGA tour. His chances don’t look great. The NBA is experiencing parity, with four straight new champions. A young NBA player, Kobe Bryant, shows tremendous ability, but lacks a certain drive under the tutelage of coach Larry Brown. A teenage LeBron James dreams of the NBA, but feels no rush to reach the pros, and looks forward to his freshman season at Duke.
Jordan ultimately retired as the undisputed greatest player in NBA history, with a resume including six championship appearances, six championship wins, and six Finals’ MVPs. Had Jordan never stepped foot on an NBA court after 1993, however, his resume would be cut in half. Even without the second three-peat, Jordan’s numbers would be great; But not Michael Jordan great. The same can be said of his individual statistics. Over the course of the Bulls second three-peat, Jordan scored over 7,000 regular season points. Had he not returned in 1994, Jordan would likely fall no higher than 20th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, below players like Alex English and Reggie Miller. This would be an impressive accomplishment, but far from the legend we know today.
In addition to impressive statistics, Jordan’s career was defined by dominance. He owned the 90’s and is the singular reason many Hall of Famers from the era lack championships. However, it is hard to imagine the Bulls achieving 6 championships in 10 years had Jordan not returned. Instead, the basketball power-dynamic would have been completely altered. One might argue that the Utah Jazz, led by Stockton and Malone, would have beaten anyone in 1997 and 1998. Further, without Jordan dominating the East, teams like the Heat, Knicks, Magic, and Pacers might have found themselves challenging for championships. What if the Supersonics manage to beat the Jazz, advancing to an NBA Championship and cementing their place in Seattle? Does Kevin Durant remain a Supersonic to this day? Regardless of which team might have filled the void left by Jordan’s Bulls, Jordan’s legacy of “owning the 90’s,” would be lost.
Michael Jordan’s legacy cannot be limited to statistics, as his stardom also changed the world of sports branding and apparel. The Air Jordan brand released by Nike forever changed the sneaker market, becoming synonymous with Jordan’s on-court excellence. By 2009, three out of every four pairs of basketball shoes sold in the United States were Jordan brand. Would the Jordan brand, and the sneaker industry in general, have anywhere near their current social relevance had Jordan not returned to basketball? It is hard to imagine the term “sneaker-head” having any significance in modern society without the aid of His Airness. Jordan’s return proved Mars Blackmon was right when he said, ‘It’s gotta be the shoes!’
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Jordan’s return would lead to his greatest career achievement: Space Jam. The movies plot simply wouldn’t have made sense without a return and fans like myself are forever grateful.
Phil Jackson’s Legacy
With 11 championship rings, Jackson is known as one of the best coaches in NBA history. This legacy began when he coached Jordan and the Bulls to three straight championships twice. Banking on this success, Jackson was chosen to guide the Lakers back to prominence. He did not disappoint, leading the Lakers to 5 championships. The question remains, would he have been given the Lakers job had Jordan never returned?
A case can certainly be made that Jackson, possibly years removed from a championship, is not the man chosen for the job. Perhaps Pat Riley would have returned to rekindle the magic of the the Showtime Lakers. Maybe other names like Larry Brown or George Karl are considered for the job.
Because of Jordan’s return, Jackson was able to grow as a head coach, and when the Bulls let him go, the Lakers quickly scooped him up. While obviously talented, Jackson is fortunate. “11 Rings” is a much easier book to sell than “3 Rings.” This pedigree would also allow Jackson to secure his current position with the Knicks, demonstrating that not all byproducts of Jordan’s return are positive.
Impact on Future Stars
Jordan’s determination and desire to win at all costs is what separated him from his peers. He simply wanted it more. Famously, Jordan would imagine opponents saying things about him or his game in order to feed his competitive fire. Much of this reputation was built after Jordan’s return from baseball. Had he not come back, we would have never been blessed with inspirational moments, like Jordan’s famous ‘Flu Game’ in the 1997 NBA finals. These moments set the bar for competitiveness and desire that would drive the next generation of NBA stars.
If Jordan had stayed away, how would that impact the legacies of future stars like Kobe Bryant, and even LeBron James? Both have spent the entirety of their careers chasing Jordan, both in accomplishments and stature. Bryant spent his career focusing on catching Jordan on the court. The Black Mamba was a fierce competitor, viewing his opponents as mortal enemies and holding his teammates to impossible standards. LeBron, on the other hand, has not only been chasing Jordan’s on-court accomplishments, but his brand legacy as well, signing a lifetime contract with Nike rumored to be worth over $1 Billion. LeBron has even been rumored to be the star of a Space Jam sequel, further bolstering his argument for greatest NBA player. Either of these stars would admit to the impact Jordan had on what they believed to be possible. Michael Jordan set the bar at heights never before thought possible. In doing so, he gave Kobe and LeBron something to strive for.
In returning to the NBA in 1994, Jordan would not only dominate the sport, but define it for generations to come. While his presence not only had an immensely positive impact, it is clear from The Butterfly Effect that his absence would have left a comparably devastating void.