Despite it being 25 years ago that Michael Jordan played his “Flu Game”, it remains one of the most talked-about performances in the NBA Finals ever. It speaks to the allure of MJ that people are still throwing out theories about what he was sick with and trying to wrap their heads around how he managed to achieve what he did.
It’s Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals with the series tied at 2-2 against the Utah Jazz. Scottie Pippen was already coming off the single greatest line of trash talk ever uttered on a basketball court, reminding Karl Malone that “The Mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays.” On the way to reaching their fifth NBA title, play-by-play commentator Marv Albert let viewers know before the game that the Chicago Bulls had just encountered one of their biggest obstacles to date: Michael Jordan is sick.
Our general attitude towards playing with an infectious disease has definitely shifted in recent memory, but even everyone at the time was telling Jordan not to play. The Utah Jazz took control of the game early, taking a 16-point lead in the first quarter. MJ is slumping over with his hands on his knees and having trainers gave him ice packs and fluids on the bench. Despite this, he plays 44 minutes, scores 38 points, seven rebounds and 5 assists, giving the Bulls a narrow 90-88 victory to take the series lead.
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While this is impressive under any circumstances, you can’t help but wonder why he was so sick. We have been able to confidently say for quite some time that it was not a flu Michael Jordan was dealing with that game, as the symptoms did not quite lineup.
The official reason that we were given by Michael Jordan in Episode 9 of The Last Dance, with corroboration from his personal trainer Tim Grover and his longtime friend George Koehler, is that it was it was food poisoning. The chronology of the story has remained very consistent (for an incident over 20 years old) since Grover first gave his account in 2013:
- The hotel in Park City, Utah stopped doing room service at 9pm (even for the most famous athlete in the world).
- Michael Jordan gets hungry at around 10pm.
- Every restaurant in Utah is apparently shut, except this one unspecified pizza place that Grover was able to find.
- Five delivery guys arrive to hand MJ his pizza, which Grover finds suspicious. He warns Jordan against eating it.
- Michael Jordan proceeds to spit on the entire pizza, preventing anyone else from having any of it.
- At 2am, Michael Jordan calls Tim Grover from the fetal position – overcome with food poisoning.
- MJ spends the next 20 hours vomiting his guts out.
- “The Flu Game”
This story raises a couple of concerns. For starters, this detail of five delivery guys – seemingly insinuating that it was more nefarious than some expired pepperoni – seems like a weird one. You are telling me that Michael Jordan – the most petty man to pick up a basketball – thought he was sabotaged and didn’t have these guys literally assassinated. 38 points later and no hard feelings? Hmmm, I’m not sure about that.
Also, how would the pizza place have any idea they were serving Michael Jordan? Given their status, the team was known to have fake names on their hotel rooming lists and it seems unlikely that whoever ordered MJ’s pizza was going to announce over the phone that it was in fact “from North Carolina, at guard, 6 foot 6, number 23… MICHAAAEEEELLL JORDAAAN. “
Many have suggested that it was a hangover that Michael Jordan was struck down with. This is largely because “food poisoning” has long been the NBA’s wink-wink euphemism for a player having partied too hard the night before, given the similarities in symptoms.
Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose have both suggested that alcohol likely played a part. Jody Genessy of Deseret News reported that “a very reliable source” told her that a Jazz staffer on the night of Game 5 said something along the lines of: “Flu my ass. The Bulls’ PR guy just said Jordan was in Vegas all night and he was hung over. “
Even in Michael Jordan’s biography, former NBC color commentator Matt Guokas, who called Game 5 of the 1997 Finals, told Roland Lazenby:
“The other thing was, there were conspiracy theories of what was really wrong with Michael. We just took it at face value that he had the flu and just went ahead and played. But according to the stories and rumors, he was supposedly at Robert Redford’s chalet up in the mountains playing poker all night and partying too hard. “
Robert Redford’s chalet or a quick trip to Vegas? Either seem plausible. Jordan famously went to Atlantic City to unwind during the 1993 Eastern Conference finals against the Knicks. Dennis Rodman also made multiple trips from Utah to Vegas via private jet during the 1997 NBA Finals, claiming that “when you have money, you can do those things.” If anyone had the money and the means, it was Michael freakin ‘Jordan.
While one might assume that the illness being self-inflicted would take some of the luster out of the story, I’d have to disagree. Anyone that has ever had a raging hangover will attest that what Michael Jordan was able to achieve under these hypothetical circumstances was nothing short of godly.
In answer to the original question, there probably isn’t enough to accuse Michael Jordan of lying about a hangover during the “Flu Game”. Flu, food poisoning, or hangover… Whatever the case, what Michael Jordan managed to achieve remains the stuff of legend.