It’s one of those images that stays with you forever: Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player who ever lived, collapsing helplessly into the arms of Scottie Pippen following Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals. Ignoring the limitations of his flu-ravaged body, Jordan mustered a spectacular 38-point performance to elevate his Chicago Bulls over the Utah Jazz, paving the way for his fifth championship in seven years. Now, nearly two decades later, those who were there for the storied game have come together to describe what it was like to be part of history.
Tim Grover (Bulls trainer): I was sleeping at the team’s hotel, and around 2 a.m. I got a phone call from Michael’s bodyguard. He told me that Dragonheart was about to come on HBO and that Michael wanted everybody to know. So I hung up and went back to sleep. Ten minutes later, he called me again, only this time something was wrong.
George Koehler (Jordan’s bodyguard): Mike was throwing up everywhere. He was flying around the room like a fire hose, throwing up on the curtains, the ceiling, everything. He threw up so hard that his eye popped out.
Michael Jordan: No one throws up better than Michael Jordan, and I proved it that night. I’m the best in the world at basketball and throwing up and crafts and swimming.
Tim Grover: It sounded like he might have a stomach bug, so I told George to give Michael an Alka-Seltzer and then touch base with me in the morning.
Phil Jackson (Bulls head coach): I remember I was watching Dragonheart in my hotel room and someone started pounding on my door. It was George, and he was shouting incoherently—something about the ice machine and Michael being naked.
George Koehler: Mike’s fever was out of control, so I carried him out into the hallway and tried to stuff him in the top of the ice machine to cool him down. He kept slipping out, though, so I just put him on the ground and dumped buckets of ice on him until he was buried.
Phil Jackson: My philosophy has always been to trust players to make their own choices. When I saw Michael that night, I simply told him that I respected his choice to lie naked and unresponsive beneath ice cubes. And that was that.
Tim Grover: The next morning, I checked in on Michael, and he looked absolutely disgusting. Just a wet, putrid raisin of a man, curled up naked in the hotel hallway. He’d probably lost 60 pounds since I’d last seen him, and hundreds of ants were crawling all over his face and body. He was missing an eye. But it didn’t worry me in the slightest. After all, this was Michael Jordan. Nothing could keep him down.
Michael Jordan: I’m not really sure how I got sick, but I do know that I was the sickest NBA player in the world at that point, and no one’s been sicker since. I call the commissioner three times a day to make sure.
George Koehler: How did Michael get sick? Go figure. He’d just been doing the same things he always does before big games: studying pictures of basketballs; talking game strategy with his three snakes; disassembling and reassembling phones. I do recall him eating linguine and clam sauce out of a duffel bag in the sauna, but that wouldn’t faze him. The guy’s invincible.
Scottie Pippen (Bulls forward): He was only going to eat a little linguine and clam sauce, but then he decided to eat 23 pounds of it, because 23 is his lucky number and he didn’t want to cause any plane crashes with his bad luck. But I don’t think that’s what made him sick. I’m convinced there was foul play.
Jerry Sloan (Jazz head coach): I’ve heard plenty of conspiracy theories over the years that we somehow poisoned Michael Jordan before that game, and they’re all absolutely true. [Jazz guard] Jeff Hornacek pretended he was room service and gave Michael a Gatorade bottle full of Lysol and dimethylmercury, and Michael finished it off in three giant gulps. Then he ordered five more bottles and finished those off, too. He tipped Jeff with a crisp $100 bill for each bottle, and we all thought that was incredibly cool.
Marcus Acker (basketball fan): I also poisoned Michael Jordan. We were staying at the same hotel as the team, and I wanted to do something to impress my two boys, Bradley and Keenan.
As the start of Game 5 drew near, Jordan still wasn’t showing any sign of improvement. Barring a miraculous last-minute recovery, it seemed all but certain that Jordan would have to sit the game out.
Phil Jackson: It was the day of the game, and we were getting on the bus to go down to the stadium. Everyone was there but Michael, who was still choosing to be incapacitated and naked.
Ron Harper (Bulls guard): I remember thinking, “Damn, we can’t win this thing without Mike.” He’d feel left out.
Luc Longley (Bulls center): Ron and I went upstairs to check on Michael. We found him lying there in the hallway, looking pretty rough. His skin was all white and waxy, and one of his pet snakes was trying to swallow him.
Ron Harper: Honestly, it probably would’ve been best for him to just stay behind, but we knew he wouldn’t go for that. No force on Heaven or Earth was gonna stop him from playing in that game. So, we wrapped him in a shower curtain and dragged him down to the bus.
Michael Jordan: Anyone who tries to tell you that I’m not the best basketball player who ever lived should be turned into metal like Han Solo and fed to an octopus. I’m 8-foot-3. No one can beat me.
Phil Jackson: When we got to the stadium, Michael was still in no shape to play. He was lying in a heap on the locker room floor, only breathing every 20 seconds or so. I could sense that he needed some words of wisdom. I knelt down next to him, peeled open his eyelids, and said, “Michael, today is basketball. ” And right when I finished talking, he released his bladder. You could tell I’d gotten through to him.
Rumors of Jordan’s illness had quickly spread, and with tipoff just minutes away, no one in the stadium—from the opposing players to the media to the sellout crowd—knew whether he would suit up to play. The suspense was palpable as the PA announcer began reading off the visiting starting lineup: first, Scottie Pippen, then Dennis Rodman, Luc Longley, and Ron Harper. Finally, Jordan’s name was announced. It was time to play basketball.
Ron Harper: We wheeled Michael out on a dolly and left him at center court. He was still unconscious, but we knew he wouldn’t let that hold him back.
Scottie Pippen: The first quarter started, and you could tell right away that Mike had no energy. Five, six minutes went by, and he still hadn’t moved or opened his eyes.
Tim Grover: We called a timeout, and I ran out to go check on Michael. Turns out he was clinically dead, and he’d been dead for at least 10 minutes.
Phil Jackson: Tim was out there hammering on Michael’s chest for, like, half an hour, trying to drum up a pulse. The crowd was starting to get antsy, but I told Mike he probably shouldn’t play.
Michael Jordan: Being dead was actually pretty great. I was having fun in Heaven helping Jesus dig a big hole to put disobedient angels inside. But when coach said I was too sick to play, that really lit a spark in me. I knew I needed to come back to Earth and compete.
Toni Kukoc (Bulls forward): I knew Mike would eventually snap out of it. He’s the most competitive person I’ve ever known. I once bet him $50 he couldn’t jump high enough to touch the Jumbotron, and he immediately set out to prove me wrong. He lived at the arena for three years straight, staying up night after night trying to get to that Jumbotron. And while he ultimately didn’t end up touching it, you better believe he got close.
Tim Grover: We carried Michael’s corpse off the court and were about to toss it in the trash when, out of nowhere, he started convulsing and gasping for air.
Scottie Pippen: The game had just started back up again, and we were all under the impression that we were gonna have to play without our MVP. But then I heard this loud voice hollering from the other end of the court: “The net is hungry for balls, and Chef Michael’s gonna fill up its tummy!” It was Michael! He was back!
Michael Jordan: There’s not a plane that takes you back from Heaven or anything like that. I had to make a parachute out of a garbage bag and float back down to the basketball game.
As Jordan checked back into the game, the call from play-by-play announcer Marv Albert memorably captured the energy of the moment: “Hey, looky there, it’s Michael Jordan, and he isn’t dead! Wowie! Fuck my stars, I’ve never seen anything like this in my 30 years of broadcasting. A real-life fucking zombie. Jesus Christ!” Despite the excitement brought on by his return, Jordan was still battling through debilitating flu symptoms and playing largely on adrenaline. Making matters worse, his Bulls were down 16 points, and the Jazz were quickly running away with the contest.
Michael Jordan: I went out on that court with every intention to win. I’d never lost a single basketball game in my entire life, and this wasn’t going to be the first.
Karl Malone (Jazz forward): Michael had a really intense, competitive look to him, but I wasn’t worried. The only things that worry me are dogs with foggy eyes and the possibility of gravity giving out while I’m standing under a ceiling fan.
Dennis Rodman (Bulls forward): The ants had eaten off most of the flesh from his arms and torso—you could see a lot of his skeleton—and yet, somehow, he just took control of that game.
Scottie Pippen: Mike’s usual strategy was to hold the basketball high above his head and scream “Hot soup! Hot soup!” while sprinting directly to the basket, but he didn’t have the energy for that. So he just started finding workarounds.
John Stockton (Jazz guard): Whenever we’d try to guard him, he’d just sort of lazily somersault between our legs and huck the ball toward the basket from the ground. Most of the time he missed, but his teammates kept dishing him rebounds so he could try again. He took 183 shots during the quarter and got 17 points out of it, which was enough to even things up.
Greg Ostertag (Jazz center): Every time he’d somersault, he’d leave a trail of slime on the court, and it got really slippery.
Michael Jordan: People always ask me where I learned to somersault like that, and the truth is that it’s just something that I’d always practiced down at my thinking bog.
Steve Kerr (Bulls guard): Michael’s never let anyone come with him to his thinking bog, but he says there’s a frog down there who tells him Bible stories.
During halftime, Jordan was given fluids and cold towels to ease his illness, but the fatigue once again got the best of him. He would spend most of the quarter on the sidelines while his teammates battled for control of the 2-2 series.
Tim Grover: Michael died a couple more times during halftime, and when the third quarter started, he still didn’t seem ready to play. We carried his body out to the bench and waited for him to come back to life again.
Toni Kukoc: Part of his brain was hanging out of his empty eye socket, and if you pinched it his arm spazzed a little.
Michael Jordan: When I went back to Heaven again, Jesus was mad that I’d left him to dig the hole for disobedient angels alone. I apologized and gave him a back rub, and while I was rubbing his back, I noticed some weird lumps concealed under his shirt. They were angel wings! And everybody knows that Jesus doesn’t have wings. I quickly surmised that this was an impostor—likely one of the disobedient angels that the real Jesus was going to put in the hole. This probably meant that the real Jesus was in danger, and I knew that it was up to me to save him.
Scottie Pippen: With Michael out again, our plan was to just constantly foul the other team to slow the pace of the game and give Michael time to muster up his energy. Anytime a Jazz player got the ball, we would tackle him to the ground and pinch him all over until the ref whistled.
Karl Malone: They must’ve pinched me a million times, but it didn’t bother me at all. The only things that bother me are wearing shirts that don’t have my name on the back and the possibility that all the orange juice in the world could run out one day.
Phil Jackson: The Jazz were taking control of the game again, and it was clear that we really needed Michael. I went over to him, took his dead head in my hands, and I said, “Michael, you can choose to stay dead if you want, but being dead means you’re no longer the best basketball player in the world.”
Michael Jordan: I stopped massaging the impostor Jesus’ back and pretended like I had to go use the bathroom. Then I sneaked into Jesus’ royal condo to look for clues. I followed a trail of angel glitter into the spare bedroom and found the real Jesus tied up in the closet. But right when I was going to save him, I received a message from Coach back on Earth telling me that I was no longer the best basketball player alive. There was no time to save Jesus. I needed to get back to the game.
Dennis Rodman: Things were really starting to look bad for us, when all of a sudden a huge geyser of throw-up sprayed out of Michael’s face and he snapped back to life.
John Stockton: Out of nowhere I heard someone yell, “Jesus is an impostor and I am the best basketball player alive!” And then I saw Jordan flailing wildly out onto the court. He snatched the ball right out of the ref’s hands and tomahawk-dunked it 30 times in a row before his teammates could calm him down. None of the points counted.
The Jazz, undefeated in their previous 23 home games, held a 72-67 lead heading into the fourth. If Jordan couldn’t battle through his illness and deliver a commanding performance, the Jazz would be comfortably positioned to deprive the Bulls of their second consecutive championship.
Hugh Evans (referee): I had reffed Michael’s legendary “foam game” during the ’91 Finals, when he scored 46 points despite being covered with foam, and I didn’t think he could ever top that. But, boy, was I wrong.
Scottie Pippen: Mike came out of the gate in the fourth and took us on a 10-0 run, mostly just using this old play of his called the Wet Pick-And-Roll. One of us would set a screen for him and then he’d put the entire basketball in his mouth, find an opening, spit the ball out into his hands, and take the shot.
Steve Kerr: The putting-the-ball-in-his-mouth part probably made the play 90 percent less effective, but it didn’t matter. Mike was that good.
Karl Malone: Michael was really bringing it in the fourth, but I wasn’t afraid. The only things I’m afraid of are the vicious grackles outside my garage and fences that don’t have signs telling you if they’re electrified or not.
Michael Jordan: The game was close with a little over five minutes left, and I was about to die again from playing basketball so good. Everybody else looked tired, too, and that gave me an idea.
John Stockton: Michael came up to me and held my hand and told me he had some important business he wanted to discuss at center court. We walked to center court, and he said, “Hello. I am the best basketball player in the world. I am 8-foot-3 and 97 years old. Since everyone is dying from playing basketball, we should relax on the floor for a while. When there are 60 seconds left on the clock, we can play basketball again.” I tried to say no, but he’d already wandered off to tell everyone else.
Ron Harper: Both teams sat in a big circle and relaxed together for four minutes. It was nice. But when the clock wound down to 60 seconds left, we all jumped up and started screaming and running again.
Dennis Rodman: Mike grabbed the ball and got fouled right away. He stepped up to the free-throw line and—being the trash-talker he is—turned to Malone and said, “Karl, I’m going to make the first shot, miss the second by 48 feet, grab the rebound, puke out of my eyehole, dish the ball to Scottie, and then get wide open behind the arc.” And sure enough, he did exactly that.
Scottie Pippen: There were 26 seconds left, the score was tied at 85, and I had a sense that the game was probably going to be decided by this possession. I got the ball and was about to take a shot when I saw Mike at the perimeter, waving his skeleton arms for a pass. So I passed it to him.
Steve Kerr: Michael got the ball and squared up for the shot, but then got distracted by the sight of himself on the Jumbotron. He was very concerned about how there could be two of him. He pulled down his shorts to compare penises with the guy on the screen, realized that it was indeed him, got scared, then grabbed a child’s soda and threw it at the screen. Then he looked back to the court, pulled back, and—with the defender’s hand in his face—took the shot. Swish. Nothing but net. A dagger in Utah’s championship hopes.
Michael Jordan: I was so happy that I didn’t even care that my intestines were dangling out all over my legs. I was the best basketball player in the world again, and no one could take that from me.
Jordan’s clutch three-pointer brought him to 38 points for the night and put the Bulls ahead 88-85 with just seconds remaining. Utah scrambled to recover, but the Bulls stood their ground, winning Game 5 by a final score of 90-87.
Scottie Pippen: After we won, Mike just fell into my arms like a child, as exhausted and feeble as I’d ever seen him. But then something perked him back up again. He pushed away from me, ran over to the bench, grabbed a gun, and shot me in the head.
Ron Harper: Mike shot me in the head, too.
Luc Longley: Michael shot Scottie, Ron, Dennis, and me, and then he turned the gun around and shot himself.
Michael Jordan: I needed to get back to Heaven to save Jesus from the impostor, and I decided to bring my teammates to help me.
Luc Longley: The other four went straight to Heaven, but I went to Hell for some reason. I’m still there to this day.
Ron Harper: I was pissed because we’d just finished this long, exhausting basketball game and then Mike made us go battle angels for four days and four nights.
Dennis Rodman: Angels have claws. You wouldn’t think so, but they do. That was probably my least favorite part about the glorious battle we fought against them in Heaven.
Scottie Pippen: It took a while, but we eventually trapped all the disobedient angels in the giant hole and rescued the real Jesus. It’s a good thing, too, because they were draining all his powers into a bomb that they were going to use to blow up the Grand Canyon.
Michael Jordan: I’m the greatest angel slayer who ever lived.
Scottie Pippen: To thank us for saving him, Jesus gave us each a thousand dollars and a nice pen. Then he let us all go back to Earth to finish our natural lives.
Michael Jordan: Anyone who says I’m not the greatest can go throw themselves in the hole with the disobedient angels. The fact is that I’m number one, and everything else is a cowardly lie.