Adversity is what separates the good from the great. It is in facing and later conquering the most insurmountable odds that greatness shines through. And so, it was through his trials, and rivals that Michael Jordan was given a chance to exhibit his greatness and cement his legacy.
For a then 4-time champion, 4-time Finals MVP, there shouldn’t have been any need for added fuel to his fire. There was nothing more for him to prove, and yet, going up against first-time finalists Utah Jazz with John Stockton and Karl Malone, there was a fire burning in him, a hunger that pushed him to keep doing more. A hunger that almost cost the Bulls that championship.
Adversity comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s a former teammate who believes he “knows” you and that he “knows your team. BJ Armstrong surely thought so. A long-time Bull, a champion in his own right, Armstrong believed he could turn the tide in the favor of the Charlotte Hornets when they faced the Bulls in the 1998 Eastern Semi-Finals. Armstrong knew Phil Jackson’s system, he knew the players on the opposing team too, and for one game, he used every ounce of that knowledge to get the better of the team that let him go, and he let them know. He let everybody know.
Sometimes it’s a team that has your number, or at least, that’s what Reggie Miller thought his Pacers were in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals for the Bulls. As the man synonymous with clutch plays put it, the Indiana Pacers had the players, the talent, the skill and the coaching to beat the Bulls in that series, most significantly, they weren’t afraid of the Bulls, or Jordan. Reggie may have been a notorious trash talker, but him saying that the Pacers were, the better team, would have been true, if not for Michael Jordan.
And then there’s adversity in the form of bad pizza. A midnight snack turned nightmare for Jordan and the Bulls put his title defense against Utah in jeopardy. To this day fans swear Jordan was hungover, that it wasn’t the flu, and it definitely wasn’t food poisoning. Whatever it was, Jordan was weak, pale, sweating, puking, and on the verge of collapsing. The Utah Jazz was already a formidable opponent with a mismatch on the point guard and power forward positions, but to battle on the court while battling his gag reflex was cruel and inhumane punishment.
Yet it was in these moments that Jordan’s greatness was revealed. BJ Armstrong quickly realized what it meant to poke the bear. Jordan went at him more aggressively, making Armstrong’s first playoff win over them his only playoff win over them. Armstrong might have known Phil’s system, he might have known his former teammates’ tendencies, but it doesn’t matter, Jordan was at a point where if he felt slighted, he took it personally and made it his mission to get back at the person who got one-up on him.
This was a lesson Reggie Miller and his Pacers learned as well. A team was only better if it won. The Pacers gave the Bulls a run for their money for sure. Larry Bird whose Celtics eliminated a young Michael Jordan’s Bulls many times before knew all too well what he was capable of. The Pacers were a great team. They had the superstar power in Reggie Miller. Reggie was making superstar plays, yet coach Larry would not even let down his defenses, up two with 0.7 seconds left in the game, all because Michael Jordan was on the opposing team. The Pacers may very well have been the “better” team that series. They might have even been the foil for the Bulls. By all indications, the dynasty should have ended there, yet all it became was a stage for Jordan to display his greatness.
Nobody would have faulted Jordan for sitting out Game 5 of that 1997 Finals series. The series was tied and they were playing on the road. Had they lost, the Bulls would have had the opportunity to win it in 7 games with Jordan well and healthy. But it’s Jordan. Against a team that was a foil for the Bulls, against stomach cramps, dehydration, and constant vomiting, against normal human instinct, Jordan showed up for that game. Jordan showed up, clawed back from a 16-point deficit and dropped 38 points for the Bulls to win. Another notch on Jordan’s feats-of-greatness belt.
Adversity comes in many forms and serves as a stage for greatness. Greatness is all about rising to the occasion, no matter what the occasion, be it leading the championship run as the embattled superstar, or winning the championship with an open shot as a role player. It’s all about making the most out of an opportunity and making that shot.