After his curious and unsuccessful venture into professional baseball, Michael Jordan returned to the Chicago Bulls with 17 games remaining in the 1994-95 regular season. Though he was not in basketball shape after a year and a half away from the NBA, he showed skeptics that he still had the goods when he scored 55 points against the New York Knicks in just his fifth game back. But in the playoffs the suddenly out-of-sync Bulls were eliminated 4-2 by the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Jordan played erratically, and Magic guard Nick Anderson went so far as to state that the new Jordan didn't have the same jets as the old Jordan.
Jordan took the criticism well—on the outside. Inside, he was singed to a crisp. He spent the summer in Los Angeles making a movie, Space Jam, and lifting weights and playing basketball in a full-court gym built for him by Warner Brothers on a back lot. He returned to Chicago for the 1995-96 preseason buffed, focused and ready to scorch the earth. Nobody knew what fire burned within him.
One of his teammates, reserve guard Steve Kerr, soon found out. If you look closely, you can detect some discoloration around Kerr's left eye. It is the lingering result of a punch thrown by Jordan during a closed intrasquad scrimmage at the Berto Center in Chicago. Bulls coach Phil Jackson had gone off to take a conference call in his office, telling the players and assistant coaches to carry on until he returned. The practice got more and more intense without referees or Jackson's supervision. Kerr and Jordan were on opposing teams and started jawing at each other. Kerr thought Jordan had fouled him, and the two argued the point. Play resumed, and this time the two players got truly tangled up and started swinging at each other.
There were many things being swung at, most of them symbolic. The 6'3", 180-pound Kerr and the 6'6", 210-pound Jordan were at opposite ends of the talent scale. They were also far apart on the income scale, Kerr making little more than the $800,000 he earned on the court, Jordan getting $3.85 million in the arena and $40 million away from it. There was the respect factor: Did a journeyman like Kerr have the right to question a superhero like Jordan? Moreover, here were two leaders of the opposing sides in the 1995 players' union fight. [Kerr, as the Bulls' player rep, had supported a negotiated collective bargaining agreement, while Jordan and other NBA superstars had rejected the new contract and tried unsuccessfully to decertify the players' union.] Add to this the grind of camp itself. But most of all there was the stigma that Jordan carried like a hated cross: the undying question, Was he the same player he once had been?
"There was so much pressure on Michael," said Kerr when I grilled him about the fight. "There were all these articles in the papers reminding Michael that he didn't play well in the playoffs last season, wondering if he could return to what he was. There was pressure from the outside, pressure he put on himself." Jordan's teammates could feel that pressure the way animals can sense an approaching tornado. "He came into camp like a man possessed," Kerr continued. "Every practice, every shooting drill, everything was just a huge competition. He was so competitive that it just set the tone for our season. We all had to be that competitive every day."
So when the two players began brawling, it was clear what the result would be. "We threw some blows, and his landed, and mine never came close," Kerr said with a smile. "Our teammates pulled us apart, and because of the frenzy I didn't even know I'd been hit."
But he had, and his swelling eye was immediate evidence. Many emotions had coalesced for Jordan, and he was so overwhelmed by them that he left the floor and packed his things. Jackson had heard the commotion, and when he came out of his office, he saw Jordan preparing to leave. "I'm too upset," Jordan told his coach. "I'm just gonna get out of here."
That afternoon Jordan called Kerr at home and apologized. "He told me he felt horrible," said Kerr. "But, still, the next day everything was a little uncomfortable because I had that shiner as a constant reminder." When the reporters began asking questions, the Bulls players shrugged and said Kerr just got in the way of an elbow. "I made sure I never lied about it," noted Kerr, who was the sports co-editor of his high school paper in Pacific Palisades, Calif. But he wasn't all that forthright, either. Why?
"Hey, on an average NBA team that kind of thing happens three or four times a year," Kerr explained. "And to me it wasn't that big a deal. The point is, training camp showed how it was going to be. There definitely was a purpose to Michael's competitiveness. He was trying to show us what we had to do to be champions."
The Bulls roared through the first four months of the season, mowing down teams the way a scythe cuts down wheat. Jordan was the Jordan of old—confident, dominant, charismatic, a media superstar. Every Bulls game was a herd-journalism event, every Jordan interview a summit conference.