'I'm Back!': Untold Tales of Michael Jordan's 1st Return to the NBA 20 Years Ago

Jared Zwerling@JaredZwerlingNBA Senior WriterMarch 18, 2015

B/R via AP Images

For all of the reasons Michael Jordan is the most celebrated athlete ever in basketball and branding, here's another one: He himself wrote arguably the most effective press release in the history of sports. And he only needed two words to do it.

Sometimes in life, less is more.

NBA agent David Falk realized as much on March 18, 1995, a day 20 years ago that resonated around the world. That morning, Falk and his right-hand man, Curtis Polk, received an unexpected call from Jordan for them to fly to Chicago to meet at his house. It wasn't unusual for Jordan to make these arrangements with his two most trusted business advisors.

After about two weeks of practicing at the Bulls' Berto Center—the team's training facility—Jordan wanted to get Falk and Polk's input on a major decision he was leaning toward: returning to the NBA after retiring in 1993 and playing minor league baseball for a little more than a year.

Michael Jordan and David Falk in 1992.
Michael Jordan and David Falk in 1992.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

While Jordan was known to have his own direction in mind, he always sought advice from his close circle of advisors, including the Bulls. In fact, in the days leading up to Jordan's meeting with Falk and Polk, he talked through his itch with his coach, Phil Jackson, and they even started to negotiate how many games he might play. At first, Jordan wanted to return in the postseason. Jackson countered with 20 games; Jordan then envisioned 10 to 15. It would eventually be 17.

But one thing was clear: Jordan was more eager to make a comeback during the regular season, so he called for the final huddle with Falk and Polk, who both arrived not knowing what their client had in mind. For hours at Jordan's house, they discussed the cons (he could fall below expectations) and pros (a glimpse of his talent would suffice in shortened play).

Ultimately, Jordan stayed the course and told them he wanted to return.

Jordan on the Birmingham Barons.
Jordan on the Birmingham Barons.Jim Gund/Getty Images

"It wasn't really something I anticipated," said Polk, who now works for Jordan as the vice chairman of the Charlotte Hornets. "If it wasn't for the baseball strike, I'm not sure he would've come back at that time, or ever. He was really enjoying himself—he really liked the camaraderie with the guys and the less fanfare around him—even though he wasn't anywhere as successful in baseball. But he's such a competitive guy that he wasn't going to quit for that reason, and he was working really hard to get his baseball game to the level of where his basketball game had been.

"We recognized that he had developed different muscles for baseball—slow-twitch muscles versus fast-twitch," Polk said. "He had bulked up in baseball, particularly in the upper body, and those are things that weren't necessarily compatible to him just stepping out quickly onto the basketball court. And he recognized that, and we talked about it, but he still decided that he wanted to go back sooner than waiting. He felt that he could step back in and help the team."

That same day, Jordan shared the news with Jackson and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Falk, who's now the CEO of F.A.M.E., privately called former NBA commissioner David Stern and Dick Ebersol, who was the chairman of NBC Sports. Then Falk took about four attempts to write a press release officially announcing Jordan's return, trying to put into words how his client had a change of heart and missed the game.

Jordan and Curtis Polk at this year's "My Hero Gala," the Hornets' annual fundraising event.
Jordan and Curtis Polk at this year's "My Hero Gala," the Hornets' annual fundraising event.Courtesy of the Hornets

But Jordan wasn't comfortable with the different drafts, and at that moment, he took matters into his own hands. He thought of a way to keep to his style of being simple and straight to the point:

"I'm back."

"He felt that it didn't require an explanation or a justification," said Falk, who faxed the final press release to media outlets. "I thought I was a pretty good writer, written a lot of things, but he said, 'Let me do this.' So he sat down at the table and thought about it for a couple of minutes and he wrote, 'I'm back.' He said, 'OK, that's it.' It was classic Michael Jordan. It was elegant in simplicity, it communicated how he felt, it said it all.

"It was like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, 'I'll be back.' Sometimes you don't have to be prosaic to be elegant in your expression. His two words expressed it all."

In roughly the year leading up to his return, Jordan had really only played pickup basketball with his teammates on the Birmingham Barons minor league baseball team. His sole focus was the major leagues. Not only did he aim to fulfill his father James' hope for that one day, but also the Chicago White Sox told him that he had a good chance of making their September call-ups.

But because of the labor strike, if a player wasn't on an MLB roster, he couldn't go to spring training with an MLB team; it had to be a minor league one. Jordan didn't want to do that.

"At that point, now he's looking for something to do because he can't play baseball anymore," said Sam Smith, a longtime Bulls beat writer who's released three books on Jordan.

While Jordan had stopped by the Berto Center periodically during his basketball absence to say hello, he hadn't practiced with the team. That changed one day, in early March. Then he returned the following day. While nobody on the team really knew if he was plotting a return—they didn't ask, he didn't bring it up—the second day triggered a thought of what was to come.

"When he came back-to-back days, I was like, 'Whoa, he's thinking about playing again,'" said Pete Myers, who filled in for Jordan at shooting guard from 1993-95.

"You didn't have to be Einstein to figure that out, seeing him enjoying the game and getting mad when he loses," backup center Luc Longley said. "In the practice sessions, it was obvious to everybody that he had an appetite for it again. My read on it was that he had already made a decision."

Mind you, this was all happening during the stretch run of the season, the Bulls as a lower seed trying to make the playoffs.

Pete Myers matching up with Jordan when he was on the Heat the following season (1995-96) after Jordan's return.
Pete Myers matching up with Jordan when he was on the Heat the following season (1995-96) after Jordan's return.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

"It was a distraction for sure, but a welcome one," Longley said. "The practices started to be much more heated, much more competitive—longer even, too. We had to get a lot of work in to get Michael up to speed with the team, or the team up to speed with Michael depending on which way you want to look at it.

"I do remember there being a lot of scrimmaging. Michael wanted to get up and down the court, and he was matching up with Scottie [Pippen], and Scottie was in midseason form and at the height of his game. So that was a good way to bring Michael up to speed. Michael was just feeling his own way and we were wondering what was going on."

After scrimmages, Jordan put in individual work to further regain his offensive rhythm. He organized shooting drills and one-on-one games with teammates, especially against Myers, who was a Bulls rookie in 1986-87. That season, the 6'6" Myers, who had standout size, quickness and anticipation defensively, was assigned to guard Jordan in practices. "I made him work for everything, pushed him every day," said Myers, who rejoined the Bulls on Oct. 7, 1993, the day after Jordan retired.

So how did Myers do in those one-on-ones in 1995? "C'mon, I didn't have a chance," Myers said. He would lose in the range of 12-4. "Mike could run off 12 straight buckets."

"He still knew personnel, he knew how coaches were going to try to guard him—he knew all that," Myers said. "He was just trying to get himself ready for the battle, just fine-tuning himself to get ready. He had reworked his body and gotten his upper body much stronger because he was trying to hit for power, so his timing was a little off."

Jordan and Luc Longley (left) in the 1996 Finals.
Jordan and Luc Longley (left) in the 1996 Finals.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

To overcome those issues, Jordan turned to his longtime personal trainer, Tim Grover, who, like everyone else, didn't know what Jordan's end result was at the time. "He was basically testing himself to see where he was," said Grover, who was managing Jordan's baseball workouts until they returned to Chicago together around early March.

Every day, Grover met Jordan at his house in the early morning for strength and conditioning, and then after practice, they reconvened at his house for recovery, stretching and other maintenance. The overall plan was to reconfigure Jordan's jumping abilities and upper-body movements for better shooting, while toning down. Jordan was between 225 and 228 pounds for baseball, but his basketball playing weight was better suited between 213 and 216.

"He was playing right field," said Grover, whose gym is still based in Chicago. "When you throw a baseball in from right field, it's more of a straight line, so your muscles in your shoulders are working differently than they are when you're shooting a basketball, where you want to create as much arch as possible. So training the shoulder area, the girdle and the trunk totally had to change.

"Also, his legs needed work from an elevation standpoint. In baseball, you don't jump that much and it's more of a running motion, especially if you're in the outfield. But in basketball, the muscles are constantly having to fire and move in different directions. And Michael, his whole game was built on instincts. Not playing consistently at such a high level for a year and a half, those instincts have a tendency to become dormant a little bit."

Grover noted that if you watch his actual games that season, you would notice some deficiencies with his jump shot. His regular-season percentage (.411) was a career low.

"The elevation wasn't quite there, the shot arch was a little bit different," Grover said. "He didn't have a whole offseason to prepare."

Tim Grover at his Chicago gym working out Jordan in the mid-1990s.
Tim Grover at his Chicago gym working out Jordan in the mid-1990s.Courtesy of Tim Grover

Still, while some players may have needed months to return after an extended departure, Jordan only needed about two weeks to decide he was ready. And just 10 days after that, he put up 55 points at Madison Square Garden.

"I tried to stay away as much as I could," Jordan told the press corps after his first game back against the Pacers. "The more active that I was in other sports really kept my mind away from the game…But when you love something for so long…I think at the time that I walked away from it, I probably needed it mentally more so than anything. But I really truly missed the game."

Jordan's presence alone, even before he announced his return, changed everything for the players. From simply being able to walk into the Berto Center, there were now two security checkpoints: to get in the parking lot and then the practice facility. Jordan even had his own security team.

"You got the sense that you were involved in something a bit bigger than basketball," said Longley, who hadn't really gotten to know Jordan until early March, along with around half of the team. "It took me a little while to not treat him like a rock star; I had Michael Jordan on my wall. But I tried to relate to him as a teammate. It was something that we all had to learn how to do, and Michael can be a bit abrasive; he's very confident. You've got to find your way to get to know him, but it was a slow process.

"Really the best avenue to get to know Michael was basketball. That was the fast track to understanding him, and that's where his personality is the most evident and the most obvious. That's where he's the most generous and the most engaged. That's his arena, that's his forum. So it started there."

In addition to the security upgrades, the players had to face dozens of international media while entering and leaving the Berto Center. Reporters were organizing stakeouts for many hours outside. Even NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw broadcast live from there once.

Jordan getting swarmed by reporters outside the Berto Center on March 13, 1995, just five days before his "I'm back" announcement.
Jordan getting swarmed by reporters outside the Berto Center on March 13, 1995, just five days before his "I'm back" announcement.Timothy Boyle/Associated Press/Associated Press

"It was a story that transcended sports because of who Jordan was in society," Smith said. "This is Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali. This is not basketball any more. That's why President Clinton was talking about it. He raised it at one of his press conferences, making a reference to something to the effect of, 'This could occur, like Michael Jordan coming back to play for the Bulls.' So you can just imagine the chaos from a media standpoint. It was sort of a sporting version of the resurrection of Christ."

Because the Bulls had closed off the practices to the media—it was against NBA rules, but the "team did what they wanted and the league looked the other way" with Jordan in town, according to Smith—reporters were looking for any kind of soundbite from any player. What is Jordan like? What did he say? Why was he there?

"Players were trying to pull out of the driveway with their dark windows, and you've got media people chasing after the cars," Smith said. "It was the most humiliating time to be involved in journalism. You're just hanging out there waiting. Obviously it was a big story because here was the guy that saved the day, but in the middle of that, it was still life as usual preparing for the games."

Sam Smith (right) during a Bulls broadcast.
Sam Smith (right) during a Bulls broadcast.Courtesy of the Bulls

As for Jordan, he usually arrived early before the media throngs. When he did pull up, sometimes it wasn't initially clear it was him. "You could see a car driving in that might have been Michael Jordan's, but maybe it wasn't. He had a dozen cars," Smith said. "And he never would stop for the media."

Ironically, the media got wind of Jordan's announcement before some of the players. "I was watching TV," Myers said.

"Until he said 'I'm back,' I had no idea of what was going on. None," said Grover, who wasn't worried about Jordan having a sudden injury because his training program was designed to limit those no matter the sport.

Was there any negative reaction from the team or concern that Jordan would disrupt any chemistry that late in the season? Myers didn't sense any.

"Listen, when somebody that iconic comes back and wants to play with you, you don't say 'No,' " he said. "We weren't playing great that season. We needed something and he gave it to us. When you're that good, the domino effect is easy for a team. Everybody gets in line, and that's what happened." 

After Jordan's decision, the next order of business for Falk and Polk was alerting his sponsors, including Nike and Gatorade. "Obviously they were thrilled because the NBA was a lot more visible than a minor league baseball team," Polk said. They were also in touch with the producers of the movie Space Jam, as its script was being finalized then with production planned to start in July.

Falk and Polk also arranged a corporate jet for Jordan to travel to Indianapolis for his first game back against the Pacers on March 19. In addition, they all discussed his jersey number. While No. 23 was retired prior to his comeback, he was allowed to wear it under Bulls and NBA rules. But he wanted No. 45 from baseball.

Mitchell & Ness will release limited editions of Jordan's authentic No. 45 jersey starting this week on March 19 (also available on NBAStore.com).
Mitchell & Ness will release limited editions of Jordan's authentic No. 45 jersey starting this week on March 19 (also available on NBAStore.com).Courtesy of Mitchell & Ness

Then Nike and the Bulls' equipment manager took care of Jordan's Air Jordan X sneakers, which got a then-nine-year-old Shaun Livingston excited at the time. The Warriors point guard was living in Peoria, about three hours southwest of Chicago.

"We were all hyped because he was about to come out with some more Jordans," Livingston said. "Chicago seemed like so far away from Peoria at the time, but it was crazy just watching his highlights. We didn't have cable. I just remember there were some people that were hating on him and some other people that believed. For me, I definitely believed that he could come back and be great, and win a championship for the Bulls, my favorite team."

The day of Jordan's announcement, Steve Schanwald, the Bulls' executive vice president of business operations who's been with the team for 30 years, recalls the phone ringing off the hook immediately.

"Our season-ticket waiting list started to grow again, TV ratings skyrocketed and interest from companies who wanted to sponsor us accelerated," he said. "Overnight, we became the center of the sports universe again, instead of just another very good NBA team. I felt bad for the few employees—maybe five or so—who had left us thinking that the Jordan era was over and there would be no more championships."

Jordan and Steve Schanwald at Scottie Pippen's jersey retirement ceremony at the United Center on Dec. 9, 2005.
Jordan and Steve Schanwald at Scottie Pippen's jersey retirement ceremony at the United Center on Dec. 9, 2005.Courtesy of Steve Schanwald

When the Bulls landed in Indianapolis, separate from Jordan, Myers remembers fans waiting outside the airport fence gate—even older women wanting to get a peek at the team. Basketball-wise, the planning was simple: Start Jordan, run the Triangle, get the ball to Jordan.

"Of course, I knew Mike is starting; he also still knew the offense. Phil didn't have to say it to me; I knew," Myers said. "I came in the visiting locker room and Phil was just walking through. I don't know if he was looking for me or not, but he said, 'I'm going to start Michael tonight.' I said, 'You sure you want to do that?' He said, 'Get out of here.' We both laughed."

When Myers re-signed with the Bulls in 1993 after Jordan's retirement, he didn't put any pressure on himself to fill the legend's shoes; neither did the team who gave him a defined role. "They knew I probably could guard my position every night," he said. So when Jordan returned, Myers' mindset with his old teammate was "whatever you need, I'm here." He also cherished a nice gesture from 1986, when Jordan surprised him with a visit to his house to give him three of his European suits.

Once the Bulls took the court at Market Square Arena, Myers said, "it felt like a Finals game."

Longley also shared in the sentiment.

"Every seat was full," he said. "The referees even seemed to be more involved in the game, and every play was cheered more loudly. He just brought an energy to the game for everybody. I'm sure they sold more beer and pretzels as well. They started selling Jordan jerseys again, and Longley sales went down (laughs)."

Jordan taking the court at Market Square Arena for his return.
Jordan taking the court at Market Square Arena for his return.Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Watching from a distance were Dwyane Wade, who was 13 at the time, and Jamal Crawford, 14. They were both at home—Wade in Chicago with his stepbrothers and Crawford with a friend in Los Angeles.

"My brother was sitting in the kitchen with his small 12-inch TV watching all the coverage, [Jordan] pulling up in a Ferrari," said Wade, who's a good friend of the Hall of Famer and was an endorser of his company at one point. "It was just a cool moment. It's crazy that it was 20 years ago. I was my son Zaire's age now.

"When he came back, it was just the excitement that we got the opportunity to witness him more. Being a kid in the community that I grew up in, it was big to have that confidence, to walk around with that kind of swagger. You don't understand the impact that the Bulls, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, those guys had on me as a young kid. They were the reason that I had a dream, a hope that I can be that one day."

Jordan catching up with Dwyane Wade at the 2007 All-Star Weekend.
Jordan catching up with Dwyane Wade at the 2007 All-Star Weekend.Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

Added Crawford, who worked out a few times with Jordan at his house when he was with the Bulls in the early 2000s, "You heard the rumors, but it was crazy, 'I'm back.' That was enough because he was the best athlete in the world at the time. I remember him doing the iconic one-hand, finger-roll layups. It looks like he just paused in the air. It's weird because even yesterday I was watching Michael Jordan's Playground. I grew up watching all his moves."

That night against the Pacers, Jordan had 19 points on 7-of-28 shooting, along with six assists, six rebounds and three steals. Later during his packed postgame press conference, Smith sensed that he wasn't in awe of the whole spectacle that he had created; just disappointed that he couldn't help the team more in the loss.

While there were some doubters in that media room—just like when he started his baseball journey—there was a moment of truth addressing those same reporters.

"The day he announced he was retiring, someone asked if it was because of the pressure from the media," Falk said. "I remember distinctly he said, 'I would never let you put your foot up my back and push me out the door.' So there was no pressure to leave, there was no pressure to come back. He did it because it was what was in his heart."

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.