'God Disguised as Michael Jordan': When Everything Changed for His Airness

Will Gottlieb@@wontgottliebFeatured Columnist IApril 20, 2020

LOS ANGELES - 1986: Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls defends against the LA Clippers during a game played circa 1986 at the LA Sports Arena in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1986 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

There is an iconic story for almost everything Michael Jordan did during his career.

"The Shot" over Craig Ehlo and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1989. The dunk contest battles against Dominique Wilkins. The "I'm Back" fax. The "Flu Game." The "Final Shot" against the Utah Jazz to clinch his sixth title. Jordan pushed the limits of his own myth with every one of his accomplishments.

But before any of that, before the championships started rolling in, Jordan was a different Jordan.

"The legend and the legacy came with the championships," longtime Bulls writer Sam Smith told B/R. "If your memories of Jordan are when he came back from his retirement in '95, you never really saw Jordan."

Young Jordan was not the surgical assassin he evolved into for the championship runs. Young Jordan didn't dominate with fadeaways from the post as the focal point of the triangle offense. Young Jordan was a spectacle, albeit unproven. He was a scoring machine, even if he was considered to be a selfish one.

Then April 20, 1986, happened.

Jordan scored 63 points, still the highest-scoring playoff game ever, against the 1986 Boston Celtics, one of the NBA's greatest teams of all time. It was a coming-out party that resulted in high praise from another NBA legend.

"I think he's God disguised as Michael Jordan," Larry Bird said. "He is the most awesome player in the NBA. Today in Boston Garden, on national TV, in the playoffs, he put on one of the greatest shows of all time."

BOSTON, MA - 1986: Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls drives to the basket against Larry Bird #33 of the Boston Celtics during a game circa 1986 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Dick Raphael/Getty Images

This was the most athletic version of Jordan at his best. The Jordan that captured the hearts of fans everywhere because of how he moved. No one knew what he would eventually do, but this performance against this team piqued the NBA world's imagination.

"Young fans who want to understand who Jordan was prior to the championships and how he created the global brand that he created, they should watch the 63-point game, some of his games from '86, '87, '88, '89 and watch how his body moves," Jack Silverstein, Bulls newsletter writer and author of the upcoming book 6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game, told B/R.

To fully appreciate the greatness of this performance, it's important to understand how good the 1985-86 Celtics were. Bird was on his way to his third straight MVP and second championship in three years. The Celtics had five Hall of Famers: Bird, Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson, Bill Walton and Robert Parish. McHale and Johnson made the All-Defensive teams. They won 67 games and had the best defense in the league.

Meanwhile, the Bulls were one of the worst NBA teams to ever make the playoffs. They had lost Jordan to a broken foot only three games into his second season. He would come back to play the final 15 games under a minutes restriction—against suggestions from the team and team doctor.

So after missing nearly his entire second season, on a Bulls team that limps into the playoffs, Jordan scores 49 points in a Game 1 loss. Johnson, the team's perimeter lockdown artist, was complimentary of Jordan's performance to the media. But Smith recalled a different tenor coming from the Celtics' locker room.

"I remember Jordan had scored 49 points in the first game of that series, and the Celtics players were saying, 'He hasn't played all season, he's got fresh legs,' and that's why he was able to do that against them. They were 40-1 at home that year, just unbeatable. And he has this huge first game, 49 points.

"Dennis Johnson is in the shower after the game staring at the box score pasted on the wall. And [Jerry] Sichting told me he was kind of staring at it and after a while he says something to the effect of, 'He's not going to do that again.'

"Well, little did he know, next game he was going to score 63."

BOSTON - APRIL 17:  Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls moves the ball up court against Dennis Johnson #3 of the Boston Celtics in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 1986 NBA Playoffs played on April 17, 1986 at the Boston Gar
Dick Raphael/Getty Images

Days later, April 20, God would show himself. The great Celtics are ready to load up on Jordan in every imaginable way: double-teaming, triple-teaming, switching, dropping off to force jumpers—anything to get the ball out of his hands. Young Jordan was a raw, untapped version of himself, but he was still the relentless apex predator.

Nothing could stop him.

"He just played with such athletic ferocity," Smith said. "Nobody played like that. No one had ever seen anybody play like that. The combination of this tremendous athletic ability, this amazing first step and this quickness."

Jordan was moving on another gear. No matter how much help the Celtics sent, he glided by them on his way to the basket.

This was not the spread pick-and-roll era where one player dominated the ball from beginning to end of the possession. He wasn't launching three-pointers or pounding the ball at the top of the key every time down the floor. Jordan's post game hadn't developed to the point it eventually did in the '90s.

Then-coach Stan Albeck's system had Jordan coming off screens, moving downhill or facing up from 12 feet. He hit nearly every pull-up jumper he took. He drove to the basket with rage in his eyes.

"In that playoff game, against a team that you could make a case was one of the five best teams in the history of the league, they just can't do anything against him," Smith said. "They can't stop him from scoring—they were just so great that they were able to outscore him—but it took five Hall of Famers to do it."

Jordan was on another plane of existence athletically. He earned Bird's praise.

As the points stacked up—23 at halftime, 36 after three quarters—the more it became apparent this game would go down as an all-time great.

Without Scottie Pippen on the team (he arrived in 1987), Jordan was playing more de facto point guard than ever. He shared the responsibility of bringing the ball up the floor with fellow backcourt starter Kyle Macy and bench guard John Paxson. Albeck figured it was better to put the ball in Jordan's hands and let him go to work from the get-go, so the Bulls were running more pick-and-rolls than was commonplace in this era.

BOSTON - APRIL 17:  Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls moves the ball up court against the Boston Celtics during Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals played on April 17, 1986 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics won
Dick Raphael/Getty Images

Jordan's famous shot on Bird where he dribbled between his legs three times and elevated for a jumper is the perfect example—a team full of defensive geniuses didn't have a chance.

This game was full of drama. Bird started 0-of-5 from the field and hurt his hand in the first half. The Bulls weathered every run while the lethargic Celtics were able to keep it close on talent alone.

Bird and the Celtics finally began to look themselves in the second half, showing off the brilliant interior passing, ball movement and shooting they were known for.

Despite their greatness, they needed every bit of magic they could get. McHale even made a shot inches from the ground after diving for a loose ball.

This game was full of historically great moments, but none, perhaps, as memorable as the last play in regulation. With six seconds to go in the fourth quarter, the Bulls are down two points. They're taking the ball out of bounds after a timeout from their own backcourt. Jordan gets the inbounds pass, dribbles up the court and pulls up for a three. He misses. But he gets fouled.

Back then, fouls on three-pointers were only awarded two free throws, so he needed to hit both to tie. Time had expired. No one lined up for his free throws. It was him, the ball, the rim and 20,000 angry Celtics fans.

He sank both. Overtime. Fifty-four points.

"Walton had told me," Smith said, "it was late in the game, maybe the first overtime, and the coach, K.C. Jones, looks down the bench and said, 'Who's got him?' And Walton said they all looked away. Nobody wanted to deal with him anymore."

In the second half and overtimes, the isolations and pick-and-rolls picked up. Not like what you'd see with James Harden or Stephen Curry today, but enough for everyone watching to realize how easily Jordan could get to the basket and score. He scored five more points in the first overtime and four in the second.

Ultimately, he missed a jumper that would have tied the game with 30 seconds remaining, and the Celtics pulled away.

He took 21 free throws, 41 field goals and attempted zero three-pointers (save for the one that allowed him to force overtime). To even have the ability to get that many shots up in a playoff series against an elite defense that was queued on him is unbelievable.

Jordan was upset by the loss, but this game was more about understanding what he was capable of doing.

BOSTON, MA - 1986: Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls shoots the ball against the Boston Celtics circa 1986 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this pho
Dick Raphael/Getty Images

"I think it was more fun for him because he was able to measure himself as a competitor against the best," Smith said. "That was his thing. Take on the best and see if you can beat them. He relished in that. It was sort of an ambivalence. Of course he didn't want to lose, but in a sense, it was sort of a victory by what he could do against that level of competition."

Jordan was unleashed.

Sixty-three points in the Boston Garden against an all-time team in the playoffs, starting alongside Macy in the backcourt. This realization changed his future. Jordan came into the next season and scored 50 points at Madison Square Garden on opening night. It was Doug Collins' first year as coach, and Jordan averaged 37.1 points per game that year, the most of any player this side of Wilt Chamberlain.

"The idea that a guard could score 63 points, it was unheard of," Silverstein said. "Jordan changed the emphasis around positions; he changed skill sets."

With Collins in place and...not much else, Jordan was let loose.

When big men still ruled the NBA, and the paint was still the most valuable real estate, it was unfathomable to consider a 6'6" guard being able to take over games like that. Jordan hadn't yet proved he could play this way and win, but there was something different about him that forced one to consider the possibility.

This is not the title-winning Jordan portrayed in ESPN's The Last Dance documentary. This is the forgotten Jordan who was on the cusp of something more.

"This is an exception," Smith said. "We're seeing a shooting star, and we may not see anything like this again. Let's enjoy it while we can because this is really special."


All stats are from Basketball Reference or NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

Follow Will on Twitter, @wontgottlieb.