When Michael Jordan announced his return to basketball 20 years ago today, he did so in a manner that was very much 20 years ago. He sent a fax.
"It was a sign of the times," Jordan's agent, David Falk, recalled.
Email was still an auxiliary, almost luxurious means of communication, something available in the office at best. The term "dot-com" wasn't widely known yet. That meant even those who had fax machines were unlikely to have access to them on a Saturday, which was when March 18 fell in 1995.
The closest thing to social media was three-way calling. The most popular way to access the Internet at the time was installing America Online software via floppy disk, then using a dial-up modem. AOL had just reached the 1.5 million subscriber mark in December 1994, and even those users were restricted to AOL's online domain. They didn't have full access to the World Wide Web until May 1995.
The fastest possible way to widely disseminate information was to send a fax.
Rumors had been swirling about Jordan ending his 17-month retirement since he had begun practicing with the Chicago Bulls earlier in the month. Now it was time to make it official. Falk wrote a couple versions of a news release and gave them to Jordan for his consideration.
"He didn't like the feel of them," Falk said. "He said, 'I'll do it myself.'"
So Jordan grabbed a piece of paper and wrote the two words that captured everything he wanted to say: "I'm back."
While the ability to transmit images and words through communication lines dates back to the middle of the 19th century, it was the combination of industry standards and desktop machines in the 1980s that made faxing prevalent. The voracious appetite for statistics and information made faxes a natural fit for the sports world, and they became the preferred method for internal and external communication.
"The fax carried us for a long time," said Brian McIntyre, former director of the NBA's communications department.
It was also a perfect tool for the league's burgeoning global aspirations. Josh Rosenfeld became the NBA's first director of international public relations in 1990, and the fax was an effective way to manage the time differences among all his contacts. Rosenfeld would have 10 to 15 faxes from Europe waiting for him when he arrived in his New York office in the morning, and faxes from Japan would begin flowing in by the end of his workday.
Faxing had been a part of Rosenfeld's life since the late 1970s, when he worked for a company that sent reporters' stories from stadium press boxes back to their newspapers. In the 1980s, when he was the publicist for the Los Angeles Lakers, Rosenfeld would stay up until the early morning updating the team's game notes -- no computers meant every page had to be retyped -- and then use a hotel fax machine to send the notes to the next opponent's PR department. Because the ink on the incoming faxes would often "bleed" and smudge, the recipient usually had to retype them before making copies to distribute to the media.
"It seems so antiquated," Rosenfeld said.
The advent of fax-on-demand in the 1990s was a major breakthrough. Teams could upload their game notes and news releases to a host service, which made them available 24/7 for reporters who called from their fax machines and entered the corresponding code number.
Maybe it was something about that automation that made faxes feel cold and impersonal. Even the fax's root word, "facsimile," implied that what you were holding was inauthentic and unoriginal. New Yorkers sure took exception to the fact that Pat Riley submitted his resignation to the Knicks via fax. They continued to harp on it, to the point that he finally snapped upon his first game back in Madison Square Garden as coach of the Miami Heat.
"It didn't make any difference whether I faxed it in, conferenced it in, phoned it in, had a satellite delivery of it in," Riley said after being asked about the fax. "I resigned two weeks before the fax, and the only reason why the fax has become fashionable is because I was ordered to send a fax by the commissioner."
That was the most notorious NBA fax. It wasn't the biggest.
Alyson Sadofsky, who was the director of media services for David Falk's agency, stepped out of the shower on the third Saturday of March in 1995 and saw the light on her answering machine blinking. There were seven messages from Falk, each with increasing urgency, expressing the same theme: "Get to the office right now."
Sadofsky recalls going in at 11 a.m., then spending the next two hours sending the fax that upended the sports world, the first step toward what became the second half of the Bulls' 1990s dynasty.
"Everything had to be done individually," Sadofsky said. "It wasn't like sending a mass email."
Fax protocol meant typing up a cover sheet for each recipient. That always preceded the actual content. It took a couple minutes to send each fax, then she had to wait to receive a confirmation receipt.
In retrospect, Sadofsky said, "It sounds like horse and carriage."
The office had two fax machines, one for outgoing and one for incoming. For news of this magnitude, she used both machines to send faxes to Chicago news outlets, the Associated Press and major national outlets such as ESPN, The Washington Post and the New York Times.
She typed the message on Falk Associates Management Enterprises letterhead and added her standard press release introductory language, so the full text read:
WASHINGTON, DC. (March 18, 1995) - The following statement was released today by Michael Jordan, through his personal attorney and business manager David B. Falk, Chairman of Falk Associates Management Enterprises, Inc. ("FAME") located in Washington, D.C., in response to questions about his future career plans:
Falk can't take credit for writing the fax, but he appreciates the power of the two-word statement.
"How elegant it was and simplistic," Falk said. "It was vintage Jordan."
Distributed by what's now considered vintage technology.