Phil Jackson Q&A: Michael Jordan's flu game

Even though it's been nearly 10 years since Michael Jordan played his last All-Star game in 2003, you couldn't watch this year's All-Star game in Orlando without getting a heavy dose of MJ nostalgia. The Lakers' Kobe Bryant had a lot to do with that, as he pushed his career All-Star scoring total to 271 points, passing Jordan for most points in All-Star game history (Jordan had 262 points in 14 selections; Bryant has played in 14 All-Star games as well).

Jordan was also recognized as one of the stars who was out-dueled by Magic Johnson in Orlando 20 years ago when Magic made his memorable one-game MVP return to the All-Star game after announcing his retirement because of HIV months before.

And if you watched the commercials, instead of flipping back and forth between the All-Star game and the Oscars, you would have noticed Jordan in a new ad for Gatorade featuring former Bulls and Lakers coach Phil Jackson reflecting on Jordan's "flu game" in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz. (Click here to watch the commercial.)

ESPNLA.com was on the set of the commercial shoot at the Walter Pyramid on the campus of Long Beach State back in December and had a chance for a 1-on-1 chat with Jackson about his memories of Jordan's performance with the flu.

ESPNLA.com: When you think back on all the significant games you coached, where does Jordan’s “flu game” rank? On the set, you said something to the effect of, "We know he can score 40, we know he can get triple-doubles, but this stands out because it’s more than that."

Jackson: “Yeah, the big thing was we knew that coming back and playing in Salt Lake was going to be a difficult thing, as it always is in the playoffs. That team was talented and they were good at home. So, after winning two in Chicago, we said, ‘Let’s go out and make sure we win one game out there in Salt Lake.’ We didn’t want to come back [to Chicago] behind 3-2 in a series like that. We lost the second game [in Utah] at the end of the ballgame in a close game.

"Perhaps Michael was doing too much. I can’t remember what his totals were in that ballgame, but he made a spin at the top of the key and [John] Stockton stole the ball and it set up a win for them that we shoulda, coulda won.

(Editor’s note: Jordan finished with 22 points on 11-for-27 shooting in Game 4.)

"So, it was a really a hard defeat. I remember having really a sleepless night that night. I was meeting the owner the next day and I was just really fatigued about it. That mental fatigue that you have after a loss that you think you’re going to win and you don’t sleep very much at night thinking about it. Then, we had a little time to recover and it came down to this game, we ought to take this one home and then the disappointment of finding out on game day that the guy that’s the superstar on our team didn’t sleep, was sick, felt like crap, didn’t feel like he could eat, was nauseous and wasn’t going to go to shootaround. That’s happened before. Guys have felt like they couldn’t go to shootaround. It’s not like the end of the world. But this was a pivotal game and then when we saw him and we saw what he looked like …"

What did you mean by ‘rheumy eyed’ when you used that to describe him on the set?

“Well, his eyes weren’t cleared. They were kind of clouded, watering and so on and so forth. So, his demeanor was such that you had to speculate how much he could play and how well he could play.”

Do you remember that first call in the morning? Was it from the trainer, Chip Schaefer?

“Yeah, it was Chip. Actually, the guy that called him … let me think about who called him. It was before the advent of cell phones obviously, or the proliferation, I should say, of cells. Chip had one, but he carried it like it was a gun, unloaded. Like to check with the airplane to see if the airplane was there. OK, what’s the workout guy’s name?"


“Yeah, Tim Grover is the one who called him up and said [he was sick]. Michael worked out in the mornings, first thing in the mornings, with Grover. He and Harp [Ron Harper] and [Scottie] Pippen used to do the ‘Breakfast Club,’ they called themselves. And [Jordan] couldn’t do it [that day] so Grover was the first one that called Chip in the morning. Chip came down and saw us at breakfast and let us know.”

So the first time you saw him was at the arena that night?

“Yeah, on the bus … You know, I don’t know. Maybe he came late. He might have even come on his own to the arena. I can imagine he would because we were leaving with a lot of time. We were in Park City. It was a mess. Salt Lake was a mess then. They had started the construction on those interstates they were building around the Olympics and so on and so forth, so there might have been something with that. But, the first time I saw him was coming in the locker room, yeah.”

Did you just kind of say, ‘Are you good to go?’, get a nod?

“No. We set him up. We set him up in a situation where he didn’t have to deal with the press. He was out of that kind of thing and he had a comfort, like massage table or training table, probably in the shower if I remember right and I went back to see him, to see how he was, and he said he was going to play. He felt like crap, but he was going to play.”

When you got to halftime and I think you said on set that he just kind of laid down somewhere, found a peaceful place, covered himself with towels, did you think he would be able to go in the second half?

“Well, I thought he got better as the game went along. We got behind in the second quarter and came back and so we were kind of in better spirits at halftime. Like we had a, ‘This is going to go all right,’ type of thing. So, I talked to Chip about it and reflecting about it with my trainer, my trainer said, ‘I think coming back down out of altitudes helped him. I think some of his headaches [subsided].’

"Harper always said that it was bad pizza. You know, Ronnie Harper always thought it was a bad food type of thing. But, the headaches are associated with altitude.”

So you came down from Park City and the headaches improved?

“I think that was one of the things that might have helped him as he got down to 4,800 feet or whatever Salt Lake’s at. But then, the fatigue in the fourth quarter was really obvious. He had nothing left to go on.”

The moment that sticks out is late in the fourth quarter when Jordan misses a free throw and somehow the ball ends up back in his hands for him to shoot a 3-pointer.

“Short. He shot it short. It bounced low and bounced back to him and he was able to get it.”

Obviously he had the game against Portland in the Finals in 1992, the six 3-pointers in the first half, but it wasn’t like making 3-pointers was a mark of his career necessarily.

“No. That wasn’t any part of his game at all to start with. Three-point shooting was not something that he was really an avid fan of doing. I think he accepted 3-point shots were a difference-maker in the games and we had 3-point specialists on our team in [Steve] Kerr and [Jud] Buechler and a variety of other players that we had in [with us] that were 3-point shooters.

"But, you know, he really lined that one up. I mean, he had enough time. Stockton was running at him off the corner from Kerr, so he had enough time to take his time and know that the guy flying at him wasn’t going to block it and he shot it after he lined it up. It always looked a little bit funny, his deep shots. He was a great post-up shooter, but he got to be really good from distance. I used to have people beg me to tell him, ‘Don’t go to the hoop every time! You’re going to get knocked down! They’re coming after you! You have to trust your jumper a little bit.’ And he did, he trusted his jump shot.”

The image I think a lot of us associate with that game is him in Scottie’s arms being helped off the court. What does that make you think of?

“Scottie was all about, ‘We’ll take care of the defense. Don’t expend yourself. Save yourself for the other end of the floor where you can score. We know you can finish this game off and I’ll help you out part time and hedge off my man.’ And Scottie set him up by drawing the double team and getting the ball back to Michael [on offense]. But, it looks like Michael basically collapses in Scottie’s arms more than anything else. Not only does Scottie give him a hug, but it looks like he also was leaning on him for some support.”

What was postgame like? Was it a sense of, "We got through this, there’s no way we’re not winning the championship now"?

“We always say that the first to three or the winner of the fifth game of a series is going to be the deciding factor. It hasn’t always been. Boston won [Game 5] a couple years ago and we [the Lakers] still won the series, but it’s a big lift. We believed it was about Utah, how good they were on their home floor. In fact, the next year [in 1998] they kind of vowed that, ‘We’re going to get homecourt advantage’ and they did get homecourt advantage the next season. Because, they had great homecourt abilities. But, we knew if we could get one game on their court, that would ensure us the opportunity to win one out of two on our court. So, that was really crucial.”

In the book you did with Andy Bernstein, there’s the photo of Derek Fisher after Game 3 in Boston and he’s crying in the locker room and all of his teammates went up and thanked him for what he does. Was there any scene like that after Jordan’s flu game?

“No. It wasn’t like that. Fish was emotionally very spent. It was a very emotional game for him and so players came over to support him. Michael was physically spent. I think emotionally, I think he was really good. But he was really fatigued after that game. It was like everybody just kind of went over and gave him a tap, but it wasn’t like that jubilance. It wasn’t that kind of celebration.”

Is there anything to the notion that when a player is dealing with an injury or a sickness or something like that, they can play better just because of perhaps relying muscle memory?

“I think so. I think it makes them focus. I think it makes them just focus on what they got going right there and it kind of hones down a wider scope into really more of a prism. But that can last for a half or a quarter or whatever else that you stay focused. Then it’s about, ‘Do you have enough energy to really get through?’

"That’s what’s remarkable about this guy, he had this incredible amount of energy where he could outperform people in the fourth quarter when the fatigue sets in. In that situation, that he could do it from being the state he was at was even more remarkable.”

What’s Michael’s career without that game?

“It’s still an amazing career. I mean, he’s got a tremendous amount of accolades. But, it’s a great moment. This one stands out because some of the opponents were there, some of the factors that created the great games in memory for him were about overcoming obstacles to win against the odds and bringing it out of the jaws of defeat. This was about fatigue. This was about having to go somewhere extra to get the reserve or resolve to find a way to win this game. And then everything worked in his favor. He had his opportunity to win it at the end of the ballgame with this 3-point shot.”

You mentioned on set the importance of having a ‘rooting space.’ You said for Shaquille O’Neal it was thinking about being in his grandmother’s arms in a rocking chair. Did Michael have one?

“I never asked him to verbalize what his was.”

How about Kobe?

“I never asked anybody but Shaq. That’s just the relationship I had with Shaq (laughing). For him, I felt Shaq had a tendency to kind of get distracted so I just wanted to make a point with it.”

How often does that flu game come up in your thoughts or in talks or conversations?

“I suppose anytime you think of the championships and you think of the pivotal points or the highlight moments of championships, that one certainly stands out. There was Steve Kerr’s shot in the final game of that series that stands out as another point of emphasis in that series, but that’s really the remarkable moment probably of that series. I think of all the championships fondly. I take a week out of the year to think about them all (laughing). It’s kind of like children.”

Out in Montana?


Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.