The Flu Game: Michael Jordan Beating the Impossible

A fatigue Michael Jordan on his knees during game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals. | Courtesy of Wordpress

It is two o’clock in the morning on June 11, 1997, the day of Game 5 between the Utah Jazz and Chicago Bulls in the NBA 1997 Finals. Michael Jordan’s trainer, Tim Grover, is called to Jordan’s hotel room, where he finds the six-time M.V.P. guard curled up in a fetal position on his bed with a scorching fever and terrible chills. Jordan was having trouble even standing on his feet, and rumors began to spread like fire, and the question quickly circulated, “Will Michael Jordan play in Game 5 of the NBA 1997 Finals against the Utah Jazz?” Back in the 1990’s basketball was a different ball game, with bigger crowds and a higher level of talent. The game featured the best of the best, with players like Michael Jordan himself, Scottie Pippen, and Karl Malone. So it was a big deal to many fans when Michael’s playing status was put into question. They suffered a tough loss to the Utah Jazz in Game 4 on the road, loosing 78-73, and that tied the series 2-2. With Game 5 being held at the Utah Jazz Delta arena, a win was a must for the Bulls. Fortunately, at 5:50 pm, Jordan rolled out of bed and somehow made it onto the Delta Center’s court right before the game start, and was ready to go before tip off.1 

2 out of the 38 points Jordan had in game 5 of the NBA Finals | Courtesy of Petak

Born in Brooklyn, New York, on February 17, 1962, Jordan grew up with a love for baseball just like his father, James Jordan. Growing up in Wilmington, North Carolina, Jordan developed a very competitive edge at an early age. He wanted to win every game he played. As his father noted, “Jordan has a competition problem. He was born with that … the person he tries to outdo most of the time is himself.”2 As Jordan began to get older, however, baseball would soon come to a halt as he began to follow his older brother’s passion for basketball. Although Jordan was cut from his high school varsity basketball team during his sophomore year for apparently not being “good enough,” that did not stop him from attending University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to lead his basketball team to a NCAA Division 1 championship in 1982. He then went on to be the third overall pick in the 1984 Draft to the Chicago Bulls. Although many questioned Jordan’s ability to play at that next level of competition, the Bulls clearly made the right decision in picking him up. He soon was the face of the Chicago Bulls’ franchise, racking up three consecutive championships in the years 1991, 1992, and 1993, and then adding another one in the year 1996.3 Now with the 1997 NBA Finals tied at 2-2, and the Chicago Bulls seeking their fifth title, play-by-play commentator Marv Albert let viewers know before the game that Jordan was suffering from “flu-like symptoms”–a term that has grown in lore since this performance.4

With Jordan being unable to function and appearing lethargic, the Jazz began to sense victory as they were sure they were going to beat the Bulls, due to the Bulls not having their star player. As the game began, Jordan obviously looked weak and out of it, and this sparked the Jazz to go on a 10-0 run, taking a sixteen-point lead in the first quarter. People believed that this game was doomed from the start. However, Michael Jordan would soon prevail by scoring an incredible 17 points. At every dead ball, Jordan quickly sank to his knees with signs of exhaustion. But that did not stop Jordan from closing the lead gap to 4 points, making the score 53-49, with the Jazz still being up. Many fans looked in amazement as Jordan fought through the sickness. They soon began to realize that this was “the game” to watch. During half time, Jordan was hooked up to an IV, as he was facing dehydration, and he was given cold towels to keep his body from burning up.5

“I have never seen Michael as sick as this,” teammate Scottie Pippen said during half time. “It was to the point, where I did not know if he was going to play.”6 Jordan began to throw up outside the locker room and his trainers began to question his playing status. After a long debate on whether Jordan should continue the game with his health being on the line, and as half time was coming to an end, a very fatigue, but determined Jordan, unhooked himself from the IV and began to head to the court, focused on getting the win for his time. Still down by 4 points (53-49), Jordan was not going to quit this fight.

A dehydrated Michael Jordan during a timeout | Courtesy of Steve Higgins.

As the third quarter began to roll in, it seemed like the sickness was single-handedly beating up Jordan, and every possession began to get harder and harder for him. This sparked the Jazz to take advantage of the sick Michael Jordan, allowing them to stretch their lead by 8 points. This caused Coach Phil Jackson to burn out their timeouts to allow a very fatigue Jordan to catch his breath, only to see him collapsed on the bench while trying to chug fluids to replenish his weakened body.7 Jordan was silent during the third quarter as he was forced to sit out the majority of the quarter as the trainers were trying to rehydrate his body as best they could. As the third quarter ended, the Jazz were leading 77-69, and although the game was going on, all eyes were on Jordan as he battled to continue to stay on the floor. Many were surprised that he was even still on the floor, but what made many people impressed was the amount of heart he showed for his team and for the game.

With the fourth quarter starting and the game being close, Jordan knew the game was not over yet and that there was still enough time to make a come back. He knew if he wanted to take the lead, he had to act quickly and smart, without over exerting his body. Jordan soon sprung into action, scoring a quick 6 points. Once that began, there was no stopping him. A burst of adrenaline began to fill his body. His team began to feed off of his energy and by the end of the quarter, the Chicago Bulls were able to close the lead to 85-84. With only 46 seconds left, Jordan was fouled, and he headed to the free-throw line. He sank the first one to tie the game. Then, he missed the second one, only to have his teammate, Toni Kukoč,  get his offensive rebound to pass back to him, which allowed the Bull’s offense to set up. With 25 seconds left in the fourth quarter of Game 5, the Bulls had to act quickly. With it being Chicago’s possession, they were able to execute the play precisely. Pippen got the ball…he was being double teamed…Pippen dished a pass back out to Jordan…Jordan took the pass, looked up, and sank a three-pointer! The Bulls took the lead for the first time in the game. Jordan’s three was the game changer. The Bulls clinched the win for Game 5, putting them in the lead in the series 3-2. As the buzzer went off at the end of the game, a fatigued Jordan collapsed into Scottie Pippen’s arms as they walked off the floor, creating a memorable moment for not only a teammate but of a special friendship between Pippen and Jordan, which is still talked about today.8

Scottie Pippen embrace a very fatigued Jordan | Courtesy of BlueSky

We wanted it real bad…I had to do what I could do…I, Myself, wanted it really bad.

Those were the words that came from a very sick Jordan after Game 5. He ended up with an astonishing 38 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assist, and 3 steals to finish out the game.9 The Chicago Bulls then went on to win the 1997 NBA Finals in Game 6 in Chicago, making it Jordan’s 5th Championship Title. This is a story that all Chicago basketball fans know well. Michael Jordan is an individual that transformed the game in many different ways and is a role model for many people, especially for young individuals who need a positive role model to look up to. This game was just another example of why he is consider the best of the best. He was thrown adversity and handled it like a legend. He did the unthinkable and beat his own flu game.

  1. Pope Jones IV, “Food Poisoning or the Flu? Whatever it was, Michael Jordan Pushed through for the Bulls,” The News & Observer, June 11, 2008, https://www.newsobserver.com/sports/article/212946739.html.
  2. Jim Litke, “Peerless: Jordan spent his career trying to out do himself,” Southcoasttoday, January 17, 1999, www.southcoasttoday.com/article/19990117/news/301179926.
  3. Jim Litke, “Peerless: Jordan spent his career trying to out do himself,” Southcoasttoday, January 17, 1999, www.southcoasttoday.com/article/19990117/news/301179926.
  4. Nunzio Ingrassia, “Michael Jordan’s ‘Flu Game’ is Still Unforgettable 20 years later,” Fox Sports Newswww.foxsports.com, June 11, 2017, https://www.foxsports.com/nba/story/michael-jordans-flu-game-is-still-unforgettable-20-years-later-061117.
  5. Dan Barrio, “Flu-ridden Jordan Leaves Jazz with Sick Feeling,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)  Metro Edition, June 12, 1997, 12.
  6. Dan Barrio, “Flu-ridden Jordan Leaves Jazz with Sick Feeling,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) Metro Edition, June 12, 1997, 12.
  7. Dan Barrio, “Flu-ridden Jordan Leaves Jazz with Sick Feeling,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) Metro Edition, June 12, 1997, 12.
  8. Dan Barrio, “Flu-ridden Jordan Leaves Jazz with Sick Feeling,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) Metro Edition, June 12, 1997, 12.
  9. Harper Zach, “On This Day in Michael Jordan History: The Flu Game,” CBSSports.com, April 06, 2017, https://www.cbssports.com/nba/news/on-this-day-in-michael-jordan-history-the-flu-game/.

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This Post Has 78 Comments

  1. I’ve never gotten the flu before, but I heard it can be such a horrifying experience. It really is amazing how much strength he had for his team and for the fans while being terribly sick. Aside from that, I love how this article is written because it highlighted a short point in Michael Jordan’s life and made it into an engaging story. What a great article.

  2. These are the moment where I wish I had been alive at that time. The atmosphere must have been amazing. Michael Jordan at that time already was a guaranteed Hall of Famer with all of his accomplishments but this flu game made him a legend. I have had the flu and I can barely get out of bed, but when he has the flu he scores 38 points in an NBA finals game.

  3. This article was really good. I remember when I was little my dad told me about Michael Jordan playing with the flu in the NBA finals. This game is so significant because had he not played, it could have been the difference between winning and losing the finals. This story shows why it is that Michael Jordan has never lost in the finals- because he had so much fight and passion for the game and had the killer instinct necessary to win.

  4. This story of Jordan’s Flu game is definitely one that every basketball fan has at least heard of but may not know well. This article gives a great backstory on why this game had value other than the fact Michael Jordan was playing sick, and the article does a great job immersing the reader by practically putting us in the eyes of Michael, his peers, coaching staff, and even the audience of the game. Very much a great written piece.

  5. As an athlete, I have always thought of this story as being a defining moment for Michael Jordan. If I have a day where I am feeling sick and try to play my sport, I would be terrible comparatively, but Jordan still thrived. This level of determination and focus is unparalleled and what pushed him to be one of if not the all time greatest basketball player.

  6. This article did an amazing job at capturing the moments and plays that occurred during game five of the 1997 finals; I was at the edge of my seat, quickly and anxiously reading to find out what was going to happen next, even though I am no stranger to the infamous Flu Game. That being said, the author did a great job of making the audience feel excited about and captivated in the story. Being a competitive individual myself, I remind myself of this moment of determination and perseverance as a pick-me-up. It amazes me what an individual can accomplish if they really want something, no matter what kind of obstacles are in their way. This story is inspiring to many people, whether they are basketball fans or not.

  7. This article starts out with good action and a conflict that’s taking place instead of just facts about the person’s life. Jordan’s background of his childhood and how he got cut from his high school team really show that he is a person that does not give up when the going gets hard. His passion and heart he had for the game kept him on that court leading his team to a victory.

  8. Passion and handwork is how I would describe Michael Jordan. As a competitor, you will be put in difficult situations and the way you respond shows your true character. A similar story had to do with Lou Gehrig and Wally Pip. Gehrig was a 22 yr old bench player for the New York Yankees in 1923. Wally Pip who was the starter had gotten a headache that day and decided to take the day off. Lou got his chance and didn’t come out for another 2,130 games. The determination and love for the game that Jordan had to compete alongside his teammates was a challenge but ended up being worth it. Fun Article!

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