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That Chicago Bulls charter flights served as de facto casinos throughout the 1990s was an open secret among NBA fans. There’s the famous Sports Illustrated photo of Ron Harper, Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan playing cards, thrown onto a perfectly folded blanket in the airplane’s aisle. The setup prevented the cards from sliding away, its meticulousness indicative of the frequency of such games.
But the back of the plane was the fiercely competitive high rollers’ room. That’s where you’d most often find Jordan, of course—until he learned of the role players’ $1 blackjack games up front.
Jordan wanted in. Will Perdue, the Bulls’ 1988 first-rounder, swears by his memory of the following exchange between the Hall of Famer and John Paxson:
Paxson: Why are you even bothering to play with us?
Jordan: So I can say I have your money in my pocket.
John Paxson and Michael JordanBrian Drake/Getty Images
Jordan’s infamous competitive drive made him the GOAT then—and would do the same in today’s LeBron James- and Steph Curry-dominated NBA.
“He would somehow find a way to beat you—somehow,” Perdue says. “I’m not sure how. He’s not sure how, but he would stay up weeks to figure it out.”
Randy Brown, a Jordan teammate during the second three-peat and a current Bulls assistant coach, says he never saw Jordan practice a single three-pointer. Only once did Jordan have a full season in which he shot at least 40 percent from three, the general cutline below the top 25 in today’s era (Curry has never fallen below that threshold in his eight-year NBA career). Given what analytics tell us about the value of a three-point shot, if there’s a knock on Jordan’s potential in the modern game, it’s his limited range.
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Defending the three, though, is as important as the ability to shoot it. Jordan was recognized as one of the NBA’s great on-ball defenders, having been named to the NBA’s All-Defensive first team nine times. With teams going smaller these days, Brown says Jordan could have guarded four positions. Perdue, on the other hand, says legendary Bulls assistant Johnny Bach designed the team’s defense to allow Jordan to play the passing lane. He led the league in steals three times.
“A lot of teams now talk about, ‘Hey, if you’re going to jump the passing lane, you better damn well get that interception because if you don’t, we’re gonna roast your ass,'” Perdue says.
In the early ’90s, the Detroit Pistons were known for aggressively fouling Jordan to keep him out of the lane. Think of an unleashed Draymond Green, Matthew Dellavedova and Bruce Bowen’s elbow converging on the 6’6″ guard in the paint. Today’s flagrant-2s—groin kicks, clotheslines, jabs to the face—have nothing on what MJ had to drive through.
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Nike, Gatorade and Space Jam transformed Jordan from star athlete to cultural icon. As a result, the Bulls were one of the first professional sports teams to earn the kind of “rock star” status most pro teams take for granted today.
Social media, camera phones and the advancement of the internet would have exponentially increased his celebrity. Brown, who as an assistant coach assuredly understands the potential pitfalls of social media, thinks his Bulls teams benefited from the relative anonymity athletes could enjoy before the world of Instagram and Facebook.
Sure, there’s a photo of the Bulls’ plane poker game, but the real behind-the-scenes action—the high rollers’ room fights, the ear-splitting trash talk, the stories that only get shared over drinks between old friends—dodged the Snapchat lens.
Matt Doherty, Jordan’s teammate all three years at North Carolina, says even with today’s pervasive social media culture, college-aged Mike would’ve stayed out of trouble thanks to Hall of Fame Tar Heels coach Dean Smith. “We had a great coach who would have managed that social media part. … [Jordan] would have followed whatever protocol was put in place.”
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Doherty says even before joining the Association, MJ “wasn’t afraid to take on the best.”
“He’s got elite competitive spirit and also has an elite IQ,” he adds. “Along with his talent, I think he would have been a better pro now than he was back then.”
Perdue says MJ’s persistence seems to be the differentiating factor between him and LeBron—the latest, and perhaps most promising yet, challenger to Jordan’s GOAT throne.
“You see LeBron say: ‘I’m playing hard, I averaged a triple-double, I’ll sleep well tonight,'” Perdue says. “I don’t think you would ever hear those words come out of MJ’s mouth.
“Even if he had 60, [if] he lost and thought somebody had got the best of him, he would be pissed.”
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Perdue, though, still has a tough time choosing between the two, noting James’ superior size. The four-time MVP is unquestionably the bigger, stronger player at 6’8″ and 250 pounds. But James is unfairly criticized, Perdue says, even when he makes the correct basketball play, because there are people unwilling to acknowledge him for fear of slighting Jordan.
With the two players’ skill sets so close, Perdue defaults to the intangibles to choose which basketball great would dominate if they matched up today.
“There are people that want to win and people that have to win,” Perdue says. “Michael had to win.”