Michael Jordan never had a flu game.
Maybe he never had a food-poisoning game, either.
In “The Last Dance” on ESPN, Jordan blamed a late-night pizza for his illness in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals. His trainer (Tim Grover) and personal assistant (George Koehler) corroborated with a tale of five guys suspiciously delivering the pizza to Jordan’s hotel room. Though Grover had told the delivery story before, this was the first time Jordan publicly discussed how he was the only one to eat the pizza and how it made him sick.
A fun tidbit from a source I asked about the Flu Game. The source was told from a Jazz staffer on the night of Game 5 something along the lines of: “Flu my ass. The Bulls’ PR guy just said Jordan was in Vegas all night and he was hung over.” #TheLastDance #ParkCityPizzaMystery
This is the most credible report I’ve seen of Jordan being hungover. Genessy is a journalist experienced in vetting information. He identifies his source as “very reliable.”
I’m still skeptical. There are at least four degrees of separation in the story getting passed down. That’s a lot of room for misinformation to enter the chain.
Yet, there’s some circumstantial evidence:
Jordan went to Atlantic City to unwind during the 1993 Eastern Conference finals against the Knicks.
Jordan sometimes drank to unwind. He was also a notorious competitor who pushed himself hard, including on game days.
Dennis Rodman made multiple trips from Utah to Vegas during the 1997 NBA Finals. Though that frustrated the Bulls, they generally begrudgingly accepted his behavior. Rodman wasn’t apologetic, saying he flew by private jet and, “When you have money, you can do those things.” If Rodman had the means, obviously so did Jordan. (Rodman returned to Vegas between games in Utah during the 1998 NBA Finals, prompting this classic line from Tim Graham of the Las Vegas Sun, who chronicled Rodman’s night: “It is uncertain how deep into the morning Rodman gambled at the Hilton because the Sun eventually had to go to press.”)
Could Jordan – given his celebrity – have flown to and from Vegas undetected? It was at least possible in 1997. But, again, I’m skeptical.
The hangover rumors also don’t stay on the same page.
Former NBC color commentator Matt Guokas, who called Game 5 of the 1997 Finals, via Roland Lazenby’s “Michael Jordan: The Life“:
The other thing was, there were conspiracy theories of what was really wrong with Michael. We just took it at face value that he had the flu and just went ahead and played. But according to the stories and rumors, he was supposedly at Robert Redford’s chalet up in the mountains playing poker all night and partying too hard.
So, was Jordan in Vegas or at Robert Redford’s chalet?
This strikes me as the type of story people want to believe and spread. It’s juicy! But that’s precisely a reason to doubt it.
Jordan played great in Game 5, scoring 38 points – including 15 in the fourth quarter – in 44 minutes to lead the Bulls to a 90-88 win over the Jazz. Hampered by the flu or food poisoning, an ill Jordan stepping up in that moment was incredible.
If he were hungover, that’d take some luster off the story. Still a gritty performance. But it’d fall in a different light if the wounds were self-inflicted. (Though, in some corners, Jordan would get championed even more for partying hard and still dominating on the court.)
Ultimately, I’m unconvinced of the hangover story. There just isn’t enough concrete evidence.
But if Jordan were sick due to a clandestine Vegas trip, my very favorite part of the saga would be Grover and Koehler concocting a story about five pizza deliverers as cover and sticking with it for decades. That’d be the exact type of behavior you’d expect from Jordan’s inner circle.