The distinction between retirement and sabbatical becomes blurred, and largely unimportant, when discussing the greatest basketball player of our time – Michael Jordan. In 1993, his Airness bid a tearful goodbye to the Chicago Bulls – the team with which he’d played 10 seasons, won three consecutive World Championships, and inspired countless children with scuffed backboards and NBA dreams. Two years later, he was back. And not just to basketball, but to this mighty alma matter, the Bulls. Short-lived retirement? Unplanned sabbatical? Does it matter?
When Jordan left the NBA in October 1993, his comments resembled those of any other frustrated employee. He said he could accomplish nothing more in the game of basketball, and wanted to leave while still at the height of his career. Just one year earlier, Jordan and his esteemed colleagues on the U.S. Dream Team had achieved the highest international athletic distinction: a gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics. Jordan could name no greater challenge, honor, or appropriate parting achievement.
Sports fans and pundits speculated otherwise. They said Jordan was propelled out of the spotlight by the devastating 1993 murder of his father and the hurtful media rumors that Jordan had a serious gambling problem. Some reported that Jordan had concocted a deal with the NBA officials investigating his gambling whereby he quietly avoided a suspension by ducking out of the NBA. Two days after his retirement, NBA officials closed their probe by stating that Jordan had committed no wrongdoing and that there was no evidence that he’d bet on NBA games.
In Jordan’s absence, the Bulls erected a life-size bronze statue of the famed player outside their United Center. They retired number 23 and moved on without their star athlete.
Jordan, meanwhile, took up baseball. Though not a complete flop, Jordan’s new athletic endeavor demonstrated that 6’6″ point guards don’t make the best hitters. Regardless of his questionable baseball talents, Jordan signed a minor-league contract with the Chicago White Sox in early 1994. When he failed to make the major league cut, Jordan spent the season playing right field for the organization’s Double A team in Birmingham, Alabama.
While Jordan was popping fly balls and boosting baseball attendance in the South, the Bulls were making ends meet. Scottie Pippin, who was promoted to the position of team superstar, paired up with newcomer Tony Kukoc to create a new dynamic duo. Jordan simply couldn’t stand by and watch. On March 18, 1995, Jordan boomeranged back to the sport that made him one of the world’s most popular athletes, by simply announcing, “I’m back.” The very next day, donning number 45 in place of his retired 23, Jordan took the court against the Indiana Pacers. And although his return game was an overtime loss of 103-96, sports fans around the world — as well as corporate endorsers like Nike and McDonald’s — celebrated Jordan’s return.
Jordan finished what was left of the 1994-95 season with the Bulls and returned for three more. In those final three seasons, the Bulls won three more consecutive World Championships (1996-98), bringing their Jordan-era total to an amazing six. Teammates joked that they still had four ring fingers left, but for Jordan, the rollercoaster ride was apparently over.
The fans knew it was coming, but when Michael Jordan made his second retirement announcement on January 13, 1999, all of Chicago mourned the loss. “My physical skills are as strong as ever,” he said during a packed press conference at the United Center. “But the mental aspect is not the same – the challenge is not as great. I promised myself – and I have said many times publicly – that when the mental challenge began to fade, I would leave. That time is now here.”
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