For so much of his NBA career, Michael Jordan seemed not only like the best player on the court at any given time, but also completely infallible.
That was only half true ahead of Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals matchup against the Jazz, however. A visibly ill Jordan put on the performance of a lifetime in what would come to be known as the «Flu Game.” It was one of the defining moments of his career.
“The big story here tonight — the story concerning Michael Jordan’s physical condition,” play-by-play commentator Marv Albert SAID before the game. “This is Jordan arriving two hours ago. He is suffering from flu-like symptoms.”
MORE: Jordan's emotional monologue from ‘The Last Dance' cuts to core of his leadership style
Indeed, cameras showed Jordan as fans had never seen him: sweating profusely, whether he leaned back in his chair or bent over at the knees on the court. When he wasn’t playing (he played 44 minutes), he chugged fluids, kept an ice pack on his neck and draped a towel over his head.
As sick as Jordan was, there was no way he wouldn’t give everything he had for this particular game: The series was tied 2-2 with the game in Salt Lake City. A loss here would have meant the Bulls would have to win two straight, including in Game 7 back on the Jazz’s home court. And so, he scored 38 points on 13-of-27 shooting, adding seven rebounds, five assists, three steals and a block in the 90-88 win.
Particulars of his incredible performance include a 17-point second-quarter explosion (which helped erase a 16-point deficit) and a go-ahead 3 in the closing seconds to give the Bulls a lead it never gave up.
The image of Jordan collapsing into Scottie Pippen’s arms as the two walk off the court became an indelible part of Jordan’s legacy.
Said Jordan after the game (via NBA.com
But did Jordan even have the flu?
MORE: Steve Kerr explains how Jordan punching him in the face helped their relationship
In 2013, his personal trainer Tim Grover revealed what he believes to be the actual cause of Jordan’s illness: food poisoning.
«Yes, 100 percent poisoned for (the ‘Flu Game'),» Grover said on TrueHoop TV (via ESPN). «Everyone called it a ‘Flu Game,' but we sat there and we were in the room, we were in Park City, Utah, up in a hotel. Room service stopped at like 9 o'clock. And he got hungry, and we really couldn't find any other place to eat so we ordered. … I said, ‘Hey, the only thing I could find is a pizza place.' He said, ‘All right, order pizza.' We had been there for a while, so everybody knows what hotel … I mean Park City (didn't have) many hotels back then. Everybody kind of knew where we were staying.
«So we order a pizza, they come to deliver it, five guys come to deliver this pizza. And I'm just … I take the pizza, and I tell them, I said, ‘I got a bad feeling about this.' I said, ‘I just got a bad feeling about this.' Out of everybody in the room, he was the only one that ate. Nobody else. … Then 2 o'clock in the morning, I get a call to my room. I come to the room, he's curled up, he's curled up in the fetal position. We're looking at him. We're finding the team physician at that time. And immediately I said, ‘It's food poisoning.' Guaranteed. Not the flu.»
(That’s an opinion Jordan’s teammate Ron Harper shared as well, per Phil Jackson in this 2012 interview).
Another more outlandish explanation for Jordan’s flu-like symptoms: They were merely the symptoms of a hangover. That “theory” comes from Jalen Rose, who allegedly told that story at a college party in Bloomington, Ind. after catching a game between Michigan and Indiana.
This is the most unlikely of the three explanations — though, as “The Last Dance” has reminded us, Jordan wasn’t afraid to mix things up before games. (Remember when he took off to Atlantic City before Game 2 of the 1993 Eastern Conference finals with his team down 1-0 to the Knicks)?
Regardless of the cause of Jordan’s symptoms, one thing is certain: He suffered greatly in that game — but not as much as he made the Jazz suffer.