With all the talk of Kevin Durant jilting the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors, fans may be surprised to know that the same thing almost happened here 20 years ago. It seems inconceivable nowadays. Michael Jordan is nothing like these new age NBA players who jump to new teams at the first opportunity if they think they won’t be able to win a championship. He was loyal to the Chicago Bulls and the fans, choosing instead to work harder than anybody to turn the franchise into a champion. He was rewarded in the 1990s by winning six titles. The only reason Jordan ever played for another team was because he got ran out of town by former GM Jerry Krause.
While that sounds like a romantic telling of the greatest NBA career anybody has ever witnesses, the facts are somewhat different. It turns out that there was time that M.J. indeed almost did leave the Bulls. In the summer of 1996, the team was coming off a 72-10 season, winning their fourth championship of the decade. Jordan’s contract was expiring and he was intent on getting a massive raise since he had played up to that point on an outdated eight-year, $25 million contract while other players were making well north of $10 million per season.
He warned the team that the years of friendly discounts were going to be over. Sure enough he initially demanded $18 million for one season, the match of the highest contract amount in league history up to that point. However, soon Chicago was forced go even higher when an old enemy attempted to swipe their superstar away from them as the Chicago Tribune wrote.
“So how did they settle on a $30 million contract after Jordan had floated a trial balloon of $18 million during the 1995-96 playoffs?
At the time, Knicks center Patrick Ewing was playing a “balloon” season of $18 million, then the biggest one-year deal in NBA history.
That’s where Jordan started, and the Bulls were prepared to go to $20 million for one season as a sort of a one-year payback to Jordan for the previous seasons when he was “underpaid.”
But in stepped those dreaded Knicks, then owned by a partnership between ITT-Sheraton and Cablevision Inc.
The Knicks had maneuvered themselves well below the salary cap–about $12 million–and eventually signed free agents Allan Houston, Chris Childs and Buck Williams.
But the initial target was Jordan.
“We told them they could have all our cap room, ” Madison Square Garden President Dave Checketts acknowledged.”
It’s obvious why New York was doing that. No player had tortured the Knicks in the 1990s more than Jordan. In four playoff meetings against the Bulls when Jordan was on the roster, they were 0-4. Not only would taking Jordan away weaken Chicago, but it would almost guarantee New York a championship of their own when pairing him with Ewing.
The Knicks put on the full court press, offering an unprecedented $25 million deal to bring Michael to the Big Apple. His agent called the Bulls and said they had one hour to beat that number or he was signing. It’s unclear whether this was a bluff by Jordan to squeeze more money out of the normally tight-fisted Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, but either way it had the desired effect.
Chicago delivered a contract worth $30 million, which would make him the highest paid athlete in professional sports history. Michael Jordan signed and the Bulls won their fifth championship later that season. To this day few people realize how close it came to there being no second three-peat.