Depression. Demons. Boredom. Ask those familiar with basketball in the ’90s and any combination of the three (or maybe all three) hold rank as the true reason(s) why Michael Jordan retired from basketball following the 1992-93 season. Depression due to the death of his father. Demons because of his growingly public gambling habits painting the NBA and its most popular player in a negative light. And boredom because the game’s most competitive and vindictive personality felt he ran out of ways to inspire himself on a basketball court.
They’re all true in their own right. Yet, Mike never truly had a “rival” in the sense of that guy who was around his age to throw haymakers with. The way Magic had Bird and Bird had Magic. The way Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain had each other. The way many hope LeBron and Durant will help define the other’s career for the next half decade. Detroit and New York were close, but those were team influenced more than anything. And Clyde Drexler never really appeared to embrace a rivalry of any parts with Mike despite the media’s attempts to link them together. Ironically, it’s the 1986 NBA Draft – now viewed as the most cursed in league history with names like Chris Washburn, Roy Tarpley and more as their poster children – where Mike could have developed more than one potential nemesis to clash with. This isn’t to say Mike ever spawns into his own Magic/Bird type duels, but none were intimidated by Mike nor backed down.*
And that was 65% of the battle when playing against Michael Jeffrey.
* – With the exception of one, this trio never mimics or eclipses M.J.’s on-court impact or skill. So don’t go getting your panties in a bunch twisting words thinking otherwise. These are merely suggestions of who Jordan missed great sub-rivalries with.
1. Len Bias – Boston Celtics (2nd Overall)
May as well get the most obvious out of the way first, right? Len Bias was slated to enter the NBA as a can’t miss, NBA superstar. And to make matters worse, he had the single greatest set up for any highly drafted NBA draft pick since then. Selected by the reigning world champion Boston Celtics, there would have been no pressure on Bias to start or make any significant impact during his rookie campaign. Boston would have had the luxury of transitioning Bias into their system off the bench giving them a ridiculous front line of Bird, McHale, Parish and Lenny.
Bias’ progression over the years, learning the ins and outs of the pro game, effectively adds one or two more seasons on Larry Bird and Kevin McHale’s career due to the fact their minutes wouldn’t have been nearly as taxing. In an ideal scenario, Bias takes over the starting power forward position ushering the C’s into the ’90’s making things even harder for Mike to get over the hump. It wasn’t meant to be, however, as the cocaine epidemic was staking its claim as the decade’s blackest eye alongside AIDS. And this is where the sob story begins all over again.
In all seriousness, if Bias never overdoses, he lives up to the hype and they still find a way to get their paws on Reggie Lewis – who also never dies – the Celtics could have potentially posed serious questions for Chicago out East. Bias’ death had a trickle down effect on Beantown to the point where it took damn near 20 years for the franchise to truly recover and capture another title. Who knew one line of coke in a University of Maryland dorm room would become the precursor to one of pop culture’s most painful “what if” scenarios?
2. Ron Harper – Cleveland Cavaliers (8th Overall)
Before injuries and bad luck took over, Ron Harper was probably just as good as your drunk uncle or pops described. Cleveland’s 1986 draft had franchise altering written all over it by taking UNC big man Brad Daugherty #1 overall and then Ron-Ron just seven picks later. Think New Orleans this year, somewhat. Anywho, Harp put up 23-5-5-3 his rookie year in Cleveland, but only lasted three years in the Midwest before being shipped to Don Sterling’s plantation in Los Angeles. There he would blow out his knee out to much to chagrin of no one.
How he bounced from the Cavs is what left many scratching their heads, however. Harper’s side of the story details former Cavs GM Wayne Embry having it out for him. He says Embry attempted to portray him as a drug addict claiming Ron had been in a nightclub with a table filled with the finest illegal substances known to man; a claim Ron denied on the spot and even volunteered to take tests to prove his innocence. Embry then pulls the trigger with Sterling and the rest is history.
With a 6’6 frame and scoring prowess only God could teach, it’s no surprise many back then saw Harper in a Jordan mold. It’s also no surprise Ron harks back on his Cavs days and saw a missed opportunity. “I think we would have won more than one ring,” he said. “We would have had to beat Chicago, we would have had to beat Detroit, we would have had to beat the [Boston] Celtics. There were a few teams we would have had to play against, but I felt that we were young enough and naive [enough] to feel that we were that good.”
How the story ends is common knowledge. Ron suffers through five seasons in Clipperland before joining Jordan for the second leg of Chicago’s three peats and even sticks around to snag one with Shaq and Kobe. So if you’re keeping score at home, yes, it’s another freakishly talented former Cavalier who exited the team on controversial terms only to secure championship hardware elsewhere. Thus proving the adage, “no one suffers like Cleveland.”
A completely healthy Harper, Daugherty, who was a five time All Star but never played a game past 28 due to back issues, and a young Cavs team who grew together would have made for entertaining Eastern Conference basketball in April and May. Jordan never lost to the Cavs though. So believing he’d do so here may be wishing on a star that isn’t bright enough. Yet, there’s that sneaky feeling we were all cheated from seeing a Jordan vs. Harper showdown in the Eastern Semis where both exploded for 40+.
3. Drazen Petrovic – Portland Trailblazers (60th Overall)
Their gold medal face-off in the 1992 Summer Olympics showed Drazen held no fear in his heart for Jordan. Their later battles in the NBA would only solidify the notion. Drazen’s game wasn’t as polished as Mike’s, nor would it probably have ever been. However, his untimely passing in October 1993 vanquished what had the makings of one of the more prolific scorers of the generation. At the time of his death, Draz was grasping the full cusp of his potential stateside. The Nets were also becoming a scrappy team with suddenly a formidable trio in himself, Kenny Anderson and Derrick Coleman with Chuck Daly at the helm.
His last season in Jersey saw Petrovic average 22 points per game while shooting 51% from the field, 45% from three and 87% from the free throw line. With a shooting stroke as pure as it was deadly, Draz was improving; a scary thought considering he had all the intagibles to average close to 30 a night while shooting 50-40-90 (field goals-three pointers-free throws) percentage wise. Maybe not to the point where MVP would be in question, but given the fact Petrovic’s offensive game was predicated on putting the ball in the basket at blinding rates, the imagery for scoring title shootouts lingers in a parallel universe. Plus, he won over the respect of Michael which is sort of like winning over the respect of a serial killer because of your ability to thwart their every attempt to chop your head off.* Jordan once noted on Drazen’s legacy, “Every time we competed, he competed with an aggressive attitude. He came at me as hard as I came at him.”
An urban legend stands to this day that during the 1992 Olympics Jordan allegedly told Drazen, in efforts to get under his skin, “I’ll drain this one in your face.” Petrovic simply responded, “I’ll do that too.” The outcome obviously went in USA’s favor, but their personal battle saw Drazen come out on top 24-22. Mike may not have been “The Gooch” and D.P. may not have been Arnold, but it was evident he wouldn’t back down to anybody once the “Croatian Mozart” became more acclimated to the NBA game.
Not even if it meant being knocked out by the sport’s most iconic movement.
* – Head to head, Mike dominated going 10-1 throughout their careers. Drazen’s first few seasons were a wash mainly because he didn’t make his NBA debut until 1989 and Portland never allowed him the shot to truly develop his game. So by count, the Blazers draft Sam Bowie knowing he was a flight risk and knowing Jordan was a rare talent, banked on Greg Oden over Durant and let quite possibly one of the generation’s better scorers ride the pine before blossoming in New Jersey. This is all before Brandon Roy or Greg Oden ever finished middle school. Outside of Nike, Portland is the real life “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”