The year was 1988. Gas was 91 cents per gallon. Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Rain Man and Die Hard were commanding box offices. And there were trade talks which would have sent Michael Jordan to the Los Angeles Clippers. Yes, you read that right.
Before diving into a story so crazy that it almost worked, let’s first take a brief look at His Airness’ 1987-1988 season.
— He had 17 40+ outings. The Bulls went 11-6 during those games; 50-32 overall.
— The now-mythological showdown with Dominique Wilkins in the Slam Dunk Contest remains one of the greatest moments in league history. One of the most controversial, too. Look at Dominique’s reaction when Jordan is announced the winner. He knew the only way he was winning the ’88 Contest (in Chicago) was if he used Michael Jackson as a prop of some sort.
— Numbers wise, he was just silly proving himself to be most unstoppable offensive force since some guy named Chamberlain: 35 PPG, 6 RPG, 6 APG, 3 SPG, 2 BPG, 54% FG and 84% FT.
— Detroit would beat Chicago 4-1 in the East semifinals. This would become a theme.
Here’s where things get dicey.
What’s known in the present day about Mike are the well-deserved, historic accolades. The scoring titles, the championships, the hardships, the most sadistic will to win probably ever. That’s Michael Jordan. What many either erased from their mind or had no clue altogether was the popular criticism about No. 23 prior to his first championship. The same criticism players like John Salley and Bill Laimbeer tormented him mercilessly over.
He was an abnormally gifted athlete who could do whatever at the drop of a dime on a court, but he was a player many around the league swore would never win a title because of his “me-first” attitude, including then-head coach Doug Collins. He even compounded such sentiments when a young M.J. once was quoted as saying, “I thought of myself first, the team second. I always wanted my teams to be successful. But I wanted to be the main cause.” By the end of his fourth season, tensions were odd in Chicago, at least in the front office. Calls were entertained.
And one of those came from everyone’s favorite civil rights NBA owner, Donald Sterling.
Money was king in 1988 as well as reputation, yet both paled in comparison to The Donald’s extreme desire to compete with another highly successful professional basketball franchise in the same city. Jerry Reinsdorf, at the time, was not the most popular man in Chicago stemming from back-fence talk about the White Sox, which he also owned, moving to Florida. Heading into the offseason, the 17-65 Clippers were light on intriguing tradeable pieces. Some things never change. Sterling’s offer of whatever five players Chicago wanted stood on the table, but the x-factor revolved around their two first round draft picks.
Those two picks just so happened to be first and sixth overall selections. Talks swirled about a potential swap that would send the NBA’s most popular player out west and here are two potential, nearly very real scenarios had both sides come to an agreement.
— Chicago takes Rik Smits with the first overall selection, whom Jerry Krause had one serious bromance with that year. Had Mitch Richmond been available at six, he goes here. (Richmond eventually goes fifth to Golden State leaving a player like Rex Chapman available.) Then, there’s Chicago’s earned pick at 11, which could have easily been Rod Strickland.
Potential 1988-89 line up: Strickland – Richmond – Pippen – Oakley – Smits
— The Bulls still take Smits at number one, but now have flexibility to trade around – draft picks and/or Oakley or Grant – for an established point guard. Krause also loved Kevin Johnson who, with some convincing, could have landed in Chicago via a trade had the compensation worked well for Cleveland.
Potential 1988-89 starting line up: Johnson – Richmond – Pippen – Grant/Oakley – Smits
It’s useless to play the “what-if” with Jordan’s Clippers because there’s a strong possibility his running mates would have been Benoit Benjamin and River Phoenix. Feel free to laugh at the plausible trade master plan and how asinine it sounds in 2011, but know 23 years ago it almost happened.
The ramifications of such a move changes the entire scope of pop culture in the ’90s. Perhaps, Jordan, even with his supreme physical condition, becomes Ron Harper before we all know the story of Ron Harper because of the unwritten curse of Sterling’s Clippers (the NBA equivalent to the Madden cover). Whether Chicago could have ever captured a title with that second line up is water under the bridge now, but the Bulls front office pondered the possibility and damn near convinced themselves life without Jordan was a better life. This was almost like the NBA’s version of the Bay of Pigs with Donald Sterling as Kennedy, the Clippers as America and Jerry Reinsdorf as Fidel Castro.
Why didn’t the Bulls pull the trigger? Mike simply made the franchise too much money, he was too talented and his narcissistic demeanor would eventually be better off putting smiles on the faces of residents of the Windy City. It was going to have to remain that way until either Jordan trusted his teammates and/or a coach came in headstrong enough to balance the two. And really, what were the chances of that happening?
This is all based on actual stories. Read Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules for proof.