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Sports June, 11 2013

Michael Jordan’s Flu Game & The Vulnerability of Superstars

In the middle of the night on June 10, 1997, Michael Jordan would wake up in his hotel room in Salt Lake City feeling like he was trapped in a nightmare – later commenting “I was scared; I didn’t know what was happening to me. I felt paralyzed.” It was an off day in between game 4 and game 5 of the NBA Finals with the series between the Bulls and Jazz knotted at 2-2 – following two straight victories by Utah and a yet-to-be-played game at the Delta Center. After calling Bulls’ medical personnel, Jordan was told “there’s no way you’ll be able to play Game 5″ due to either food poisoning or a stomach virus. His Airness was to be grounded for the pivotal swing game – but even as casual fans of the NBA know – Jordan would roll out of bed just an hour before tip-off and deliver a performance that reads now as cliche but was seen then as pure and undeniable heroism. 38 points. 15 in the 4th quarter. Bulls win by 2. The revolution would not be televised on that fateful night in Salt Lake, but Michael Jordan’s resolve would be. In the sixteen years since the “flu game,” we’ve been welcomed into the interpersonal lives of our favorite athletes and entertainers thanks to a bevy of outlets dedicated to the famous, and details about their lives played out on Facebook and Twitter. Despite having access to whether the red carpet matches the theater drapes, we undeniably still want to be dazzled by the performance rather than the drawn out explanation.

“That was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I almost played myself into passing out just to win a basketball game. If we had lost, I would have been devastated.”

– Michael Jordan

I was fourteen during the championship run by the Bulls. As a lifelong Chicagoan, June became known as a month when school had just let out and there was always championship parade in Grant Park. ’90s kids in the Chicagoland area were lucky. We were treated to reading, writing, arithmetic and rings. Jordan was my hero. I didn’t know about his gambling. I didn’t know about his failing marriage to his wife. I didn’t know that his competitive nature bordered on unhealthy. All I knew was that MJ always showed up – and any chink in the armor – say the red and black knee brace he sported on his left calf – was merely cosmetic. So when the murmurs started that 23 was under the weather and uncertain to play, it didn’t register like a “trending topic” of today, but rather that the sky and it’s most famous inhabitant was falling. Michael Jordan was sick just like I had been a week prior – only I had been faking and he had never not delivered his annual championship influenza on the Windy City.

In today’s society, we mistake celebrity access as candidness on their part. Since we’re invited inside the inner circle, we assume that spoon-fed and easily digestible tidbits about life in the fast lane means we’re getting a “sketch” as opposed to a strategic “portrait.” Just because we’re more connected to people that we admire, doesn’t mean we’re getting the truth. The fact remains today just like it did sixteen years ago; mystique is what endears a person to a fan base while over-saturation flows off the tongue with mentions of “Beliebers” and “Team Breezy.”

Because of the circumstances, with this being a critical game in the Finals, I’d have to say this is the greatest game I’ve seen Michael play. Just standing up was nauseating for him and caused him dizzy spells. This was a heroic effort, one to add to the collection of efforts that make up his legend.”

– Phil Jackson

There comes a moment in every kid’s life when they become aware that a parent has emotions and aren’t merely there to service your every Fruit Roll-Up whim. Watching Michael Jordan run up and down the court in the first quarter –  hopelessly tugging on his oversized red shorts to help him from completely collapsing – felt like that realization for me. Maybe he couldn’t do everything? If Michael Jordan falls when everyone’s looking, what kind of sound would it make?

And then the game was well into the 4th quarter. Jazz 77, Bulls 69. The 19,911 people packed into the Delta Center – who just years later would serve as an impressionistic backdrop for MJ’s last shot as a Bull – could see that Jordan wasn’t on the proverbial ropes, he was at the end of his. The flu had sacked Jordan and this wasn’t for show. His meltdown was fueled by a ravenous fever that didn’t have anything to do with a private persona suddenly made very much public.

My hero wasn’t faking it and it was heartbreaking to watch.

Then there was a twelve-footer.  Ka-ching!

Kukoc buried a three.  Then Jordan followed with another.  Tied at 77.

Stockton hits a three to make it 84-81.

Jordan hits a runner. 84-83.

Then it was tied 85-85. 46.5 seconds left. Jordan’s temperature is somewhere north of the century mark which would have meant free Big Macs for everyone if the game were being played back at the United Center. During the timeout Jordan could barely keep his head up. I remember looking at the Jumpman logo on my shoes and questioning how he could be doing this to himself? He doesn’t know my summer break will be ruined if they lose the series, does he?

Of course, what I couldn’t comprehend then was that his summer vacation would have been ruined if he didn’t punctuate his already 35-point performance with another 3. Where as vulnerability is often a ploy these days to obtain favorable treatment from the media and consumers, Jordan’s theatrics were undeniably genuine.  His greatest on court meltdown came when he was absolutely blazing.

It’s been sixteen years since that game. Along the way we’ve become a world that relishes in tugging on Superman’s cape because it humanizes the faux idols that we put on a pedestal in the first place. I think we’re all coming down with something.

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based writer who has written for Esquire, Details, Maxim and Playboy in the past. Follow him on Twitter @smart_alec_

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