Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls have long been considered the NBA’s model franchise. But before he got there, they were far from it — both on and off the court.
When the Bulls drafted Jordan out of the University of North Carolina in 1984, Chicago had missed the playoffs in seven of the previous nine seasons, despite the fact 16 of the league’s 23 teams made the postseason each year. The franchise was generating such little interest that an indoor soccer team, the Chicago Sting, would outdraw it at Chicago Stadium.
The first episode of ESPN’s highly anticipated docuseries “The Last Dance” offers insight into the extent of the Bulls’ dysfunction: many of the players would often use cocaine and other recreational drugs. And while Jordan said much of it took place out of his sight, he recalled one moment during his first preseason in which it came into full view.
“I think we were in Peoria, it was in a hotel, and I was trying to find my teammates,” Jordan says. “I start knocking on doors, I get to this one door, and I could hear someone say, shhh, someone’s outside. This deep voice says, ‘who is it?’ I say, it’s MJ, and they say, ah, f–k, he’s just a rookie. Don’t worry about it.
“So they open up the door. I walk in, and practically the whole team is in there. It was things I had never seen in my life as a young kid. You got your lines over here, you got your weed smokers over here, you got your women over here.”
In the episode, an interviewer tells a present-day Jordan about an article that called the Bulls a ‘traveling cocaine circus,” and he erupts into laughter. But at the time, it was a major shock, especially having just come from Dean Smith’s ultra-buttoned-up UNC program. And it led him to live a separate life from his teammates during his early career.
“The first thing I said is, I’m out. Because all I can think about is if they come raid this place right now, I am just as guilty as everyone else in this room. From that point on, I was more or less on my own.”
During his early time in Chicago, Jordan spent much of his spare time playing cards and watching movies. His mother was a frequent guest to his townhouse. He never went to the clubs and didn’t even drink at the time.
“Whatever somebody else might have been doing off the court, if it was partying or whatever, that wasn’t part of what he wanted to do,” said Rod Higgins, who played on the Bulls from 1981-85. “Orange juice and 7-Up was his go-to.”
It wasn’t until his third regular-season game that Jordan says he “earned his stripes” with his Bulls teammates. Against their nemesis, the Milwaukee Bucks, Chicago was down nine going into the fourth quarter until Jordan erupted, finishing with 37 points. The Bulls came back to win, 116-110.
“The Last Dance” airs on ESPN Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET.