As a dominant basketball powerhouse and pop culture phenomenon, the Chicago Bulls were among the most iconic stories of the 1990s. They won six titles in eight years and went down as one of the most dominant teams in history. Michael Jordan was the pivotal part of that team, but in the summer of 1996, he was close to joining the Bulls’ nemesis. Now that Jordan is and forever will be the face of the Bulls franchise, how exactly did this nearly happen?
After a short stint in baseball, Michael Jordan returned to the Bulls in March of 1995. Still trying to regain his basketball form, he wasn’t able to lead Chicago to a title in 1995. The Bulls lost to the Magic in the second round of the playoffs that year, leaving the team asking themselves many questions.
During that summer the Bulls rebuilt by adding iconic board-crasher Dennis Rodman, and proceeded to have the best season in Bulls franchise history. They went 72-10 and beat SuperSonics in the finals. Chicago was on top of the basketball world once again.
At the end of the 1996 season, Jordan was finally coming to the end of his eight-year contract that he had signed in 1988. That contract totaled $25 million over the span of eight years and it was groundbreaking at that time. Keep in mind, that while he was playing baseball, that contract was still valid, so he was compensated with his NBA salary while still not actively playing for the Bulls.
The Knicks nearly stole Michael Jordan away from the Bulls during free agency in the 1996 offseason.
After the 1996 season, Jordan was looking for a huge one-year contract. Similar to Knicks center Patrick Ewing, who was making $18 million per year. That summer Knicks were pretty confident, that they could sign MJ. He and Patrick Ewing were good friends, New York had a good roster, which included Larry Johnson and Charles Oakley.
A huge part of that proposal was Cablevision was owning about 90 percent of the Knicks and MSG. Jordan’s agent David Falk was trying to get Michael as much money as they possibly could. The initial structure of the deal may have been about $12 million from the Knicks and another $15 million or so from ITT/Sheraton Hotels.
After that, David Falk went to the Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and told him, that he had “one hour, maybe the rest of the day” to match that offer.
And the Bulls did just that.
They went all in and offered Jordan a deal that would pay out $30 million per year, which put the Knicks well out of contention. “I just said, ‘All of our cap room, all of it, can be yours if Michael will come,'” Checketts told David Falk.
After a while, Jordan’s agent said, that free agency, “Was really a one-horse race”. Because of Bird rights, Chicago was the only team, that could go above the salary cap.
The only way Jordan would’ve left the Bulls was if Chicago’s ownership hadn’t agreed to match Michael’s demands. Or if the relationship between the Bulls front office and MJ would’ve reached the point, that they couldn’t work together anymore. The relationship between the front office and Michael wasn’t great and they had real tensions, but at that time, they were at a manageable point.
After a while, according to Michael, when Jerry Reinsdorf gave Jordan that deal, he said, “At some point in time, I know, I’m going to regret, what we just did”. If MJ had known that, maybe he would have left for New York after all. Since Jordan stayed with Chicago, the Knicks went to sign Allan Houston, who previously was playing for Detroit Pistons to fill that void at the shooting guard spot. And from that point on, the rest is history.