The Chicago Bulls’ path to the NBA’s then best-ever record and the first of three consecutive titles wasn’t as inevitable then as it seems now, with hindsight, and that’s in large part because of the rise and fall of the Orlando Magic.
On November 14, 1995, the Magic became the first team to beat the 1995-96 Bulls. To understand the stakes of that game and why the win mattered, you have to go back to spring of that year, to the Eastern Conference semifinals of the season prior. That was when the Bulls, just a couple months into Michael Jordan’s return to basketball, fell to the newly ascendent Magic in the playoffs in dramatic fashion.
Jordan announced his abrupt basketball comeback in March, and rejoined the Bulls shortly thereafter. Spending the better part of two years off playing baseball and thus back in the league with a visibly rusty game, Jordan tried working himself back into form in the 17 regular season games he appeared in. Despite being on the wrong side of 30, wearing number 45 instead of the iconic 23, and self-evidently a half-step off the standard he set in his last season, when he’d solidified himself as one of the handful of best players the sport had ever seen with his third consecutive championship, most people still believed that Michael Jordan was Michael Jordan and thus would be back dominating the game sooner than later.
The first serious doubts that His Airness’s reign would continue arose in that second round series against the Magic. The Magic, led by a pair of 23-year-old physical freaks in Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, were completely unafraid of the big bad Bulls. Though they were young and inexperienced, they saw the older legends across from them and saw the past. The future would certainly belong to them, so why not make the present theirs, too?
In Game 1 of the series, the Bulls were up one with 18 seconds to go and threw the ball in to Jordan. The Magic either had to get a steal or foul the ball handler, and neither strategy seemed too promising; this was Michael Jordan, after all, the man whose very name was synonymous with clutchness on the biggest of stages. Surely Jordan would spin his way past the on-ball pressure, get fouled somewhere near midcourt, can the two free throws, and lock down the Magic on defense to prevent the game-tying three-pointer. The Bulls would win Game 1, taking command of the series, and Jordan would make the crucial next step in reasserting his Jordan-ness.
Instead, this happened:
Magic guard Nick Anderson crowded Jordan as he received the ball and nearly took it off MJ after the first dribble, before prodding it away a few steps later. Hardaway scooped it up, sprinted to the other end, and fed former Bull Horace Grant for the easy dunk.
In the postgame interview, Anderson was defiant. He had challenged Jordan one-on-one during the key play of a pivotal game, and came out on top. He forced Jordan into an uncharacteristic error at the worst possible time, and maybe felt that the old Jordan who wouldn’t have allowed that to happen was gone for good. From an ESPN article about the game:
“No. 45 doesn’t explode like No. 23 used to,” Anderson told reporters after the game. “No. 45 is not No. 23. I couldn’t have done that to No. 23.”
External doubts about whether a 31-year-old Michael Jordan could recapture his old glory are one thing; more telling is what the man himself felt. And judging by his actions after Game 1, Jordan thought that maybe there was something to Anderson’s words.
After meeting with the media following the loss, Jordan refused to speak to them for the rest of the series. The next time the public heard or saw him was in warmups ahead of Game 2, where he shocked everyone by showing up to the court with the number 23 on his back. The Bulls had retired Jordan’s number during his baseball hiatus, which, along with the fact that number changes midseason (not to mention mid-playoffs) were forbidden, should have precluded him from wearing it.
Jordan didn’t care. The Bulls tried to appeal to the commissioner’s office to get the number switch okayed, but the league wouldn’t relent. Undeterred, the Bulls let Jordan wear his old number. The league fined them $25,000 that night, and every other night Jordan wore 23 for the rest of the series.
With Jordan not talking to the press, Phil Jackson offered his interpretation of his superstar’s rationale:
“He was responding to the comments that he’s not the same old 23,” Bulls Coach Phil Jackson said. “I think that was his response. ‘O.K., check this out.’ That’s my opinion.
“Michael said he was hitting .202 with No. 45 on his back in baseball, and I said, ‘You’re shooting about the same percentage, too. It’s about time you get back to 23.’ In respect to the number, it’s all superstitious.”
After the series, Jordan himself admitted that the switch was a psychological ploy. From the New York Times:
Jordan chose to wear the No. 45 in March because he said No. 23 was the last number his father saw him play in, but the new number didn’t fit as well, Jordan said. “If it’s a mental confidence, then it’s a mental confidence, and I think it has been,” Jordan said. “I’m going to stick with it until I finish playing basketball. That’s me. Twenty-three is me. So why try to be something else, even though I know my father has never seen me in 45. It was a choice I chose to make.”
The switch didn’t quite have the intended effect. The Bulls did win Game 2 of the series, and Jordan kicked his scoring into high-gear, but they eventually lost in six. The newly ascendent Magic were off to the NBA Finals to face the reigning champions, the Houston Rockets, while the Bulls were sent home, left wondering to what extent Jordan could break down the physical and mental blocks that rose during his time off and become something more closely resembling what he was before.
Still, this was Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson, and a roster with guys like Tony Kukoc, Steve Kerr, and the recently added Dennis Rodman. Everyone knew the Bulls had the pieces to be great; the open question was how great their biggest piece could be again.
Before the season began, the Bulls were co-favorites to win the title, with some speculation that, if Jordan got back to his best and Rodman cut down on some of his craziness, they could be one of the best NBA teams ever. The other favorites, though, were those pesky kids in Orlando. Despite getting swept by the Rockets in the Finals after beating the Bulls, the Magic still had two super young talents that already were among the top 10 players in the league. In many ways, how good Hardaway and O’Neal could get versus how much of his former peak Jordan could recover was to be the defining battle of at least the Eastern Conference, if not the NBA as a whole.
(It should be noted that a large part of the Magic’s co-favorite status stemmed from their presence in the Eastern Conference. Not unlike modern times, the West was much deeper with quality teams, with the Rockets, Spurs, Suns, Sonics, and Jazz making the prospect of coming out of the West much more treacherous than the East.)
All of this baggage accompanied these two teams on the floor during their early season match-up. With 5-1 and 5-0 records, respectively, Chicago and Orlando were off to their best starts in franchise history. Neither team was at full strength yet—Rodman had yet to feature after picking up a calf injury and Shaq had his thumb broken by a hard Matt Geiger foul in preseason and was set to miss a couple months—but the stakes were still high for the first marquee match-up of the young season.
Jordan’s play during the pre-season and opening of the regular season largely answered the questions about how good New Jordan would be. He looked practically as good as he used to, oh but with legit three-point range tacked onto his slashing game. (Jordan, never a strong three-point shooter, benefitted massively from the NBA’s three-year experiment with a shorter three-point line.) Jordan was already leading the league in scoring at around 32 points per game heading into the Magic game, though while he put to rest any notion that he might be past it already, the team as a whole hadn’t quite clicked fully.
The Magic, on the other hand, were rolling in spite of their big injury. With Shaq out, Hardaway had to take on an even larger chunk of the team’s offense, and he did so in style. The night of the Bulls game Hardaway was named the NBA’s Player of the Week, thanks to his 30 points, six rebounds, and eight assists averages. In just his third year in the league, Hardaway was coming into his own, entering that tier alongside Jordan and Pippen as the NBA’s best perimeter players.
It’s largely been forgotten now, after a series of debilitating injuries kneecapped what was a career well along the superstar trajectory, but Hardaway was an absolute beast in his first few years. As a 6 foot 7 natural point guard, he was feted as the next Magic Johnson since before he even entered the league. He was picked third in the draft by the Golden State Warriors, and immediately traded along with three future first rounders to the top pick-having Magic in exchange for Chris Webber, who went number one in that same draft. By his second season he was already a premier player, making the All-NBA first team, and along with O’Neal leading the Magic to the Finals.
Hardaway was as quick and agile as any point guard in the league, blowing by defenders at will by flicking the ball between his hands and twirling his large frame with the speed and grace of a smaller man, whirling around the court and either pulling up to knock down a jumper or fizzing no-look passes at angles few could even see, much less successfully sneak the ball through. He had Johnson’s size and body control and flair for audacious dump off passes, with explosive athleticism and a more well-rounded scoring game to boot.
During that stretch of the 95-96 season he played without Shaq, Hardaway proved that for as apt as the Magic comparisons were, you could also make the case that he was the closest thing the league had to the next Jordan, too.
As far and away his team’s best scoring option with the big center on the sidelines, Hardaway had to be aggressive if the Magic were going to win. The Bulls jumped out on the Magic early in the game, probably energized at the prospect of getting back at the team that knocked them out in the playoffs the season before.
Hardaway was the only thing keeping them in the game early, scoring 14 of the Magic’s 19 first quarter points, going straight at Jordan, who guarded him most of the first quarter, hitting some of the same backing down, fallaway jumpers, and quick slashes to the rim finished by acrobatic lay-ins as his Bulls opponent had made famous. The Bulls played off Hardaway for most of the game, wary of his driving skills and less threatened by his jump shooting, but Penny’s shot was falling. With a Jordan three-pointer right before the first quarter buzzer, the Bulls led by 10 in what was shaping up to be a Jordan-Hardaway showdown.
Jordan continued pouring in the points in the second quarter, but the Bulls as a whole went cold. By halftime Jordan had 18, Hardaway 21, and the Magic had cut the lead to two.
Chicago’s shooting woes continued into the third, while Hardaway took over. Facing a seven-point Orlando lead heading into the final quarter, the Bulls really turned it on, as they would so often during this record-breaking season of theirs in order to snatch away wins. In the fourth, Pippen switched over to Hardaway, and both he and Jordan patrolled the whole court with a newfound intensity, pressuring practically every dribble past the halfway line.
While this burst of energy was enough to pull the game back level with two minutes to go, it was Hardaway and his teammates who made the crucial plays at the end to come up on top. When it was all over, Hardaway put 36 points on the Bulls on 66 percent shooting, including going 4 for 7 from deep—though without giving a single assist—while Jordan finished with 23 points on 20 shots.
Hardaway knew how important it was that he had out-Jordaned Jordan, after his team had done the same and the end of last season:
“This is a huge win,” Hardaway said. “You figured the Bulls would be coming in here, looking for a little redemption from last year’s playoffs, and get a victory since we were without Shaq. It says a lot for this team that we can play without him.”
The Shaq-less Magic stood up to the Bulls yet again, this time doing so with a more-or-less full-strength Jordan. Orlando went on to win 60 games that season, Hardaway made his second straight All-NBA first team—as well as finishing third in the MVP vote—but the Bulls went on to sweep them in the Eastern Conference finals.
This, however, proved to be the Magic’s final push for greatness with this special collection of talent. O’Neal left in free agency that summer, and Hardaway’s injury problems began plaguing him soon after. Hardaway never recaptured the skill and durability of his first few seasons, and is now almost entirely overlooked as a player during that era.
Because of all this, the mid-90s Orlando Magic teams are relegated to footnote-status in the history books, while the Chicago Bulls are the Chicago Bulls. But for a couple years there, and for one night at least in November of 1995, Hardaway and the Magic had proven themselves something close to the Bulls’ equals, and sometimes even their betters.