Twenty-four years ago today, Michael Jordan played in Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz while being — as the band Disturbed would say — down with the sickness after getting food poisoning from a pizza delivered to his hotel room the night before by five randos.
In Netflix’s The Last Dance, Jordan’s trainer, Tim Grover, even stated that he “had a bad feeling about [that] pizza,” but Jordan ate the whole thing anyway. Still, Jordan recorded 38 points, seven rebounds, five assists, and three steals while leading his team to a victory. It’s a game that has gone down in the annals of basketball history as one of the greatest single-game performances of all time. To this day, we still use it as a measuring stick with which to compare other players’ greatness.
LeBron James has played a playoff game with food poisoning. Kobe Bryant played with the flu in the 2002 NBA Finals. There have been numerous Phantom of the Opera mask games, comeback stories, and even the time Derek Fisher flew across the country after his daughter had eye surgery to rejoin the Jazz in the second half of a playoff game in 2007. Fisher knocked down a late 3-pointer to seal victory.
Yet, the legacy of the “Flu Game” rises above them all. Why? It’s a mixture of a bunch of things: Jordan being Jordan, the fact that it was against two legends in their own right — Karl Malone and John Stockton, etc. But an additional factor that likely plays into that game’s greatness is the fact that Jordan didn’t have to play in it at all, but he did anyway.
The series was tied 2-2 heading into Game 5. It wasn’t a must-win. The Bulls could’ve given Jordan some rest and headed back to Chicago for Games 6 and 7 and win it all in front of the home fans. Sure, it might be less anxiety-inducing to avoid the winner-take-all Game 7 entirely, and you could make an argument that you’d want to avoid any momentum swinging the wrong way, but in the end, there would still have been an opportunity to win the title had the Bulls lost Game 5.
In today’s NBA, that would never happen. You think LeBron would come out for a game that wasn’t a must-win if he was as sick as Jordan? Be real here, we’re talking about the guy who just headed to the locker room before his team’s game ended in a blowout loss to the Suns. You think James Harden would play in a game this year that his team didn’t absolutely need to win if he was feeling off? I doubt it. His Nets are doing fine without him. Why would he risk agitating anything after two setbacks?
I’m not trying to attack the character of either of these players. In fact, I think it’s good that we no longer expect athletes to play while they’re still recovering. Athletes are people, too, and we shouldn’t expect any more from them than what you and I would do in their shoes. The point I was trying to make in the previous paragraph is that because of the current NBA landscape involving load management and superteams, no player will ever be forced to go out and play in a game that is not a must-win, and that’s why the Jordan “Flu Game” will forever be the greatest single-game playoff performance ever.
A little further down the rabbit hole and you could argue that, because of the load management trend, players are more likely to be healthier late in the season than players in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Therefore, it’s far less likely that a star player would be less than 100 percent ahead of a must-win playoff game. Not to mention that now athletes know better than to eat a whole pizza delivered to them by five mysterious strangers the night before a game.
MJ’s “Flu Game” will forever be the greatest performance in NBA playoff history. Its legacy has remained untarnished through numerous other fantastic performances and with how the NBA has shifted toward player empowerment and load management, it’s unlikely any star player will ever find themselves in a similar situation moving forward. That’s a good thing. It keeps the legend of the “Flu Game” intact, and it allows today’s athletes to do what’s best for them, which is how sports should be… even if we’d like to see another game reach that level of greatness.