Tuesday, April 3, 2018 

Michael Jordan and Minnesota's last prank call

LeBron James just topped Michael Jordan’s consecutive record of games with over ten points, whatever that number was. NBA fans, unaware that they were watching some sort of history unfold, yaaaawned.

Ten points is what Dale Davis averaged, counting the shots that bounced in off his elbows. Russell Westbrook will pop for ten points in 17.8 seconds to start a game even while distracted at the message his last lingering Instagram like may have sent. Ten points feels like what Calbert Cheaney probably still does.

Yet it’s a legendary number, whatever that number is, so strong and long that you don’t hear someone like Tyreke Evans sneaking into the conversation:

Kareem-to-MJ-to-LeBron, only the best to ever play this game have held this ongoing total, whatever its digits are. We still don’t know the number, neither do you, basketball doesn’t count like that.

Jordan was in the middle of a seeming road win over the Minnesota Timberwolves when he broke Kareem’s mark. He’d score 33 in the Dec. 30 contest, assuring by the second quarter that his double-digit streak would make it into 1998.

It was during that first half that someone rang the Target Center switchboard to tell an operator that Michael Jordan’s mother had been hospitalized. Posing as Larry Jordan, MJ’s best-known sibling, the caller used whatever bit of late-1990s grift was still available to terrorize a visiting basketball player:

Jordan was told no one had been admitted to the hospital under his mother's name. Two women reached by The Associated Press at the hospital in Rocky Mount, N.C., also said no one had been admitted under that name Tuesday.

A Target Center security guard got to MJ as he left the floor before halftime, with Chicago up 56-47.

"We were a little bit in disarray because we had either a prank call or hoax," Jackson said. "Somebody notified Michael that his mother was in the hospital, so he spent some time at the phone trying to verify it, even though it wasn't true. So he got out there with about seven minutes to go and that changed the start of the period."

Jordan missed all five of his shots in his truncated third quarter, as the Wolves built confidence:

"The prank call at halftime got us out of our rhythm," coach Phil Jackson said. "Michael missed the start of the second half trying to verify that it was a prank."

The Bulls were working on the second night of a back-to-back:

"It took the rhythm away from him," Jackson said of the phone call. "He was going pretty good the first half."

Jordan hit 4-9 shots in the fourth quarter, but his helpers faded down the stretch as Minnesota churned onward to a 99-95 win.

After initially refusing comment on the phone call, insisting he’d only discuss the specifics of the game, Jordan stuck with reporters before calmly digging in:

"It was tough focusing," he said. "The game didn't really have the same meaning after that. I really didn't know. There were really a lot of unknown questions there. Fortunately, it was a hoax and you don't want to give it too much credence. It's just one of those things you have to deal with."

The cell phone was going to put an end to all this nonsense. There was a reason Jerry Seinfeld got out of the scripted game midway through 1997-98, the era of indirect communication was ending.

And back at work, Jordan was left to ponder just what sort of asshole would do something like this – phone use was a privilege, and someone just abused the entire system in search of ends only known to the betrayer. The culprit has never been identified.

Word quickly got out, through Chicago’s radio broadcast and all the way up to the wire services in time for early deadlines – this was Jordan News on a Tuesday Nite. The Bulls didn’t have to construct a press release on a half-piece of paper to pass down the press rows, nobody needed to.

This wasn’t just before Twitter, this was before pizza had cheese in the crust. Yet word of the hoax was on ESPN before the empty clock confirmed Minnesota’s victory: Michael Jordan had been swayed by an element most foul.

Kevin Garnett was 21 and he just put up 20 and 11 in front of Dennis Rodman and it didn’t matter. The Timberwolves’ win, in a season where they needed every damn one of them, was immediately invalidated.

Minnesota fielded two youngsters in 1997-98, it felt like they were the only team in the league to do so.

Kevin Garnett and 20-year old Stephon Marbury were so precocious in the face of the doddering NBA that somehow the 28-year old Tom Gugliotta appeared a veteran counselor, Cherokee Parks (in his last season before sleeving his arms with tattoos) a sensible middle.

The Wolves made the postseason in 1997 but had its work cut out for them a year later. The West was about to light up and the injury-leaden Googs (an All-Star the season before, a free agent in a few months) would only make a dozen more appearances as a Timberwolf after the Chicago win.

That didn’t stop Flip Saunders’ team. Minnesota was up against Houston that season for one of the last playoff berths – Charles, Hakeem, Clyde, Houston – and yet the Wolves plowed through even as the Googs Realization made it obvious that the All-Star wasn’t ever returning.

Sam Mitchell moved into the starting lineup, Kevin Garnett grew two full inches in evolutionary response. The 1997-98 Minnesota Timberwolves somehow led the NBA in turnover percentage. The kids, plus Terry Porter, did not screw up.

Minnesota ran with the fourth-fastest pace in the NBA that season, with can’t-come-in-the-bar Stephon Marbury working at point guard for 82 blitzes at thirty-eight minutes per game, and yet the Wolves did a better care of handling the ball that year than any other squad.

This was 1997-98, every team was old. Everyone was, like, Hornacek-age, and yet Stephon and Saunders’ Wolves were savvier than anyone.

The Bulls were in a good place that week.

Scottie Pippen was out and Toni Kukoc could barely run and yet Chicago rallied behind Jordan’s bum right wrist and Dennis Rodman’s last great winter and into one, marvelous, tangle.

Christmas night saw the team down a full-strength Miami Heat club without much concern. On Dec. 27 Rodman uprooted Dikembe Mutombo and Christian Laettner to the clatter of 29 rebounds, Jordan had 47, while Dec. 29 featured Don Nelson’s infamous attempt to unsettle Rodman by fouling him intentionally (Dennis hit 9-12 at the stripe in the win).

Instead of gnashing at Nellie, Rodman instead spotted Nelson in the United Center bowels after the game, enjoying a cigar indoors.

An hour earlier, just before Monday turned into Tuesday, everyone had won tacos:

"Taco Joe," is what coach Phil Jackson is calling him now.

That's because Kleine hit two free throws with 3.3 seconds left in the Bulls' 111-105 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Monday, which meant free tacos for the 23,712 fans at the United Center.

It was the second time this season the Bulls (20-9) have treated the fans to tacos as part of a promotion with a local fast-foot chain. The Bulls have to reach 110 points for that to happen.

"Those were the biggest free throws of my career," Kleine said.

The hoax deterred the Bulls for as long as it took to remember how good the Minnesota Timberwolves were, and how tired Chicago was. The Timberwolves, a team that would win 45 games in Stephon and KG’s last full season together, probably would have won the game anyway.

It couldn’t have been that tough for the Wolves to clean up the turnovers that allowed Ron Harper (a dunk) and Steve Kerr (a layup) wide-open first half buckets, Luc Longley tended to tame himself as a night moved along and Joe Kleine couldn’t even get to the free throw line once in this loss. Jordan was about to turn 35 and his right wrist hurt, he was due for another retirement.

Still, it would have been nicer to lose the right way. Without dragging someone’s family into it, unexpectedly reminding the world why it was, exactly, that Michael Jordan felt the urge to retire the first time.

ONE MORE TIME AROUND

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(More to come.)