Michael Jordan’s Big ‘What If?’

The greatest basketball player of all time is being inducted into the Hall of Fame. And I can’t help but wonder: What if Jordan didn’t retire the first time?

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Michael Jordan poster by Shepard Fairey

When Michael Jordan is inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame Friday evening, it will cap the most storied career in sports history. Nearly everyone who is a sports fan and many who aren’t have a “Michael moment” etched in their head.

As a fan whose allegiance to the Chicago Bulls goes back to 1970—when Jordan was in second grade and the Bulls’ leading scorer was a very cool cat named Chet Walker—I have many Michael moments. Like in 1989, it was the morning after Jordan hit the shot at the buzzer over Craig Ehlo of the Cleveland Cavaliers to win an opening round series. I was at the New York University dental clinic where a student was working on my teeth under the watchful supervision of a professor. Suddenly the conversation turned to hoops, and for five minutes they marveled over Jordan’s shot. I finally had to start grunting and groaning to remind them that I was reclining there with tools hanging out of my mouth. It’s probably the only time I had nothing to say in a discussion about basketball.

Other memories spark intriguing questions. What if Jordan didn’t retire the first time and take up baseball? Outside of the fan bases of the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks, it’s generally accepted that without Jordan’s first retirement, the Bulls would have won two more titles, and John Starks’ name would never live in playoff infamy. I’ve always wondered what Jordan might have accomplished during his first retirement when he was off proving to the world that beyond a shadow of a doubt, hitting a baseball is really, really hard. (He batted barely .200 against pitchers who, for the most part, didn’t make it to the major leagues.)

If you were to plot performance on a coordinate plane, most athletic careers would resemble an inverse parabola, arcing upward at the start, peaking around age 27, maintaining that level until the big 3-0, then declining, first gently then abruptly until retirement. Michael Jordan’s career wasn’t like any other athlete, but the overall shape of his career still has the rise-peak-decline effect.  The major difference is that Jordan peaked early; his ’86-’87 season at the age of 23 remains for many the gold standard of season-long performance. Jordan averaged 37.1 points per game that year on 48.2 percent shooting. (Hoops fans of a certain vintage will scoff and note that Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50 points and 25 boards per game in ’61-’62, but Jordan was on TV constantly, and Wilt’s games were rarely televised. I’m not saying that Wilt’s feat is less important, just less influential.)

What is truly remarkable about Jordan’s career from that point forward is that his game continued to grow. He averaged 4.6 assists and 5.2 rebounds in his landmark season. Those numbers grew with each passing campaign until peaking at eight each at age 25 then hovering around seven boards and six dimes per game until his first retirement.

Sports greatness is usually measured in the height of the peak or the duration of a player’s time among the elite. Jordan was at a high peak for an incredibly long time. In ’92-’93, Jordan’s last season before his retirement, at age 29, he led the league in scoring at 32.6 points per game, and he made 49.5 percent of his shots. His first full season back, at age 32, he lead the league in scoring at 30.7 points per game—the team played at a slower tempo—and he made 49.5 percent of his shots. His brief 17-game return in ’94-’95 was a rusty Jordan (despite the 50-point performance at Madison Square Garden in his second game back); he averaged only—and only with Michael Jordan do you say only—26.9 points per game and shot a career low 41.1 percent from the field. In other words, he wasn’t a player in decline. He saved that for his Washington Wizards phase from 2001-’03.

If Jordan chose not to retire in 1993, then—barring injury—he would have likely scored somewhere between 29 and 30 points per game and shot well, 49.5 percent from the field. If he played all 164 games, then that adds about 4,700 points to his career total. That means that in 1998, when he retired a second time, he would have scored close to 34,000 points in his career. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record of 38,387 would have loomed two seasons away.

And what if he didn’t retire the second time either? Maybe coach Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen would’ve stayed in Chicago. At that point though, I think the fan in me is overtaking the stat head. It’s fair to say that Jordan left two peak seasons on the table during his first retirement and two peak seasons by the greatest player in NBA history could have had an impact in many different ways.

Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.

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