Wayback Wednesday: 25 Years Since Michael Jordan Said “I’m Back”

Wayback Wednesday: 25 Years Since Michael Jordan Said "I'm Back"

This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! In this feature, we dig into the archives, look back at the history of basketball gaming, and indulge in some nostalgia. Check in every Wednesday for retrospectives and other features on older versions of NBA Live, NBA 2K, and old school basketball video games in general. You’ll also find old NLSC editorials re-published with added commentary, and other flashback content. This week, I’m marking the 25th Anniversary of the day Michael Jordan said “I’m Back”, and returned to the Chicago Bulls.

It’s funny how you don’t always feel the passage of time until you think about how long ago a certain event was. I felt it in 2008, when it had been ten years since the Chicago Bulls’ last championship. I felt it in 2011, when the Bulls celebrated the 20th Anniversary of their first title. It recently occurred to me that I’m now the same age that Michael Jordan was when he won that sixth ring in 1998. And yes, it strikes me that a whole decade has passed and hundreds of players have come and gone, as I continue to work on a current roster for NBA 2K11.

Today marks another milestone. It’s been twenty five years – or a quarter of a century, if you want to make it sound even more impressive – since Michael Jordan ended his first retirement from the NBA. MJ famously announced his return in two words: “I’m Back”. His return would ultimately expand his resume and bolster his claim to being the Greatest of All-Time, producing many more memorable moments along the way. It also had a noteworthy impact on the virtual hardwood. Let’s take a look back…way back…

The excitement generated by MJ’s return in 1995 can’t be understated. Although the NBA had been prepared to move on after the abrupt retirement of its biggest name in October 1993, and there were galaxy of stars that were exciting to watch in their own right, having Michael Jordan back in the fold naturally came as welcome news. For Bulls fans, there was hope that the glory days weren’t over, and a reason to get excited about watching the games. It was around this time that I was taking a greater interest in basketball, and truly fell in love with the sport. The league was already globally popular, but I remember everyone my age really getting into it when MJ came back.

Michael Jordan vs the 1995 Knicks (NBA 2K11)

Looking back, the career of Michael Jordan is such a fascinating story for the way it unfolded. He played nine seasons before retiring the first time, returned and played three full years and part of a fourth, retired again, and then came back for a brief stint with the Washington Wizards after first investing in them and then transferring his ownership so that he could return to action. We often talk about how unique MJ was when it came to how he dominated the game, how he seemed to defy gravity, and for the stats and accomplishments he amassed, and rightfully so. However, we somewhat gloss over how unusual his career was. In a way though, it’s all part of his mystique.

There really hasn’t been anything else like it. It’s hard to explain to younger fans, as the stars they’re familiar with haven’t had interruptions to their career like that. It’s difficult to explain the excitement at seeing a superstar we thought would never play in the NBA again announce that he was going to lace them up once more. To lose such a monumental player in their prime, only to have them come back and reclaim their place as the best in the league…well, it’s just not the norm. The fact that MJ announced his comeback in only two words – “I’m Back” – is also unusual in an era of televised specials, social media statements, and open letters in The Player’s Tribune.

Infamously, when Michael Jordan returned to action in 1995, he was wearing his baseball number: 45. Naturally his new jersey sold very well, and indeed, it was the first replica jersey that I owned. It was of course a huge deal when he changed back to number 23 in the Playoffs, and became a major part of his comeback story, with Nick Anderson declaring he was better in that number and MJ working to get back to the top of his game after the Orlando Magic eliminated the Bulls in the second round. It also meant that all those brand new replica jerseys were quickly outdated, but on the bright side, the original number 23s so many fans owned were once again current.

Michael Jordan dunks in NBA 2K11

As far as what the comeback meant for MJ’s legacy, it undoubtedly added to it. Yes, some of his averages dropped as he played in a league that slowed down in pace, and age took its toll as it inevitably does. However, the second threepeat, the additional awards and All-NBA selections, and padding his career totals, all added to his claim to being the greatest. If he’d never come back, he would still be in the conversation, and at least gone down as having the greatest career that lasted less than a decade. As it stands, he’s still held up as a standard of excellence twenty five years after his first comeback, and seventeen years after he played his final NBA game with the Wizards.

Much has been written about MJ’s comeback, legacy and standing among the all-time greats, but as I mentioned, his return in 1995 also had an impact on basketball video games. Ironically, we’ve seen more of Michael Jordan in video games over the past decade than we did when he was winning championships with the Chicago Bulls in the 90s. As you may be aware, MJ opted out of the NBAPA licensing agreement, and retained the rights to his image. This meant that he stopped appearing in most games, though thanks to his deal with Electronic Arts he continued to appear in their NBA-licensed titles through NBA Showdown, released the same month that he retired.

All versions of NBA Live 95 were released before MJ returned to the NBA, but as it turned out, it was a moot point. No developers were able to strike a deal with MJ to include him in their games, which resulted in his continued absence from the virtual hardwood for the rest of his Bulls career. This led to the inclusion of Roster Players; placeholder players that stood in for MJ and other players who couldn’t be licensed, such as Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O’Neal in all 1997 season games except NBA Live 97. MJ was also a Roster Player in the PAL version of TECMO Super NBA Basketball, released shortly after he withdrew from the likeness agreement in 1992.

Michael Jordan dunks on the 1995 Knicks (NBA 2K11)

This is also a unique situation that younger gamers and basketball fans no doubt have trouble relating to. MJ’s return to the real NBA generated a lot of excitement, but he was never available to play with in video games. This of course led to the creation of the modding scene on PC, where the tools our founders created allowed gamers to add Michael Jordan to the game, whether it was by overwriting an existing player (such as an appropriate Roster Player), or adding the necessary additional data and a proper face to an MJ created in-game. Unfortunately console gamers were left out, but there were always plenty of CAP guides for those who wanted to replace the Roster Player.

Of course, in the years that followed, Michael Jordan would debut in NBA Live as a Legend, finally appear in the series as an active player when he returned in 2001 with the Wizards, and would be celebrated with The Jordan Challenge in NBA 2K11. One of his biggest games after returning twenty five years ago – the “Double Nickel” game against the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden – is rightfully represented in The Jordan Challenge. It’s a shame that 1995 team was dropped, as its roster is an interesting amalgam of players from the first threepeat and core members of the second run of championships. It’s also a novelty to see MJ wearing number 45!

Five games were played on March 18th, 1995. Some big names were involved, such as Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Dennis Rodman, Gary Payton, and Shawn Kemp. However, it was the announcement by a player who wasn’t active that night, and hadn’t played in eighteen months, that grabbed the headlines. There are a lot of rumours about MJ’s first retirement that persist to this day. It’s been suggested that he was actually suspended for gambling, a rumour that won’t go away despite no actual evidence ever being produced. It’s similar to assertions that the “Flu Game” was in fact a hangover, even though at the time it was being reported as food poisoning.

Michael Jordan with the layup in NBA 2K11

Perhaps it’s a matter of envy or dislike of Michael Jordan. In recent years, it’s been about propping up other players to challenge him for the title of the Greatest of All-Time. Perhaps it’s trying to make sense out of such an odd situation. As I said, it isn’t normal to see one of the top NBA players walk away in their prime, return after an eighteen month sabbatical in which they attempt to play baseball, and after shaking off some rust, pick up where they left off. It’s an attempt to bring a deified athlete back to Earth, to explain the extraordinary and inexplicable. Perhaps the strange truth is still ultimately too boring for some people to want to believe, all these years later.

Nevertheless, when Michael Jordan announced “I’m Back” on March 18th 1995, it made it a significant date in NBA history. March 19th – his first game back against the Indiana Pacers – is obviously an important one as well, but the excitement began and the course of NBA history was altered once more when he made his announcement a day earlier. It saw him achieve even more greatness as he led the Bulls to three more championships. It drew in new and old fans alike, and inspired kids like my eleven year old self to jump on the bandwagon and never jump off. The sport was so much better for getting more than just those first nine years of His Airness in the NBA.

It’s unfortunate that that excitement didn’t come to the virtual hardwood without some work from the community, but thanks to mods, we made the best of the situation. It’s been great having him in NBA 2K over the past decade though, and The Jordan Challenge in NBA 2K11 was a fitting tribute that was fun to play. In fact, today I might just go back and play the Double Nickel challenge, as well as check out some highlights and maybe watch a full game or two. It’s somewhat overwhelming to think that it’s the 25th Anniversary of “I’m Back”, but here we are. Twenty five years later, no two words have generated as much excitement and joy in the basketball world.

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