The NBA All-Star Game is returning to Chicago for the first time in 32 years. And while the Chicago Bulls probably won’t send any representatives this year, its franchise’s greatest player once used this venue to start changing his career’s narrative.
Eventually, the United Center would become “The House that Jordan Built”, but he first had to put in some serious construction in the old Chicago Stadium.
1988 was a watershed year for Jordan, even if the championships were yet to come. The Windy City hosting the All-Star game proved to be the perfect crossroads.
Fans adored Michael Jordan back in 1988. Everyone already wanted to be like Mike. However, the almost 25-year-old high-flying scoring guard was still often being overlooked and marginalized by his peers and media alike. He wasn’t considered a winner or good teammate, often back-handedly written off as all flash and no substance.
Jordan played up his home-star status during the festive weekend, however, cementing himself as the league’s best player and never looking back after memorably dominant Slam Dunk Contest and All-Star Game performances.
As the All-Star game returns in 2020, you can bet a lot of these moments are going to be relived by Jordan fans and the sad-sack Bulls remembering better times. But don’t forget the context, which makes the legend even more fun…
Michael Jordan must’ve empathized with 1980s comedic icon Rodney Dangerfield: MJ was getting “no respect” following his 1986-87 campaign. The young superstar delivered the most productive scoring season with 37.1 ppg (3,041 points) since Wilt Chamberlain’s 50.4 ppg in 1961-62. Jordan also registered 430 rebounds, 377 assists, 236 steals and 125 blocks per Basketball Reference. He became the first player in history with more than 200 steals and 100 blocks in a season.
Despite this, Air Jordan’s all-around showing didn’t get the respect he rightly deserved from his peers and the media.
He somehow finished second to Los Angeles Lakers point guard Magic Johnson in MVP voting by a fairly sizable 733 to 449 points. Three-time winner Larry Bird came in third with 271 points. Players, media and fans considered Magic and Larry Legend the league’s premier players, as they had won seven of the last eight championships.
Jordan didn’t have any “ringz” yet at that point.
His critics also considered him a ball hog. They claimed he didn’t make his teammates better. After all, he was 1-9 in the playoffs by that point. Winning only matters in player evaluation, they said. (Sound familiar? Some things never change, right?)
But was that really the truth?
In 1986-87, Jordan possessed a higher Player Efficiency Rating (29.8; Johnson 27.0; Bird 26.4), Win Shares (16.9; Johnson 16.9; Bird 15.2) and Value Over Replacement Player (8.8; Bird 8.5; Johnson 7.4) despite playing for a 40-42 team as its main catalyst.
Both Bird (59-23) and Johnson (65-17) faced off in the NBA Finals that year. They benefited from better teammates while MJ competed with what was still a weak Bulls team. Bird’s best teammates Kevin McHale (15.2 Win Shares), Robert Parish (9.2 WS) and Danny Ainge (6.7 WS), and Johnson’s in James Worthy (9.3 WS), Byron Scott (7.7 WS), A.C. Green (7.6 WS), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (7.5 WS) and Michael Cooper (6.1 WS) earned higher marks than Jordan’s best teammate John Paxson (6.0 WS).
Of course, Magic and Bird would look better and win more with superior teammates, even as Jordan outperformed them both individually.
MJ must have eagerly marked his calendar for Feb. 6-7, 1988.
Dr. J Homage Launches MJ Past ‘Nique
It might be hard to remember, but dunking used to be basketball’s top attention-grabber before Stephen Curry pulled eyeballs way back to halfcourt. The Slam Dunk Contest had started all the way back in the 1976 American Basketball Association All-Star Game, but the NBA revived it in 1984 with the intent to showcase its stars’ other-worldly athleticism.
Today, the event’s competitors have included 13 current and future Hall of Famers—I’m counting future ones as Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Vince Carter, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George. Today, players jump over each other, props and even SUVs!
But back when the competition was still new, you just dunked.
Jordan had won the previous year, and so sought to defend his crown on his homecourt against Dominique Wilkins, Clyde Drexler, Greg Anderson, Jerome Kersey, Otis Smith and 1986 winner Spud Webb.
Jordan versus Wilkins proved to be the main attraction, something fans had impatiently waited three years to see. Wilkins won against MJ in 1985. The GOAT secured the crown in 1987 with Wilkins injured. This epic rematch pitted athletic scorers who had always seemingly engaged in entertaining rivalry showdowns such as this Dec. 10, 1986 game:
Both Hall of Famers went toe to toe in creaky Chicago Stadium on Feb. 6, 1988. (United Center wouldn’t even be built until 1994.)
‘Nique relied on thunderous windmill slams (pre-shout out to Vince Carter!) and self-oops heard in the back rows. Jordan put the air in Air Jordan by emphasizing distance and hang time.
Jordan told reporters he hoped to emulate childhood hero Julius “Dr. J” Erving’s free throw line slam from 1976. Some basketball historians consider Dr. J the first to make jamming an art form, and even perhaps the best ever.
Those were big shoes Jordan eagerly wanted to fill. And fill them he did.
Wilkins led Jordan in the Finals and could’ve put him away, but the judges—who included former Chicago Bears great Gale Sayers and retired NBA player, Chicagoan Tom Hawkins—scored ‘Nique a 45 for his baseline two-handed windmill. Jordan built the crowd’s anticipation, dribbled down court and truly soared from the free-throw line to the hole.
That majestic throwdown produced a 50, the Slam Dunk title and the silhouette for his trademark shoes.
MJ Schools All-Time Greats
Jordan provided an encore performance the following night during an absolutely loaded All-Star Game.
Sixteen other Hall of Famers participated, six of whom won multiple MVPs. Many basketball historians’ “NBA Mount Rushmore” of Bird, Johnson, Jordan and Abul-Jabbar shared a defunct court that now tragically serves as the United Center’s parking lot.
MJ surely remembered how Isiah Thomas and others froze him out of the 1985 All-Star Game, partly due to their jealousy of his rapid ascent. He collected those past slights and took no prisoners.
While Johnson (17 points, 19 assists), Thomas (8 points, 15 assists), Karl Malone (22 points, 10 rebounds) and Wilkins (29 points) put up solid efforts, Jordan soared into a different stratosphere.
The game commenced with a 4-on-3 fast break. Denver Nuggets great Alex English cut to the right baseline for a floater that Jordan authoritatively swatted away. He deftly dribbled between two defenders to keep a fastbreak alive. He evaded Fat Lever, Johnson and James Donaldson on a pirouetting scoop-n-score. Major critic Danny Ainge speechlessly watched on.
Future rival Malone posted on Bird when Jordan blocked him from behind and raced downcourt for a double clutch jam. A wet baseline jumper over Lever and a closing Akeem Olajuwon here. A thunderous putback there. He even ended the game with a halfcourt assist to Patrick Ewing and dunking on a sick alley-oop from Thomas.
Jordan racked up 40 points on 17-of-23 shooting, eight rebounds, four steals, four blocks and three assists to run away with his first All-Star Game MVP. Not too shabby, right?
Jordan’s All-Star heroics broke down barriers with the toughest media and player critics. They began to realize MJ was someone special, set apart from the Basketball Gods to leave a special imprint on the game.
At least, if they hadn’t “realized” it already, they had a real tough time denying it now.
Jordan finally won his first MVP award that May with 35.0 ppg, 5.9 apg and 5.5 rpg (21.2 WS). He took home Defensive Player of the Year honors with 3.2 spg and 1.6 bpg, checking off his goal to be the League’s top stopper.
Jordan also won his first playoff round and continued stacking up big numbers in 1988, with his first ring coming just a few years later in 1991. Of course, from there he continued carving his place in the game’s history during the following 10 years, winning six total titles and changing the fate of basketball and pop culture forever.
MJ became the greatest, but he started to prove that demonstratively during 1988’s All-Star Weekend in Chicago, never looking back again.
Bob Bajek is an award-winning investigative journalist who has extensive experience in news and sports writing for various outlets including Bleacher Report, The Chicago Tribune and Pro Football Weekly. He firmly believes Drake spread the Gospel of Steph before his official coming and fans need to forgive the Warriors after providing free tacos for four NBA Finals.