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On this day in NBA Finals history: Michael Jordan’s ‘Flu Game’

Jordan battled through illness to dazzle in Game 5 of the 1997 Finals

The image of Scottie Pippen holding up a physically drained Michael Jordan is unforgettable, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

It represents June 11, 1997 — Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz, known as the “Flu Game” — when Jordan summoned something within him that the league had never seen.

“The big story here tonight — the story concerning Michael Jordan’s physical condition,” said play-by-play commentator Marv Albert on the broadcast that night before the game. “This is Jordan arriving two hours ago. He is suffering from flulike symptoms.”

With the series tied 2-2, there was no chance Jordan would miss Game 5, even when illness broke him down heading into the road contest in Salt Lake City. In the beginning of the game, Jordan appeared weak and out of place, allowing the Jazz to build a 16-point lead in the first quarter.

Then Jordan began showing flashes of his normal self, exploding for 17 points in the second quarter alone, although at every stoppage in play it looked like the illness overcame him. On the court, he slumped over with his hands on his knees. On the bench, he leaned far back in his seat with ice packs on his head while chugging fluids.

As ill as Jordan was, however, it didn’t keep him from balling out. In Chicago’s 90-88 win, the ailing Jordan recorded an unbelievable 38 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 1 block, including a 3-pointer with less than a minute left that gave the Bulls a lead they did not relinquish.

Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls rests during Game Five of the 1997 NBA Finals played against the Utah Jazz on June 11, 1997 at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Chicago Bulls defeated the Utah Jazz 90-88.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

“I almost played myself into passing out,” Jordan said after the game. “I came in and I was almost dehydrated, and it was all just to win a basketball game. I couldn’t breathe. My energy level was really low. My mouth was really dry. They started giving me Gatorade, and I thought about IV.”

Game 5 of the 1997 Finals might be the greatest performance of Jordan’s career. Yet it still doesn’t come without skepticism. Some people don’t believe that he had the flu in Utah in the middle of June — and actually, he didn’t. Fifteen years later, Jordan’s former personal trainer Tim Grover revealed that Jordan played against the Jazz with food poisoning, resulting from a hotel meal the night before.

“So we order a pizza, they come to deliver it, five guys come to deliver this pizza. And I’m just … I take the pizza, and I tell them, I said, ‘I got a bad feeling about this.’ I said, ‘I just got a bad feeling about this.’ Out of everybody in the room, he was the only one that ate. Nobody else …,” Grover said in 2013. “Then 2 o’clock in the morning, I get a call to my room. I come to the room, he’s curled up, he’s curled up in the fetal position. We’re looking at him. We’re finding the team physician at that time. And immediately I said, ‘It’s food poisoning.’ Guaranteed. Not the flu.”

There are also conspiracy theories about Game 5, from the belief that the night should really be called the “Hangover Game” to an assertion that Jordan’s bad night all could have been a ruse.

“He would do whatever he could to win the game, and if it took conning you, he would con you,” said Bulls.com insider Sam Smith. “Sometimes, I, myself, always questioned how sick he was.”

Regardless of what contributed to Jordan’s illness, the “Flu Game” or “Food Poisoning Game” or “Hangover Game” was simply amazing.

Aaron Dodson is an assistant editor at The Undefeated. Often mistaken for Aaron Dobson of the Arizona Cardinals, he is one letter away from being an NFL wide receiver.