Michael Jordan's Apology Game
AP Photo

There was the "Shrug Game," "The Shot," the "Double-Nickle Game" and many others in Michael Jordan's career, but on April 27, 1997, MJ added one more memorable game to his legacy. It was the second game of the 1997 NBA Playoffs and the Bulls were up one game on the Washington Bullets, when Jordan scored 55 points in a performance that remaines one of the best from the 1990s. The "Apology Game." 

The Bulls (69-13) began the 1997 NBA Playoffs against the Washington Bullets (44-38). To some, these were not the superhuman Bulls that had won 72 games the year before. They looked vulnerable, having lost three of their last four regular season contests and only winning a mediocre (for them) 69 games. Also, Dennis Rodman (knee) and Toni Kukoc (foot) missed a majority of the final month of the regular season and questions swirled around the Bulls: Were they tired? Were they too old? Had they peaked in January? Most expected a sweep, but a championship did not seem as inevitable as it had the year before.

Bullet's coach Bernie Bickerstaff's strategy going into the series was to make Jordan be great to beat them. He was good in Game 1, finishing with 29 points on 12 for 25 from the field, but overall it was an ugly affair, so ugly that Chicago Tribune columnist Bernie Lincicome compared the effort to Gheorghe Muresan's face. Despite the difficulties, Game 1 went to the Bulls, even though they shot only 38 percent from the field. Scottie Pippen went 5 for 16 and a rusty Toni Kukoc went only 1 for 10.

"Togetherness" was the theme for the 1997 playoffs and the Bulls sought to channel that for Game 2 but fell behind to the Bullets early. Washington, perhaps inspired by the Bulls' mediocre performance in the first game, simply played better in the first half and led, despite Jordan's 26 points, at halftime 65-58.

Steve Kerr said the only adjustment made at halftime was "an attitude adjustment" handed out by an irate Michael Jordan who was none too happy about his team's effort in front of their home crowd. Usually an upset Michael Jordan meant trouble for the opposing team, and the Bulls found their intensity in the second half with a 16-2 run that erased the halftime deficit. The Bulls outscored the the Bullets 28-15 (Jordan had 9) in the third period and led 86-80 going into the fourth.

"I swear to you that I've never seen a basketball player like that man. He is the greatest I've ever seen. Ever. Everyone may know that already. But I'm saying it again, anyway.'' -Harvey Grant

"He would go by three defenders," said a frustrated Chris Webber after Jordan victimized his team with a fourth quarter eruption that had teammates, opponents, fans, and even referees shaking their heads in disbelief. The barrage began with 14 straight points, and by the time the game was finished, Jordan had scored 20 of the Bulls 23 fourth quarter points, the only other basket being a three-pointer by Scottie Pippen. The Bullets made run after run at Chicago in the fourth quarter, even cutting their lead to one point at the halfway point. Each time they got close, Jordan answerd. A helpless Calbert Cheaney (the unfortunate person guarding Jordan without help for much of the game) even asked Jordan if he was tired, to which Jordan responded "no, because we haven't won yet." After the game, Bickerstaff praised his team for not surrendering, despite losing 109-104. They were down two games and went home facing elimination, but proved they could control every Bull except Jordan, whose final stat line was 55 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 assists on 22 of 35 shooting.

Jordan apologized and went out of his way to justify his scoring outburst numerous times after the game to his teammates, the media, and most importantly Tex Winter, who was probably both amazed by the performance and angered over Jordan's reckless abandonment of the offense. "Sorry about the triangle, Tex," said Jordan in the post-game press conference. He had taken almost half of the Bulls shots and scored half of their points. "I wasn't running plays," Jordan said after the game. "I was on, and I knew it, so I had to score...I just couldn't turn myself off." Jordan was in a zone, the Bullets were helpless, and his teammates had learned to defer. The closest Bull in shot attempts was Scottie Pippen with ten, but as Ron Harper explained, "when he wants to take over a game, there's nothing Phil (Jackson) or Scottie (Pippen) can say to stop it."  

"These are the games where he demonstrates who he really is," said Luc Longley. The 55 point performance was the third largest playoff total of Jordan's career and the eigth and final time he would score 50 or more points in a playoff game. The Bulls went on to sweep the Bullets by winning Game 3 96-95 in Washington. Being an NBA fan in the 1990s means that there are certain images of Michael Jordan seared into one's brain. The circus shot with four minutes left in this game, him driving, stumbling, floating across the lane only to hit the shot just as he fell and slid into the row of media along the baseline, remaines one of those images. Washington's strategy, forcing the greatest in the world to be great, was probably not the best, but it worked.