Michael Jordan played 930 games with the Chicago Bulls in his Hall of Fame career. Through the majority of his time leading the team, he was a starter.
But for 11 games, his Airness came off the bench.
After a remarkable rookie season in which he won the Rookie of the Year award, Jordan started his sophomore year with plenty of promise. However, just three games into the season MJ would break his foot, causing him to miss 64 games.
Once healed Jordan wanted to get back on the court and help his team. If it were up to the Bulls brass, Jordan would've sat out the entire year. Doctors advised Jordan and the Bulls that he had a 10% chance of reinjury, which at the time was deemed would be a career-ender for the promising superstar.
Jordan won the battle with his then general manager Jerry Krause, head coach Stan Albeck and owner Jerry Reinsdorf. They agreed to let MJ back into the lineup but on a minute restriction.
"One of the reasons for coming back was to really test the foot, and see how much stress the foot could really take," Jordan said during an NBA on CBS halftime segment. "If I were to have sat out and come back in September - without testing the foot in a real NBA situation - and then I have problems, I [also] miss the next season. I want to deal with it now."
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With just 15 games remaining in the season and the Bulls clinging onto the eight seed in the Eastern Conference by 1.5 games over the Indiana Pacers, Jordan would return to the lineup but for the first time in his career off the bench.
In his first game back from injury, Jordan played just 13 minutes and scored 12 points in a nine-point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. In his next outing, he took 16 shots and finished with 17 points in just 14 minutes of action in another loss, this time to the Atlanta Hawks. The low point of Jordan's time coming off the pine came in a 26-point blowout loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. MJ played just 16 minutes in the game and finished with a season-low eight points on 30.8% shooting from the field.
The loss would be the fifth straight for the Bulls and saw them fall 2.5 games back of the now eight-seeded Cavs.
"The thing was, at the time, we were going through a rebuilding process, and I was practicing two hours a day and that was the thing that bothered me more than anything," Jordan told ESPN in August 2012. "If I can go through two-hour practices, as intense as I practice, then when the game came, they gave me a seven-minute window (in each half) to play.
"That's when I felt more frustrated than anything. I felt more than anything they were positioning themselves for the draft and I didn't feel good being part of that. I felt I was an all-out player who didn't half-ass anything, and they wanted to move up (in the draft). I was a player, I wanted to play."
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After his season-low scoring output, Jordan turned a corner offensively. While still being relegated to coming off the bench, MJ averaged 24.8 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.0 steals on 54% shooting from the field over the next six games. Chicago would go 4-2 over that stretch and found themselves just 0.5 games back of the eighth and final playoff spot with four games left in the season.
The Bulls would reinsert Jordan back into the starting lineup for the remaining games and in his first game back as a starter Jordan posted 26 points, seven assists and three blocks in a win over the Bucks. The Bulls would just narrowly edge out the Cavs for the final playoff spot, setting up a showdown with the powerhouse Boston Celtics, where Jordan started to build his legacy.
Jordan would not come off the bench again in his career until his time with the Washington Wizards, where his body began to breakdown as he approached 40.
In hindsight, the decision to come back from the broken foot was a good one for the Bulls and MJ, but there was plenty of anxiety surrounding the choice at the time. So much so that Nike scrambled to put together shoes to make sure that Jordan wouldn't reinjure his foot.
"During this time at Nike, there were a handful of Jordan's shoes that were sort of Frankenstein'd together - which is why we see many versions of the Nike Air Ship and AJ 1 on his feet during the first two seasons," a Nike spokesperson told Highsnobiety in 2017. "Quite literally, different soles were thrown on different shoes in the mid-'80s, testing feel and comfort for Mike."
The pieced-together Air Jordans have become quite the collector's item for sneaker enthusiasts and Jordan heads with a pair of game-worn shoes currently on auction for $100,000 USD.
To this day, Jordan's 11-game stint in a reserve role for the Bulls is firmly a part of the legacy and mystic that would surround Jordan long after his retirement.
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