The brilliant disappointment of Michael Jordan's first game

Jeff Ruland almost ended the Michael Jordan era before it even began. You can even look it up on YouTube, he says when reached on the phone a few weeks ago.

“Go ahead and watch,” Ruland says. “And then call me back.”

But I’ve already watched the highlight, which is why I’m on the phone with Ruland in the first place. The play took place Oct. 26, 1984, against the Washington Bullets — Jordan’s first NBA game.

Midway through the second quarter, Jordan takes the ball on the left wing, blows by guard Darren Daye, enters the paint and then starts the quick ascent that would soon make him one of the most famous people on the planet. The crowd of 13,913 at Chicago Stadium went into a hush. Jordan’s first NBA dunk was imminent.

There were only two problems.

The first was that one of the refs had just blown a whistle.

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)

The second was that between Jordan and the basket stood Ruland, a prototypical center from the NBA of the mid-’80s: 6-feet, 11-inches of Long Island tough.

“I was vertical, baby!” Ruland yells in his own defense more than three decades later. “Vertical, baby! Straight up!”

We’ll forgive you, MJ

It’s been 35 years since Michael Jordan’s NBA debut, a 109-93 Bulls victory on a Friday night in October that’s largely been lost to history.

Though Jordan would go on to have one of the most documented careers in American sport, the details from that night never became an automatically recited part of his legend.

Part of it was that Jordan simply didn’t have a memorable game. He struggled with his shot, finishing with only 16 points on 5-of-16 shooting in an easy Bulls victory. There was no need for last-minute Jordan heroics, though it’s possible he would have clanged the game-winner with the way things were going.

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports graphic)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports graphic)

“We’ll forgive you this time, Michael Jordan,” the Tribune’s Bob Sakamoto wrote in the next day’s paper.

The other part is that not many people witnessed it. The game wasn’t broadcast on television in Chicago, with Bulls fans either forced to listen on radio or head to Chicago’s West Side to buy tickets to see the new draft pick from the University of North Carolina. Though it was a relatively good crowd for the Bulls, it was still well short of the Stadium’s basketball capacity of 17,374.

(The only surviving highlights from the game came from the Bullets’ television broadcast by Jim Brinson and Wes Unseld.)

That’s not to say there wasn’t considerable excitement for his debut. Jordan had become a household name after winning a title for Dean Smith in 1982 and then helping lead the U.S. to a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The Bulls, meanwhile, had missed the playoffs six of the previous seven seasons and had averaged only 6,365 fans per game the year before Jordan’s arrival.

It was a franchise in need of a savior and Jordan looked like he was up for the task. He was dynamic in several exhibition games and drew big crowds at each stop, starting with a game against the Bucks that was played in a packed, security-less high school gym across the border in East Chicago, Indiana.

“From the scrimmages we had and the exhibitions we played, there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to be a star,” says Kevin Loughery, who served as Bulls coach for Jordan’s first two seasons.

But despite all that came before and all that came after, the most memorable play from Jordan’s first game would end up being one that he didn’t make.

Yet even in that lowlight, the qualities that Jordan would use to propel himself and the NBA to the top of the world were already apparent.

Michael Jordan is introduced for the first time as a Chicago Bull.
Michael Jordan is introduced for the first time as a Chicago Bull.

‘Michael, switch teams’

That Jordan would choose to take on Ruland for his first dunk didn’t come as a surprise to Loughery. He knew Jordan was stronger than most were giving him credit for and that his athleticism was off the charts.

Nor was it a shock for Sakamoto, the Tribune reporter whose first introduction to Jordan’s competitive side had come at a practice a few weeks earlier.

It was a different NBA back then and multi-million-dollar practice facilities didn’t exist. Most squads practiced wherever they could, which in the Bulls’ case was an ancient but sun-filled gym at the Angel Guardian orphanage on the city’s North Side.

Yes, an orphanage.

Loughery had been ending each practice with a scrimmage to 15 points. Winners got to head toward whatever showers were at that orphanage. Losers had to run sprints.

Jordan had yet to lose, and on one particular day, his team was again up big when Loughery blew his whistle.

“Michael, switch teams,” Loughery instructed.

Jordan didn’t take the order well. After balking, he slammed his jersey to the floor and put on the shirt from the losing side.

“Oh yeah, he was pissed,” Loughery recalls with a laugh.

Sakamoto, on his first year on the Bulls beat, would later get to know Jordan well and what made him tick. Not only was Jordan mad about being put in a position to lose the scrimmage, his sense of fair play had been challenged. Even though his new team was already down eight points (or so, memories are a bit vague), he was going to set things right.

“For the next 15 minutes, that’s the best basketball — and I saw every game of his first five years — that I ever saw him play,” Sakamoto says. “He was possessed. He was scoring on one end, then flying around on the other on defense. He continued this relentlessly, not just for a minute or two but the entire time, which is impossible for just about anyone to do.”

When the whole thing was over, Jordan’s team had come all the way back to win.

“That’s how dominant he was,” Loughery says. “He was incredible.”

Jordan may have been incredible, but he wasn’t happy.

“That wasn’t fair,” he said to Loughery before walking away as his original team did sprints.

“I’ve never seen him angrier,” Sakamoto says.

Michael Jordan's first dunk attempt.
Michael Jordan's first dunk attempt.

‘I thought he could be dead’

Back to that first dunk attempt. Though Jordan tried to extend over Ruland’s outstretched arms and toward the rim, he soon found he’d misjudged and run into an immovable force.

If you watched that clip — appropriately titled “Michael Jordan’s first NBA dunk attempt ends badly” — you’ll see no need for Ruland to defend himself. It was a clean block attempt.

But in the moments after Jordan fell straight to the Chicago Stadium floor on his back, there were a few people in attendance that weren’t too happy with the Bullets veteran.

Bulls center Orlando Woolridge came off the bench in his warmups and immediately took issue. A few of the Bulls coaches also took aim at Ruland — never mind that Ruland went to Jordan’s aid almost almost as quickly as he stopped the phenom’s ascent to the hoop.

Ruland knew what was at stake. He had played with Jordan for a few games at a barnstorming exhibition tour after the Olympics called the “Stroh’s Basketball Challenge.” He says he watched one night as Jordan lit up Alex English for 52 points and was convinced MJ would be an NBA star.

Just like Loughery, Ruland knew that Jordan’s strength and athleticism would make him a unicorn in the NBA, decades before unicorn became a way to describe basketball players.

But as he looked down at Jordan lying on the floor, Ruland thought he had just injured the future of the Bulls’ franchise and might have to fight his way out of it.

“I remember Orlando walking over like he was going to do something, and I was going to knock him in the [bleeping] head because I would never intentionally hurt a guy,” says Ruland, who coached for nine years at his alma mater Iona and now works as a scout for the Washington Wizards. “And then all the coaches were yapping until someone finally said, ‘Yo, the dude went straight up. He didn’t try to hurt the guy.’ ”

The crowd went silent as Jordan lay face down and motionless on the floor. The Bulls were leading by 17 points and everything up until that point had been a party.

Now no one knew how bad this injury might be.

“He was down awhile,” said Bullets guard Tom Sewell, a fellow rookie who was also playing in his first game. “I thought he could be dead.”

Michael Jordan had the moves, even in Game 1.
Michael Jordan had the moves, even in Game 1.

Not-so-hot ticket

Among those closely watching Jordan from the stands were Tim Pryor and Bill Thompson, a pair of 20-something security officers at a delinquent boys home in suburban St. Charles.

A couple of days before the game, Pryor mentioned to Thompson that they should head to the city for Jordan’s first game. Though Pryor was a big Lakers fan because of Magic Johnson, he needed to see Jordan for himself after watching him in college and the Olympics.

So Pryor and Thompson hit up the local Ticketron outlet in Aurora. There, they both splurged for seats at one of the highest-priced levels, a pair located in the eighth row of Chicago Stadium’s lower level, just to the left of one of the baskets and close enough to talk with the Luvabulls cheerleaders.

The price per ticket? $16.50.

It was the best bargain in sports. And for those who were there at the time, there was no mistaking why the 1984 opener drew almost 6,000 more people than the opener a year earlier.

It was the lanky kid who was introduced to the loudest cheers.

“Everyone wanted to come out and see Michael Jordan,” says Bulls forward Dave Corzine, who played two seasons in Chicago before Jordan arrived. “The atmosphere at the stadium wasn’t what it’d become four or five years later, but it was definitely a different feeling in the building.”

One person — err, bird — who noticed immediately was Ted Giannoulas a.k.a. “The Famous Chicken.”

The Bulls had started bringing Giannoulas to games in 1979, happy with the way his mascot antics would juice their lousy attendance numbers for a night.

But while the Bulls brought out the Chicken in hopes of upping the attendance at the opener in 1984, it soon became apparent he might be sharing space on the stadium marquee before surrendering it entirely.

“You picked up on it right away,” Giannoulas says of that night. “There was always an electricity at Chicago Stadium when they had a big crowd — I considered it the loudest four walls in the country — but on that night there was something added every time [MJ] touched the ball.”

It was a special time in Chicago sports. Walter Payton had just broken Jim Brown’s career rushing record and the new Monsters of the Midway were on the rise under coach Mike Ditka. The Cubs had made the playoffs for the first time in 39 years before losing in heartbreaking fashion to the San Diego Padres in the NLCS. (Left fielder Gary Matthews did the ceremonial tossup before the Bulls game, while the Chicken begged for forgiveness from booing fans.)

Now it looked like Jordan was about to turn around the Bulls and fans were excited about the prospect.

Pryor and Thompson remember that the stadium was loud that night — but neither had any inkling they were watching someone so special that lower-level tickets would skyrocket to a price they could no longer afford.

“You could tell he was good,” Pryor says. “But he also missed so many shots. I figured he’d be an offensive threat once he figured out that shot, but I had no idea he’d be this worldwide superstar.”

So it was only by force of pack-rat habit that when Thompson got home that he took the ticket stub from that night and tossed it into a drawer with stubs from other games he’d attended.

Thirty-five years later, he’d pull that stub out of his collection and called up Heritage Auctions to see what it might be worth.

It turns out that if the ticket had been bought at the Chicago Stadium box office, it would have been worth much more because it was printed on red-and-black paper with a Bulls logo and drawing of Chicago Stadium instead of the generic Ticketron outlet stock. A stub from the stadium box office sold in 2018 for a whopping $33,600.

Thompson’s stub still did well at auction, fetching $4,080 last spring. Not bad for an original investment of under 20 bucks.

Vintage Michael Jordan, circa 1984.
Vintage Michael Jordan, circa 1984.

No harm, no foul

If you’re too young to remember Michael Jordan’s career or didn’t come in until he remodeled his game closer to the floor for an aging body, the highlights from his first game might seem like a revelation.

Jordan played 100 percent from the first tip, taking the Bulls’ first shot of the game (he missed) and pushing the pace as fast as he could. He spun around to create room for jump shots, blocked one of Ruland’s shots from behind and found Corzine on a fast break that brought down the house.

Though he didn’t turn in a sexy points total, Jordan finished with seven assists as two of the Bulls’ veterans — Woolridge and Quintin Dailey, the latter of whom famously resented Jordan’s arrival — led the team in scoring.

It was a glimpse of the energy and drive that Jordan would bring in helping the Bulls make the playoffs that year.

“I remember veteran players around the league telling him to chill out, that he wasn’t going to last the entire season playing 100 percent like that,” Sakamoto says. “And he just shrugged it off.”

Just as he ultimately shrugged off the body hit from Ruland. After taking a few moments to collect himself, Jordan was helped to his feet and directed to a seat on the bench as the crowd breathed a sigh of relief and cheered.

“I didn’t move [at first] because I was trying to see if everything was functioning,” Jordan told reporters that night. “It wasn’t dirty or anything like that. It just shocked me.”

Indeed, if there were anyone who appreciated Ruland’s play, it was Jordan himself. As he walked toward the bench, he turned and slapped Ruland’s hand for the effort.

No harm, no foul. Jordan escaped without injury while Ruland avoided becoming the first player to be posterized by His Airness.

As for that whistle I mentioned at the start of this article?

Well …

“The wildest part of the whole thing was that they called walking on Michael Jordan and the dunk wouldn’t have counted anyway,” Ruland says, chuckling. “That they called traveling on Michael Jordan is amazing in itself.”

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