In the summer of 1996, Michael Jordan was an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career. He was coming off his fourth title with the Chicago Bulls and looking for a huge payday after being underpaid from 1984-85 to 1995-96.
According to Chicago sports historian Jack M Silverstein, Jordan came within 30 minutes of signing with the New York Knicks. However, the presence of Phil Jackson was too powerful for MJ to leave the Bulls.
Michael Jordan on Phil Jackson: My coach is everything
Jordan confirmed to Spike Lee that he was close to signing with the Knicks on Best Seat In the House. However, deep down, the 10-time scoring champion knew he couldn’t leave Jackson for Jeff Van Gundy.
“New York was right downstairs,” Jordan told Lee. “The Bulls, all they had to do was mess up. My coach is everything. Don’t know what kind of coach Van Gundy is. I know Phil.”
Jordan re-signed with the Bulls on a one-year, $30.1 million deal in July 1996. The Knicks were hopeful that His Airness would sign with them to join forces with Patrick Ewing. However, the UNC product remained loyal to Jackson, the coach who turned him from a talented scorer to a champion.
Michael Jordan never won a title until Phil Jackson became his coach
Jordan won three scoring titles, one MVP, and one Defensive Player of the Year Award from 1984-85 to 1988-89. However, he didn’t become a champion until Jackson replaced Doug Collins.
After Jackson installed the triangle offense in Chicago, the Bulls won six championships from 1991 to 1998 and three-peated twice. Jordan won seven scoring titles, four MVPs, and six Finals MVPs during that span while averaging 30.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 5.1 assists.
Jordan and Jackson had such a strong relationship that the former refused to play for the Bulls if the latter wasn’t coaching. When Jerry Krause said the 1997-98 season would be Jackson’s final year in Chicago, Jordan knew he wouldn’t come back to the Bulls in 1998-99.
MJ: If Phil’s not coaching, I’m gone
In Episode 1 of ESPN’s The Last Dance docuseries, Jordan said he didn’t re-sign with the Bulls in the summer of 1998 since Jackson wasn’t the coach. The 14-time All-Star had zero interest in playing for Chicago if the Zen Master was gone.
“I said from day one, if Phil’s not coaching, I’m not gonna be a part of rebuilding,” Jordan said. In the same episode, there were also some soundbites of Jordan speaking after the 1997 Finals about Jackson: “Phil should be the head coach, and I shouldn’t be put in a position to have to make a choice to play for another coach other than Phil Jackson. Sadly as it may be, I have choices. You know, and I will not choose to play for another coach.”
After the Bulls won their sixth championship in 1998, Jackson and Jordan retired, and Scottie Pippen was traded to the Houston Rockets, ending the dynasty. Knicks fans will likely always wonder what could have been if Jordan came to the Big Apple in 1996. Maybe if Madison Square Garden President Dave Checketts fired Van Gundy and hired Jackson, Superman would have signed with the Knicks.