Considered by many to be the greatest of all time, Michael Jordan had many memorable moments in his 15-year NBA career. Thirty years ago, His Airness had the highest-scoring game in his legendary career, dropping 69 points on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Here’s how it happened.
Michael Jordan’s start to 1989-90 season
Coming into the season, Jordan’s sixth in the league, he had already established himself as the best offensive player in the game and a point-producing machine. Jordan led the league the previous three seasons in scoring per game average at 37.1 in 1987, 35.0 in 1988, and 32.5 in 1989.
If anyone had any question whether or not Jordan would relinquish the scoring title crown in the 1989-90 season, he quickly dispatched any doubters that first game of the season at home against Cleveland where he lit up the Cavalier defense for 54 points.
For the night, he converted on 19-of-31 shooting, which included a single three-pointer. Jordan did most of his work on the inside, drawing 17 fouls. He made 15 free throws. In addition, he pulled down 14 rebounds, had six assists, and three steals. Jordan’s opening-game performance served notice to the rest of the league. Unfortunately for Cleveland, Jordan was just getting warmed up.
Weeks before the massive game
In the weeks leading up to the record-setting performance, Michael Jordan never showed any signs another offensive explosion was about to happen. Since his opening-day offensive outburst back in November, Jordan had topped the 50-point mark once, scoring 52 against Orlando in late December, three months earlier.
Through the month of March, Jordan performed at his normal Jordan-like level. He had his lowest scoring night, a 20-point outing against the Detroit Pistons on March 16, and his best night, a 45-point effort against the Indiana Pacers less than a week earlier on March 10.
In his three previous match-ups against the Cavaliers, including the 54-point season opener, Jordan was averaging 44.3 points shooting 54.7 percent from the field.
Then, March 28, 1990, happened.
Michael Jordan’s highest-scoring game
Jordan sent a message just moments into the contest, scoring the first bucket when he received the ball down on the low block, posted up Cleveland defender Winston Bennett, then stepped away from the basket and drained his patented fade-away jumper.
For the rest of the first half, Michael Jordan put on a clinic. It didn’t matter what defender Cavs coach Lenny Wilkens assigned to Jordan, the guard scored at will. Jordan concluded the first half just as he started it, scoring the final basket on a pull-up jumper to finish the half with 31 points on 11-of-15 shooting from the floor. He added seven rebounds and three assists. The Bulls led 53-50 at the break.
Besides Jordan’s performance, another entertaining aspect of the game was listening to the announcers describe the action. Bob Neal provided play-by-play, and Doug Collins the color commentary. Interestingly and a bit awkwardly, Collins had coached Jordan and the Bulls the previous season.
The second half of domination
In that second half, you could sense both Neal and Collins thought something special was happening as Jordan’s point total continued to climb. At one point midway through the third after Jordan had eclipsed his season average of 44 points against the Cavaliers, Collins confidently said Jordan would go for 60 in the game. He finished the third with 51 points.
When the fourth quarter started, Jordan stayed on the bench. Neal and Collins joked about sending a note to Bulls head coach Phil Jackson to get Jordan back in the ball game. They wanted to see a 60-point effort. Moments later, Jordan checked back into the game. Did they send a note?
On his first possession with the ball, he curled around a perimeter screen and pulled up for a 3-pointer. He drained it and was at 54 points. Jordan would finish the night going 2-of-6 from downtown.
As the final minutes waned down, Neal mentioned how Michael Jordan was about to join Karl Malone and his 61-point game earlier in the season and Tom Chambers, who had scored 60 just four days earlier. Jordan joined the 60-point club soon after on a jumper.
The fantastic finish
The Cavaliers, to their credit, kept battling despite Jordan’s performance. After trailing by as many as 17 points in the third quarter, Cleveland was behind by three with 15 seconds on the clock. That’s when Cleveland’s Mark Ehlo got an open look from behind the three-point line and converted. The game was tied. Jordan had a chance for a storybook ending when he attempted a game-winning three that would have set his all-time career-high at 64 points, but he missed. Overtime.
Early in the extra frame, Jordan made a mid-range jumper and reached 63 points, tying his previous career-best scored in a playoff game against the Boston Celtics in 1986.
In the final minutes of overtime, Jordan scored all his points from the line en route to the 69-point total. His final stats for the night were impressive: 69 points, 18 rebounds, six assists, four steals, and a block. He finished 23-of-37 from the field and 21-of-23 from the line. The Bulls won the game 117-113.
In hindsight, when you reflect on Jordan’s Hall of Fame career, it’s like one continuous highlight reel. In it, there’s a long list of different championships and awards. But in all those successes, there was never a night quite like March 28, 1990. And what a night it was.