Michael Jordan never backed down from a challenge. No, instead, he made it his purpose in life to destroy the challenge. Of course, that just led to the inevitable humiliation stage of the process. As someone who spent considerable time in Jordan’s crosshairs, Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler can attest to all of this. Drexler became an obsession for Jordan. And it wasn’t enough for MJ to merely win. Instead, he had to demolish.
It was what made Michael Jordan a great performer as an athlete. It’s also what makes him sort of a jerk as a human being.
Jordan was the MVP, but pundits debated whether he or Clyde Drexler was the best in the NBA
Michael Jordan ran away with the MVP award in 1991–92, getting 80 of the 96 first-place votes. Clyde Drexler, however, received 12 first-place votes. Worse, Drexler was one of the players challenging Jordan as the NBA’s best player, according to the media. When the Blazers and Bulls, each the top seed in their respective conference, advanced to the NBA Finals, it was, as they say, on.
Jordan’s shrug after hitting his sixth 3-pointer in the first half of Game 2 highlighted the 1992 NBA Finals. Magic Johnson later said the shrug stemmed from a card game the night before the game, but it might have been more personal than that.
In Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, the late David Halberstam recounted the Jordan-Drexler rivalry as extremely one-sided regarding how much it mattered to each player.
“But of course, it was intensely personal for him, the perfect challenge for a man who always wanted and always need challenges, and he used all the comparisons with Drexler, all those nonbelievers who thought Drexler was as good as he was, to motivate himself. He set out to do nothing less than destroy, not just Portland, but Drexler as well …
“Later, Danny Ainge, who was Drexler’s Portland teammate that year, said that there was a certain inhumanity to what took place on the court in that series … When the Trail Blazers had the ball, Ainge thought, it was as if Jordan had a terrible personal vendetta against Drexler.”David Halberstam in Playing for Keeps
Indeed, Michael Jordan could hold a grudge. This remained true even after he and Clyde Drexler were on the same team.
The Dream Team was a bit of a nightmare for Drexler
A few weeks after the shrug and a second consecutive title for the Bulls, Michael Jordan was preparing to go to Barcelona with the Dream Team. Clyde Drexler was also a member of Team USA for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
How hard did Jordan go after Drexler during Dream Team practices? Hard enough that teammates went to Jordan to ask him to dial it down a notch or five. Halberstam wrote that Jordan never missed a shot to insert the needle.
“Jordan did not pass up the opportunity to talk some trash as he brought the ball upcourt. ‘Didn’t I just kick your ass? … Anything here look just a little familiar? … Think you can stop me this time, Clyde? … Better watch out for the 3s, Clyde.’
“Eventually, some of his Dream Team colleagues suggested that Jordan cut back on the trash talk with Drexler because they were all teammates now, and there was no reason to reopen wounds so fresh. Back off, he did, but the coaches noted that every time Jordan guarded Drexler in scrimmages, he took the defensive level up more than anyone else.”David Halberstan in Playing for Keeps
Neither Jordan nor Drexler led the Dream Team in scoring. That honor went to Charles Barkley. Jordan averaged 14.9 points, while Drexler dropped in 10.5 points per game.
How did things get that highly charged? Consider Michael Jordan and the Clyde Drexler ‘challenge’
In the 1991–92 NBA season, Michael Jordan was both the reigning NBA MVP and the face of the defending champion Chicago Bulls. But there was a longtime star in the NBA who was hitting his prime. There were inevitable comparisons between Clyde Drexler and His Airness.
Jordan was, well, Michael Jordan in 1991–92. He led the NBA in scoring for the sixth consecutive season. He won another MVP award, his third. And the Bulls? All they did was finish 10 games ahead of the rest of the NBA with 67 wins, tied for the seventh-best total of all-time.
Drexler had taken his game up a notch. In his ninth season, he was named All-NBA First Team for the first time in his career. He made sure Portland didn’t falter in the playoffs as the top seed. That led to the much-anticipated matchup in the Finals.
Portland pushed Chicago to six games in the NBA Finals, but it was never a point in the series where it seemed the Blazers had a chance. Michael Jordan had an imagined score to settle. For him, that was as good as a real one.
Statistics and biographical information courtesy of Basketball Reference.