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With the NBA currently on hiatus due to the COVID-19 outbreak, a group of players are banding together to produce a HORSE tournament that will begin on Easter Sunday on ESPN. So that got me to thinking about the legendary TV spot that aired during Super Bowl XXVII in 1993 featuring an insane game of HORSE between Michael Jordan and Larry Bird in which the two made shots from the most ridiculous places.

This is the story of how the epic spot came together.

How the Michael Jordan vs. Larry Bird spot came together

In the early 1990s, Michael Jordan had become the biggest sports star in the world. He led the Chicago Bulls to multiple NBA titles and made millions upon millions of dollars in endorsement deals, one of the big ones coming from McDonald’s. Ahead of Super Bowl XXVII in 1993, McDonald’s chief marketing officer Paul Schrage knew one thing: he wanted a big Super Bowl spot featuring Michael Jordan promoting the Big Mac. His creative team got to work, bouncing ideas off one another until the light bulb finally went off. Michael Jordan would play a game of HORSE for the grand prize of a Big Mac and fries. But who would be his opponent?

McDonald’s executives obviously wanted another big name to star in the spot alongside Jordan and the biggest name thrown around was none other than Shaquille O’Neal, who was becoming one of the biggest stars in the NBA at the time. However, the spot’s copywriter, Jim Ferguson, and art director Bob Shallcross shut that idea down rather quickly as they truly wanted to make things as believable as possible.

“McDonald’s really wanted to see Shaq. I remember Bob telling them, ‘The guy can’t even hit a free throw. How’s he going to hit one from mid-court?’”

Copywriter Jim Ferguson on the idea of Shaq joining Michael Jordan in the commercial

Well that’s certainly blunt, isn’t it? But also true. In the end, Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird, who had recently retired from the NBA, was chosen and it was the perfect choice.

‘No dunking’

One of the most iconic lines in the spot was the “no dunking” rule that Larry Bird put into effect as he obviously wouldn’t have been able to keep up with Michael Jordan in that department, bad back or not. The line was actually added to the script after an actual game of HORSE between Jordan and the spot’s director, Joe Pytka, during some downtime while shooting a previous commercial.

Jordan had agreed to use only his left hand in the game of HORSE against Pytka, giving the director a small glimmer of hope. However, the game was much closer than expected. Apparently, Pytka was a master of the baby hook shot and Jordan struggled to match it. The game was tied at H-O-R-S and Jordan, making sure he wouldn’t lose in classic MJ fashion, threw down a dunk that Pytka had no chance of matching, screaming “That’s not fair!” as Jordan laughed. So after reading the script for the Michael Jordan vs. Larry Bird spot, he made sure to add the “no dunking” line to poke fun at Jordan and it was the perfect addition.

Michael Jordan’s gambling issues played into the spot and Larry Bird wanted a real game

Every single detail in the spot was meticulously planned out, even to the point of making sure that Larry Bird was the one to make the challenge, given the gambling issues surrounding Michael Jordan at the time.

In the commercial, Jordan and Bird begin with the normal types of HORSE shots before getting into the absurd attempts that viewers would see in the final cut. But Bird, who was just as competitive in his prime as Jordan, was actually looking for a real game. Ferguson later explained how amped up Bird was getting during the shoot.

“The two took the first two shots (over the backboard and on their knees). After that, it was just editing though Larry didn’t necessarily want to do it that way. When the two of them are in the stands and Larry challenges Michael, Larry was actually trying to figure out if he could really make it off the scoreboard.”

Jim Ferguson on Larry Bird truly wanting to challenge Michael Jordan

The spot was an instant smash. “Nothin’ but net” became bigger than it ever had been before and Michael Jordan and Larry Bird even came back for a sequel spot a year later that also featured Charles Barkley. It’s easily one of the most-remembered Super Bowl commercials in history.

We’ll get into Jordan’s outfit some other time.