Michael Jordan's 1993 retirement: everything you want to know

October 6, 1993. Vegas NBA odds go flying. The economy braces for a hit. Shaq is the next star up. And newspaper editors find sad children in every city.

“If you love the guy, set him free. If he comes back, it was meant to be.”

— a 27-year-old Bulls fan at Oz Park, Lincoln Park, October 6, 1993


In 1993, Monica Seles was stabbed on the court by a spectator. Arthur Ashe died of AIDS, Jim Valvano of cancer. One NBA All-Star and one All-NBA selection died, as did two pitchers for the Cleveland Indians. The entire Zambia national football team perished in a plane crash. James Jordan was murdered.

On the fields of play, Joe Carter won the World Series with a walk-off home run, only the second such World Series winner. Don Shula broke George Halas’s all-time NFL coaching wins mark. John Paxson hit a three-pointer to give the Bulls the NBA’s first three-peat since Russell. Wayne Gretzky finally took the Kings to the Stanley Cup Finals. Chris Webber called timeout. Mario Lemieux returned from Hodgkin’s treatment.

Among those who were champions: Sheryl Swoopes, Steffi Graf, Emmitt Smith, Pete Sampras, Dale Jarrett, Greg Norman.

And when the Associated Press asked sports media members to vote for the AP Sports Story of the Year, there was one easy choice:

The surprise retirement of Michael Jeffrey Jordan.

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Michael Jordan’s 1993 retirement was 28 years ago today and still captures the imagination just as it did that startling morning many moons ago. Today, his retirement means many things to many people — it is part of the GOAT debate, used for or against him, depending on the party; it is a conspiracy theory; it is a mystery; it is a curiosity.

And while there were signs that a retirement was coming — and suspicions that it wouldn’t last long — in the moment, on that morning, nothing could have been more unsettling.

As I wrote in 2005:

Michael Jordan’s first retirement felt like an alteration of our basic, Earthly laws. Life would continue, the world would go on, and basketball would still be played, but in Chicago we wondered what the three would be without Michael Jordan.

Here, now, are some of my favorite facts, stories, quotes, questions and stats about MJ’s first retirement.

Michael Jordan was not secretly suspended

Let’s get the big one out of the way: No, Michael Jordan was not secretly suspended. Do I know this 100%? I do not. But as I wrote in my ‘96 Bulls book, in a retirement conspiracy thread last year, in an MJ baseball thread in 2019 and in this newsletter looking at the 1993 calendars of Jordan and David Stern (see below), the puzzle makes plenty of sense in its “He just retired on his own” configuration.

Here’s more, from a 2018 podcast I did as a guest on the Barbers Chair Network:

A Shot On Ehlo
The 1993 MJ suspension conspiracy: a logistical debunking
They had to be in the same city. I can’t imagine it any other way. I can’t imagine that in the summer of 1993, the NBA commissioner would realize he had to *secretly* suspend the man most responsible for turning the NBA into a global phenomenon, and then choose to deliver that staggering news on a phone call. Or by mail. Or by fax…
Read more

I will say that I am exploring lingering puzzle pieces that offer the possibility of the conspiracy, but those pieces remain tricky to place together, and even trickier to confirm. As it stands, there are perfectly good explanations for the legitimacy of his retirement. I think that people who push the conspiracy angle do so because, quite frankly, they find the truth boring.

But the more you know about Jordan, the more his retirement fits.

A Shot On Ehlo
"I'm just so tired." Michael Jordan's mental health, in his own words
“He knows he’s in the fishbowl under the microscope, but you should have some movement that’s not guarded all the time. You just have to say, hey, this guy’s human. I mean, what is enough? … Pretty soon, when you keep tipping the bucket up, there’s not going to be anything in there after a while. You’re going to pour it all out. And that’s what we shoul…
Read more

No matter the city, children were devastated

Even though the word on MJ’s retirement was out the night before, the news breaking during the White Sox ALCS game at Comiskey, I didn’t fully believe it until the morning of the 6th, when the news was out about his press conference. I remember going to school and seeing how many of my classmates had worn Jordan jerseys that day. I remember two students walking the halls of Haven Middle School holding a sign that read ‘SAY IT AIN’T SO MICHAEL.’

Apparently we weren’t the only ones. In cities all over the country, newspaper editors assigned a writer to find not just man-on-the-street interviews, but children, all to talk about how sad they were that MJ was retiring.

Here is a sampling:

  • “My friend told me at school. I thought he was lying. (He quit) because there was too much emotional stress because his father got killed. While playing, he was thinking about his father. After his father’s death, he was done because of stress.” — Ryan Willard, age 12, Boston

  • “Michael is a role model, and not just for athletics. He always stresses staying in school and getting good grades.” — Lisa Argento, 15, Cincinnati

  • “I’m mad, because that’s the best basketball player. … When I saw my boy Michael Jordan, I just pushed the Pistons aside.” Tyran Hatfield, 11, Detroit

  • “I was astounded. I just went to my bed and hoped it was a nightmare, but when I woke up it was real.” — Debbie Solomon, 17, New York City

  • “We’re all disappointed. It just won’t be as fun knowing he’s not around anymore. When we heard it at home, my brother started crying.” — Patrick Holt, 15, Orlando

  • “He’s a big role model to a lot of kids. … I’m not really shocked that he’s stepping away from the game. I heard how he always wanted his mom and dad at his games. After his dad died, you had to wonder if he still has his heart in it.” — John Smith III, 14, Phoenix, and son of former Harlem Globetrotters player John Smith Jr.

  • “You know what I like about him? He was always smiling. It didn’t matter what was going on. Michael was smiling. I hope I’m like him someday.” — Derrick Jones, 10, Tampa / St. Petersburg

Team owners were devastated too: MJ’s presence generated an additional $1.3M in ticket sales

Today, Michael Jordan is known as the man with six rings. That’s the shorthand for his greatness.

But before he was a champion, he was the biggest star in sports — and according to the calculations of our very own Sam Smith, Jordan’s presence brought over $1 million in ticket revenue to the league during 1989.

As Pacers GM Donnie Walsh said: “When he signed his contract, I said jokingly that we all ought to pay him.”

Quotes from NBA legends: after just nine years, MJ already had GOAT credentials

In February 1991, before Jordan had his first championship, he was already part of the GOAT discussion. In October 1993, Jordan was in the company of Jim Brown: a short career that had already netted Greatest Ever acclaim.

Upon his retirement, Jordan was 15th in NBA history in scoring1, and fourth in playoffs scoring behind Kareem, Jerry West and Larry Bird.

After nine years in the NBA, Jordan retired in 1993 with:

  • Three championships (1991, 1992, 1993)

  • Three Finals MVPs (1991, 1992, 1993)

  • Three league MVPs (1988, 1991, 1992)

  • One All-Star MVP (1988)

  • Two dunk championships (1987, 1988)

  • Three steals championships (1988, 1990, 1993)

  • Nine All-Star selections

  • Seven 1st Team All-NBA selections (1987-1993)

  • Six 1st Team All-Defensive selections (1988-1993)

  • The 1988 Defensive Player of the Year award

  • The NBA record for points in a playoff game (63, still holds2)

  • The NBA record for scoring average in an NBA Finals (41.0, still holds)

  • Each of the past seven scoring championships

  • Two Olympic gold medals

Here is what some of his fellow legends had to say:

  • MAGIC JOHNSON: “I’ve always been in awe of his talent on the court and I’m even more in awe of him as a man off the court.”

  • LARRY BIRD: “I am very sad to hear the news. No one was ever better than him.”

  • ISIAH THOMAS: “I am definitely going to miss him. He said that he would be coming to watch some games this year. I hope he comes when the Bulls play the Pistons.”

  • CHARLES BARKLEY: “It’s just a sad thing. It’s definitely a shock. Michael Jordan is the only person in the entire world that I’ve ever met who is as competitive as I am. That’s why I’ll miss playing against him.”

  • SHAQUILLE O’NEAL: “I was shocked. … I just want to say I miss playing with him.”

MJ’s retirement rewrote the Vegas odds for the 1994 NBA championship

I haven’t been able to find a complete list of odds for the ‘94 championship before and after the retirement, but here is what I have found, starting with the Bulls’ precipitous drop:

  • Best odds before the retirement: 2-1 to win the title

  • Worst odds after the retirement: 25-1

Other books were more generous to the now Pippen-led Bulls. Bally’s Las Vegas and Caesars Palace each had the post-MJ Bulls at 10-1.

Both Caesars and the Mirage had the Knicks and Suns as co-favorites for the ‘94 championship; with MJ out of the East, the Mirage boosted the Knicks from 6-1 to 3-1.

As for Chicago beat writers? Four Trib writers ranged from a predicted 41 wins to 44 wins for the ‘94 Bulls.

Shaq was heralded as the next star up

Dr. J retired after 1987, Kareem after 1989, Magic after 1991, Larry after 1992 and MJ after 1993. This was the year after the Dream Team, so there was no shortage of stars, but the man predicted to take the mantle from MJ as the face of the league was second-year superstar Shaquille O’Neal.

“I think now it’s going to be Shaq or somebody else, and kids are just going to forget about Michael after a while, like they did Magic,” said 14-year-old Wayne Rhymes of Phoenix. “Most people only like people who are playing.”

MJ’s retirement was global

One year after the Dream Team, the NBA was officially the world’s basketball league. Press coverage reflected that. Of the many news outlets worldwide that covered his retirement, this quote from Romania state TV is my favorite:

“Basketball without Jordan is like ballet without Maya Plisetskaya.”

In Chicago and worldwide, businesses braced for the loss of Jordan, self-contained economy

The economic figures around Jordan’s sudden retirement were startling, and best summed up by John Skorburg, the then-chief economist for the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

“If Michael Jordan were a corporation, he would be in the Fortune 500,” Skorburg said October 6. “He is the $1 billion man. That’s what we estimate his worth is to the Chicagoland economy: $1 billion.”

Here is a sampling of quotes from Chicago business leaders, all taken from the Tribune:

  • “Michael Jordan has been a kind of one-man export industry for this region.” — Robert Dederick, chief economist for Northern Trust Co.

  • “It’s like a very profitable export business that just announced it was shutting down.” — James Annable, chief economist for First Chicago

  • “When the Bulls played in other markets, fans would turn out to see Michael Jordan. I think what you may find in other markets is some diminished interest in basketball.” — Peter J. Much, senior managing director of Chicago-based appraisal firm Houlihan, Lokey, Howard & Zukin

A Shot On Ehlo
How Carson Pirie Scott became the #1 destination for 90s Bulls gear
Bulls fans had to have the gear the next day. We just had to. The locker room hats. The caricature shirts. We watche…
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As for the global brands Jordan endorsed, they felt the Jordan effect in force, not just when he retired, but when he returned in March of 1995:

A Shot On Ehlo
"The Jordan Index": How MJ's 1995 comeback drove stock prices
“If Michael Jordan were a corporation, he would be in the Fortune 500. He is the $1 billion man. That’s what we estimate his worth is to the Chicagoland economy: $1 billion.” ——— John Skorburg, the then-chief economist for the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, on Oct. 6, 1993, the day of Michael Jordan’s first retirement…
Read more

Some thought he would return — even if he was unsure

No, I don’t buy the “If David Stern will have me back” conspiracy. I think in the wake of each championship, he thought he would never retire, and in the wake of each retirement, he thought he might never return.

Others disagreed.

“Give him six months to a year and he’ll be back,” said Will Robinson of the Pistons front office. “He just needs time to get himself together.”

Or, as Magic said:

“He probably will come back in one year to show everyone he’s still king.”

And so he did.

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Hope everyone is doing well! Enjoy your day. Interviews with Mark Schanowski and Will Perdue coming soon…

Best,

Jack

1

The scoring leaders after 1993 (*active) — Kareem, Wilt, Hayes, Moses*, Oscar, Havlicek, English, West, Dantley, Elgin, Dominique*, Bird, Greer, Parish*, JORDAN.

2

Will Gottlieb wrote about this game last year, including me in a piece with the great Sam Smith