“The Last Dance,” the 10-part documentary series on the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls season and the NBA’s former golden boy Michael Jordan focuses on the latter half of Jordan’s career, but the icon’s career was filled with twists and turns from start to finish. Jordan played a big role in his college’s national championship win in 1982 at the University of North Carolina (UNC). After his college tenure at UNC, Jordan was drafted to the Chicago Bulls as the third overall draft pick in 1984. Additionally, five years before the events of the docuseries, Jordan abruptly retired in his prime from the NBA, sending shockwaves across the basketball world.
Before he joined the Bulls, the team was struggling — they had consistently subpar results, and came in 10th place during the 1983 NBA season. After Jordan joined, he was able to lead the Bulls back to the playoffs during his first season. During the following 1985-86 season, Jordan only played 18 games due to a broken foot he suffered in only the third game of the regular season. Despite this, the Bulls were still able to make the playoffs and Jordan returned just in time to score a record 63 points against the Boston Celtics in the playoffs. After that season, Jordan consistently worked to lead his team to the playoffs, though he always struggled to get the rest of the Bulls to match his own competitive spirit or talent until 1991. Once his teammates provided solid support, Jordan was able to dominate the league and the Bulls won the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. This victory was followed by two more straight championship wins.
This impressive record is why it was so incredibly surprising when Jordan, then at the peak of his career, unexpectedly announced his retirement only four months after his third championship title. His father had been murdered months before, but Jordan stated that this wasn’t what spurred his decision. “I have nothing more to prove in basketball … I always wanted to quit at the top,” he stated in a 1993 press conference.
Without their guiding force, the Chicago Bulls failed to make the NBA Finals during the following season, despite star player Scottie Pippen’s stellar season. As the Bulls tried to stay above water, Jordan once again stunned the sports world by remaining in the public eye as a minor league baseball player with the White Sox and Birmingham Barons. His stint on the mound didn’t last long and he returned to the NBA in 1995 with a simple statement: “I’m back.”
The Chicago Bulls saw a resurgence of power with Jordan’s return. With a skillful lineup of players on board, the Bulls were able to start their championship campaign with a 105-91 win over the Charlotte Hornets and became the first NBA team to win 70 or more games. Personally, Jordan won his eighth scoring title and the triple crown with the NBA MVP, All-Star Game MVP and Finals MVP award. By 1999, the Bulls had completed their second championship three-peat with Jordan’s assistance.
Jordan’s abrupt retirement from the basketball world is still speculated about by basketball fans. Many have theorized that Jordan was pushed to retire to save his public image — which was extremely marketable and the majority of his income — because of his embarrassing excessive gambling. Jordan himself claimed that he was just following his late father’s wish for his son to become a Major Leagues baseball player. Regardless of the reason, Jordan’s popularity and this amusing back-and-forth remains as one of the most surprising moves in basketball history.