Michael Jordan is also the G.O.A.T. of NBA beefs: 14 of his best trash-talking and vengeful rivalries
ESPN is set to air the first two parts of its 10-hour “The Last Dance” documentary about Michael Jordan and the 1998 Bulls on Sunday, so a basketball world starved for games has spent the weeks since the network announced its adjusted start date reminiscing about the greatest player the NBA has ever seen. We here at Yahoo Sports NBA are no different, and in the latest installment of our chronicles we dive deep into MJ’s best beefs.
The 1985 NBA All-Stars
Legend has it that incumbent NBA stars were not fond of the attention paid to Jordan as a rookie, so veterans Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and George Gervin allegedly orchestrated a freeze-out of the 21-year-old sensation at his first All-Star Game. The accused denied limiting Jordan’s chances, but George Andrews — then the agent for both Thomas and Johnson — lended at least a little credence to the myth.
In the version Andrews told to longtime Chicago Tribune scribe turned Bulls.com columnist Sam Smith, the veterans took umbrage with Jordan violating NBA protocol by promoting Nike with his pregame workouts.
“No question they were mad at him,” Andrews told Smith, “and it wasn’t just my guys.”
Per Andrews, the vets planned for Thomas and Johnson to defend each other with little resistance, so they could control the action, as Gervin guarded Jordan with more intent. Jordan scored seven points on nine shots.
As the story goes, longtime Detroit Free Press columnist Charlie Vincent approached Gervin afterward at the airport, where he was waiting for his plane with a couple of advisers to his point guard co-conspirators.
“They’re acting out and saying how they showed Michael who was boss, taught him a lesson and all that,” Andrews added, via Smith, “and it extrapolates into a plot against Michael, which was not the case.”
It just so happens the Bulls hosted Thomas’ Pistons in their first game after the break. Jordan amassed 49 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and four steals in a 139-126 victory, igniting a rivalry that lasted for years.
Isiah Thomas, Detroit Pistons
Three years after the alleged freeze-out, Jordan’s Bulls faced Thomas’ Pistons for the first of four playoff meetings in four seasons. Detroit got the best of Chicago in the first three meetings, winning two titles in the process. When the Bulls finally broke through, sweeping the Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals, Thomas and company left the floor without shaking hands. Jordan took notice, returning the freeze.
According to Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum, who later chronicled the “Dream Team” in book form, Jordan told former Bulls general manager turned USA Basketball committee member Rod Thorn, “I don’t want to play if Isiah Thomas is on the team.” Jordan later confirmed his part in keeping Thomas off a 1992 U.S. Olympic men’s national team he most certainly deserved to be on, and he had plenty of support.
“I despised how he played the game,” Scottie Pippen said of Thomas in NBA TV’s 2012 documentary on the Dream Team. “Isiah was the general [of the Bad Boys], he was the guy who would yap at his teammates and say, ‘Kick them on their ass. Do whatever you have to do.’ No, I didn’t want him on the Dream Team.”
“Did Isiah Thomas deserve to be on the Dream Team? No doubt about it,” Johnson later conceded, via Vintage Detroit. “When you think about a team, everyone must get along. They gotta live to together, they gotta hang out together. Isiah, with his competitive nature, rubbed some of the guys the wrong way.”
Toni Kukoc, Chicago Bulls
Jordan and Pippen heard tales of Toni Kukoc’s talent in 1992. He was a second-round pick by their Bulls in 1990 and had yet to join them in the NBA, instead improving his prototypical stretch four skills in Europe. So, when the Dream Team saw Kukoc’s Croatia on their schedule at the Barcelona Olympics, they salivated.
“You ever watch a lion or a leopard or a cheetah pouncing on their prey?” Karl Malone told Lang Whitaker for GQ’s wonderful 2012 oral history of the Dream Team. “We had to get Michael and Scottie out of the locker room, because they were damn near pulling straws to see who guarded him. Kukoc had no idea.”
Kukoc finished with four points on 11 shots in 34 minutes of a 103-70 defeat in the opening stage of the tournament. Jordan and Pippen combined for 34 points, 12 assists and 13 steals (!) in 28 minutes apiece.
Poor Kukoc, who unknowingly had Bulls general manager Jerry Krause to blame.
“Krause was recruiting this guy and talking about how great he was,” Jordan said in the 2012 documentary. “That’s like a father who has all his kids and now he sees another kid that he loves more than he loves his own. So we weren’t playing against Toni Kukoc. We were playing against Jerry Krause in a Croatia uniform.”
His other Chicago Bulls teammates
Let’s start with Steve Kerr, who Jordan once punched in the face during a heated practice.
“I took exception to something he said,” Kerr said in telling the tale to ESPN.com in 2013. “So I was talking back and I don’t think Michael appreciated that ... and we got in the lane and he gave me a forearm shiver to the chest and I pushed him back. And next thing you know, our teammates were pulling him off of me.”
Kerr earned Jordan’s respect, standing up to him, taking a black eye and giving a few punches back.
“It made me look at myself, and say, ‘You know what? You’re really being an idiot about this whole process,’” Jordan said in Phil Jackson’s autobiography “Eleven Rings” of the Kerr quarrel at a 1995 post-comeback practice. “I knew I had to be more respectful of my teammates. And I had to be more respectful of what was happening to me in terms of trying to get back into the game. I had to get more internal.”
That realization came too late for many of his former teammates.
Upset that the Bulls traded good friend Charles Oakley, Jordan called his replacement, Bill Cartwright, “Medical Bill,” and bullied him, intentionally throwing Cartwright difficult passes, telling reporters, “He’s causing me too many turnovers,” and doing all he could to get coach Doug Collins to bench the center.
Jordan also punched Cartwright’s backup, Will Perdue. He called Stacey King a “powerless forward” and a “big, fat guy” who couldn’t rebound. He told Horace Grant he was “too stupid to remember the plays.” And he “practically ruined” Rodney McCray, yelling mid-practice, “You’re a loser! You’ve always been a loser!”
As Kerr rationalized in a recent “Book of Basketball 2.0” podcast interview with Bill Simmons, “You were scared to death of him. He was the most dominant force on the floor in every regard. It wasn't just the talent; it was the force of will. Opponents were defeated by Michael before they even walked on the floor.
"So it was unbelievable to be on his team, to be his teammate, and you had to accept that responsibility. You knew he was going to be harsh on you. You knew he was going to be tough on you, was going to talk trash to everybody in practice, test you. And his reasoning was: If you couldn't handle the trash talk in practice, there’s no way you could handle the pressure of the NBA playoffs. It made perfect sense.”
Xavier McDaniel, New York Knicks
Pat Riley’s 1990s New York Knicks were working on a second straight season of trying to rough the Bulls up in the 1992 playoffs. Xavier McDaniel did a number on Scottie Pippen in a Game 4 that knotted the series, “[tossing] him around like a rag doll,” but Jordan was not about to let that happen again in Game 5.
When McDaniel tried bullying Pippen again, Jordan quite literally went head-to-head with him, pushing their domes together during a timeout and pointedly telling McDaniel, “F--- you,” in plain view of the broadcast.
Jordan proceeded to score a game-high 37 points in the pivotal 96-88 victory.
Clyde Drexler, Portland Trail Blazers
Remember Jordan’s famous shrug after his sixth straight 3-pointer in the first half of Game 1 of the 1992 Finals? He made sure Clyde Drexler did. The Blazers star finished second to Jordan in MVP voting that season, collecting a dozen first-place votes and making a conversation of the league’s best shooting guard. So, Jordan ruined him, too. Drexler’s teammate, Danny Ainge, later told David Halberstam for his book, “Playing for Keeps,” it was like watching “an assassin who comes to kill you, then cut your heart out.”
Jordan was not done there, either. When the two met again that summer for training camp with the Dream Team, Jordan trash-talked Drexler up and down the court, according to Halberstam. “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 threes, Clyde.” Charles Barkley had to step in, but Jordan kept hounding Drexler on defense.
Charles Barkley, Phoenix Suns
Speaking of Barkley, there’s a well-circulated rumor that Jordan took him golfing for 48 holes and bought him a $20,000 diamond earring on the eve of Game 4 of the 1993 Finals, tiring out and currying favor with Barkley. When Bulls assistant Johnny Bach asked Jordan why, he allegedly responded, “He won’t get in my way the rest of the series. What’s $20,000 to me? Charles thinks we’re great friends. I hate that fat f---.”
Jordan proceeded to score 55 points unencumbered in Game 4, giving the Bulls a 3-1 series lead.
Unfortunately, Barkley shot down the rumor, telling the Sporting News’ Sean Deveney in 2015, “Michael and I laughed about that 10 years, 20 years later. They say we played golf together every day, and we never played golf. They said we had dinner together every night, and we never had dinner. So we always found it funny that people said we spent every night together. We never saw each other during the Finals.”
But Jordan slyly suggested such tactics were a big part of his arsenal in his Hall of Fame speech.
“[Knicks assistant Jeff Van Gundy] said I conned the players, befriended them, and then I attack them on the basketball court,” Jordan said, tongue still firmly planted in cheek after also poking fun at Van Gundy’s height during the speech. “Where did that come from? I just so happened to be a friendly guy. I get along with everybody, but at the same time, when the light comes on, I’m as competitive as anybody you know.”
The talking between Jordan and Barkley certainly became less cordial over the years.
Either way, the friendship has not endured the test of time. Barkley and Jordan had a falling out when the former called out the latter for his ownership failures to hire the right people to run the Charlotte Hornets.
Danny Ainge, Phoenix Suns
And speaking of Ainge, Jordan killed two friends with one game.
In that same Game 4 of the 1993 Finals, Ainge was hounding his golfing partner defensively when he caught Jordan’s elbow at midcourt. Ainge embellished the contact. Jordan took issue. Ainge ripped the ball from Jordan, who pointed his finger in Ainge’s face. Barkley and Grant stepped between them. Both of them earned a technical for the skirmish, but somehow Ainge also walked away with the personal foul.
According to Ainge, Jordan said, “Quit fouling me,” and Ainge responded, “Yes, your highness.”
John Starks, New York Knicks
Jordan’s Bulls faced the Knicks in the playoffs four times between 1991 and 1996, so he got a healthy dose of John Starks. The impassioned guard had his ups and downs opposite Jordan, but he always brought it.
Starks went toe-to-toe with Jordan in Game 1 of the 1993 Eastern Conference finals and punctuated Game 2 with his legendary dunk over all the Bulls, giving the Knicks a 2-0 lead. Jordan got his revenge in Game 3.
Jordan caught Starks with an elbow, Starks retaliated with a hard swipe that caught Jordan, and a shoving match ensued. Starks refused to be separated, going back at Jordan and asking, “You wanna go, Mike?”
The exchange earned Starks an ejection, and the Bulls never lost again in the series.
When Jordan first retired in 1993, Starks told Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff, “I’m going to miss him. He brought out the best in me.” So, when Jordan faced the Knicks for the first time since returning in 1995, he gave Starks 55 points in a 113-111 win at Madison Square Garden, symbolically reclaiming the throne.
“I think he forgot how to play me,” Jordan told reporters after the game.
Jordan’s Bulls proceeded to beat the Knicks in a five-game Eastern Conference semifinals series the following spring, bringing his playoff record opposite Starks to 4-0 despite plenty of bruises along the way.
Gary Payton, Seattle SuperSonics
Payton never stopped talking, even as a rookie, so Jordan turned to Bulls teammate B.J. Armstrong during their 1990 preseason game with the Sonics and said for all to hear, “Leave the f---ing rookie to me.”
Bulls coach Phil Jackson started calling plays for Jordan, a handful in a row, and he delivered every time. Payton found himself in foul trouble, scoreless in less than 10 minutes. Meanwhile, Jordan netted 33 points.
Let Payton finish the story, via The Player’s Tribune:
Looks right at me. “That s--- you talking in preseason?”
The wild thing is, MJ isn’t even mad or nothing. He’s chewing his f---ing gum.
“This is the real s--- right here. Welcome to the NBA, little fella.”
The Bulls and Sonics would meet again in the 1996 Finals. Jordan and Payton trash-talked throughout the series, especially in Game 2, when they met face to face at midcourt during a break in the heated action.
“It was a lot everything,” Payton later recalled when breaking down the friendly exchange of words for ESPN’s J.A. Adande. “A lot of ‘s---‘, ‘f---‘, ‘f--- you.’ And then Ron Harper got into it, Scottie Pippen got into it, Phil [Jackson] got into it. We were going back and forth with the ‘f--- you.’”
Despite Payton’s best efforts against MJ in the second half of the series, the Bulls prevailed in six games.
Reggie Miller, Indiana Pacers
Jordan also put Miller in his place from the start. When Miller entered the league as a rookie in 1987, his Pacers faced the Bulls in preseason game, and teammate Chuck Person encouraged him to trash talk Jordan after getting off to a hot start. The way Miller tells it on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” Jordan proceeded to outscore him 40-2 in the second half and declare afterward, “You never talk to Black Jesus like that.”
Jordan never relented, either. In a February 1993 meeting, Miller bumped Jordan underneath the basket after a put-back, and Jordan responded by shoving Miller’s face with both hands, drawing a punch.
Again, Jordan was neither ejected nor even called for a foul. He was later suspended a single game.
When they met for the first time in the playoffs for the 1998 Eastern Conference finals, Jordan kept on him.
“Playing Reggie drives me nuts. It’s like chicken-fighting with a woman,” Jordan told Newsday’s Greg Logan before Game 1. “His game is all this flopping-type thing. He weighs only 185 pounds so you have to be careful; don’t touch him or it’s a foul. On offense, I use all my 215 pounds against him and just move him out. But he has his two hands on you all the time, like a woman holding your waist. It irritates me.”
Kwame Brown, Washington Wizards
Jordan joined the Washingon Wizards in 2001, the same season they made Kwame Brown the first high school player selected No. 1 overall in the draft. Jordan initially took Brown under his wing, quickly learned the kid was not cut out to match his competitive fire, and then tore him to shreds for the rest of his tenure.
So, when Brown challenged his mentor-turned-menace to a game of one-on-one, Jordan taught him a lesson. Let Michael Leahy walk you through it with an excerpt from his book, “When Nothing Else Matters”:
He proceeded to humiliate Brown, mocking him while scoring at will, declining to help him up when the teenager fell hard to the floor, winning lopsidedly and, at the end, yelling at Brown to acknowledge his superiority in front of the team: “You better call me ‘Daddy,’ motherf---er.”
According to Leahy, Jordan also dressed Brown down during a game after the rookie complained about the absence of a whistle on a touch foul, unleashing a tirade that allegedly included four homophobic slurs.
Sports Illustrated reported that “Jordan ritually reduced Brown to tears in front of the team,” but Brown has a different recollection of his experience. In a 2017 interview with HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy, Brown clarified, “There was a report that Michael Jordan would make me cry in the front of the team. A guy who grew up like I grew up don’t really cry much. The report about him calling me a homophobic slur isn’t true.”
Jerry Krause, Chicago Bulls
The feud between Jordan and the Bulls GM was decades in the making. Krause took over for Thorn a year after Chicago selected Jordan with the third overall pick. When Jordan broke his foot three games into the 1985-86 season, Krause urged his second-year superstar to sit out the year, hoping to secure a better draft pick to build around his franchise player. Ever the competitor, Jordan disagreed, pushing through a minutes limit to help the Bulls win six of their final 10 games and secure the eighth seed with a paltry 30-52 record.
Had Jordan sat out the season, we would have been robbed of his 63-point playoff effort against the 1986 Celtics. As it were, the Bulls fell just outside a lottery that included Jordan’s former North Carolina teammate Brad Daugherty, Chuck Person, Kenny Walker and future Bull Ron Harper (and, of course, Len Bias). In his effort to field a formidable center behind Jordan, Krause selected Brad Sellers with the No. 9 pick in 1986, yet another teammate Jordan deemed unqualified to share the court with him. Two years after the failed Sellers experiment, Krause traded Jordan’s friend, Oakley, for Cartwright, and we have already covered that.
It went round and round in circles like this for the entirety of Jordan’s tenure in Chicago. He and Krause were cut from the same competitive cloth — Krause an old-school scout who believed in an organization’s influence on team-building and Jordan unwilling to concede power from the players to the front office. Jordan wanted more input on decisions concerning roster construction, and Krause felt he knew better. We should probably point out that Cartwright ultimately started at center for Chicago’s first three title runs.
There were contentious contract negotiations, to be sure, but the final straw came during the 1997-98 season that will be chronicled in the forthcoming “The Last Dance” documentary. Krause signed a number of the dynasty’s key contributors to one-year contracts and had a widely known plan to replace Jackson with Iowa State coach Tim Floyd, who just so happened to be a fishing buddy of the GM’s. Jordan was not a fan of this plan, refusing to play for Floyd, whom the superstar began derogatively referring to as “Pink” publicly.
“One thing is for sure, money won't keep me in the game,” Jordan told legendary former Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander of what might keep him in Chicago in 1999, via Blog a Bull. “Never. Just change ownership. And you know what I’d consider a change in ownership? Change the GM. Let Phil be general manager and coach. Krause? I don't want to start a war around here. I'll just say that sometimes it’s tough working for an organization that doesn’t show the same type of loyalty toward you as you show it.”
It was another clear shot at Krause’s infamous “organization’s win championships” quote. Regardless of Krause clarifying that his intended line included “players and coaches alone don’t win championships,” it clearly struck a chord with Jordan, who included a reference to the quote in his evisceration of Krause at his Hall of Fame induction speech: “He was a very competitive person, I was a very competitive person. He said the organization wins championships. I said, ‘I didn’t see the organization playing with the flu in Utah.’”
Jordan also said of the notably absent Krause in the same speech, “I don’t know who invited him, I didn’t.”
When Krause died at age 77 in 2017, Jordan issued a public statement: “Jerry was a key figure in the Bulls’ dynasty and meant so much to the Bulls, White Sox and city of Chicago. My heart goes out to his wife, Thelma, his family and friends.” That summer, the GM was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Everyone else in his Hall of Fame speech
Krause was not the only one who took fire during Jordan’s 2009 Hall of Fame induction speech. Just about everybody caught shrapnel, including: Thomas, Johnson and Gervin; Leroy Smith, who famously was awarded the final varsity spot over Jordan in their high school sophomore season; Buzz Peterson, Jordan’s freshman roommate at North Carolina who won the state’s prep player of the year honor over Jordan the year prior; Riley and Jeff Van Gundy; “the media naysayers”; his own relatives; and the Hall of Fame itself.
But he saved the best for last: Bryon Russell, the victim of the final shot of Jordan’s Bulls career — a jumper that eliminated the Utah Jazz in the 1998 Finals and concluded the season captured by “ The Last Dance.”
“I hate to do it to him. He’s such a nice guy,” Jordan said, smiling as he prepared to wrap up his speech. “When I first met Bryon Russell, I was in Chicago in 1994. I was working out for baseball. They came down for a workout. ... I came over to say hello, and at this time I had no thoughts of coming back and playing the game of basketball. And Bryon Russell came over to me and said, ‘You know what, man, why’d you quit? You know I could guard you. If I ever see you in a pair of shorts.’ So, when I did decided to come back in 1995, and then we played Utah in ’96. I’m at the center circle, and Bryon Russell is standing next to me. I look over to Byron and said, ‘Do you remember the conversation we had in 1994: ‘I think I could guard you, I think I can shut you down, I would love to play against you.’ Well, you’re about to get your chance.”
More on Michael Jordan:
• MJ’s greatest strength? He understood what fans wanted
• Pandemic delays LeBron’s pursuit of the ghost of Michael Jordan’s iconic moment
• Five things to watch for in ‘The Last Dance’ documentary
– – – – – – –
Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach
More from Yahoo Sports: