“When you come at the king, you best not miss”.
Rivals rarely attempted to trash-talk Michael Jordan – it’s difficult to muster impactful sledges when you’re up against arguably the greatest basketball player of all time.
But when a handful of brave souls attempted to trash-talk the GOAT, it proved a costly error. Jordan was already more determined than anyone else in the league to win games, and certainly didn’t need any additional motivation.
Episode eight of Netflix docu-series The Last Dance details the unsuccessful attempts of opponents to overshadow Jordan on the court, which was a fatal mistake for many.
During the Eastern Conference semi-finals of the 1998 NBA playoffs, the Chicago Bulls came up against the Charlotte Hornets. Unsurprisingly, the Bulls won the first game, most fans predicted the defending champions would comfortably complete a clean sweep.
However, former Bulls star B. J. Armstrong – who played alongside Jordan for several years – was confident of an upset with his insider knowledge of how the Bulls played.
“The Bulls were a far superior team, and they knew it … but I knew how to beat them,” Armstrong said on The Last Dance.
“I was excited to face them in the playoffs, knowing what I knew about the Bulls, what I knew about Michael, and to see whether everything I had learnt would work.”
To his credit, Armstrong pulled it off. In the dying moments of Game 2 in Chicago, he overpowered Jordan in a one-on-one and nailed a jumper to give the Hornets an insurmountable lead, tying the series 1-1.
But Armstrong couldn’t resist rubbing salt in the wounds, screaming at the opposition bench during an excessive celebration.
“I hit that shot, and I remember, I let Michael know. I let Phil Jackson know, I let Scottie know, I let everybody that I knew over there know,” Armstrong said.
Jordan was not impressed.
“I felt like BJ should know better,” Jordan said on The Last Dance.
“If you’re going to high-five, talk trash, now I had a bone to pick with you. I’m supposed to kill this guy, you know, I’m supposed to dominate this guy.
“And from that point I did.”
Ahead of the third game in the series, footage showed a pensive Jordan sitting in the locker rooms, wielding a baseball bat and smoking a cigar and talking about Armstrong.
“That’s the sign of a good man, if you can talk s*** when it’s even score, or talk s*** when you’re behind,’ he exclaimed.
“When you’re ahead, it’s easy to talk.”
Rare Air author Mark Vancil explained how Armstrong’s arrogance lit the fuse for Jordan’s forthcoming barrage.
“These little sleights were deep indignations to (Jordan). That’s all he needs. I mean, that’s like throwing meat to a tiger,” Vancil said.
“He’d find a game within a game to keep him interested, but it was all in his mind.”
Hornets forward Glen Rice anticipated a fired-up Jordan to hit back hard in Game 3.
“With BJ hitting that shot and staring the whole bench down, it just didn’t sit well with Michael, and we knew … we’re going to have a dogfight from here on out,” Rice said.
“We have woke Michael Jordan up.
“Mike does not need any more gas in his tank to get going. But when you do that, you have to expect all hell to break loose from that point on.
“And that’s what happened.”
As Jordan walked onto Charlotte Coliseum for Game 3, he muttered, “Payback is a motherf*****”.
Armstrong realised his mistake moments after the buzzer sounded.
“(Jordan) came after me in the rest of that series, especially that next game,” he said.
The Bulls charged towards a comfortable 14-point victory, eventually snaring the series 4-1.
Armstrong should have been more wary; he had witnessed Jordan relentlessly target an individual player before.
It wasn’t just Armstrong who got under the skin of Jordan and became the focus of his murderous intent, with Orlando Magic guard Nick Anderson becoming a target during the 1995 playoffs.
In his return to the game, Jordan, wearing the number 45 instead of his usual 23, wasn’t at his peak and in the first game of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Magic, Anderson stole the ball to secure the win for the Magic.
Then Anderson got ahead of himself and according to former Bull and current Magic teammate Horace Grant, he said to Jordan “45 isn’t 23”. That’s all he needed.
Jordan returned to his famous number 23 and erupted to lead the Bulls back into the series and level things up at 1-1. The Magic however proved too strong as they ran away with the series 4-2.
After losing to the Magic, the Bulls bounced back the following season with a then record 72-10 season and advanced to the NBA Finals against the Seattle Supersonics. This time however it wasn’t a player that became the target for Jordan’s aggression, it was the team’s coach George Karl.
“During the Finals we go out to dinner one night, George Karl’s having dinner on the other side. And George Karl does not come over and speak to him,” reporter Ahmad Rashad said on The Last Dance.
“He walked right past me,” Jordan added.
“I look at him and I say ‘really? So that’s how you’re gonna play it’.
“We went to Carolina, we know Dean Smith, I’ve seen him in the summer, we play golf. And you gonna do this? Fine. That’s all I needed. That’s all I needed for him to do that and it became personal with me.”
But the most famous story of all came in 1993, when Washington Bullets youngster LaBradford Smith scored 37 points against Jordan’s Bulls in a masterful display.
“Bradford Smith had a game, I mean he had a game of games. And for whatever reason, Michael couldn’t make a basket,” Armstrong explained.
However, after the game, Jordan was left fuming when Smith apparently put his arm around the GOAT’s shoulder and said, “Nice game, Mike”.
The two sides were to face off again the next day in Washington, and Armstrong claimed that Jordan said he would score more points in the first half than Smith achieved during the whole game at Chicago.
“I’ve never seen a man go after another player the way he did,” Armstrong said.
Inevitably, Jordan dominated the opening two quarters, scoring 36 points. But more importantly, he embarrassed the hapless Smith.
“He took such umbrage from a guy saying, ‘Nice game, Mike,’ that he torched and humiliated him in front of 20,000 people,” Washington Post reporter Michael Wilbon said.
Funny thing is, the entire story was fabricated. Smith never said those three words to Jordan.
“Decades later … a couple of writers went up to Michael and said, ‘Did this ever happen?’ Michael, with a smile said, ‘No, I made it up’,” Wilbon said.
“There’s nothing he would not do to get himself to the place where he’s going to beat you.”
Players should have known better than to try and get one over the ruthless machine that was Michael Jordan.