Viewing Michael Jordan’s Flu Game Through Today’s Lens

1997 Finals, Game 5 against the Utah Jazz is one of many legendary moments in Michael Jordan’s career that people list when they tell you why is the GOAT, or when they tell you what a fierce competitor he was. There are conspiracy theories that he was actually hungover instead of sick with the flu and probable theories that he had food poisoning. I’m not here to litigate any of those debates. Instead, what’s been on my mind with the epic MJ documentary about to come out, and with coronavirus at the top of everyone’s mind, is whether MJ should have been in the game at all.

First, I’m going to assume that he actually had the flu, though I know that may have not been the case. So, the question is, given all that we know now, should Michael Jordan have played in the game if he actually had the flu, and if the answer is yes, how bad does the disease have to be for him to not play at all? To be honest, I really struggle with the question. On one hand, I think it should be an emphatic yes. It’s Game 5 of the NBA Finals for Christ’s sake with the series tied at 2-2. How could he not play? The seasonal flu is not very deadly especially for healthy, young men. But, on the other hand, what if he got other people sick? He could’ve passed this onto his teammates or even his opponents, who might have symptoms severe enough to force them to sit out the next game. If that were the case, then letting Michael Jordan play might punish the other team. If Michael Jordan does not play, what happens then? Are we going to treat the flu like an injury and just say that it’s tough luck? Players get hurt all the time, even in the Finals, yet we sit them out and play the series without them. But the flu is different. What if MJ insisted on playing? In the Finals, players would only sit out if the injury was so bad that they could not play so we accept that and let the series go on. But in MJ’s case, he would be forced to sit, not because he can’t play or won’t play, but because he’s not allowed to play. And it’s not like he’s some bench-warmer. He’s the best player on the team and the NBA’s premiere player. Forcing him to sit when he can play might cause riots, or at least a Twitter riot.

“Okay,” you might say, “the flu’s not that bad, so let him play.” But then, where’s the cutoff? Are we going to let a player play if he has coronavirus? Evidently not, based on the NBA’s decision last month. This is not just armchair philosophizing. This is a dilemma the NBA is probably confronting right now (or if they’re not, they should be). The NBA, and all the other major sports leagues, cannot and will not wait 12-18 months for a vaccine. They are all scrambling and creating contingency plans to get games going as quickly as possible. On the NBA side, the most common idea floated is getting all the playoff teams in one city and placing them in a bubble, testing everybody multiple times a day. There would be no fans watching the games, but at least the games will be broadcasted on TV, which is where the bulk of revenues come from anyways. So then the question becomes, what happens if one of the players contracts coronavirus? This would most likely be during the playoffs and maybe even in the Finals. What happens then? Does it get treated as a two-week injury, or do they play the games regardless of who is sick? If it’s regular season games, then nobody will complain about sitting, but what if it’s Game 5 of the Finals with the series tied 2-2 and the best player on one of the teams, say Giannis, gets it? My guess is that they would just sit him out and they would play the rest of the series without him. People in the media and on Twitter would go berserk, but the NBA probably cannot afford to just postpone the Finals for two weeks. There’s TV spots already booked, advertisers already lined up, venues already rented out, and probably a ton of other logistical issues that I’m not thinking of. Even if the games can be postponed again, what’s the ramp-up period back? Would Giannis be okay to play right after two weeks? What if he’s out of shape? Or, what if other players aren’t game ready and get hurt? The NBA probably doesn’t want to think about this and instead probably wants to just hope for the best, but I think they should have a plan in place. I lean towards playing the games without any infected players, but it’s dependent on the situation. It’s one thing for one player to be infected, but another story entirely if say five players between the two teams are infected. The reason I lean towards just playing the games, though, is that injuries happen all the time. Many championship runs were won on the backs of injured opposing players, and ultimately contracting coronavirus is not that different.