The date is June 11, 1997. The scene is in Salt Lake City. We are in Delta Arena, the home of the Western Conference champion Utah Jazz.
The Bulls and Jazz have split the first four games of the 1997 NBA Finals. The Bulls won the first two games at home, including a Game 1 buzzer-beating win by Michael Jordan. As the series moved to Utah, the Jazz held serve with wins in Games 3 and 4.
Game 5 of a seven-game series tends to be the decisive game. Taking a 3-2 advantage heading into Game 6 gives the team two chances to close out their opponent. Historically, about 82 percent of Game 5 winners in 2-2 series win the series.
To this point, results in the Finals have been more mixed. Since the format change to the 2-3-2 system*, the 1985 Lakers and 1992 Bulls successfully won Game 5 in the series while the 1988 Pistons and 1994 Knicks won Game 5 before losing both Games 6 and 7.
*2-3-2 refers to the order of home games in the series. From 1985 to 2013, the team with the better record hosted Games 1, 2, 6, and 7 while the team with the worse record hosted Games 3, 4, and 5.
Chicago has two home games waiting for them if they lose, but a win would put the series in a chokehold as the Jazz would have to win a pair of games in Chicago. In the regular season, the Bulls went 39-2 at home.
Chicago has a royal flush in their deck: Michael Jordan. Despite not winning the 1997 NBA MVP (the award went to Karl Malone of the Jazz), Jordan was regarded as the premier player in the league even at age 34. Jordan led the NBA in scoring during the regular season and had been averaging over 30 points per playoff game in 1997.
Jordan was shooting 41 percent in Utah, but that fell to the back of the country’s mind as rumors circled that Jordan had been sick with the flu. As the NBC broadcast began, there was reason to believe that Jordan would be limited in action or even be barred from playing in the game as stories continued to detail his vomiting outbursts and flu symptoms.
Jordan started the game and it took just 90 for him to score his first basket of the game.
Jordan only made one more shot in the first quarter as the Jazz took a 29-16 lead.
The Jazz were buoyed by nine points and two assists from Karl Malone as Chris Morris scored five key points off the bench.
Moving into the second quarter, Jordan picked up a rhythm from the foul line. Of Jordan’s 17 second-quarter points, nine came from the line.
Despite a 21-point first half, Jordan was seen keeled over in exhaustion.
Heading into the third quarter, the Jazz held a 53-49 lead.
Jordan showed his immense fatigue in the third quarter, making only one of four shots in the quarter. For the Jazz, Jeff Hornacek was similarly cold, keeping the Bulls in the game. A trio of buckets from Luc Longley kept the game close heading into the fourth quarter.
Trailing 72-67, Jordan scored seven of the Bulls’ next 10 points to tie the game at 77. Jordan hit an elbow jumper to give the Bulls their first lead of the quarter.
With three minutes left in regulation, John Stockton buried a long three to give the Jazz an 84-81 lead.
Coolly, Jordan walked down the court, floated into the lane and lobbed a shot into the basket to trim the lead to one.
After the teams traded a free throw each, Jordan split a pair of free throws, grabbing the rebound after his miss. The ball entered the post with Scottie Pippen before he kicked it back to Jordan who nailed a go-ahead three-point shot.
After an exchange of dunks, the Jazz had an opportunity to tie the game with six seconds left, but Hornacek missed a three and the Bulls fouled Stockton with 0.2 seconds left. After missing the first free throw, Stockton made the second.
The Bulls released the final tenths off the clock.
Two days later, Jordan hoisted 39 points in a 90-86 win at home, lifting the Bulls to their fifth title in seven years.
The Legacy of the Flu Game
Jordan’s list of iconic performances is as long as any player in history, but the Flu Game might be the most iconic. Despite exhaustion, Jordan channeled 44 of his best minutes to fend off a Jazz team that was an incredible 48-3 at the Delta Center.
Disclaimer: Since the game, it has been theorized that Jordan was either hungover or suffering from food poisoning from bad food. Yet, the name “Flu Game” has stuck.