When Michael Jordan and Penny Hardaway Sat on Top of the Eastern Conference in 1996

Michael Jordan

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Michael Jordan returned to the NBA in mid-March of 1995, with just a few weeks left in the regular season. Jordan had been away from the league for 21 months, his body was made for baseball and his conditioning wasn’t adequate.

The Bulls faced a young, talented Magic team in the second round of the playoffs and they lost the series in six games. MJ made two costly turnovers in the final minutes of Game 1 and seeing him and the Bulls struggle to close a game was highly unusual, to say the least.

“Being away from the game that long and just how much the body had changed, I was very unsure that he could perform at the level that he’s accustomed to performing on a regular basis,” Tim Grover, Michael Jordan’s trainer, said.

Jordan dedicated the entire summer to prove that he was still the best player in the NBA.

“I honestly think one of the best things that could’ve possibly happened, as much as everyone hates losing, is that we lost to Orlando,” former teammate Bill Wennington explained. “Because Michael came back with a vengeance.”

Michael Jordan asked Grover to help him get his body ready for the next season. Jordan had no days off while filming Space Jam over the summer. He still did weight training and pickup games at “the Jordan Dome,” a facility at Warner Brothers Studio that was built for him. Training there helped Jordan get ready to be the best version of himself.

“I don’t know how he did it,” Reggie Miller stated in episode 8 of ‘The Last Dance’. “I don’t know how he filmed all day and then had the energy to play three hours. We would play until 9 or 10 at night, and he’d still have to get weightlifting in, and then his call time was at like 6 or 7 in the morning, so I don’t know how. This dude was like a vampire.”

That year Penny Hardaway, going into his third season, was already a full-blown star. He got his new signature shoe line and was playing with a mystifying combination of flair, skill and power.

All MJ did to reestablish his throne as top dog is win an NBA-record 72 games and secure his fourth MVP and NBA championship. Penny led the Magic to 60 wins and finished third in MVP voting. Jordan averaged 30.4 points and 4.3 assists while Hardaway put up 21.7 points and 7.1 assists. The Bulls and the Magic finished on top of the East and each blasted through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Jordan’s will to win helped the Bulls get a 72-10 record. The Bulls also got payback against the Magic, sweeping them in the Eastern Conference Finals before winning their fourth NBA Championship, beating the Seattle SuperSonics.

After that season, Shaquille O’Neal decided to sign with the Lakers and left Penny with no chance to compete with Jordan and Pippen. At the same time, injuries started to derail Penny’s prime. There’s an alternate universe where Shaq stays in Orlando and Penny’s knees hold up, and we get a few more years of Bulls vs. Magic battles.


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