By the end of the 1992-93 season, Michael Jordan stood alone atop the NBA mountain. After winning his third consecutive championship at only 30 years old, he had established himself as one of the greatest players in basketball history and a global icon.
Then, right in the middle of his prime, he declared he was walking away from the game he loved.
On Oct. 6, 1993, Jordan sat in front of a horde of reporters who were ready to question how he arrived at the decision to retire from the NBA. The full version of MJ was on display that day — his charisma, his thoughtfulness, his humor, his anger, his pettiness.
He didn’t stay retired long, of course, rejoining the Bulls in 1995 and leading another three-peat from 1996-98. But perhaps that successful second act wouldn’t have been possible without a temporary break.
Despite what conspiracy theorists may tell you, there are two logical reasons why Jordan was ready to move into the next phase of his life.
Michael Jordan lacked motivation
As part of his opening remarks at the 1993 press conference, Jordan made one thing clear: He had nothing left to prove.
“I’m very solid with my decision of not playing the game of basketball in the NBA,” Jordan said. “The reason being — I’ve heard a lot of different speculation about my reasons for not playing — but I’ve always stressed to people that have known me and the media that has followed me that when I lose the sense of motivation and the sense to prove something as a basketball player, it’s time for me to move away from the game of basketball.
“It’s not because I don’t love the game. I love the game of basketball. I always will. I just feel that, at this particular time in my career, I have reached the pinnacle of my career. I have achieved a lot in that short amount of time, if you want to call it short. But I just feel that I don’t have anything else for myself to prove.”
In Chicago’s previous three NBA Finals series, Jordan defeated Magic Johnson’s Lakers, Clyde Drexler’s Trail Blazers and Charles Barkley’s Suns. There were no equals, no reasonable arguments to be made opposing the idea of Jordan being the best player on the planet.
Jordan didn’t just own that era, though. He had thrown his name firmly into the “greatest of all time” conversation. His case only grew stronger through the back half of the decade, but it wasn’t outlandish to consider him for that top spot following his third title.
When Jordan asked Bulls coach Phil Jackson if there was anything left for him to do on the court, Jackson struggled to find an answer. That’s all Jordan needed to hear.
“If I didn’t have the desire to step on the basketball court and have something to prove, then I must admit that,” Jordan said. “I can’t step out there and know that I’m out there for no reason. It’s not worth it for me, and I don’t think it’s worth it for my teammates.”
He echoed that sentiment in one of his interviews for ESPN’s documentary series “The Last Dance,” admitting he had “no motivation.”
Michael Jordan wanted to pursue a ‘normal life’
The early ’90s marked a particularly tough time in Jordan’s personal life.
His immense success resulted in more attention and scrutiny each season. Sam Smith’s book “The Jordan Rules” changed the perception of the guy in the Nike and Gatorade commercials. Media members wondered if he was downplaying a serious gambling problem. (He took plenty of shots at reporters during that press conference before he made his way out the building.) Jordan was so mentally and physically exhausted that his third championship brought more relief than elation.
But nothing could compare to the tragic death of his father, James, who was murdered in July 1993. While traveling in North Carolina, James pulled his car over to take a nap, and he was shot and killed by two men as part of a botched robbery attempt.
Jordan had discussed retirement with his father prior to James’ death and was already “kind of leaning toward that direction.” Jordan also told reporters his father advised him to retire after his first title.
“I think one thing about my father’s death is that it can be gone and taken away from you at any time,” Jordan said. “There’s still a lot of things out there for me to achieve. There’s a lot of family members and friends I haven’t seen because I’ve been very selfish in my career to try to get to this point and make sure that I achieved all the dreams that I wanted to achieve.
“Now that I’m here, it’s time to be a little bit unselfish in terms of spending more time with my family, my wife, my kids, and just get back to a normal life, as close to it as I could.”
In February 1994, Jordan signed a minor league baseball contract with the White Sox. Switching to the sport was his father’s idea, Jordan told The New York Times, because James felt Michael possessed the necessary skills to succeed at baseball. Jordan struggled in his lone year with the Double-A Birmingham Barons, hitting .202 and striking out 114 times in 497 plate appearances.
Jordan was back in a Bulls uniform a year later. Even when he announced his retirement, he seemed to have an inkling his feelings could change.
“The word ‘retire’ means you can do anything you want from this day on,” Jordan said. “So if I desire to come back and play again, maybe that’s what I want to do. Maybe that’s the challenge that I may need some day down the road. I’m not gonna close that door. I don’t believe in never.”