The Flu Game is no more. Twenty-three years after one of the most iconic performances of his career, Michael Jordan has revealed that he wasn’t battling illness during his 38-point showing in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals. That was the Food Poisoning Game, which is a lot less catchy.
Jordan explained the story in Episode 9 of The Last Dance, with corroboration from his personal trainer Tim Grover and his longtime friend George Koehler. On the night before Game 5, the Bulls were staying in Park City, Utah, a resort town about 40 minutes east of Salt Lake City. At about 10 p.m., Jordan got hungry, and virtually every local restaurant was already closed. (Alas, they were in Utah—I’m guessing there’s some state law about restaurants staying open past 8 p.m.) Grover eventually tracked down one open pizzeria, but was surprised when five delivery guys showed up with the pie. He said he grew suspicious after seeing the surplus of delivery men, and tried to warn Jordan against eating the pizza. But Jordan apparently couldn’t be talked out of it. MJ ate the whole damn pie by himself, spent the next 20 hours throwing up into buckets, then went to an arena and threw some shots into buckets.
It’s a strange and unflattering depiction of events. The Last Dance repeatedly portrays Jordan as a superhero, but the new backstory to the Flu Game makes him seem decidedly normal: gluttonous enough to house an entire pizza, and selfish enough to refuse to share his one (poisoned) pizza with his friends. Of course, bad cases of food poisoning are just as devastating as bad cases of the flu—yet a key element of Jordan’s legacy now involves him scarfing down a low-quality pizza possibly made with rancid ingredients. It’s the most human Jordan has ever seemed, and the most confusing decision to reframe a heroic piece of NBA Finals lore since Paul Pierce confirmed that he wasn’t hauled off in a wheelchair because he was injured, but rather because he had pooped his pants.
The pizza revelation isn’t exactly coming out of nowhere. Grover already told the story in 2013, and there are plenty of other tales of NBA players being suspicious of food served to them in hotels. Kobe Bryant got food poisoning in Sacramento during the infamous 2002 series against the Kings. Tony Parker threw up before a 2003 Western Conference finals game against the Mavericks because of—extremely French content incoming—bad room-service crème brûlée.
But the pizza story as presented by Jordan is still hard to believe. The explanations given by Jordan’s crew include several details that make it easy to second-guess whether the incident is true. So let’s dive into the scandal we’ll be calling PizzaGate. (OK, I’m getting word that we will not be calling this “PizzaGate.”) Did this actually happen?
How Did the Pizza Place Know This Order Was for MJ?
Pretend it’s 1997, and you’re the person in charge of ordering pizza for Michael Jordan. Maybe imagining this is difficult, because it’s probably been awhile since you ordered delivery pizza without just tapping an app. So let me tell you what you wouldn’t do. You wouldn’t call up a pizza place and say, “Hello, I’d like to order one large pizza for Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan. FROM NOOOOOOOOORTH CAROLINA, AT GUARD, 6-FOOT-6, NUMBER 23, MICHAAAAAAAAAAAEL JOOOOOOORDAN!” No, you’d likely just state your order and give your address.
There’s no way Jordan or his crew would tell a pizza guy who he was. A few weeks ago, former Bulls guard Rusty LaRue tweeted out a list of the pseudonyms the team used to check into hotels, so we know that the players took precautions to prevent road fans from tracking them down. Did this pizza place actually have a vendetta against Oscar Miles?
Grover argues that Utah residents were aware of where the Bulls were staying. But do we really think a local pizzeria got a call to deliver a pie to a major hotel and simply decided to take a chance and poison the pizza on the off chance it might be for MJ? How many other guests of the Park City Marriott were accidentally poisoned by food-delivery services attempting to take down the 1990s Bulls?
Why Were the Conspirators So Clumsy?
Grover and Koehler say they were suspicious of five delivery guys bringing Jordan his pizza. Both are extremely specific about saying there were five pizza guys, which is remarkable precision about a delivery more than 20 years in the past. Of course, their suspicion is fair: The typical number of people assigned to deliver a pizza is one.
However, I think the number of delivery men who apparently showed up is an argument against the poison pizza theory. First of all, poisoning pizza is not a five-person job. It’s not like there’s a special Pizza Poison that takes a collaborative effort to work into a pie. If a pizzeria wanted to give a recipient food poisoning, it probably would do so by making the pizza with expired ingredients. This ostensibly would take place inside the pizza joint—not by sending a poison pizza posse to commit crimes directly outside of Jordan’s hotel room.
And if five people weren’t required to poison the pizza, why would a five-man entourage deliver the poisoned pizza? Why would the poisoners make it plainly obvious that something was amiss? I mean, if you were intentionally trying to poison the most famous athlete on earth, wouldn’t you try to keep a low profile to avoid prosecution? At the very least, wouldn’t you want to prevent the target from becoming suspicious about the pizza?
We shouldn’t overlook the most likely scenario here. If a gang of pizza delivery guys did in fact show up outside MJ’s hotel room, maybe they weren’t plotting to poison him—maybe they were just excited teens who hoped to catch a glimpse of the greatest basketball player of all time.
How Do We Explain the Spitting Saga?
In The Last Dance, Jordan explains that a group of people were hanging out in his hotel room on the night the pizza was ordered: Grover, Koehler, and “a couple of security guys.” However, there are no accounts of Grover, Koehler, or any security guys coming down with bouts of food poisoning. This is odd, because pizza is designed to be shared, and hypothetically, anyone who ate the pizza would’ve gotten food poisoning.
Jordan and his crew have an explanation for this—but it’s perhaps the least sensible part of this entire version of events. In the documentary, Jordan maintains that he ate the pizza all by himself, and says as much with the same level of pride he showed when discussing his championship-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA tournament.
But the documentary apparently leaves out some critical context. Director Jason Hehir has shared a piece of information that didn’t make the final cut: He says that Jordan spit on the pizza to prevent the other guys in the room from eating any. This is unimaginably rude under any circumstances, but remember—these are Jordan’s friends. Scott Burrell wasn’t even in the room! Grover explained how no other local restaurants were open, forcing him to call pizza place after pizza place before finding the one that would deliver. And after Grover put in all that effort, Jordan hocked loogies on every slice to prevent him from even getting a bite?
On the one hand, this is exactly the type of borderline psychotic move that Jordan would pull. “Spitting on a pizza and then forcing your friends to watch you eat it” sounds like the work of a hungry-drunk fraternity sophomore trying to assert dominance in a room full of pledges.
On the other hand: Why would Jordan need to be so protective of his pizza? Even if Jordan wanted to eat a whole pie by himself, why didn’t the crew in MJ’s room just order multiple pizzas so everybody could partake? He was making $30 million a year! Get some garlic knots while you’re at it! Maybe multiple pies weren’t ordered because Grover and Koehler weren’t hungry—but in that case, why was Jordan so worried about them eating the pizza that he felt the need to spit on it?
Are We Fully Considering the State of Utahn Late-Night Pizza?
It’s worth noting that neither Jordan nor his associates directly accuse the pizza delivery people of poisoning Jordan—they implicate them by pointing at the suspicious situation. So they haven’t ruled out that Jordan’s pizza problems entering Game 5 might not have been the result of sabotage.
The story here is that Jordan ordered a pizza, spit on it so that none of his friends would eat any, then downed the whole thing by himself. And this pizza was from the one pizza place that stayed open after every other pizza place closed. You know this type of place: It doesn’t survive because it has the best pizza. It survives because it has the most available pizza. (This was also my main selling point on dating apps circa 2013.) I used to live one floor above an open-until-midnight Little Caesars. In case you don’t live near a Little Caesars, the most popular offering is the “Hot-N-Ready.” Not the Hot-N-Good, mind you—its defining characteristic is availability, not quality. And guess what? Sometimes I still pulled a Jordan and housed an entire $5 pizza at 11:45 p.m. (Oh, by the way—now “eating an entire bad pizza at 11:45 p.m.” is “pulling a Jordan.” You did this to yourself, MJ.)
Because Jordan was so desperate for pizza, he wasn’t capable of reading the Yelp reviews and deciding on the best spot. (Also, there were no Yelp reviews, because it was 1997.) He had to settle for whatever was there—and likely ended up with absolute bottom-of-the-barrel pizza. And yet, he powered through the whole damn thing. Maybe he didn’t get sick because someone poisoned him, but because he ate an entire C-minus pizza by himself in the middle of the night?
Jordan’s crew seems to paint his ailment as yet another battle MJ won; even though cruel pranksters conspired against him, he still dominated on the NBA’s biggest stage. But what if the cause of Jordan’s sickness wasn’t malicious action, but Jordan’s own late-night gluttony?
What’s Michael’s Motivation in the Pizza Story?
I don’t buy Jordan’s pizza explanation, but there’s one main argument in favor of it being the truth: Why would he lie about this? The Flu Game is an all-time piece of sports lore, as well as a testament to Jordan’s legendary determination and ability. While his performance is still impressive even if he was throwing up from food poisoning rather than sickness, it’s certainly less cool if the instigator was middle-of-the-night garbage pizza.
There’s only one reason why I can imagine Jordan making up the pizza story: Over the years, many have assumed that Jordan’s Flu Game was actually a Hangover Game. After all, “flu-like symptoms” has long been the NBA’s wink-wink euphemism for “this player partied too hard last night.” And Jordan probably doesn’t want anyone to think he partied too hard the night before an NBA Finals game. Turning the flu story into the pizza story might be an attempt to usurp the hangover conspiracy through a specific explanation for why he felt bad. It’s the same reason you should say you had really bad diarrhea if you ever miss work or class—it’s gross enough that everybody will assume you’re telling the truth, because why would you lie about diarrhea? (Now I’m wondering what Paul Pierce is trying to cover up with his pants-pooping Finals story.)
Unfortunately, the “eating an entire pizza” angle isn’t quite the trump card the diarrhea excuse is. And eating an entire pizza isn’t mutually exclusive from the hangover theory, because “eating an entire pizza” is exactly the type of awful decision that an extremely drunk person would make during a night that could result in a debilitating hangover. (I have some confessions to make about the circumstances under which I ate those Hot-N-Readys.)
The MJ pizza story is baffling from front to back. Prior to this weekend, no one was asking questions about the Flu Game, a performance universally understood to be one of the greatest moments of the greatest basketball career of all time. Now, all of a sudden, Jordan has changed our perception of it by presenting a story that’s believable only because of how unflattering it is. Regardless of whether Jordan is telling the truth, it’s clear he wants us to buy this story. We must replace Jordan’s moment of triumph against a sickness that flattens us all with Jordan’s moment of triumph over some bored Utah teens and his own gluttony.