In case you missed it, the basketball world buzzed for about 15 minutes in September of 2009 about a possible one on one match between Michael Jordan and Bryon Russell.
After Michael Jordan’s controversial Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Utah Flash owner Brandt Anderson announced he would donate $100,000 to the charity of his choice if Michael Jordan would play Bryon Russell one on one during halftime of the Utah Flash’s home opener on December 7, 2009.
As a holder of 8 Utah Flash season tickets since their inaugural season, I smiled when I heard about Anderson’s challenge. I didn’t think Jordan would take it, but if he did, at least we were assured seats to the spectacle.
What I didn’t realize though, is that the spectacle would start well outside the gym. Traffic to and around Utah Valley University’s McKay Event Center was a nightmare. Adding to the mayhem was a larger than predicted snow storm.
As we crept along in traffic, my kids looked at all the cars in wonder and asked me again if MJ would be there. “I really don’t think so, kids,” I frankly replied.
When we finally reached the parking lot, one of the kids spotted two stretch Hummer limousines. “Dad! Jordan HAS to be here! Look at the limos.” I chuckled and to tease the kids, I parked right next to them.
The crowd inside the McKay Events Center was nuts. There had to be thousands more people than normally attend. Staff kept laying down new sections of bleachers that normally aren’t down, and people would fill them up as soon as they were ready to be occupied. It looked as if by halftime, the McKay Events Center was at 80 to 85 percent capacity, and it was very warm in the building. Too warm.
With a home crowd like that, you would have thought the Utah Flash players would be energized, but oddly though, the crowd was barely aware that there was a basketball game going on. People were visiting like they were at a, well, baseball game. The Flash players were diving for loose balls, dunking, etc. and while some of us regulars were applauding the hustle, the crowd overall was oblivious.
With about 8 minutes left in the second quarter, Bryon Russell got up out of his courtside seat, waved at the crowd and headed down the passage to the locker rooms. My kids asked me, “Could he be going to change for the 1 on 1 matchup?”
Then with about 3 minutes left to go in the 2nd quarter, and the Flash up by 2 points (37-35), the p.a. announcer electrified the crowd when he announced that we should all stay put because at halftime “His Airness” would be playing Bryon Russell one on one.
Suddenly total strangers were best of friends as they all buzzed about seeing Jordan, about what a decent and great guy Jordan must be to do this, etc.
A section of the crowd started chanting, “Jordan! Jordan! Jordan!”
I smiled and yelled back at them, “Russell! Russell! Russell!” They laughed and stopped their chant and joined me in mine.
The home crowd weren’t the only ones distracted by the announcement however. The news seemed to distract the Flash players as well. They went from being up 2 points when the announcement was made, to being down three minutes later when the halftime buzzer sounded: 43 to 51.
Soon the lights were lowered and on the big screens they were showing a television interview with a famous sports analyst saying Jordan would never show up. The crowd jeered at the statement. “Look who gets the last laugh!” we thought, “He’s HERE!”
Music and spotlights and wild cheering greeted Bryon Russell as he took center court with a wireless microphone and got the crowd charged up.
Everyone’s cell phone cameras lit the dark room as they video recorded the p.a. announcer yell, “And now, a man who needs no introduction…”
I turned to my kids and said, “Wow! He really is here! There certainly aren’t a lot of kids your age that can say they saw Michael Jordan play live!”
Then loud became deafening as “Michael Jordan” was escorted out on to the court by 4 body guards.
The instant I saw him, and I saw him soon and well from row 2, I turned to my wife and shouted, “That’s not him! That’s not Michael!” I then turned to my kids and the crowd around us and yelled, “That’s not Michael Jordan! Look at him, that’s not Michael.”
Those that could hear me went quiet, then someone yelled, “That’s Gary Payton!”
I whirled around to take a closer look at the man wearing shades amidst the body guards then yelled back, “That’s not Payton either!”
With the music and mayhem from the crowd, I couldn’t make out what the p.a. announcer was going on about, but I didn’t care anyway.
The Utah Flash organization had just made suckers out of their paying customers, and inconvenienced their faithful ticket holders, and for some reason they thought we all would laugh and be okay with that.
As the crowd started to realize Jordan wasn’t in the building, the p.a. announcer confessed it to be so. Then, in another astonishing act of bad judgment, the p.a. announcer had the gall to lay this fiasco at Michael Jordan’s feet… like Michael was the villain here for not showing up because, after all, their offer for him to play Russell was legit.
I turned to my kids and apologized to them for their senseless disappointed. They’d all texted their friends that Jordan was there, now they were texting them that it was a hoax.
What happened next though, was a sight to behold. The crowd turned ugly. In addition to people booing and turning their thumbs down, the crowd was throwing back on to the floor the free t-shirts they’d been thrown during the first half of the game!
Then what was a near capacity crowd vanished. It looked as if 75 percent of the crowd left right then and there in disgust.
And what is worse, those of us who stayed were in no mood to cheer the home team. Not for awhile anyway.
The Utah Flash staff clearly knew they blew it and started shouting through the p.a. to stick around and get more free stuff, but the crowd’s trust was already violated, and wasn’t about to be bought or bribed back.
The Utah Flash players actually played an excellent and gutsy game, and waged an admirable come back and won the game… but I guarantee you, almost no one will remember that.
What everyone will remember is that on night when the Flash had its biggest ever crowd, instead of impressing them with their product, they tricked them with a hoax … all in the name of shaming Jordan, and gaining publicity.
It is utterly astonishing to me that they didn’t know better before they did it. Even the NBA D-League’s commissioner, Dan Reed, was there in attendance.
That said, I’m pretty sure the organization knows it screwed up. In fact, this embarrassment is large enough that there is no need for anyone else to pile on to it. I’m just reporting the night from a loyal fan and customer’s point of view.
I also add that late in the 4th quarter the announcer apologetically told those of the crowd that was still around, that if they will bring this night’s ticket to another home game later this season, they’ll be admitted for free.
Well, that’s no consolation to those of us who have already paid in advance for every home game this season, but we do appreciate their efforts to make amends with their customers.
I’ll blog on the game itself tomorrow, but for now and perhaps for always, it will be the victory no one will remember.