What if? It’s one of humanity’s most frequently asked and scariest questions. We often look into the abyss that is the past with such great longing for what our minds perceive as better days. Were they really better or did our brains just shut out the indubitably scarring thoughts of the past and replace them with only happier, more enticing contemplations? This is the trouble with looking into the past; hindsight is, as they often say, 20/20. When it comes to sports, the "what if?" scenarios play out for longer than you want. They often leave you wishing you couldn’t even remember anything at all rather than recalling only the depressing moments. Such is the nature of looking back at trades that almost happened, but ultimately did not transpire.
That’s the basis of this endeavor, a look back at two failed trade proposals between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Chicago Bulls for a man that most widely consider the single greatest player in the history of the National Basketball Association. It’s not often that you hear that Michael Jordan could have been traded during his career – or even that the trades were close to happening – yet that's the case with these two separate deals. "What if either of these trades did happen?" will be a question that keeps coming to the forefront of your mind. Unfortunately, we don't own an alternate universe machine that allows us to view into that beautiful realm. Do your best to not have that horrifying question enter your consciousness. And, now, let’s see how close these alternate realities came to being our actual world.
Holding true to form throughout most of their existence, the Clippers have routinely found themselves on the outside of the party. Oftentimes they’ve been left standing at the doorstep waiting for someone to unlock the door and allow them access to gaze upon the wonderment that awaits them inside. Whether that party is a Conference Finals berth, championship trophy, or even just acquiring a superstar-level player, the Clippers were almost always left out. Until recently, the team had never enjoyed a sustained period of success built behind players that fans – and not just the ones in their own fanbase – could readily identify as superstars. Despite the accolades of the past few years, there is a story waiting to be told about the decades preceding this most recent boon in entertainment value. Particularly, a few year stretch where the Clippers missed out on acquiring a shooting guard from an Eastern Conference team. As has been stated, that shooting guard is none other than one Michael Jeffrey Jordan.
When examining Jordan’s career from afar, we’re left wondering how a team could have even considered trading him in the first place – let alone twice. After all, we’re talking about a player that just four years into his career had already won Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year – both of them coming in the 1987-1988 season. Jordan had also averaged 32.7 points per game through those first four seasons and been one of the game’s most dynamic players – so much so that even the iconic Larry Bird thought it was "just God disguised as Michael Jordan" when the two did battle in the 1986 NBA Playoffs. And that wasn’t the only time Bird praised Jordan. In fact, even earlier than that, during Jordan’s rookie season, Bird said that Jordan was "the best" and that he had "never seen anyone like him." Jordan’s career is etched in stone. There is that alternate universe, though, where he nearly became a Clipper – twice.
The first of the two possible trade scenarios comes before Michael Jordan ever suited up for the Chicago Bulls and started his illustrious Hall of Fame career. The Bulls selection of Jordan at number three overall in the 1984 NBA Draft is seen as the biggest steal in NBA history, considering Sam Bowie went just one pick ahead of him. Yet, even the Bulls weren’t entirely sold on drafting Jordan themselves. In the week leading up to the draft, the Bulls had discussions with both the Los Angeles Clippers and the Atlanta Hawks, as well as with one other team, for a big man. On the Hawks side, it was center Tree Rollins – a 7’1" defensive stud who, while he averaged just 8.6 points and 7.7 rebounds, blocked 3.6 shots per game in the 1983-1984 season. On the Clippers front, though, the player was much better and much more impactful. Perhaps that’s why the Bulls were listening for as long as they did.
According to the June 17, 1984 edition of the Chicago Tribune, the Bulls were talking with the Seattle SuperSonics about trading for center Jack Sikma before those talks ultimately broke down. When they did, they readjusted their focus and set their sights on Clippers big man Terry Cummings – a 6’9" power forward who was the second pick in the 1982 NBA Draft and averaged just over 23 points per game in his first two seasons in the league. Cummings was born and raised in Chicago – even going to Carver High School, which is roughly just 20 miles away from the United Center – before ultimately heading off to Chicago-based DePaul University for college. In a proposed three-team deal between the Bulls, Clippers, and Dallas Mavericks, Cummings would have been shipped off to Chicago and the third overall pick might have been coming back to Los Angeles. That deal, unfortunately, fell through and the Clippers were unsuccessful in their first attempt to possibly acquire Michael Jordan.
Eventually, on September 29, 1984, the Los Angeles Clippers traded Terry Cummings in a simple two-team deal. Along with Cummings, the Clippers sent Craig Hodges and Ricky Pierce to the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for Junior Bridgeman, Harvey Catchings, Marques Johnson, and cash. The baseline of this deal – Cummings for Johnson – was originally hashed out during February of 1984, but the Clippers turned the Bucks down. Later on, to get the deal made, Milwaukee added Bridgeman and Catchings However, in what could be added to the long lineage of ill-fated Clippers blunders, the Bucks never informed the Clippers that Marques Johnson had had treatment at a drug rehabilitation center roughly 14 months earlier.
The Johnson Saga didn’t end there, though. There was a massive legal case that started, one that eventually ended up in arbitration. The Clippers and Bucks basically played out a he-said, she-said scenario during 1985. This led to Milwaukee saying they would have given the Clippers permission to check NBA files if they wanted to, but it also resulted in a member of Milwaukee's Board of Directors saying that the Bucks ultimately "tried to hide" Johnson’s drug problem. In a great twist of irony, Johnson took the Clippers to arbitration a few years later after a contract dispute. In the case of this scenario, the Clippers got a rather poor hand dealt to them. A lot of it was their fault, though.
No one told the Clippers that they had to trade away Terry Cummings in the first place, and no one told the Clippers they had to take back Marques Johnson. The Clippers seemed to want Johnson because of his UCLA roots and may have put "too much pressure" on him to be the go-to-guy during the team’s first season in Los Angeles. Either way, Cummings went on to be an All-Star during the 1984-1985 season with the Milwaukee Bucks, and eventually made another All-Star appearance in 1988-1989. Johnson played just over two seasons in Los Angeles – having an All-Star season in 1985-1986 – before suffering a neck injury that forced him to miss two full years. All the while, Michael Jordan was in Chicago and performing magnificently. However, just a few years after they turned down that Cummings trade at the last minute, the Bulls weren’t quite done talking to the Clippers about Jordan.
Theoretically, the best player in the world shouldn’t be traded for a package of picks and players. Then again, in defense of the Chicago Bulls, as great as Michael Jordan already was by the time the second of these two trade ideas was discussed, there was still a huge cloud hanging over the franchise and their dreams of winning a championship. According to page 106 of "The Jordan Rules" by Sam Smith, Donald Sterling was actively searching for someone who could compete with Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers for the headlines. This led Sterling back to Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. The Bulls were not the only Chicago based sports team that Reinsdorf owned. He also was – and still is – the majority owner of the Chicago White Sox. During 1988, he had started to lay the groundwork for moving the team all the way to St. Petersburg, Florida. No one knew what was going to happen with the White Sox and, in a way, this had some effect on the Chicago Bulls.
Prior to the decision being made by Illinois legislators, Reinsdorf got a call from Sterling as the 1987-1988 season was coming to a close. The Bulls were on the verge of being eliminated in the 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals by the Detroit Pistons and the team had won just four total playoff games – and sported a 4-15 playoff record – in the first four seasons with Michael Jordan. There was a large dividing line among Bulls management that led to a theory that the team would "never win a title because Jordan’s style of one-on-one play eliminated the other players as contributors." But this is where Reinsdorf comes in, as he was somewhat hurting for money. Jordan brought in the fans, the fans paid for merchandise, and Reinsdorf obviously loved that aspect. With the news of possibly moving the White Sox to Florida coming out, moving Jordan would probably mean Chicagoans calling for his head and demanding nothing less. Yet, even still, Reinsdorf’s discussions with Florida could mean he didn’t care about any of that. Bulls head coach Doug Collins had also informed Reinsdorf that the team "couldn’t win with Jordan." The writing seemed on the wall that Jordan would have to be gone.
Donald Sterling would swoop in with an offer of a lifetime. The Clippers weren’t exactly teeming with above-average NBA talent at the time and were coming off a 17-65 season. However, according to the book, Sterling offered Reinsdorf and the Bulls any combination of five players and/or draft picks. No one knows the names of players floated around, but it seems that players like Michael Cage, Benoit Benjamin, and Mike Woodson would probably have been involved in the deal. The real prizes, however, were the two top six draft picks that the Clippers owned going into the 1988 NBA Draft; one of which being the top overall selection. Jerry Krause, then general manager of the Chicago Bulls, reportedly loved 7’4" Rik Smits. They also were high on Mitch Richmond, if he were to be available with the sixth selection. Reinsdorf and Krause, at least for a moment, were drooling at the thought of building a team around Smits, Richmond, Oakley, Pippen, and Grant; all the while still allowing them to either select a point guard in the draft, such as Rod Strickland, or trade for one with their dearth of assets, such as Kevin Johnson. The wheels were in motion.
Jordan was coming off of being the Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, and the league’s leading scorer during the 1987-1988 season, but the Bulls were still close to dealing him away for two high draft picks. Ultimately, Jerry Reinsdorf told Donald Sterling that he would not be going through with the deal. Why? Quite simply, Michael Jordan was too profitable and too talented for the Bulls to toss to the side. Despite being able to possibly have a lineup of five young guys who could grow together as a cohesive unit, Chicago opted to continue building around Jordan with pieces; such players as Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, and Charles Oakley. A little over a month later, the hands of time literally stood still as the Illinois legislature passed the bill to keep the White Sox in Chicago and build them a new stadium. All was right for Jerry Reinsdorf and the Chicago area sports teams, but, as usual, the Clippers were left at the altar wondering if they would ever have their time in the sun.
Invariably, deciding against trading the best player in the game will always be looked upon favorably no matter the team. Unfortunately, at least for the grief-stricken fans of the Clippers, the team that had just moved to Los Angeles in 1984 managed to strikeout on possibly acquiring a rookie shooting guard out of North Carolina. It only got worse from there as they saw that player develop into a magisterial marvel on the court and thought they’d never have a chance for anything like that themselves. Then, as if the cruel fate of the world called upon their misery once more, the Clippers swung for the fences in 1988 with another trade proposal for Michael Jordan. While it seems now to be a no-brainer for the Bulls to have shot down, the Clippers convinced themselves they had made a home run attempt to acquire Jordan a second time. And, yet, like that first time, the Clippers had to watch as it was not meant to be.
You often hear of the basketball gods and the sadistic ways that they can torture those who kneel before their shrine. If Jordan was truly a god, as Larry Bird eloquently alleged, then perhaps it was he who nixed each of these deals. Maybe, in his infinite wisdom and basketball benevolence, Jordan realized Chicago needed his exceptional talent more than Los Angeles did. No one thing is ever really certain, and it’s possible these rumors and stories have been lost to time much in the same way a whisper is lost to the gusting winds of the forest. Yet, we sit here armed with evidence that the Bulls and Clippers did negotiate – two separate times, in fact – a Michael Jordan trade. It’s impossible to deduce how Jordan’s career would have played out if he had suited up for the Los Angeles Clippers. Would he have still won six championships? Would he have still been one of the greatest players in the history of the league? Would he have turned out to be the original Tracy McGrady and been an extraordinarily talented man who was shipped off too soon and never found his way? Questions – those are all we have.
Rather than get lost in the rabbit hole of questions, look back on history as two separate paths. One leads you to where we are now, but the other path leads you to an alternate place where you can observe what could have been. One path is filled with street lamps and signs; the other path is dark and full of trees that have not been trimmed back in ages. Where one has pleasant people that greet you as you walk by, the other has folks who begrudgingly accept your existence and carry about their day without giving you a second thought. One sounds great, the other sounds – well – depressing. The path you want is not always the one you’re given. Such is the harsh nature of being a fan of the Los Angeles Clippers and such was their quest in trying to acquire the great Michael Jordan not once, but twice. And failing in that undertaking – not once, but twice.
Fortunately for this team, looking back on the past is something that – while it can also be painful – is therapeutic. The franchise is thriving on the court better than ever and brighter days are still ahead for the organization. If the team were still in shambles on the court, these exercises would prove to be damaging to the psyche of those emotionally invested. Would it have been awesome to actively cheer for Michael Jordan on your team? Undoubtedly. However, notwithstanding that, the Clippers are poised for something that might even seem sweeter than if Jordan had been an active member of the team. Having the greatest player in the history of the game is awesome, but what have the Chicago Bulls really done since Jordan left them? They’ve only reached one Conference Finals since Jordan left Chicago for good and been ousted in the first round six of the ten times they’ve made the playoffs. While the Clippers haven’t fared better, they’re still ultimately in that same boat – waiting to come ashore and join the rest of the championship teams of the last fifteen years that are nestled comfortably on land.
Twice the Clippers thought they had a shot at acquiring Michael Jordan and twice they got reminded that they are, after all, just the Clippers. While Jordan captivated the nation and helped nurture the game that Bird and Magic saved, the Clippers were struggling to find their way through the endless void that was their own undoing. Arbitrations, shoddy ownership, and a lack of fundamental understanding were just a few of the Clippers' problems back then. Could Jordan have saved the franchise from themselves and gone head-to-head with the Lakers all by himself? History is not on his side there. The issues for the team were larger than any one player could have resolved. Jordan might have been a god, but he wasn’t the owner, and the owner ultimately made the last call on everything. Chicago’s owner opted to keep the gift he was awarded all while Los Angeles’ owner tried his darndest to steal that gift away. Maybe the path would have been different, but we’ll never know how it would have eventually turned out. Jordan played his career where the basketball gods deemed him necessary. The Clippers, on the other hand, went through more sour notes than one can imagine. Still, the Clippers had their shots at Michael Jordan. What if he had come to Los Angeles