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Rockets Repeat as Champs;
Jordan Returns

The Associated Press
December 20, 1995

The rumors of his return started early in the year. After his faxed statement — “I’m back” — made it reality, Michael Jordan dominated the NBA landscape throughout the year, leaving his mark on everything from spring jersey sales to summer labor negotiations to fall scoring statistics.

Just about the only thing he didn’t do was win another championship for the Bulls. But then again, he played only 17 regular-season games.

Instead, the Houston Rockets won their second straight title after an improbable playoff run that began with Houston as the sixth seed in the power-packed Western Conference and ended with old college teammates Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler celebrating in the locker room after sweeping the Orlando Magic.

Drexler, who spent 11 1/2 seasons in Portland, came to his hometown of Houston in a much-criticized February trade. But neither the Rockets nor their fans were complaining when Drexler raised his game in the postseason and finally got his championship ring after two unsuccessful trips to the finals with the Trail Blazers.

“We didn’t do it in college,” he said, referring to his Phi Slama Jama days with Olajuwon at the University of Houston. “It’s a special story.”

Olajuwon’s 33-point average in the playoffs, and particularly his domination of league MVP David Robinson in the Western Conference finals, started a discussion that may not be settled until May or June: who’s better, Michael or Hakeem?

It didn’t become an issue until March 18, when Jordan announced he was ending his 21-month retirement and shucking a minor-league baseball career. He came back wearing a new number, 45, since No. 23 had already been retired by the Bulls.

Although his jerseys sold as fast as they could be manufactured, he scored 55 points against the Knicks in his fifth game back and the Bulls went 13-4 with Jordan, he shot only 41 percent in the regular season. And in the Eastern Conference semifinals against Orlando, Jordan appeared to have lost some of his basketball instincts, making mistakes down the stretch that cost the Bulls.

Even switching back to No. 23 during the series didn’t help, and Chicago watched as Orlando went on to the finals.

“I expected too much from myself after being away for so long,” Jordan said. “Looking back, maybe those expectations were unrealistic.”

Not only did Jordan go right to work getting into top shape during the offseason, he also became the leader of a movement to decertify the NBA players’ association during a rancorous summer of labor unrest.

In June, the opposition of Jordan and New York’s Patrick Ewing derailed an agreement in principle on a new labor deal, and they urged their NBA colleagues to dissolve their union and seek a better deal through an antitrust lawsuit.

Commissioner David Stern responded with a lockout — the first in league history — and the dispute split the players into two factions, pro- and anti-union.

After predictions by Stern that the season would be canceled if the union decertified, the crisis was finally resolved in mid-September, when the players gave their approval in a referendum vote to a new collective bargaining agreement.

A few days later, NBA owners lifted the 79-day-old lockout after approving a six-year labor deal that contained a rookie salary cap and closed many loopholes in the salary cap.

When the season finally started as scheduled, it was with the addition of two Canadian teams, in Toronto and Vancouver, and with the league’s marquee coach — Pat Riley — in Miami after quitting the New York Knicks.

The early part of the season was highlighted by several big trades. Alonzo Mourning went to join Riley in Miami as part of a six-player deal and soon had the Heat off to its best start.

The New Jersey Nets dealt unhappy All-Star Derrick Coleman to Philadelphia for Shawn Bradley, the underachieving 7-foot-6 center.

Mark Price was sent to the Washington Bullets after nine seasons in Cleveland, and teammate John “Hot Rod” Williams went to Phoenix as the Cavaliers planned for the future.

The most important move came Oct. 2 when the Bulls provided Jordan and his teammates with the league’s best rebounder — Dennis Rodman, whose eccentric ways wore thin with the San Antonio Spurs.

But it was Jordan — who else? — who provided most of the early highlights while leading Chicago to the NBA’s best record. No other player — not Olajuwon and not Shaquille O’Neal, who missed the first 22 games with a broken thumb — could compete.

He scored 42 points in the first game of the season, and reassumed his customary position as the league’s scoring leader.

“It’s a personal motivation. It’s a pride thing. I want to be on top,” Jordan said.

By the time June rolls around, he may be.

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© 1995 The Associated Press