Will The Real Michael Jordan Please Stand Up?
Polygamy, JELL-O salad, the U2 “claw” towering over Bangerter Highway—Utah is well known for being the poster child of the peculiar and controversial—but one of its funniest controversies is one you’ve probably never heard of, unless of course you were a basketball fan in Utah County circa 2009.
This is the story of how a heartbreaking NBA defeat two decades ago inspired a badly planned PR stunt that became the Fyre Festival of D League basketball.
Let’s go back 23 years to Salt Lake City on the night of June 14, 1998. The temperature was hovering near a practically antarctic 70 degrees outside the Delta Center. Inside, it was scalding, and not just because everyone was wearing business casual and too much denim.
The Utah Jazz had won two out of five games against the Chicago Bulls, and this sixth game would either keep them in the NBA Finals or hand the championship to the Bulls. The Jazz wanted this title badly, having lost the Finals to the Bulls the year before.
They were 20 seconds away from winning Game Six by a single point when Michael Jordan stole the ball from Karl Malone, ran it down the court, and faced off with the Jazz’s shooting guard Bryon Russell.
Jordan was tired, but he was focused. In the last nine seconds of the game, he made a move that became the swan song of his NBA career, and also the villain origin story of Jazz dads everywhere. Jordan and Russell briefly knocked elbows, Russell stumbled, Jordan reached out and gave Russell a tender pat on the tush, and then, as Russell slipped on the court, Jordan jumped, shot over Russell’s head, and buried the ball, winning the Bulls their sixth and final title before the team was disbanded.
Jordan’s last shot against the Jazz became legend. Talking heads referred to it in hushed tones as “The Shot,” it went on to top about a billion listicles about the greatest moments in NBA history, and with it, Jordan helped propel the NBA into a global brand and himself into superstardom.
That shot also became a pin in the heel of diehard Jazz fans who claimed Jordan pushed off of Russell, that his shot never should have counted. Would the Jazz have won the Finals that year had the shot been called differently? Possibly, but who could say? They were out, and all fraught “what ifs” were left to fester and fade like the garish purple and green face paint of the heartbroken Jazz superfans who left the Delta Center that night.
Sixteen years after the Jazz’s defeat, Michael Jordan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. At this point, he was widely considered the greatest basketball player of all time. Jordan stood at a podium in Springfield, Massachusetts, on September 11th, 2009 giving a lengthy speech to franchise owners, coaches, players, and elites, his suit the color of a dime, that iconic hoop earring dangling from his left earlobe.
Somewhere in between criticizing the price of the Hall of Fame ticket and musing about playing basketball in his 50s, Jordan brought up Bryon Russell. He mentioned that the two had met years before they faced off in ‘98. At the time, Jordan had quit basketball to play minor league baseball. Russell asked Jordan why he quit and trash talked him. In his Hall of Fame speech, Jordan talked about how that trash talk was motivating for him and that he relished getting to go up against Russell on the court.
The audience got a good laugh out of it. Karl Malone and Jerry Sloan chuckled. I think John Stockton died a little on the inside, because in a clip from the Hall of Fame presentation he looks like he’s just been sandwiched between the uncles with the worst politics at Thanksgiving dinner.
When it ended, Jordan’s speech was met with raucous applause. Thousands of miles away, it sparked an idea.
What if Michael Jordan and Bryon Russell had a one-on-one rematch?
That was the premise, and maybe it was the start of the conversation between the leadership of the Utah Flash basketball team when they started planning their home opener for the 2009-2010 season. The Flash was a Utah Jazz NBA Development League affiliate team, meaning many of the guys who played with them might later go on to play for the NBA. A big song and dance was just the thing to attract a crowd to their first home game, and what bigger song and dance was there than the Last Dance that had potentially cost Utah an NBA title in ‘98? A rematch would be like fresh chum in the ocean.
Flash owner Brandt Andersen issued the one-on-one pickup challenge to Jordan and Russell in September 2009, offering $100,000 to the charity of the winner’s choice.
The date was set. Russell was in. The Flash started making plans. People were hyped about it. There was just one tiny snag: Jordan didn’t answer. Over the course of three months, the Flash pitched the rematch to Jordan’s team, but over and over again, the GOAT gave them the ghost.
Maybe faith would precede the miracle here. Maybe, if the Flash supplicated the universe long enough, MJ would Spirit Halloween his way into town at the exact moment he was needed. Andersen reportedly always held out hope that Jordan would make an appearance. The week of the event, he said he was an ambitious 70% sure Jordan would come—but if Jordan didn’t appear, and that seemed to be largely inevitable, the team needed a backup plan.
That’s when The Flash got an idea. They got a wonderful awful idea: they’d make a suit, get their hands on a sleigh, and send a decoy Michael Jordan ho ho hoaxing his way through Whoville.
On December 7, 2009, hours before the Flash’s home opener against the Dakota Wizards, Andersen’s team planted a real-life Michael Jordan lookalike, who they’d found God only knows where, in Mimi’s Cafe in Orem.
I’ve looked up and down Al Gore’s internet to find the name of the imposter the Flash set loose in Utah County that fateful day, but it’s as though his name has been entirely scraped from the sands of time. Maybe he went into hiding. Maybe he was always only a myth. The closest thing to a name that I can find is from an interview between Andersen and Robert Siegel of All Things Considered where he’s referred to simply as “the guy.”
Whoever “the guy” was, soon after he was planted in Mimi’s, a single YouTube video went up on a mysterious new account called jordanvsrussell. In the video, you can see the decoy MJ in a slick vest on the other side of the restaurant, eating food and flanked by presumably fake bodyguards, all of them about as out-of-focus as a documented UFO sighting.
“Dude, that’s freaking Michael Jordan,” the man filming can be heard saying. “Do you think he came for that freaking rematch thing?”
He approaches the table, loudly saying, “Hey, Mr. Jordan, did you come here to play Bryon Russell?”
The bodyguards say, “excuse me, sir,” in their best tough guy voices, the phone gets bumped around, and then the video ends.
Andersen said they shared the video on Twitter. He told All Things Considered and Deseret News that they were using the lookalike to test the team’s social media strategy.
"I always assumed it would be uncovered very quickly that it was a hoax,” he told Deseret News.
What he didn’t anticipate was what every person on Twitter knows to be true: tweeting anything automatically makes it real.
The video was quickly discovered by blogs and a local newspaper that, according to Andersen, reported the video as fact. Word spread like wildfire. Everybody was buying tickets to see Russell take on Jordan that night, and there wasn’t room for them. By the time the second quarter of the game had ended, the Flash had sold over 7,500 seats, rolling out four additional bleachers to accommodate fans. Few of those fans knew that the real Jordan was never going to set foot on the court that night.
I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when Flash management realized the depth of the shiz they’d gotten themselves into. They had a room packed with fans clamoring to see Jordan, many of those fans starved for closure after the loss of ‘98. Jordan was not going to swoop into town last minute after all, so the Flash decided to add one more log to the funeral pyre of their reputation: they put the imposter out on the court with Russell.
You know that scene in Home Alone 2 when Kevin McCallister successfully tricks the concierge by setting up a decoy father—aka life-size inflatable clown—in a curtained hotel bathtub? This story went nothing like that.
I’ve stitched together some details of the event from two eyewitness videos that were taken on both sides of the court that night and later posted on YouTube.
By halftime, the Flash were down eight points to the Wizards, but excitement was cascading through the McKay Events Center. Screens throughout the room lit up with the clip of Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech and that iconic last shot over Russell’s head. The Flash had rolled out a full production to get fans primed for the rematch that was never to be, and it was unfortunately working. Bellowing boos filled the room.
After the clips played, the screens went dim. Then the Flash announced that Bryon Russell was in the building. Spotlights spun in drunken loops around the room. Russell emerged on the court, haloed like the angel Gabriel. Fans all but ascended, cheering raucously.
“I got my shorts on. I’m ready to play,” Russell told the crowd.
The room quieted slightly. Russell said he was waiting on MJ, but Jordan didn’t come out. The mic screeched. Someone shouted, “You suck!” Maybe they were still grieving ‘98, or maybe they were a prophet and could see what was coming.
“Where is MJ?” Russell asked, wandering around the court like a member of Mystery Inc. “Mr. Jordan? Come out, come out, come out wherever you are.”
The energy in the room started shifting from excitement into a building cumulus cloud of suspicion and betrayal.
“I don’t think he’s going to show,” Russell said. “I really don’t think Michael’s going to show.”
Fans booed louder than they had at the Last Shot footage.
“He better show, or you’ve got a riot!” Someone shouted.
Russell stopped talking, and the lights went off again. Then that song played. You know the one, the Jeopardy theme song of basketball where a keyboard repeats itself and an electric guitar plays ominously, like someone’s standing at the three-point line with two seconds left and something either really good or really bad is about to happen. It was like that for several long seconds until an announcement came over the intercom.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, a man who needs no introduction!”
The secondhand embarrassment I get from watching this part is a feeling I’ve had once before, and that was when I paid ten whole dollars to sit in theaters and watch James Corden’s Cats.
In video footage we have of the event, you can hear the audio fizzle in response to the sheer volume of the noise in the arena. It was like basketball Beatlemania in there. A large group of guys in suits appeared at one of the tunnel entrances. The spotlight went on. The cheering grew louder for a brief moment as Jazz dads everywhere got drunk on the heady fumes of sweet impending vengeance, and kids who had only ever known Jordan’s name burst with the excitement of seeing him.
Then the men in suits walked out onto the court. The lights went on. The decoy Jordan was fully exposed.
Fans on the opposite side of the court seemed to know what was happening first.
“He’s way too short,” someone in the crowd said and kept repeating.
The lookalike was almost a whole foot too short, in fact. His bald head was about where the similarities ended.
“Hold on, hold on, is that who I think he is?” Russell asked.
“No!” Fans shouted back.
“I didn’t think he was going to show up,” Russell said, utterly failing to read the room (according to Andersen, Russell always knew they were sending the decoy out on the court).
What the Flash could have done at this point was have Russell piledrive the decoy, spin him around on his fingertip like a Harlem Globe Trotter, and then stuff him headfirst through a hoop. Maybe Russell could have autographed shirts or kissed a few babies or symbolically smacked the imposter on the tush before making a shot over his bald head. All would have been better plans than what actually happened.
Russell walked slowly toward the decoy—who stood as quiet as a gargoyle—and dragged the bad ruse along with him. “Is that MJ? It sure don’t look like him.”
The crowd sizzled. Russell kept going.
“That’s not Mike. He sent an imposter, a buster, a bomb to play me. I can’t accept this!”
The crowd crackled. Angry white men shouted angry white things.
“This is embarrassing right now. This is not good,” Russell said, voicing what literally everyone was thinking.
Then, in what is one of the funniest moments of the whole night, Russell just peaced, leaving Jack to sink with the Titanic.
“You know what, I’m out. I’m out, Utah,” he said. “He didn’t come ready to play. I was ready.”
Russell shared his love for Utah, then he got the hell out of Dodge, the Michael Jordan impersonator who had silently aided and abetted in the ruination of the Flash trailing him like smoke.
The crowd booed as they left. The lights went on, and the crowd continued to boo, interrupted only by “DJ Khalid!” blaring over the loudspeaker. Halfway into “We Takin’ Over,'' an announcement came on the intercom.
“MJ didn’t show, but the offer [was] for real. We wanted him to show up, he didn’t show up, but what we do have for you is a great second half and free stuff. So if you want a Flash t-shirt, stand up, make some noise...”
You can’t really hear the rest of what was said, because fans promptly stood up and made so much noise—read: boos—that I think Orem had to make a new ordinance. As the announcer tossed blame, cheerleaders pranced down the court tossing free shirts. A few fans threw their free shirts right back. Many just walked out. It was the most Utah riot you could think of.
The Flash went on to beat the Wizards 102 to 92 that night, but nobody remembered their victory. They remembered that Michael Jordan, without lifting a single finger or even being in the same room, had once again broken Utah’s hearts.
There’s something both serendipitous (for the Flash) and unfortunate (for people who are too online) about the timing of the Flash scandal. It happened right before the boom of social media, so in spite of angering thousands of fans and still being quite funny, the Flash’s opener barely made a ripple online.
There are few articles about the event, and the Flash’s Twitter apology, which came in parts and is still fossilized online to this day, had the reception of a creaking chair in a ghost town. There were no quote tweets or memes. It got only one like and one retweet, which probably shouldn’t count since it was made by a bot called Retweet_Jordan that actively retweeted every mention of the name Jordan until 2010. It’s almost jarring to see public repentance standing so untouched like that, like finding a whole mammoth preserved in ice.
The Flash were spared the trouble of becoming the bean dad, bad art friend, and wife guy of the internet, but they were not spared the consequences. Andersen apologized to fans through local news outlets and a blog (which has since disappeared), and he offered disappointed onlookers refunds and free tickets to future Flash games. NBADL president Dan Reed also apologized for “a Utah Flash promotion that never should have happened.”
"We're the first ones to say it was not in good taste in the end," Andersen said. "It just kind of blew up in our faces. We just didn't execute it well."
Like the nameless imposter who stepped onto the court that night, everything adjacent to the Flash promotion has become somewhat of a lost relic of another time. The McKay Events Center’s name was changed to the UCCU Center. Mimi’s Orem location was permanently closed a few years ago. Even the NBA D League doesn’t exist anymore—it is now the NBA G League. Michael Jordan, as far as I know, never found out about the slander being thrown on his good name and face on the Flash court that night. Perhaps he did find out and had a quiet chuckle about it. And the Flash itself? The team played for one more season (only its third) before it was sold due to lack of funding. It was bought by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2013, who promptly renamed the team the Delaware 87ers and later the Delaware Blue Coats.
Jazz dads will probably never get the Russell v. Jordan rematch they always wanted—Jordan is 58 and Russell is 50—but perhaps, in hindsight, they got something better: front row seats to one of the ballsiest and funniest halftime stunts of all time.
(Design: Chris Patty)