Dan Majerle had no clue why Michael Jordan wanted to give him hell in the 1993 NBA Finals.
Until watching Episode 6 of “The Last Dance” last week, Majerle assumed it was because of his physical defense.
But as Majerle watched the documentary on Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dynasty, he realized Jordan’s torment had everything to do with Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause.
Krause openly expressed his fandom of Majerle as a defender. Jordan didn’t like that, leading to his performance against the Phoenix Suns — 41 points per game and Finals MVP — and third straight championship.
“I knew that Jerry Krause loved Dan Majerle and just because Krause liked him was enough for me,” Jordan, who had a fractured relationship with Krause, the Bulls’ general manager, said in the documentary. “You think he’s a great defensive player? OK, fine. I’m going to show you he’s not.”
That was news to Majerle.
“I had no idea at that point,” Majerle told the Free Press. “I didn’t know he had a personal vendetta against me. I wish he didn’t because it would’ve been a little easier, but he was trying to prove a point, and he did.”
And the point was proven against league MVP Charles Barkley and the Suns, the team with the best record in the NBA in 1992-93, as the Bulls pulled off a three-peat for the first time since the 1966 Celtics.
“That’s why Michael is the best player that ever played — his competitive nature,” Majerle, 54, said. “It didn’t matter what he was doing. Whether it was playing cards, playing golf, playing pool, he was going to win.”
‘He didn’t need any extra fire’
Majerle played college
at Central Michigan from 1984 to 1988 and averaged 21.8 points and 8.9 rebounds in his career. He played in the 1988 Olympics and was picked 14th overall in the 1988 NBA draft.
By the time Majerle was a rookie, Jordan was already a four-time All-Star. Jordan and the Bulls won back-to-back NBA titles in 1991 and 1992, the year of Majerle’s first All-Star selection. Along with averaging 17.3 points, he solidified himself as a defensive weapon.
That defense caught the attention of Krause, setting the stage for an unexpected battle between Jordan and Majerle, named to the NBA all-defensive team, in 1993.
“I put it in my mindset that if I don’t do this, then they’re going to consider him on the same level as me,” Jordan said. “That motivated me to attack.”
Phoenix traded for Barkley before that season, and his career-year led the Suns to an NBA-best 62-20 regular-season record. Having Barkley with Majerle and Kevin Johnson should have been more than enough to win a championship.
“It wasn’t so much on concentrating on how to stop Michael, it was how to keep him in check,” Majerle said. “And then, offensively, we were so good that we could probably outscore that team.”
But he couldn’t contain Jordan. Neither could Johnson or Danny Ainge. Coach Paul Westphal tried a variety of coverages. Nothing worked. Nobody outside of Barkley dared try to get inside Jordan’s head with trash talk.
“I might be dumb, but I’m not stupid,” Majerle said. “I knew not to talk to Michael. If anything, I’d talk to him about his golf game. I tried to be as vanilla as I could. He didn’t need any extra fire.”
The Bulls won the first two games of the series on the road as Jordan scored 73 total points.
“You’re never going to shut a guy down like Michael,” Majerle said. “We were the same size, both 6-foot-6, but I thought I was stronger than him, so the only way I was going to be able to hang with him was to be as physical as I could. That didn’t even work. I tried to grab, hold and bump, but he was so talented.
“He didn’t have any weaknesses. If he put his mind to it, he was going to destroy you.”
Phoenix etched out victories in Games 3 and 5 to take the series to its home court for Game 6.
If Majerle has any regrets from his career, it’s Game 6.
Down by four points with 44 seconds left, Jordan pulled down a rebound and went coast to coast in eight seconds for a layup, trimming the deficit to 98-96. The next Phoenix possession ended in a missed corner jumper from Majerle with 14 seconds remaining.
Chicago called a timeout.
The message from Westphal was simple.
“Our whole discussion in the timeout was anything but a 3,” Majerle said. “We didn’t talk about double-teaming Michael. All we talked about was, ‘Make them shoot a 2. If they tie it up, we go into overtime and win this thing.’ The only thing we didn’t want was a 3.”
Jordan sprinted up the floor and threw the ball to Scottie Pippen, who found a wide-open Horace Grant underneath the basket. Ainge left John Paxson open on the perimeter to contest a potential layup.
Paxson caught a sharp pass and made the game-winning 3-pointer.
“Before he even shoots it, I put my hands on the top of my head,” Majerle said. “That’s the one thing we didn’t want. As soon as he caught the ball, I knew it was over. We had a defensive breakdown. We gave one of the best shooters in the league a wide-open 3.
“The only thing I would do is to go back and pull Danny Ainge aside and say, ‘Do not leave John Paxson.’ That’s the only thing I would’ve changed.”
An unstoppable Jordan averaged 41 points in those six games, a mark that remains an NBA Finals record.
‘A badge of honor’
Shortly after Episode 6 of “The Last Dance” concluded, Majerle’s phone began to buzz.
“I had people tell me, ‘Oh, I saw Jordan cross you over.’ I was like, ‘And? Yeah, he did.’ At least I was out there battling against the best player to ever put on sneakers,” he said. “It’s a badge of honor for me to be able to say I played against him.”
Majerle finished his 14-year NBA career without a championship, but he was a three-time All-Star and scored more than 10,000 points. For the past seven seasons, he was the coach at Grand Canyon University. He was let go in early March.
But one of his greatest accomplishments came when he learned the inside scoop of Jordan’s desire to beat him in the 1993 NBA Finals.
“For Michael Jordan to mention that he was inspired to prove I couldn’t guard him,” Majerle said, “that meant I was doing something right.”