Michael Jordan vs. LaBradford Smith: A look at the Bulls legend's revenge against an imaginary opponent

Michael Jordan didn't need much to get motivated for a big game. Whether it was a bad outing on the links leading to his 63-point explosion against the Boston Celtics, or a restaurant snub pushing him to a championship in 1996, plenty of Jordan's greatest moments can be directly traced back to a single moment of disrespect. Give Jordan an inch of bulletin board material and he's taking a mile. And when you don't give him anything? He'll make something up. 

That is what happened to LaBradford Smith, a role player who spent only three seasons in the NBA, but who will forever be linked to Jordan for what happened in March of 1993. In a typical regular-season game in Chicago, Smith exploded for the best performance of his career, a 37-point masterpiece that still resulted in a loss for his Washington Bullets. Afterward, Jordan claimed, Smith put his arm around him and uttered the three words that would soon doom him: "Nice game, Mike."

It just so happened that the Bulls and Bullets would play again in Washington a night later, and Jordan told his teammates that he planned to match Smith's 37 points in only the first half. He didn't quite do so, but his 47 for the night led to a Bulls blowout. Smith's name would soon find its way into the history books under the section entitled "things not to say to Michael Jordan." The only problem? Smith never actually said them. 

As revealed in episode 8 of "The Last Dance," Jordan made up the entire exchange. With two championships already in the bank and his growing fame weighing him down, he needed to find new ways to keep himself motivated. Clearly, based on the results, it worked, but there was more to this game than met the eye. So let's dive into one of Jordan's greatest regular-season games. What did he do to so badly dominate Smith? And how did Smith respond? 

Jordan changed his pre-game routine

Jordan was so offended by Bradford's dominant outing in their prior matchup that he mixed things up before the rematch. "Michael was out shooting before the game tonight," play-by-play announcer Wayne Larrivee said on the WGN broadcast. "That is not a normal routine for him." 

The amazing part of this, with hindsight, is that Jordan himself had done very little wrong to actually cause this enmity. While his 9-for-27 shooting night in the first matchup with Smith was hardly ideal, he scored 25 points and the Bulls won the game. Jordan did his job. He was just so angry that Smith had also done his that he decided to change things up in an effort to combat him. 

Clearly, this new routine worked. Jordan made his first eight field-goal attempts of the game. 

He made sure to embarrass Smith personally

As all-time greats go, Jordan at times could be fairly dull to watch. While he was certainly capable of high-flying theatrics when the moment called for them, few would describe turnaround jumpers from the baseline as particularly exciting. In this game, though, Jordan found ways to make his mid-range game as entertaining as possible. You won't see many better fakes than this one, and not coincidentally, it was Smith that he fooled. 

Though he didn't dunk over Smith in the game, he did beat him for one with absolute technical proficiency, faking him into a backcut for an easy alley-oop. 

And to his credit, Smith didn't exactly take the humiliation sitting down. At one point, Jordan pulled every trick out of his sleeve to try to lose Smith in the spin cycle, but he couldn't shake free. 

Naturally, since this is Michael Jordan we're talking about, he made the shot anyway. 

There was absolutely nothing Smith could have done to prevent this explosion. Once Jordan sets his mind to something, he's going to do it. On this night? It was embarrassing LaBradford Smith. 

Smith knew it was coming

Smith may not have uttered those three famous words to Jordan after Round 1, but he did have a meaningful interaction with the Bulls prior to the rematch. "Rodney McCray and B.J. Armstrong, I was at center court stretching, and they was like LA, I hope you got your rest last night because he said he's going to have 37 by half," Smith told NBA.com

The quote may have been fake, but the aura Jordan created around it was quite real. Jordan's teammates left the flight from Chicago convinced he was going to lay the smackdown in the rematch, and Bradford had to play the entire game knowing just how mad Jordan was about something he didn't even say. 

He nearly matched Bradford's 37-point total in the first half

Jordan didn't quite get to 37 by the half as promised. He finished just short, at 36. He made his first eight field-goal attempts on the way to 19 points in around the first nine minutes. He took a seat from there, and then when he reentered the game for the second quarter, he poured in 17 more. 

By that point, Jordan seemed satisfied. He finished with "only" 47 for the game, giving him a relatively pedestrian 11 in the second half, but Chicago had little need for his scoring by then. The Bulls led by 15 at the half and 22 by the end of the third quarter. Had this been a close game, Jordan may have pushed for 50 or 60, but given the relatively easy nature of this win, he felt comfortable taking his foot off the pedal in the second half. Nobody could argue that he hadn't already proven his point. 

Smith actually played fairly well 

The narrative surrounding this game is that Jordan utterly demoralized Smith, but that's not exactly what happened. While Jordan was in a class by himself both in this game and the league at this point in history, Smith more than did his part for the Bullets. He scored 15 points on 5-of-12 shooting. Nothing spectacular, but he averaged only 6.7 points per game for his career. While his first matchup with Jordan in this double-header was more impressive, this game was one of his better ones as well.

But history is written by the winners, and what makes a better narrative for the notoriously competitive Jordan than completely decimating a helpless onlooker after a perceived slight? Given how well Jordan played, Smith could have done just about anything without the story changing. This game was always going to belong to His Airness, and there was nothing he could've done about it. 

Sam Quinn joined CBS sports as a basketball writer in 2019. Prior to that, he wrote for 247Sports and Bleacher Report. He is a New York native and NYU graduate who also has roots in Florida and California. Full Bio

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