THE JORDAN DOME

Many have heard about the house that Jordan built. The one on 1901 W Madison Street in Chicago, IL. But few know about the house that was built for him in Burbank, CA, and its importance in basketball history. It was at the former that Orlando Guard Nick Anderson dropped a cool 20 points and what turned out to be a game-clinching steal on a recently un-retired Michael Jordan in Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. “Number 45 is not number 23,” Anderson said after his Magic’s win. “I couldn’t have done that to number 23.” To borrow from Indiana Jones 3, he chose those words … poorly.

While the Magic went on to win the series in six games, the loss left Michael Jordan not only frustrated but with deep-rooted questions about the current state of the NBA and his place in a league that he had not been a part of for almost two full seasons. At the time, the metaphorical championship belt for the best player in the Association did not have a clear-cut owner. Hakeem Olajuwon (the 1994 MVP), whose Rockets swept Anderson’s Orlando team in the subsequent Finals, might have had the strongest claim but a cluster of aspiring superstars from David Robinson (1995 MVP) to Shaquille O’Neal had their eye on the throne. What’s certain is that Jordan was not the undisputed top dog anymore.

Michael Jordan working out at the Jordan Dome with personal trainer Tim Grover
Jordan working out inside the Dome with personal trainer Tim Grover
— Image via Jordan Brand

“It was the most disappointed I’ve ever seen [Michael].“, legendary NBC Sports reporter and close Jordan associate Ahmad Rashad recounts of the Bulls’ Playoff exit. “But the disappointment was wrapped in resolve!“ Despite having his (temporary) limitations exposed so distinctly two months to the day after coming out of retirement, MJ responded in true Jordan-fashion, as teammate Ron Harper remembers. “We were sitting in the locker room after [the Orlando series] and Michael goes, ‘We’re going to start working out.’ I said, “When?” He said, ‘We start tomorrow!’“

Welcome to the Space Jam!

The only thing standing in between His Airness and an off-season of rigorous training was the trifle of a Hollywood commitment. Space Jam! His Business-Mogulness had agreed beforehand to film the animated blockbuster during the 1995 offseason, creating a bit of a pickle regarding the limited number of hours in Jordan’s day. Or as Michael put it himself: “I told David [Falk, his agent] there was no way I would do the movie unless I was able to work out and play on the Warner Bros. lot.“ Enter, the Jordan Dome!

“Initially, what they were going to do was to simply paint some lines on the parking lot and put a couple of hoops up,” Tim Grover, Jordan’s infamous personal trainer, recalls with a laugh. “And I was like, ‘No, no, no. This is Michael Jordan. We’re not playing basketball in a parking lot. Not gonna happen!” The result of Grover rigorously standing his ground was a state of the art training facility and full-size basketball court under an inflatable roof, put together in less than six weeks.

Getting back to basketball shape — Image via Jordan Brand

“It had an entertainment center with a satellite and big-screen TV [the most 90s brag of all time], a sound system, a locker room with showers, a weight room specifically for Michael, a card table, and a putting green — all in one of those air-inflated domes.“ said Nathaniel Bellamy, Space Jam’s basketball coordinator. “We paid about $10,000 a week just to air condition the place.”

It was in that ginormous air-inflated tent on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, CA, that Michael Jordan went to work. Not only did he work tirelessly on his game and got back into game shape, but he also followed Grower’s meticulous plan to transform his body from a baseball player to that of a basketball player. And the results were noticeable. Jordan finished the offseason at around 216 pounds, up 8 pounds from the end of the previous season. He was not only stronger and wider through the shoulders, but slimmer and leaner in his upper legs. “In baseball, you only get to run when you get a hit,” Jordan explains, smiling, cognizant of his moderately successful (at least sports-wise) excursion into baseball. “I didn’t get to do as much running as I wanted.”

And then there were the games!

Bruce Talamon, the on-set photographer for Space Jam, remembers “It was like one-stop shopping. Mike didn’t have to leave the studio lot. They could just get him quickly when they needed him for a scene.”, unwittingly (and to a degree) putting Jordan’s prioritization of the movie project into perspective. While Jordan would alternate between working on on-court drills, the movie set and the weight room throughout the day, his evenings were — without exception — reserved for basketball games. And boy, what games were played at the Jordan Dome in the summer of 1995!?

Once word got out that Air Jordan was holding court in his inflatable throne room, the best hoopers from the collegiate as well as the professional ranks in the Los Angeles area flocked to the Dome. With NBA stars like Reggie Miller, Patrick Ewing, Grant Hill, Dennis Rodman, Glen Rice and Juwan Howard on the floor and Hollywood A-listers like Halle Berry and George Clooney on the sidelines, these pickup games were not only the hottest ticket in town but may have also produced some of the greatest games never seen on television (not unlike the legendary Dream Team scrimmages of 1992).

The legendary pickup games at the Jordan Dome in Los Angeles during the 1995 NBA offseason
The most exclusive club in LA — Image via Jordan Brand

“There was probably more trash talking in that building than at any point in time in any professional sport,” Grover says. In one of the few stories that got out from those games, Kris Johnson, a college player and running mate of Jordan’s at the Dome, got called out by then-Lakers Guard Cedric Ceballos. And Jordan, always the competitor and possibly never more driven than during this stretch of his career, took it upon himself to stand up for his young teammate.

“Don’t wear my number again!”

“Michael was isolated against Cedric.“, recounts Johnson. “He’s palming the ball and gives him a bunch of jab fakes. He’s telling him, ‘Why are you wearing that number? Why you wear my number, man? You make my number look bad. Take that off.’ Then boom, he dunks on him and says, ‘Take my number off. Don’t ever wear my number again.’”

While Jordan’s heroics under the inflatable roof were common knowledge, it was his former teammate and enforcer on the Bulls, Knicks legend Charles Oakley, who allegedly had the best runs at the Dome. “I had a cameo in the movie, so I was there for a few days. Our team ruled the court.“, the Oaktree retells with a grin. “We didn’t have the best players on the court, but in a pickup game, I got a great chance of winning.“

The house that built Jordan

With its unique mixture of athletic excellence and showbiz glamour, the Jordan Dome not only became the most exclusive club for a while. It also played an undeniable role in Jordan clawing his way back and ultimately re-taking the belt. “It was significant in him getting back to the Michael Jordan that we always knew.”, said Grover. “That was the Michael Jordan that would go on to win three more championships.“

In hindsight, the 1995 offseason served as the foundation for one if not the most successful season in NBA history [73 means nothing without a ring, sorry Warriors.] as well as Jordan’s second three-peat and his consequential consolidation as the greatest of all time.

Michael Jordan playing pickup basketball at the Jordan Dome in Los Angeles, CA, during the 1995 NBA offseason
Michael Jordan during a pickup game in the Dome — Image via Jordan Brand

“[That summer], I couldn’t wait for the 1995-96 season to start. So I knew my game had come back with all the work I put in. I felt like a kid coming out of college with something to prove.“, said Jordan. And speaking of hindsight, the version of the Black Cat that feels like he has something to prove might be the most lethal version of them all. Or as MJ phrased it himself at the time:“ [The people] want to see number 23? I’m going to give them number 23.”

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