The Last Dance: What was it like coaching against Michael Jordan?


Jim Lynam was the head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers when Michael Jordan entered the NBA in the 1984-85 season. In his first game coaching against Jordan, Lynam watched one of his Clippers players get the upper hand on the NBA’s rookie sensation. On Nov. 30, 1984, third-year guard Derek Smith lit up Jordan and the Bulls for 33 points. Chicago won the game, 104-100.

"Derek Smith vs. Michael Jordan, that game should be up at the Hall of Fame," Lynam said in an interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. "That game was a classic. Toe to toe. I’m talking about driving on each other and dunking in each other’s face five or six times each. Derek was drafted in the second round by Golden State and after one year, they cut him. By his second year with us, he had established himself as a high-level NBA player. He lived for those kinds of challenges. It was unbelievable."

Lynam came to the Sixers as an assistant coach prior to the 1985-86 season. He replaced Matt Guokas as head coach 43 games into the 1987-88 season. In that season, Jordan faced the Sixers six times, averaging an incredible 44.0 points per game.  

Dear Lord, I wouldn’t have known it was that much," Lynam said with a laugh. "You felt almost powerless. You always feel like you have another resort, another option to go to. I always had a premise, don’t let the best guy beat you. If they’re going to beat you, so be it. But not the way they want to do it. With respect to him, you ran out of options in a hurry. Two things made him unstoppable. His skill set, number one. And skill set is a combination of talent and technique. And he had both talent and technique at the absolute highest level. And number two, whatever intangible he had that made him just flat-out want to beat you — whether it was beat your team, beat his man, make this basket, whatever — take that intangible to the absolute highest level possible.

As he vaulted into stardom, Jordan’s games became events. This was true in every arena he played in, but especially at the old Chicago Stadium, where Jordan played the first nine seasons of his career.

"I’ve never experienced the atmosphere, ever, that there was in Chicago," Lynam said. "Oh my God. Back in the day, I was a casual smoker. I used to go under the stands and wait as the introductions would start and would puff on a late cigarette. And his introduction would start. 'From the University of North Carolina ...” and that’s the last you heard. The decibel level went through the roof. The roar would last from 30 seconds to a minute."

Lynam’s Sixers faced off with Jordan’s Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals in both 1990 and 1991. The Bulls won both series, 4-1. Lynam believes the Sixers’ only win in that 1990 series became an emotional turning point for Chicago.

They smacked us in Chicago twice and we come home and we’re smacking them in Game 3," Lynam said. "And I remember this literally. Jordan is walking off the court at the end of the third, we have them down 20-plus. And he looks at our bench and he’s almost glaring. And whether something had taken place, if it had, I didn’t see it. But he has this look on his face. And he turns, and to his left is Pippen. He says something to Pippen and Pippen nods. Then they both turn and look at our bench. I saw this whole little exchange and it only takes like five seconds.  And in my mind, I’m a little confused. And a little sense of concern and like, uh-oh, jumps into my mind. We’re up 20. The building’s going nuts. And they come out and cut it to three and we had to hold on to win.

"The two of them walk off the court, same thing. Jordan says something to Pippen and they both turned and looked back at us exactly the way they did at the end of the third quarter.  And it was like, 'We didn’t get it tonight, dudes, but guess what? We got it.' That series was decided in the fourth quarter of Game 3, even though we won that game. That glare and whatever he said to Pippen, that’s the way he was. Not only did he say to Pippen, 'let’s make a run at this,' but they go for 45 and damn near win the thing.

The Sixers signed Lynam’s former Clippers player, Derek Smith, in February of 1990, partially to help guard Jordan in a potential playoff series. Unfortunately, Smith was injured late in the season and couldn’t play in the series. Looking back, Lynam thinks Smith’s presence would have given the Sixers a significantly  better chance at beating Jordan and the Bulls.

"Derek was one of the few — he lusted to go out and guard Jordan," Lynam said. "It’s hard to put into words, but he was someone that would take on the challenge. That’s the way Derek was. I really thought we had a shot to beat them that first year, but Derek was hurt and didn’t play. Derek had an edge to him and Michael knew it. And there was a little, a little, look-over-your-shoulder on Michael’s part with respect to Derek. And he didn’t have that too often.

"He wasn’t afraid to really smack Jordan. He’d take a hard foul. Jordan was held in such a regard and on such a pedestal with respect to the players — forget about the fans for a second — but Derek didn’t see him in that light. He saw him as an adversary and someone to compete against. And he relished that opportunity.

"Hersey Hawkins was a very good player but physically he was outmatched. Jordan, he played with the highest level of confidence of any player I saw. He always knew, in some way, that he had the upper hand. Hawkins was a pretty good defender, but he wasn’t as tall or as strong [as Jordan]. As a result, he was physically mismatched."

If you’re under 30, you probably don’t remember Jordan’s dominance. The last of his six NBA titles came 22 years ago. Here’s Lynam’s perspective on how Jordan compares with the other greats of the game:

People that didn’t see Michael, if they had a chance to see LeBron and Kobe, they’d get a good sense. They brought a certain unique something to the court. They were all wing players who had the ball a lot. They did it in a different way than the Shaquille O’Neals or Kareem Abdul-Jabbars of the world. Like LeBron, he had the ability to take over a game and could get a basket in a lot of ways. With the way the game was played back then, he wasn’t the passer or three-point shooter that LeBron is, but that’s more a function of when he played. I have zero doubt Jordan would still be a superstar in today’s game.

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