Skip to main content
Menu
Michael Jordan Got Paid During The Bulls’ Last Dance

Michael Jordan’s final two seasons with the Chicago Bulls were historic — and not just because they resulted in individual accolades, team championships and a 10-part documentary series. Each was spent on a one-year contract that was considered at the time to be the single biggest in the history of American team sports.1 And each was reportedly negotiated by agent David Falk in less than an hour.

Not bad for the man Falk once declared as “the most underpaid athlete in the history of professional sports.”

Jordan had earned a combined $27.98 million over his first 11 seasons in the league, so consecutive deals north of $30 million represented quite the raise. During the 1997-98 season — “The Last Dance,” as it were — Jordan earned $33.14 million, which remains without precedent after adjusting for inflation.

“He’s in a position to demand pretty much whatever he wants,” his then-teammate Scottie Pippen said in January 1996. “Whether or not this organization will honor it remains to be seen.”

At the time, Pippen was, of course, woefully underpaid by comparison, after having earlier elected to sign a long-term contract to prioritize financial security for his family. Jordan went on to earn more than the combined salaries of his teammates and 19 of the 29 teams in the league during the 1997-98 season.2

It was Jordan … and everyone else

Players on the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls roster at the end of the regular season, by salary

Player Position Salary
Michael Jordan SG $33,140,000
Dennis Rodman PF 4,600,000
Ron Harper PG 4,560,000
Toni Kukoč PF 4,560,000
Luc Longley C 3,184,900
Scottie Pippen SF 2,775,000
Bill Wennington C 1,800,000
Scott Burrell SF 1,430,000
Randy Brown PG 1,260,000
Steve Kerr PG 750,000
Keith Booth SF 597,600
Jud Buechler SF 500,000
Joe Kleine C 272,250
Rusty LaRue PG 220,772
Dickey Simpkins C 78,013

Sources: Basketball-Reference.com, Spotrac

The salary cap was introduced in the 1984-85 season and was capped at $3.6 million. It has since ballooned to more than $109 million. When Jordan signed his penultimate deal with the Bulls, the salary cap was under $30 million, but there weren’t rules in place to curb a player’s maximum salary, so teams could exceed the cap to re-sign their free agents.3 Faced with the prospect of losing the Windy City’s most celebrated athlete and in turn alienating its rabid fan base, owner Jerry Reinsdorf had a pretty easy solution: Don’t penny-pinch the greatest player of all time.

“If no salary cap existed and there were no rules against player-owners, I guess we’d rename our team the Jordanaires and make him owner, general manager, coach and whatever else he’d want,” Atlanta Hawks general manager Pete Babcock once said. “It’s almost impossible to put a dollar amount on Michael’s worth.”

Reinsdorf didn’t go that far, but he did cut Jordan a 683 percent raise for the 1996-97 season and an additional 10 percent bump the season after. The Bulls’ total payroll, including money owed to players no longer on the team, ended up at $61.58 million, easily the highest figure in the league and $34.68 million over the salary cap. An analysis conducted by Dimitrije Ćurčić, a basketball scout and researcher, found that Jordan earned at least 1.5 percent of the league’s salary cap per game during his final two seasons in Chicago.

After Jordan’s big payday, the subsequent NBA lockout resulted in a new collective bargaining agreement that would make a salary like his impossible to match.

Who could argue that Jordan didn’t justify the expense? As arguably the best and most marketable player in NBA history, in the most successful decade in Bulls franchise history, Jordan elevated the team to six championships in eight seasons.4 Largely because of him, the Bulls set the standard in apparel sales and sold out 610 consecutive home games from 1987 through 2000.

As Jordan once put it to the Chicago Tribune, “Nobody can really pay me what I’m worth.”

He of course went on to become the highest-paid athlete of all time.

Footnotes

  1. Before Jordan signed a one-year, $30.14 million contract in 1996, no NBA player had earned more in a given season than the $18.72 million that Patrick Ewing netted in 1995-96.

  2. Team payrolls as of Nov. 2, 1997.

  3. Otherwise known as the Larry Bird exception.

  4. Chicago failed to reach the NBA finals in 1994 and 1995.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Comments