clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Butterfly Doors: How Did Michael Jordan's Retirement Affect KU Basketball?

New, comments

Retracing an alternate KU basketball history, if Michael Jordan never retired from the NBA in 1998.

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

First of all, to answer what is undoubtedly your first question:  What does 'Butterfly Doors' mean?  Duh, it's a combination of Sliding Doors and The Butterfly Effect, two mediocre movies from the late 90's and early 2000's**.  Sliding Doors is about two parallel universes that get played out over time, depending on what choice the main character makes.  Sorta like the old 'Choose Your Own Adventure' books.  The Butterfly Effect you probably know of, whether or not you're an Ashton Kutcher enthusiast.  It's a chaos theory study in which a miniscule change may eventually result in very large consequences in the future.

**Side note:  I take that back, The Butterfly Effect is not mediocre.  I don't care what anyone says, I liked it.  Look, I hate Kutcher as much as the next guy, but I'd be lying if I told you that I didn't enjoy that particular cinematic adventure.  Plus, Fulton Reed is in it, and it's always nice to see the old Mighty Ducks still getting work.  But I digress.**

So what's the point to this?  To have some fun, to keep ourselves entertained during the off-season, and to wildly speculate on a sequence of events that, while fact-based, I could never prove in a court of law.  Hopefully you have as much fun arguing at the bar with your friends as we do.

Today's exercise:  What if we lived in an alternate reality, wherein Michael Jordan didn't retire after the Bulls' second three-peat, after the 1998 season?  How would that affect us as KU fans?

**********

Jordan decides to give it another go for the 1998-99 season, taking advantage of the lockout to rest his weary body (read: smoke, golf, and gamble his ass off).  After extremely contentious negotiations, Phil Jackson re-ups with the Bulls on another one-year contract, after MJ stomps off the 18th hole, storms into Jerry Krause's office, and tells him he won't play for anyone else.  The most disappointed interested party:  Tim Floyd.  A nudge-nudge, keep-it-on-the-hush deal he had with Krause to succeed Jackson has fallen through, and Floyd gears up for another year in Ames with Iowa State.

But it's not all gloom and doom for Floyd.  He already has a commitment from Iowa's future Co-Mr. Basketball, Kirk Hinrich, and when Floyd announces he will indeed be returning to Ames, he also gets a commitment from the guy Hinrich will end up sharing the award with:  Nick Collison.

Two years later, down in Lawrence, Roy Williams has just finished slogging through a couple of down years with a young squad.  After Bill Guthridge retires from North Carolina in the spring of 2000, UNC comes calling.  Roy looks around, doesn't see a special connection with any of his current recruiting classes (dadgummit, it would've been nice to get Nick & Kirk a year ago), sees Iowa St. building a monster with a core of Marcus Fizer, Jamaal Tinsley, Hinrich and Collison, and decides the siren call of home is too strong to resist.  He bolts for Chapel Hill, breaking the collective heart of an entire state.

Al Bohl begins surveying the landscape for the 8th coach in the history of the men's basketball program at the University of Kansas.  Bill Self has just made his bones at Tulsa, advancing to the Elite 8 as a seven seed.  But without any major conference experience, he's not ready to make the jump.  Instead, KU turns its attention to another young, up-and-coming coach, coming off his first career Final Four:  Billy Donovan.

After losing the beloved Coach Williams, yet enduring a frustrating decade in which the Jayhawks had the best record in the country, but no national titles and no Final Fours since 1993, the fanbase is antsy.  The leash is short.  The proverbial hot seat is, well, hot.  There's a couple year grace period, as Billy D brings in his own recruits and sets up his systems while the fans remain as patient as they can.  However, after five years of solid regular season records and early tournament exits-- not to mention Roy getting his elusive national championship with the Tar Heels in 2005-- Jayhawk Nation starts calling for Donovan's head.  Message boards are aflame.  Myspace bulletins are angsty, even more so than usual.  People start texting "#firedonovan" to their friends, even though Twitter hasn't been invented yet.  After yet another early round flameout in 2005, Donovan gets canned, and the talented freshman class of Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and Corey Brewer announce their transfers.

KU's next hire is the coach who had just finished impressively resurrecting Wake Forest from the dead:  Skip Prosser.  His up-tempo offense and excitable personality reminds Jayhawk fans of Ol' Roy, and Skip's first two seasons show promise, as he takes a roster in flux and leads it to back-to-back Elite Eights.

Then, in the summer of 2007, tragedy strikes.  Skip suffers a massive heart attack and passes away at the age of 56, and once again, Kansas finds themselves searching for a coach.  After trying unsuccessfully to woo Billy Gillispie away from Kentucky, KU throws a boatload of money at Jay Wright, enticing him to leave Villanova and the bustling City of Brotherly Love for the gently rolling hills of northeast Kansas.

Despite initial concerns that his style may be a bit too flashy for the Midwest, ("I dunno 'bout these fancy pin-striped suits he wearin', who does he think he is, Al Capone?  I done lived through the Great Depression and fought in the Big War, I don't need to see no ball coach wearin' clothes that cost more than my first house," spits an old man while he drinks a warm Old Milwaukee on his front porch in Burlington, Kansas), Wright's four-out, one-in offense has success early and often, and KU hangs a Final Four banner in just his second season in Lawrence.

However, since then, it's been a series of disappointments for Wright and the 'Hawks.  Recruiting is up-and-down, and results swing wildly from year to year.  Seasons ending in nondescript losses as an 8 or 9 seed are mixed with high-profile, early-round flameouts as a top-3 seed, and Kansas hasn't been back to the Elite 8 since 2009.  Now we find ourselves in the summer of 2015, fresh off another disappointing tournament exit, and without a national title since 1988.  (Meanwhile, Ol' Roy is sitting on three titles, if you count the one they got in 2008 after Memphis had to vacate theirs....)

Jay Wright stands up at his desk and feels his chair.  It feels unusually warm.

**********

Long story short:  Thanks, MJ, for calling it quits in the summer of 1998.  You flapped your butterfly wings, and 17 years later, we have a national title and one of the best coaches in America.  The Kansas Jayhawks and all their fans are grateful.