Throwback Thursday: Remembering the Utah Flash and the Michael Jordan hoax
In this Aug. 21, 2015, file photo, former NBA star and current owner of the Charlotte Hornets, Michael Jordan, smiles at reporters in Chicago. Jordan announced Monday he’s giving $1 million to the Institute for Community-Police Relations and $1 million to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to help build trust between blacks and law enforcement following several disturbing clashes around the country.
Former Utah Jazz player Bryon Russell, left, and Utah Flash owner Brandt Andersen are watched and photographed by fans during halftime of a Flash game on Dec. 7, 2009.
On Dec. 7, 2009, I covered one of the strangest stories in my career as a journalist.
This was during the infancy of social media and former Utah Flash owner Brandt Andersen used it to pull a fast one on thousands of basketball fans one night in the McKay Events Center (now the UCCU Center).
The shortened version of what happened: For months, Anderson touted a one-on-one grudge match between former Jazz player Bryon Russell and Michael Jordan, sort of a do-over for the famous push-off incident in the 1998 NBA Finals. A huge crowd showed up in Orem for the supposed meeting at halftime of a Flash game but were duped. After some investigating, I received confirmation from independent sources that Jordan never intended to play against Russell, but Andersen kept up the ruse anyway.
Fans were not amused.
The Philadelphia 76ers acquired the Flash in 2013 and they are now the Delaware Blue Coats of the NBA G League. Andersen is a film producer and has worked on movies such as “Everest,” “Mother’s Day” and “Lone Survivor.” His film Flowers of War was even nominated for a Golden Globe in 2011.
Crazy world, huh?
I have to admit, this was one the favorite leads I’ve ever written.
What do Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and Michael Jordan have in common?
None of them were at the McKay Events Center in Orem on Monday night for the home opener of the Utah Flash.
But fans were only upset over Jordan’s absence. Nor were they happy with the fake Jordan who had been concocted by the Flash, and who had posed earlier in the day as Jordan at a local restaurant.
Many unhappy fans walked out of the arena.
“I think they went a little bit too far,” said one man leaving with his young son.
The hoax — or sales stunt, depending on your point of view — drew 7,542 curious fans to see what was billed as a 1-on-1 grudge match between the former NBA mega-star and former Utah Jazzman Bryon Russell.
All day Monday, no one from Flash management would respond to media inquiries, and no one was made available after the halftime show that featured Russell and a brief appearance by the fake Jordan.
It was a less-than-fulfilling culmination of months of speculation — most of it fueled by the Utah Flash and its owner Brandt Andersen — that Jordan would face off with Russell in what would be a reenactment of the final basket of the 1998 NBA Finals.
Many thought Jordan had arrived in town. A video created by the Flash and posted on YouTube purported to show Jordan eating at Mimi’s Cafe in Orem earlier Monday. The afternoon manager of Mimi’s Cafe told the Daily Herald that a party came into Mimi’s in the morning. The group asked permission of another manager to use a Jordan look-a-like to film a video in the restaurant.
A link to the video was publicized on blogs and the Herald Web site, and the McKay Center ticket office was overwhelmed. A large line to buy tickets snaked around the inside of the building. Fans were arriving at their seats well into the second quarter of the game and four additional bleachers were rolled out.
“MJ may be here, he may not,” one fan said. “But if he is, I want to be here.”
With about two minutes left in the half, the Flash announced that Russell was in the building, and the crowd cheered. With Dakota leading 51-43 at halftime, some of the fans started chanting, “MJ, MJ, MJ … ” The lights dimmed and highlights from several sports talk shows were shown on two big screens. Then Russell emerged from the southeast tunnel.
“I’m waiting on MJ,” Russell said. “Where’s he at?”
The lights dimmed again and a group of men dressed in dark suits emerged from the southeast tunnel. It was obvious when the lights came up that the man they were guarding was not Jordan but a look-a-like. Russell left and that was the end of the production.
Some fans reportedly threw their free Flash T-shirts back onto the floor.
For days, Andersen had been hinting that Jordan might show. He said he would write a $100,000 check to the charity of the players’ choice. But there was no match.
The joke was on the fans who paid for tickets to see Jordan, though many of those in attendance had gotten in free. After a halftime show that included video highlights, dimmed lights and Russell, it was revealed that Jordan was not at the game. The bald look-a-like who showed up on the floor — the same man who was filmed at the restaurant earlier in the day — standing between a phalanx of body guards was a foot too short.
“The offer is real,” the Flash announcer insisted, then invited fans to stick around for the second half of the game against the Dakota Wizards, and free T-shirts. That statement was followed by a chorus of boos.
Earlier this week Andersen said he was “70% sure” that Jordan would be coming.
But that was never likely, according to an agent for Gold Medal Greats who identified himself as “Evan.” Gold Medal Greats is an organization that books Olympic gold medal winners like Jordan for speaking engagements and appearances. The agent said Jordan was recently at an event in Florida, kicking off the maiden voyage of a cruise ship that was tied to his charitable foundation.
But appearing in Orem for a 1-on-1 on matchup with Bryon Russell?
“I’m not seeing that is something that would be realistic,” the agent said.