(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

A closer look at Michael Jordan's 1988 DPOY award raises questions about its validity. Has LeBron James been chasing a ghost?

New research reveals Jordan's Defensive Player of the Year season likely included home-biased stats

It may be the most consequential Defensive Player of the Year award in NBA history.

In 1987-88, Michael Jordan became the first player ever to win the scoring title and the DPOY in the same season. To this day, the feat hasn’t been duplicated.

The DPOY award represented a certain validation for the 25-year-old phenom. Before Jordan was crowned, he was crushed. Drafted by the Chicago Bulls 40 years ago this week, Jordan had developed a certain level of notoriety for being too focused on scoring at the expense of winning. Fanning the flames was the fact that Jordan led the NBA in scoring the previous season but was swept in the first round against the Boston Celtics for a second straight year. A scorer, they said, but not a winning player. The Defensive Player of the Year award, voted by the media, effectively quieted those questions.

“It’s one of the goals I set for myself,” Jordan told the AP after winning the award. “I wanted to show people that I am more than just a scorer. I am a complete player.”


The award also delivered generational power, with its profound impact being felt even today when debating the legends of the game. The DPOY gave Jordan something that LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson never had: recognition for being the NBA’s best defender.

But a closer look at Jordan’s 1987-88 season reveals a substantial discrepancy between his home and road statistics, raising questions about the authenticity of his off-the-charts steals and blocks numbers that season — and shining a light on an era that seemed particularly vulnerable to the hidden hand of homer bias.

Considerable evidence — both statistical and corroborating video — suggests that Jordan’s Defensive Player of the Year award may not be as valid as we thought.

In 1987, Michael Jordan felt he was snubbed after not being recognized as one of the NBA's top defenders.
In 1987, Michael Jordan felt he was snubbed after not being recognized as one of the NBA's top defenders. (NBAE via Getty Images)

With a 6-0 record in the NBA Finals, Jordan finished his career with a résumé as shiny as any human being who has stepped onto the hardwood. He was a relentless two-way superstar from the guard position — soaring above the opponent and casting shadows across an era dominated by giants. There will never be another Michael Jordan.


There’s a notion that every fiber of Jordan was consumed by winning the game. However, the six-time NBA champion also deeply cared about something else — public recognition. It wasn’t enough to be a great defender — he almost certainly was; he wanted to be known as a great defender. The man behind the and-I-took-it-personally meme was consumed by his detractors, no slight too small to turn into redemptive fuel.

In 1986-87, Jordan’s third season in the league, he was incensed that coaches left him off the All-Defensive teams even though Jordan became the first player in NBA history to register at least 200 steals and 100 blocks in the same season. In particular, it irritated Jordan that Michael Cooper of the Los Angeles Lakers won Defensive Player of the Year in 1986-87, garnering 25 of the 78 votes, while Jordan received just one.

Jordan made sure his discontent was known. In an 18-page Sports Illustrated feature in which SI writer Curry Kirkpatrick entrenched himself inside Jordan’s growing empire, the Chicago Bulls star expressed deep resentment about his lack of recognition. In particular, Jordan called out the voting contingency about its apparent disregard for box-score statistics like blocks and steals.

“Michael Cooper is great at ball denial,” Jordan told SI. “But check his other stats. This league gives defensive awards on reputation. It just tees me off.”

The shot at Cooper set the tone for Jordan’s vengeful 1987-88 season. Determined to be known as the best defender in the game, Jordan’s DPOY campaign started off with a bang. On opening night, two days before the Sports Illustrated issue hit newsstands across America, Jordan tallied six steals and four blocks in a win against the Philadelphia 76ers. The Chicago Bull registered another six-steal game later that month. And another. In late January against the lowly New Jersey Nets, Jordan posted a career-high and franchise-record 10 steals. He didn’t even play the fourth quarter.

CHICAGO - JANUARY 1988:  Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan walks off the court after a victory against the New Jersey Nets at Chicago Stadium in Chicago, Illinois in January 1988.  (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)
Jordan walks off the court after a victory against the New Jersey Nets at Chicago Stadium in January 1988. (Raymond Boyd via Getty Images)

The mission consumed him. After the history-making Nets game, he openly admitted to hunting for steals so he could break the record.


“I knew I was close, and I asked to find out what the record was,” Jordan told the Chicago Tribune that night. “I was on a roll. I was going for it, reaching for everything.”

Jordan didn’t stop reaching. By the end of the season, he led the league with 259 steals, displacing San Antonio guard Alvin Robertson, who topped the leaderboard in each of the previous two seasons. In 1987-88, Jordan also led all guards with a breathtaking 131 blocks. The next-highest total for a guard? Robertson’s 69, almost half of Jordan’s total.

At season’s end, sportswriters looking at the statistical leaderboards were overwhelmed with gaudy per-game numbers next to Jordan’s name: 3.2 steals and 1.6 blocks. To this day, it’s never been matched.

The eye-popping stats propelled Jordan to his first Defensive Player of the Year award, earning 37 votes from writers, besting rim-protecting centers Mark Eaton (9) and Hakeem Olajuwon (7).

For almost four decades, Jordan’s lone DPOY has stood unquestioned. We took a deeper look after a recent discussion with a man named Alex Rucker, who pulled back the curtain on the complicated role of an NBA home statkeeper.

Rucker is currently the CEO of a Boys & Girls Club in Texas and was once a top executive for the Philadelphia 76ers in 2020. Before that, he was a former statkeeper for the Vancouver Grizzlies and was an employee during their inaugural season in 1995-96. In February, Rucker told me he was among a number of home scorekeepers in the 1990s who selectively juiced the numbers for their players. In our interview for "Pablo Torre Finds Out," Rucker explained that, in his view, inflating certain box-score statistics for the home team was a common league-wide practice.

When Rucker landed the Vancouver job in 1995, he says he traveled to Detroit for a training session attended by other NBA professional scorekeepers who had held their positions for a number of years. Rucker, however, was just 19 years old while working for the expansion Vancouver franchise, the new kid on the block. He was eager to prove he could score a game as accurately as anyone in the room.


But then they reviewed a video clip of John Stockton getting an assist on a Karl Malone bucket, and things got weird. ”There was no causal connection between the pass and the basket,” Rucker told me on PTFO. “And the majority opinion by a mile was, ‘Oh no, that’s definitely an assist.’”

According to Rucker, the scorekeepers told him in no uncertain terms that it was an assist because it was John Stockton. Rucker soon realized what was expected. In Rucker’s view, it was inferred that part of the scorekeeper’s job was to give hometown stars the star treatment.

“I left there clearly understanding that, yes, we are supposed to present the most accurate representation that we can, but the NBA is also an entertainment business,” Rucker told me. “And it’s up to us, in very small part as statisticians, to support or reinforce stars and excitement and fun. And that message was definitely reinforced internally within the Grizzlies.”

When reached by Yahoo Sports, the league office declined to comment on Rucker’s assertions. The Grizzlies, who moved to Memphis in 2001, declined comment for the story.

Rucker explained that, from his experience, subjective stats — primarily blocks, steals and assists, and sometimes rebounds — were a way to give star treatment. If a player tried to block a shot and the ball fell short, maybe give him the benefit of the doubt on a 50-50 play — block. If a pass was deflected by one defender and recovered by another, choose wisely as to which defender to award the steal. Assists were a thing of beauty, left to the eye of the beholder. To Rucker, it was an unspoken part of the NBA’s marketing machine, a way to get on “SportsCenter” in front of a national audience and grab attention.

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 19: A close-up view of the jersey of Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls during Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals on May 19, 1998 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1998 NBAE (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jordan was one of the most marketable athletes in the world. (NBAE via Getty Images)

Zooming out, the numbers seem to back up Rucker’s testimony. Vancouver’s young star, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, saw lopsided home/road splits in the blocks and steals columns during the time Rucker was a scorekeeper in Vancouver. But it wasn’t just Vancouver; evidence of home bias showed up across the league, most dramatically in the '80s and '90s. In the '80s, the home team annually registered about 800 more blocks and about 450 more steals than the road team leaguewide, per Basketball Reference tracking. Over time, those home/road disparities began to even out, significantly so in the Adam Silver era. This past season, the homer effect on blocks and steals disparities has all but disappeared, just 135 more blocks at home than on the road and a measly 13 more steals leaguewide.


According to the league office, in an effort to ensure the most accurate statistics, the NBA has used modern technology to apply real-time auditing of stats during games since the 2018-19 season. In today’s environment, with more eyes on the game and a greater attention to detail in the legalized gambling era, the home/road disparity is now all but gone. The homer bias, at least statistically, seems to have been eradicated.

That doesn’t mean accusations haven’t surfaced. Last year, when a Redditor claimed that Jaren Jackson Jr.’s Defensive Player of the Year candidacy was propped up by homer-biased stats, the power of the Internet and access to video technology services allowed an army of NBA writers to instantly pull up Jackson’s hundreds of blocks and steals and evaluate their validity. The verdict was delivered within minutes and it was unanimous: the blocks and steals were legit.

However, in the Jordan era, media members weren’t able to put the microscope on home/road disparities, whether it was for Jordan or other star players. In the late ’80s, there was no internet, no social media pressure to get things right, no public system of accountability.

The shadow looms large. If blocks and steals were heavily influenced by a hidden homer bias, the implications on the historical record can be significant. The damage of assist fudging, for instance, has a limited scope since there is no league-wide award given to the NBA’s best passer. However, the ripple effect of questionable block and steal accounting can create a reputational sea change because Defensive Player of the Year awards are heavily influenced by those very same statistics.

Michael Jordan defends against Michael Cooper in 1987 at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Michael Jordan defends against Michael Cooper in 1987 at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California. (NBAE via Getty Images)

Fueled by the coaches’ and media’s non-recognition as an elite defender, Jordan took it personally and filled the stat sheet in 1987-88. Even Cooper, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, took notice, telling the Los Angeles Times that Jordan deserved to be a candidate. “He has the stats to back him up,” Cooper said in February 1988 that season.


What was considered a record-setting 1986-87 season paled in comparison to what happened in ’87-88. But the underlying statistics fueling his DPOY-winning season were lopsided to an unnerving degree.

Breaking out his numbers into game location, we find that Jordan averaged a mind-boggling 4 steals and 2.1 blocks at home. But on the road, those numbers shrunk to a more normal rate of 2.1 steals and 1.2 blocks.

Put simply, Jordan’s steals and blocks nearly doubled at home compared to the road. To account for possible uneven playing time effects, we can look at per-36-minute numbers for a truer portrayal of the phenomenon. Jordan’s combined block and steals numbers (“stocks”) were a whopping 82 percent higher at home (5.5 stocks per 36 minutes) than on the road (3.0).

It isn’t unusual for the NBA’s top defender to exhibit a slight home/road disparity. It’s common knowledge that players perform better at home in front of friendly confines (as Jackson showed last season).

But the size of Jordan’s 1987-88 gap is unprecedented.


Dating back to 1982-83 when the award was established, Jordan’s home-vs.-away disparity in combined blocks and steals represents the largest of any Defensive Player of the Year award winner in NBA history.

No other instance in the award’s history has a player shown a disparity that touched 160 percent — except for Jordan’s 1987-88 season, which clocked in at 182 percent.

One might interpret the disparity as a reflection of a bygone era and perhaps not unique to Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. However, Jordan’s home/road disparities stood out even among his peers that season. According to Stathead.com, Jordan posted 165 steals at home (by far the most in the NBA) compared to just 94 on the road (tied for fourth). That gap of 71 steals blew away the competition, with the next largest gap among the top 15 league leaders in steals being 47.

Crucially, the additional home steals were instrumental in Jordan achieving the title as the league leader in steals. Jordan finished with the most steals at 259, speeding past Alvin Robertson’s total of 243.


If we were to believe the official box score, Jordan was god-like at home and a mere mortal on the road. When looking at just road games, arguably a control group of impartial scorekeepers for every player, Jordan’s steal count placed not first, not second but tied for fourth with Denver’s Michael Adams. Jordan’s disparity in home steal numbers is illustrated below:

Though Jordan didn’t lead the league in blocks, a similar trend emerges in that key defensive category. Jordan’s 84 blocks at home ranked eighth most in the league, a highly unusual place to find a guard. On the road, his total of 47 blocks fell all the way down to 21st (tied), a more reasonable rung on the ladder for someone his size.

A look at Jordan’s game log is telling. Of Jordan’s 10 games with at least four blocks that season, nine of them came at Chicago Stadium.

The phenomenon seems isolated to this particular season. Examining Jordan’s career, the six-time champion showed a disparity in home vs. road stats in his third season in 1986-87, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the 1987-88 season surge shown in home stats.

Basketball Reference
Basketball Reference

It’s important to note that after winning the Defensive Player of the Year award, Jordan’s home rates returned to normal and within the same range of his peers. Jordan would never even approach the 1987-88 home stats for the rest of his career, an outlier of outliers.


An NBA spokesperson said the league had not verified Jordan's stats in the 1987-88 season and did not plan to do so.

If we assume that Jordan’s road stats were the more accurate measure and used those rates for his home games in 1987-88, it would mean that approximately 30 percent of Jordan’s steals and blocks would disappear from the record.

Bob Ryan isn’t shocked by the possibility that Jordan might have benefited from homer-biased statistics. Ryan, the longtime writer for the Boston Globe who was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame for his basketball coverage dating back to the 1960s, says questionable statkeeping was an unfortunate stain on the game.

He remembers similar controversies surrounding Wilt Chamberlain’s and Bill Russell’s rebounding numbers in the 1960s. Their respective teams traded accusations that the opposing scorekeeper padded the stats to help their giant. Looking back, the numbers are indeed startling. Between them, Russell and Chamberlain registered 26 games with 40-plus rebounds. None of the 26 games were tabulated on the road, per Stathead.com tracking.

(Original Caption) Boston: Wilt Chamberlain (13) of the Warriors' fights for rebound with (16) Tom Sanders of the Celtics' as Bill Russell (6,L) looks on. Action took place in the first period of the fifth game for the NBA championship at Boston Garden here.
Did home statkeepers help pad the stats of the game's early giants? (Bettmann via Getty Images)

In the 1980s, the league became less of a mom-and-pop organization and more of a buttoned-up corporation. For quality control, statkeepers needed to pass annual tests to assess their knowledge and application of arcane scorekeeping protocols. However, the league could do only so much. Computers weren’t around for the better part of the ’80s, which meant most everything was kept by hand on pen and paper. Teams could file complaints, but the system wasn’t nearly as refined as it is today.

As such, in the early days, Ryan held a somewhat skeptical view of the stat leaderboards. Every year, Ryan filled out his NBA awards ballot as a card-carrying media member of the Boston Globe and tried not to lean too heavily on subjective statistics like assists, rebounds, steals and blocks.

Ryan didn’t vote Jordan for MVP that year. The Globe writer was one of the 16 voters who sided with Boston’s Larry Bird. As consolation, it turns out, Ryan named Jordan as his Defensive Player of the Year, writing the following blurb in his Pro Basketball notes column that Cooper’s injury that season held him back:

“If he’s healthy, I know it’s Michael Cooper, but you can’t give (Defensive Player of the Year) to him this year. Do you go for a shot blocker like Mark Eaton? A guy with steals who may or may not be a good defensive player? I don’t know. Since I’m not voting for Jordan (for MVP), who does steal the ball a lot but who is a good defensive player, anyway, I’m giving him this one. Michael Jordan.

As hard as it is to fathom now with fiery "First Take" debates and social-media wars of modern-day media, Ryan emphasized how insignificant the league-wide awards were back then — especially a second-tier award like Defensive Player of the Year. Voters back then almost certainly didn’t fill out ballots with the same rigor as modern-day voters when a single vote can amount to tens of millions of dollars in a player’s supermax extension because a player won Defensive Player of the Year.

“It wasn’t that big a deal,” Ryan says now in an interview with Yahoo Sports. “Nobody focused much on it. This is pre-internet takeover. It’s pre-talk-show dominance. I may be wrong, but for me, I don’t remember anybody fretting about it ever. Ever.”

When I relayed Jordan’s stinging quotes about Cooper’s coronation as the league’s top defender in 1986-87, Ryan could only laugh.

“That amuses me, that Michael Jordan would give a damn,” Ryan says. “This is the same guy who got pissed off at [Chicago head coach] Doug Collins, who didn’t keep score in a scrimmage. This is so classically Michael Jordan, getting pissed off about something that most people didn’t give a s**t about. By the way, that’s not a knock. That’s who he is. That’s his wiring.”

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1985: Head Coach  Pat Riley of the Los Angeles Lakers talks with his player Michael Cooper #21 during an NBA basketball game circa 1985. Riley coached the Lakers from 1981-1990. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Michael Cooper and Pat Riley believed Jordan was deserving of recognition for his defensive play in 1988. (Focus On Sport via Getty Images)

Today, Ryan stands by his DPOY pick for Jordan, acknowledging that, with Bird getting his MVP vote, it was Ryan’s way of giving Jordan kudos for a remarkable season. Even if the stats were juiced, Jordan was still a feared defender.

Ahead of a matchup against the Bulls in 1988, Pat Riley, then the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, remarked about Cooper and Jordan’s contrasting styles.

“Cooper’s idea of defense is to shut a guy down with [ball] denial, cutting off passing lanes and containment by fighting through picks,” Riley told the L.A. Times. “Michael Jordan is more like a free safety in football, always gambling, blocking shots and looking for steals. He’s so good at it because of his anticipation. People aren’t going to believe it because he’s such a great offensive player, but his defense deserves more recognition than it gets.”

In his MVP expository in the paper that year, Ryan stressed the difficulty in rendering award verdicts in the technologically challenged era of the late ’80s.

“OK, so who did have the best year?” Ryan wrote in the Globe. “The truth is nobody knows for sure. Nobody can claim to have sat down and watched 82 Celtics videotapes and 82 Chicago videotapes.”

Theoretically, Jordan could have just been twice as good a player at home. Or maybe the road scorekeepers were unfairly stingy. But the videotapes point to something else. A man in Latvia has been watching film of '80s and '90s NBA games and noticed certain things weren’t adding up.

Reinis Lācis is the vice president of development at the European Youth Basketball League and assistant general manager for Latvian professional club Rigas Zelli. Lācis has been obsessed about the NBA since he was a child. Growing up around the game, he became a fixture on the basketball scene and has helped with data analysis for the basketball associates surrounding Kristaps Porziņģis, a Latvian native.

Lācis is also one of the first-known observers who spotted fishy statkeeping in the '90s. The 29-year-old runs a basketball site called Lamarmatic — a mash-up tribute to two of his most beloved American celebrities, former NBA player Lamar Odom and rapper Nas, whose famous debut album was called “Illmatic.”

In 2016, Lācis published “An Unnecessary Breakdown of Van Exel’s Fudged 23 Assists” after he came across a 2009 Deadspin story about a then-unnamed Vancouver Grizzlies scorekeeper (Rucker) who admitted to padding stats, most notably in Lakers guard Nick Van Exel’s famous 23-assist game in 1997. Deadspin picked up the story from an eyebrow-raising post in the APBRMetrics message board by BobboFitos, a member and friend of the scorekeeper, who shared the scorekeeper’s explanation that he participated in Van Exel’s stat inflation “partly because I’m a Laker fan.” The confessional ignited a scavenger hunt for Lācis. He wanted to dive deeper and investigate gaudy box scores of that era.

First, he needed the tape.

For most fans, finding full-game film of ’80s and ’90s basketball is an impossible task. Luckily, Lācis was uniquely equipped to get the job done. Like thousands of European NBA fans who envied American fans' access to regular local and national TV games, Lācis had collected old NBA digitized tapes from the ’80s and ’90s via underground online trading forums to quench his thirst for watching the best basketball players on the planet.

Van Exel’s Lakers-Grizzlies game had evaded Lācis, so he logged on and, eventually, acquired a digitized VHS copy of the Van Exel game. (As it turns out, it had originally been recorded from an airing on Spanish television.)

He turned it on and couldn’t believe what he saw.

His verdict, which he posted on his website, read: “Nick Van Exel shouldn’t have had more than 17 assists. You can make an argument for him deserving only 15.”

After being disillusioned by Van Exel’s 23-assist game, he posted the assist reel to his YouTube channel. Lācis felt compelled to investigate other big stat-lines. Lācis watched Shaq’s 15-block game of 1993 (more like 10). He broke down the Toronto Raptors’ record-breaking 23-block night of 2001 (more like 17). On a certain level, it was crushing.

“They ruined dreams,” he wrote.

But part of him thought it was important to seek the truth about his favorite sport. That’s how we met and embarked on our next scavenger hunt together.

Next on Lācis’ list of games to acquire: any big defensive night during Jordan’s 1987-88 season.

The internet isn’t stocked with Michael Jordan games from his marvelous 1987-88 season. However, fans may have stumbled upon a video posted to the NBA’s official channel in August 2022 titled “Michael Jordan’s Got 10 Steals In One Game!

The four-minute highlight reel showed his brilliance from that record-setting game against the New Jersey Nets — his crown jewel of the 1987-88 season — but the video conspicuously shows only six steals. In the comment section, amid a chorus of Jordan praise, some discerning commenters raised their hands and expressed confusion. One commenter remarked: “Still waiting for the 10 steals.”

The game, it turns out, was played at home in Chicago. This only piqued our interest in finding game tapes. Luckily, Lācis dug up five, all at Chicago, for our review, in addition to one found on YouTube. We dove in. It turns out the puzzling “Jordan 10 Steals” video was only the tip of the iceberg.

The six full games we found tapes for from Jordan’s Defensive Player of the Year campaign:

Lācis and I were most interested in the Feb. 15, 1988, game. The official box score indicates the Atlanta Hawks registered 10 turnovers and the Chicago Bulls tallied 10 steals. That detail immediately grabbed our attention. Turnovers fall into two categories: live-ball turnovers and dead-ball turnovers. By rule, dead-ball turnovers (i.e. traveling, out of bounds, 24-second violation, etc.) cannot be steals. For example, if, say, Atlanta’s Kevin Willis traveled on a play, a steal couldn’t be credited to a Bulls defender.

Only live-ball turnovers — like an intercepted pass or a recovered loose ball — can be assigned to a defensive player for a steal. The more live-ball turnovers in a game, the more steals in a game.

The Bulls having 10 steals on 10 Hawks turnovers meant that none of the Hawks turnovers could have been dead-ball turnovers. No travels. No offensive fouls. No ball tossed out of bounds. No 24-second violations. For an entire game. Could it be?

And then we watched the film — independently, as to avoid influencing one another’s findings. We compared notes. Turns out, we both saw the same troubling series of plays.

A 24-second violation by the Hawks’ offense. Later, Atlanta reserve Chris Washburn dribbled off his foot out of bounds. An outlet pass to Dominique Wilkins bounces off his hands and into the scorer’s table. Three dead-ball turnovers — three plays that could not have been considered a steal opportunity. And, yet, the box score indicated zero such plays.

It also meant an opportunity to hand out three excess steals to Bulls players.

We compared notes again. We both saw only two legitimate steals by Michael Jordan. The box score credited him with five. An excess of three steals. (To be precise, we saw two Jordan steals, at best, but possibly only one — when he poked the ball, chased it down and saved it from going out of bounds before throwing it directly to the Hawks for a turnover. The other play — a transition deflection by Jordan’s teammate Mike Brown that was recovered by Jordan — could have gone either way.) There were three steals unaccounted for.

The incongruent turnover/steal columns presented a glaring red flag. In the other five games we watched, the live-ball turnovers and steals did not add up, either. In the Detroit game, eight Chicago steals on six Detroit live-ball turnovers. In the Denver game, 13 Chicago steals on just seven Denver live-ball turnovers. Again and again, the official steal counts were routinely outpacing the possible number of steal opportunities. Something was amiss.

All in all, by our count, the box score showed 59 steals on 41 live-ball turnovers, resulting in a whopping 18 excess steals.

Who benefited from all those extra steals? We brought our attention to Jordan’s accounting. In the six games, the box scores indicated that Jordan’s total steal count was 28. After comparing our notes from the film study, we each counted 12 steals. An astounding difference of 16 excess steals. Almost every excess steal was being allocated to Jordan.

A pattern emerged as the games began to pile up in our film review. It appeared that Jordan benefited from deflections being erroneously recorded as steals. In games where there was a surplus of Jordan steals, we noticed that the turnover/steal counts would closer align after we counted the defensive plays that Jordan poked the ball out of bounds or back into the hands of the opposing team — even if there was no change of possession.

Steals should not be awarded in these instances, but Jordan seemed to benefit from the apparent generosity. And here’s the thing: when other players made the same deflections on both teams, their steal counts tended to be scored by the book — that is, correctly. Twelve steals in six games for Jordan (two steals per game) would be much more in line with his road average that season (2.3) rather than his official home average of four steals.

In the block category, it seemed that Jordan also benefited from some exceptional statkeeping. For instance, whenever Bulls forward Horace Grant blocked a shot but was whistled for the foul, he was, correctly, not credited with a block. But when Jordan did the same, his box score line tended to show excess blocks.

Something was going on. Which left only one thing to figure out: Who was the Chicago statkeeper?

CHICAGO - JANUARY 1988:  Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan plays defense during a game against the Seattle SuperSonics at Chicago Stadium in Chicago, Illinois in January 1988.  (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)
Chicago Stadium was home to the Bulls from 1967-94. (Getty Images)

They called him Rosie. A legend in the Chicago Bulls organization, Bob Rosenberg worked as the team’s scorekeeper for the Bulls from their inaugural season in 1965-66 all the way to 2023. He was there for Jerry Sloan’s age-24 season, and he was there for Michael, and he was there for Ayo Dosunmu. In a story commemorating his retirement last year, longtime Chicago scribe Sam Smith, famed author of “The Jordan Rules,” wrote about Rosenberg’s remarkable run, calling it “what’s probably been the greatest statistical tenure in the history of American team sports.”

Rosenberg was an employee of the Bulls, but his omnipresence made him seem more like a family member, as constant as the red paint on the Bulls’ floor and the hook of the Alan Parsons Project intro song. Rosenberg worked not just Bulls games, but also the games of the Chicago White Sox, Chicago Bears and Chicago Blackhawks. He is the scorekeeper of scorekeepers.

Two legends of the game, working in the same building for over a decade, Jordan and Rosenberg shared a strong kinship. On the side, Rosenberg made scrapbooks for Jordan to commemorate his achievements. In the opening lines of MJ’s 1999 retirement column, Chicago AP writer Jim Litke didn’t mention Phil Jackson or Scottie Pippen. Instead, he raised Rosenberg’s name and relayed a story about Jordan’s shared obsession with stats:

“The first week Jordan played for the Bulls, scorer Bob Rosenberg looked up to find him studying the scorebook every time he reported to the table to re-enter the game. It didn’t take long to figure out why. By knowing everybody’s point and rebound totals, Jordan knew how the newspaper stories the next day would begin. Then he took the floor and made sure they always began the same way: ‘Michael Jordan …’”

The Rosenberg and Jordan dynamic was written about in the press, and reportedly at one point drew scrutiny from the league office. According to a 1989 report from the San Francisco Examiner, Rosenberg would flash hand signals to inform Jordan how close he was to a triple-double. The league reportedly stepped in and told Rosenberg to cut it out.

Rosenberg admitted to signaling to help Jordan chase stats during Chicago’s 1988 All-Star Game, a game in which Jordan scored a game-high 40 points, just shy of matching Chamberlain’s then-record of 42. As the site’s official scorekeeper, Rosenberg worked the game and remembered a postgame exchange he had with Jordan. In 2013, Rosenberg shared the following anecdote with the Chicago Tribune:

“Why didn’t you tell me I was two points short of Chamberlain?” Rosenberg recalled Jordan asking him.

“I said, ‘Look, every time you went by, I kept putting up two fingers. You didn’t understand that?’”

To our knowledge, Rosenberg has never been accused of padding statistics for Jordan. But he wasn’t without controversy. In 1998, a Western Conference executive told Sports Illustrated that Dennis Rodman received phony rebounds from the Chicago stat crew. Rodman, like Jordan’s blocks and steals in the 1988 DPOY season, showed a statistical home/road disparity in the rebounding column. Rosenberg denied the claim. Multiple writers also made reference to claims that Rosenberg stat-padded Guy Rodgers’ assist totals in his first and only full season with the Bulls in 1966-67, in which he was named an All-Star. In 1990, Rosenberg was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune for a story commemorating the esteemed career of a local Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman, and Rosenberg himself brought up a stat-padding allegation from Holtzman:

“[Holtzman] was always accusing me of padding the assist totals for [ex-Bull] Guy Rodgers,” Rosenberg told the Chicago Tribune in 1990. “Every time, he’d introduce me to people with: ‘This is the guy that made Guy Rodgers famous in the NBA.'”

In 1966-67, Rodgers barely edged out Oscar Robertson for the assist title that season. Rodgers’ assist averages that season: 12.4 at home, 10.1 on the road.

When reached by Yahoo Sports to address questions regarding Rosenberg’s statkeeping, the Bulls declined comment. Multiple attempts to reach Rosenberg and Jordan went unanswered.

Basketball: NBA Playoffs: Detroit Pistons Rick Mahorn (44) with Bill Laimbeer (40) during confrontation vs Chicago Bulls Charles Oakley (34) at Chicago Stadium. Game 3. 
Chicago, IL 5/14/1988
CREDIT: Bill Smith (Photo by Bill Smith /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
(Set Number: X36562 TK1 R2 F6 )
The Pistons, who defeated the Bulls in the playoffs in 1988, were not impressed by Chicago's reputation on defense. (Bill Smith via Getty Images)

Possibly juiced stats aside, the 1987-88 Bulls were a formidable team and finished with a 50-32 record, good enough to land the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. Jordan and the Bulls clinched a 3-2 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs, setting up the highly anticipated matchup against the second-seeded Detroit squad led by Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and the rest of the Bad Boy Pistons.

Jordan and the Bulls’ elite defense would be put to the test. In Game 1, the Pistons shut down the Bulls, winning handily 93-82. Jordan tallied 29 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. However, the defensive columns were noticeably bare. Jordan didn’t register a single steal the entire game, the first time in over a month he didn’t come up with a theft. The game, it should be noted, was played in Detroit.

The Bulls and Pistons split the next two games. Then, before Game 4, with the Pistons up 2-1, Jordan gathered with NBA officials at halfcourt for a momentous occasion in front of the raucous Chicago crowd. Jordan was being presented with the Defensive Player of the Year award, the first of his career and a crowning achievement for the scoring phenom.

After the ceremony in Game 4, however, it was the Pistons who put on a show on the defensive end, looking every bit the superior defensive team, holding the Bulls without a field goal in the final five minutes of the game. It was a devastating loss for the Bulls, getting outscored 96-77 on their home floor, despite Jordan’s six steals.

The next day, a bold headline blared atop the sports section of the Detroit Free Press: “PISTONS NOT TRICKED BY THE BULLS’ NUMBERS.” In the story, columnist Charlie Vincent wrote: “And that gurgling sound you heard coming from your TV set was not the Bulls’ choking. It was the Pistons’ strangling them to within one loss of elimination.”

Basketball: NBA Playoffs: Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan (23) victorious, holding National Basketball Association's Defensive Player of the Year Award trophy before Game 4 vs Detroit Pistons at Chicago Stadium. 
Chicago, IL 5/15/1988
CREDIT: Bill Smith (Photo by Bill Smith /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
(Set Number: X36562 TK3 R3 F14 )
Jordan received his Defensive Player of the Year award before Game 4 against the Pistons at Chicago Stadium. (Bill Smith via Getty Images)

As the headline suggested, Vincent also took issue with Jordan’s coronation as the Defensive Player of the Year, arguing that the Bulls’ defensive standing was all smoke and mirrors, and Jordan didn’t deserve the league’s top defensive award. The loudest crusader was none other than Laimbeer, the Pistons’ center, who was ahead of his time in his discerning analysis.

Laimbeer argued for a nuanced approach to the Bulls’ stats, pointing out that the Bulls’ slow offensive pace artificially depressed the Bulls’ opponent scoring averages. Propping up Jordan’s candidacy, in Laimbeer’s view, was the fact that the Bulls allowed an NBA-low 101.6 points per game.

“Being the best defensive team,” Laimbeer said, “doesn’t mean they have the best defensive team.”

Laimbeer wasn’t moved by the Bulls’ first-ranked defense because he found the per-game numbers to be misleading. In a way, Laimbeer had unknowingly foretold the impending stats revolution that would take place across the sport, arguing for per-possession stats rather than ones that were influenced by slow offenses. (Indeed, the Bulls’ top ranking in traditional points per game would slide to third in possession-based Defensive Rating, slotting behind the Utah Jazz and Laimbeer’s Pistons, according to Basketball Reference.)

Laimbeer simply wasn’t buying the Bulls’ lowest opponent scoring average as a proxy for defense.

“It just means the other team scored less points,” Laimbeer told the Free Press. “The Bulls run plays for Jordan and they take time to set them up, so that lowers the number of points scored. The best defensive teams are, oh, Boston is pretty good and Los Angeles and us when we play like we have the past two days.”

Three days later, Jordan and the Bulls were eliminated from the playoffs in Detroit, losing the series 4-1.

Jordan’s marks in the 1987-88 postseason: 3.8 steals and 1.5 blocks at home; 1.8 steals and 0.8 on the road.

CLEVELAND, OHIO - FEBRUARY 20: (L-R) LeBron James and Michael Jordan attend the 2022 NBA All-Star Game at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on February 20, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)
LeBron James once said he was chasing a ghost who played in Chicago. (Kevin Mazur via Getty Images)

Despite the early exit in the playoffs, Jordan took home the defensive hardware he craved, bolstered by the eye-popping stats and the attention they stoked. All told, Jordan ranked first in steals and eighth in blocks at home in 1987-88, but his standing in the league plummeted on the road, falling to fourth in steals and tied for 21st in blocks in front of non-Chicago statisticians. Whether an adjustment to his totals would have changed the results of the ballot, we may never know.

With top ranks overall, Jordan cruised to his first defensive accolades of his NBA career. His reputation as a top defensive player was sealed. Plaques hang forever, the mystique endures. As LeBron once told Sports Illustrated, “My motivation is this ghost I'm chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.”

For years, Jordan’s Defensive Player of the Year award has stood as an unassailable pillar in the GOAT argument. In May 2023, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith published a video on the MJ vs. LeBron debate from his YouTube show arguing Jordan’s case, concluding:

“Did you know that Michael Jordan is the former Defensive Player of the Year in 1988? LeBron James has never won a Defensive Player of the Year. We’re talking about what you do on both ends of the court. And we’re talking about Michael Jordan as the greatest.”

Smith isn’t alone. Last year on ESPN, Jalen Rose held up Jordan’s DPOY as a primary reason he sides with the Chicago Bull over LeBron as well.

“When you talk about GOAT, the first word is greatest — and that means achieved more than somebody else,” Rose said. “And if we’re comparing Michael Jordan and LeBron — for example — Michael Jordan got 10 scoring titles; LeBron has one. Michael Jordan has been Defensive Player of the Year in the NBA; LeBron hasn’t.”

James is still chasing that ghost, and all the underlying statistics that were registered without modern-day safeguards. The closest James came to winning the Defensive Player of the Year award was placing second in 2008-09 and 2012-13. James finished in the top-five four different times, but never won Defensive Player of the Year outright. He has been voted onto six All-Defensive teams to Jordan’s nine.

On a recent episode of “The Shop,” James was asked if there was an award he wished he had won. “Yeah,” James said. “Defensive Player of the Year. That’s the only award that I don’t have in my house. It kinda stings.”

Once Jordan led the league in steals in 1987-88, he added the defensive hardware — Defensive Player of the Year and All-Defense — to his collection.

“I’m very happy,” Jordan told the Chicago Tribune in 1987-88 after being named to his first All-Defensive team. “All season, I’ve been bringing it to people’s attention that I wanted to be recognized for my defense, too.”

Jordan, ever the closer, finished his quote with a dagger.

“Leading the league in steals certainly helped.”