There were 19,911 fans in attendance at the Delta Center on June 11, 1997 for Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz, AKA Michael Jordan’s legendary “Flu Game.”
This is the story of how four of those fans found themselves together in the building that fateful evening to witness one of the greatest singular performances in NBA history and how that experience has bonded them for the past 25 years.
We begin in Dallas, where a trio of Nike employees – Elliott Hill, Director of Pro Sports; Ray Butts, Team Sports Designer; and Ken Black, Team Sports Design Director – have made an unsuccessful pitch to then-Mavericks team owner Ross Perot Jr. for a new set of uniforms.
The morning after, the trio is having breakfast together at their hotel, flipping through the newspaper (as people did back then) before their flight back to Portland. They realize Game 5 of the Finals will be played that night in Salt Lake City – which just so happens to be where their connection flight is scheduled to land three hours before tip off.
“Ken and I look at each other and say, ‘Do you want to see if we can go to the game?’” said Hill. So they reach out to their league connections in the unlikely chance they can get tickets. With slim hopes that their last-minute request will be met, Elliott, Ken and Ray all head to Salt Lake City.
Step One: Secure the tickets
As soon as they got off the plane in Utah, they ran straight for the closest payphone – remember, this is 1997, long before everyone had a cell phone in their pocket – to check Elliott’s voicemail. That’s when they got the message that four tickets would be waiting for them at will call.
While their unlikely ask had been met, it still wasn’t a done deal just yet. Now they had to convince a Delta clerk to extend their layover until the next day and put them on a different flight back to Portland. They headed to what was then called the Delta Crown Room – now known as the Delta Sky Club – and scanned the room for the friendliest face they could find. That’s when they met Mary Rogers.
Step Two: Change the flight
Elliott took the lead – putting on all the Texas charm he could muster – and explained the situation to Mary. At the time Elliott, Ken and Ray were not very high up on the Nike totem pole, so if they had to change their flight, they were going to have to pay for it out of pocket, and that was money they did not have. They needed to convince Mary to make the change free of charge. But they did have a major incentive to negotiate with: an extra ticket to the game.
“Hey, if you could change our flights for us for tomorrow morning, at no charge, we have an extra ticket for the game tonight, you go with us,” Elliott recalled of his pitch, praying it would go better than the one with the Mavericks.
“I just thought there’s so many times that you help a customer because it’s the right thing to do, and I kind of felt like that at the time,” Mary said. “And then they sweetened and said, ‘Oh, we have an extra ticket, so you could come with us.’ And right then I thought I’ve got to send Chase, I’ve got to make this work.”
Mary got on her computer to check the availability of flights from Salt Lake City to Portland the following day. After entering the necessary info to transfer their boarding passes, Mary looked up at the three men. Elliott vividly remembers that she was holding her finger up – as if to say, you’re just one tap of my keyboard away – before saying “I can make this happen, but I don’t want to go to the game with you. I want you to take my son.”
Elliott, Ken and Ray couldn’t say yes fast enough. They set a time and place to meet in front of the Delta Center for the drop off before going their separate ways.
Step Three: Find the kid
While the Nike crew secured a hotel room for the night in Salt Lake, Mary started working the phones to try tracking down 13-year-old Chase, who was out skateboarding with friends while his mom was at work. Once again, there is no cell phone, text messaging, find my iPhone or family tracking app that Mary can use to locate him with.
“I couldn’t find him,” said Mary. “I thought this was an amazing opportunity and I can’t find this child of mine.”
“We showed up to my one of my friends’ houses from skateboarding somewhere around town and his mom was like, ‘You need to call your mom, she’s trying to hunt you down. She has tickets to the Jazz game,” said Chase, who is now 38 and still lives in the Salt Lake City metro area.
“I grew up a huge Jazz fan, so when my mom told me she got me a ticket to the game, I’m not one that wants to leave my friends on a fun summer day. But for a Finals Jazz game against Michael Jordan and the Bulls, it was like, ‘Yeah, I’m out of here guys.’”
Mary picked up Chase from the friend’s house and they headed straight for the Delta Center without a minute to spare.
Step Four: Hand off outside the Delta Center
Mary and Chase arrived at the Delta Center and the Nike guys were at the meet-up spot as planned.
“She gave us strict instructions on where to meet and when, and her expectations following the game to get him back to her happy and safe,” Ken recalled of Mary’s “Mama Bear” mode.
Now Mama Bear was getting ready to let her teenage son go to a game with three men she had met just a few hours earlier. “I remember handing them up to him, and then thinking, ‘What did I just do?’” Mary said with a laugh.
But there was a bigger reason that Mary had to get Chase to the game that night. The reason she didn’t go to the game herself, but rather insisted that the ticket go to her son. She wanted to do something that could bring joy to Chase after what had been a heart-wrenching time for her boy. The Flu Game took place three months to the day from when Chase lost his dad to suicide, leaving Mary as a single mom and Chase without a father.
“We were excited about the Jazz and I would have loved to have gone if circumstances were different, but I wasn’t about to take that opportunity away from Chase,” Mary recalls. “And just what a treat it was to send him off to the game in the middle of all that hurrah, after all these years that we’ve been waiting for the Jazz to get to where they were [in the Finals].”
Chase had attended Jazz games with his dad for years as the family shared season tickets for a while. Tom Rogers also worked at Delta Airlines and had a unique method to collect celebrity autographs for his son. When pro basketball or football players would check in for their flights, he would print an extra boarding pass and ask them to sign it to Chase. Below are a few that Chase keeps in an autograph book, including signatures from Julius Erving, Tony Dorsett, Karl Malone, Drew Pearson and Jim Plunkett.
Step Five: Watch history
As soon as Ken, Elliott and Ray knew about Chase’s backstory, the focus of the night completely shifted from watching a game with your buddies to making sure this kid had the night of his life.
“The game changed for us right there and it became all about Chase’s experience that night,” Ken said. “We ratcheted the experience up for him, flooding him with food and drinks and I am pretty sure a picture on a disposable camera of him with the court in the background.”
“They were super awesome,” Chase said. “Super nice, got me whatever I wanted, kept me fed, kept me happy. And they’re obviously rooting for Michael Jordan and the Bulls and let me know about that. But I stayed true and cheered on my team. And it was just a legendary game.”
The fairy-tale ending to the story would have been the Jazz winning the game on a buzzer-beating shot and Chase witnessing one of the great wins in Utah history.
But Jordan had other plans. We all know the legend of the Flu Game, with ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary providing additional details of the “flu-like symptoms” Jordan endured to deliver 38 points, including the go-ahead 3-pointer with 25 seconds to play.
“I just remember seeing Scottie Pippen kind of holding Jordan up in that legendary image,” Chase said. “I remember watching that from the stands just thinking what the heck just happened, like that was our chance.”
Step Six: Postgame reunion
After the final buzzer sounded, the crowd began to file out of the Delta Center – including Ken, Elliott, Ray and Chase – after sharing an incredible evening together. Following Mary’s instructions, they brought Chase back to the meet-up spot.
“When we returned to the front of the Delta Center after the game and brought Chase back to his mom, he hustled over to her to give her a tremendous hug,” Ken said. “As his back was to us, we could see her face and the tears that began to stream down her cheeks.”
What a whirlwind of a day. It started off as any other shift for Mary at the Salt Lake City International Airport and ended with her seeing her son happier than he had been since tragedy struck their family three months before. The only thing that could have made it better would’ve been a Jazz victory.
“Well, I had the disappointment that the Jazz didn’t win but what a game it was and Chase was there and got to see that great game, and now he’s back safe in my arms,” Mary recalled her feelings as she reunited with Chase and company. “What a moment!”
Mary and Chase headed home while Ken, Elliott and Ray retired to their hotel after a night none of them would ever forget. The following day it was back to the airport for another stop at the Delta Crown Room to see Mary one more time before heading back to Portland with one of the greatest stories to tell.
“I was just so excited to see those guys the next day,” Mary said. “It was like ‘We did it!’ The whole thing actually worked. It worked for them, it worked for us. Wow, that was something special.”
Step Seven: Reunite 25 years later
After sharing that incredible game together under such unlikely circumstances, the two parties went their separate ways. Ken, Elliott and Ray returned to Portland and continued their careers. Mary worked at Delta for 15 more years until she retired. And Chase grew up, went to college at the University of Utah, where he would earn a master’s degree, and began a career as a data engineer in health information technology in Salt Lake City. He remains an avid Jazz fan and regularly attends games with his wife Anna and their three children.
It wasn’t until a year ago that the idea of getting back in contact was first sparked by Ken finding his ticket stub while he was in the process of moving. He reached out to Elliott and they reminisced about the game, the fact that the 25th anniversary was coming up, and agreed that they had to try to track down Mary.
“We had no idea what happened; like, that night ended and that was it,” Ken said. “We gave him back to his mom, had that moment, tears were shed, and we all choked up as we realized this is what the night was for; it wasn’t for the game. But then we had no idea how life turned out after that.”
Elliott had a few trips that went through Salt Lake City last summer and both times his initial flights into Utah were delayed. So being a Diamond 360 member with Delta as a frequent flyer, they picked Elliott up in a Porsche Cayenne and escorted him to his connecting gate. Both times, he told his driver the story and that he was trying to track down Mary Rogers once again. On the second ride, the driver knew who Mary was and Elliott passed along a business card so she could give him a call.
As soon as Elliot landed, he jumped in his car and then received a phone call with a Salt Lake City area code.
“It’s Mary on the other end of the line,” he said. “We made the connection again. I thought there was no way in the world that Ken and I would ever get to connect with her … It was like we just carried on from a week prior, but it was 25 years. I asked her how she was doing personally, and she just had this great demeanor. Then I asked about her son, and it was great to hear that he’s done really well in life.”
Just over a week ahead of the 25th anniversary of the ‘Flu Game’, a reunion took place over Zoom to reminisce about that night and to catch up on how life has gone over the two-plus decades since their memorable night together.
Elliot mentioned to Mary how he once recapped that night to Michael Jordan. And Mary says she continues to tell that story to people “because it was just the coolest thing.”
“And then I got teary-eyed and he got teary-eyed,” she recalls. “I did think about Tom up in heaven. I thought maybe he had something to do with this, (giving) help from somewhere else from the other side.”
From Chase’s perspective: The word that comes to my mind is orchestrated. There are a few things in life where things don’t look like they’re meant to happen, but somehow come together in some chaotic way. And it ends up being something more. It wasn’t just that we made it to the game. Yeah, that was a miracle in itself, just how that all happened in such a short time with no cell phones and everything like that.
“And then it ends up being that game. There are not many games that have a nickname to it. Like that’s the ‘Flu Game’! There’s the ‘Tuck Rule Game’ and the ‘Immaculate Reception Game’. And to be able to attend one of those games was incredible, albeit on the losing end. But it was Michael Jordan, so that makes it a little less painful knowing that we lost to the king. I grew up watching Michael Jordan, he was the best before I could even remember he was the best.”
As the basketball world celebrates the anniversary of one of Jordan’s most famous moments, this group will remember the story of how they found themselves in the Delta Center that night. A memory they have all cherished for the past 25 years.
“I keep the ticket to that game not for the memory of Michael’s performance, but as a reminder of the real story of that night,” Ken said.