On June 11, 1997, Michael Jordan came to Salt Lake City to play the Utah Jazz in game 5 of the NBA Finals. Despite being under the weather, Jordan scored 38 points and had seven rebounds in what has been known in the 25 years since as the “Flu Game.” But there was a different story playing out that night in the upper bowl of the Delta Center—a story that only a handful of people were aware of at the time but that was a lot bigger than basketball.
The Nike Guys
Ken Black remembers it like it was yesterday. He was in Dallas with two other Nike employees, Elliott Hill and Ray Butts, presenting a new identity and uniform design for the Dallas Mavericks. These were guys who were used to their ideas being well-received, but on this particular day their meeting did not go well. They waited for two hours in Ross Perot Jr.’s kitchen only for the then-owner of the Mavericks to arrive in a helicopter in the backyard and reject their proposal. The trip was a bust.
The next morning, the Nike trio was prepared to return home to Portland, but as they ate breakfast in the hotel, Elliott opened USA Today. “The game is in Salt Lake tonight—game 5 of the finals—and it starts about two or three hours after we land in Salt Lake for a layover,” Ken remembers Elliott saying as he looked up from his newspaper.
Elliott and Ken had traveled a lot together for work, and Elliott always encouraged Ken to be opportunistic: “We’re a sports company, and when things are going on in the world and you have access to them, take it in.”
Could they get tickets to game 5? They decided to give it a shot. They called the NBA contacts they’d worked with the day before, and when they landed in Salt Lake City, they received a voicemail confirming that they’d have four tickets waiting for them at the arena. There was only one big catch: their connecting flight to Portland was leaving an hour after they landed, and while they were doing well in their careers at Nike, they didn’t feel they could just throw away three plane tickets their employer had paid for. So they would need to convince someone at the Delta counter to switch their flight home for the following day instead. And they had one thing to sweeten the deal for whoever was willing to help them: an extra ticket to the big game.
“You know it’s a big game because it’s your town and we have an extra ticket, so if you can do this for us, the extra ticket is yours,” Ken remembers Elliott saying to a middle-aged woman with short dark hair behind the counter of the Delta Crown Room (now the Delta Sky Club). He spoke in his native Texas twang that only came out when he was trying to sell something.
The mention of an extra ticket seemed to spark something in the woman, who immediately asked if it would be possible to give the ticket to someone else. “If you get us to stay, whoever on this planet you want to have this ticket, it’s theirs,” they assured her.
The ticket agent was Mary Rogers, a Latter-day Saint who had been working at the Delta counter for years and who even met her husband, also an airline employee, at the airport. A few minutes later, Mary was finalizing arrangements for the men to take a flight out the following day, but her finger hovered over the keyboard. She looked up at the men.
“If I put this through, I want my son to go. I don’t want it to be me,” she said. She then proceeded to outline very specific stipulations of the deal: They would meet her outside the arena, where she would drop off her son to watch the game. Ten minutes after the buzzer sounded, they would have her son back at the same spot so she could pick him up.
The three men happily agreed, so she handed them their boarding passes and then set out to track down her son. She couldn’t reach him over the phone, and when she finally found him at a friend’s house, the T-shirt he was wearing was filthy from skateboarding earlier in the day.
“I remember thinking, ‘I can’t send him like this!’ But there was no time,” she says. Her 13-year-old son, Chase, turned the shirt inside out, and with that, she dropped him off with three complete strangers at the Delta Center.
“What did I just do? I don’t even know these guys,” Mary recalls thinking. But she knew they were employees for a reputable company, and they seemed like kind men.
But there was a bigger reason Mary sent her son to the game that night.
When the Game Changed
Chase Rogers, the kid they took to the game that night, describes himself as being a normal 7th grader and a deacon in the Aaronic Priesthood back in 1997. He was busy with school as well as soccer, basketball, and a newfound passion for skateboarding. He was also a big Utah Jazz fan, so he was thrilled when his mom said she’d found a way for him to go to game 5; it didn’t matter who he was going with. He did hope that, because they were Nike employees, he might get to sit in the lower bowl. Turns out, the seats weren’t that great, but he was in the building, and that was all that mattered.
The Nike guys made young Chase feel like “one of the guys.” Chase recalls that he was a pretty shy kid, but they helped him feel comfortable from the very beginning of the game. But the whole night changed when Elliott leaned over and asked Chase, “So, does your dad take you to a lot of Jazz games?”
“My dad just died,” Chase replied.
At that point, in row 9 of section 105, the game stopped being about Karl Malone, John Stockton, and Michael Jordan and started to be about making sure a 13-year-old boy had the time of his life.
“Popcorn, drinks, cotton candy? What can we give this kid? How can we make sure this is a night he won’t forget?” Ken remembers thinking.
Elliott, who had been raised by a single mother, suddenly realized why Mary’s actions that day in the Delta Crown Room felt familiar.
“When I said, ‘Mary, we have a ticket for you,’ she said, ‘I don’t want the ticket. I want it for my son.’ And I could see my mom in her, being selfless, because my mom did a lot of that—trying to make my life feel normal,” Elliott says. He adds, “There are moments in everybody’s life when you have to trust and have faith in humankind, and Mary clearly had trust and faith, and she took a chance.”
After the game, Elliott spoke with Mary briefly as the other guys entertained Chase. She explained that Chase and his dad, Tom, had been best friends. Three months earlier, Tom had taken his own life six days before Chase’s 13th birthday. Knowing this put the whole night in perspective.
“We think we got lucky and got tickets to an NBA Finals game, which are hard to come by, and in later years it proves to be one of the most famous basketball games of all time. And yet we’re going, ‘You know what? For the rest of the world, they think it’s about Michael Jordan having the flu, but for us, it’s Chase’s game,’” Ken says. He adds that while Chase was 13 and couldn’t fully appreciate all the pieces that had fallen into place for them to share this moment, he, Elliott, and Ray were “just old enough” to recognize the significance of what they shared.
In the years since that lucky night, Ken and Elliott went on to have storied careers at Nike—Elliott as president of the company’s consumer and marketplace division and Ken as vice president of digital design future—but nothing topped their experience that night with Chase. They’ve told and retold the story to friends and family for years. In fact, Michael Jordan himself even heard the story when Elliott worked with him on a project for Nike.
“The tickets working out was not for us to see this game,” Ken says. “The power of sport is more about what it reflects with us as humans coming together and doing things we never thought possible or being connected to moments you wouldn’t imagine. And this, for each of us who were fortunate to have a lot of amazing sports moments over the years, this is top of the list for both of us.”
It is this connection that caused Elliott and Ken to talk frequently about Chase and Mary over the years and wonder how they were doing. So, last summer while flying through Salt Lake, Elliott, unable to recall Mary’s name, asked the person driving him to his gate if they knew a woman who used to work for Delta whose husband passed away. Amazingly, the driver knew Mary and was willing to pass along Elliott’s phone number. A couple of hours later, as his flight landed at his destination, a Salt Lake City number called his phone, and he knew it was her.
It was as if 25 years hadn’t passed. He asked about her life and if she’d remarried (she hadn’t), and he asked about Chase. He was told that Chase was now a husband and a father with a successful career at a medical tech company and still a die-hard Jazz fan. Shortly thereafter, Mary and Chase joined Ken and Elliott on a Zoom call, where they all caught up on one another’s lives. Chase, Elliott, and Ken have remained in contact since.
“You don’t know where the kid is going to end up,” Elliott said describing his feelings 25 years before. “You walk away, you know the tragic story, you lose touch with them. You think about them all the time, and then 25 years later, just by chance, you get to reconnect, and they’ve clearly had this beautiful life.”
The Gift That Keeps On Giving
Chase didn’t know it when his dad took his own life 25 years ago, but Tom Rogers was plagued by mental health struggles, specifically depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. In the years since, Chase has struggled with many of the same issues his father faced, and just in the last six months, his own challenges began to feel overwhelming. He and his family have been blessed; they live in a nice home, and he and his wife both have successful careers, but the economic downturn combined with several unexpected expenses made it feel like everything was piling up.
“Maybe it wouldn’t be stressful to others because they don’t deal with the same mental things I deal with, but it’s been weighing on me a lot,” Chase explains.
In his stress, he found himself almost praying to just be able to talk with his father. The answers to that prayer came in unexpected ways.
He remembered that his mother had given him his dad’s old journals, and somehow the words his dad had written decades earlier seemed to say everything he needed to hear. But that wasn’t the only source of relief headed Chase’s way.
One day, almost in passing, Ken asked Chase if he still had his ticket stub from the 1997 Jazz game they’d attended together. Chase wasn’t sure if he did, but Ken explained that he recently had a buyer interested in his ticket. Ken wasn’t interested in selling his own ticket because it meant so much to him, but if Chase was interested, Ken was willing to connect Chase with the buyer.
Just out of curiosity, Chase began a search for his ticket. Perhaps because of the OCD tendencies that negatively affected other aspects of his life, Chase’s father had saved tickets and boarding passes with autographs of famous people that he ran into while working at the airport. He had taught his son to do the same, and so 25 years later, Chase found his ticket to “the flu game” in near-perfect condition, carefully preserved in an autograph folder.
Chase told Ken he’d be interested in knowing what someone was willing to pay for the ticket. Ken got back to him shortly thereafter: “You have an offer for $7,500—and by the way, the buyer is Darren Rovell.”
Darren Rovell is a sports writer and analyst and one of the biggest names in the sports business. He began his career working for ESPN and today has 2 million Twitter followers. When he began his ticket collection of NBA games three and a half years ago, he made a list of about 100 games that he wanted to have a ticket to. Michael Jordan’s flu game made the list without question.
Rovell explains that one would think a ticket to a game from 1997 would be easier to come by, but tickets to a game in which the home team loses are always harder to find, as spectators usually discard them in disappointment. To date, just six tickets from the “flu game” have been verified.
“Frankly, I would’ve taken any one that would’ve hit the market,” he says, but then he adds that the story undoubtedly makes the ticket mean more to him as a collector.
“It’s arguably the best story of anyone who was there: a kid who lost his dad who was in the arena because of a chance circumstance with Nike executives who happened to have an extra ticket?” Rovell says, before adding, “And I think the fact that … he probably wouldn’t have kept his ticket if his dad didn’t collect the way he did and put things away the way he did. So it was almost like a gift from his father in a way. … It made it special.”
A gift from his father. That is exactly how all involved feel about the ticket, including Elliott and Ken, who fully support Chase’s decision to sell his ticket.
Mary felt it was her husband’s way of saying, “I’m here. … I’m still in your life.” She recalls many times as she raised their children on her own that she would in frustration say, “Tom, where are you? I need your help here.” But as time has gone on, she has become more and more confident of one thing.
“We know where he is. We know that he is doing his part up in heaven and we know we will see him again. No doubt about that. … I’ve just had faith that Tom was still with us in ways, and this was evidence of that to me,” she says.
For Chase, it was a lesson in the way God works. In his moment of distress, he’d wanted to talk to his dad. And while that wish didn’t come true, journals allowed him to know his dad’s voice and a ticket reminded him of both an earthly father and a Heavenly Father who are very aware of him.
“I was pushing [God], like, ‘Just let me talk to my dad.’ … I want [my dad] to come up these stairs and for us to have a little chitchat, but He doesn’t always give us [what we want]. I’m not saying He can’t, but I’m just saying that it’s normally just enough to make you feel like He knows you and is aware of you—enough to keep you going and looking for that next little spiritual experience.”