INGLEWOOD, CALIF — INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- One of the more profound differences between Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson is each one's vision of a basketball afterlife.
For Johnson, there is no such thing. He has no plans to leave the National Basketball Association. When he retires, he will purchase a team. It's a sure thing.
Jordan, however, wants to get as far away from basketball as quickly as he can. And it's a good thing. Because as a potential owner-executive, Jordan makes a great player.
It was only about five months ago that Jordan was sniping at general manager Jerry Krause for Krause's inability to improve the Bulls. The insinuation was the Bulls were not good enough to win a championship.
He was wrong. The Bulls have a 3-1 lead over the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Game 5 will be played tomorrow night. The Lakers are not sure if James Worthy (sprained ankle) or Byron Scott (hyperextended shoulder) will play. The Bulls are playing great basketball. It's difficult to imagine them not winning the game and the title.
Jordan, to his credit, now admits he underestimated his teammates. "I've eaten my words," he said yesterday. "My teammates have surprised me. But I don't mind sitting back and saying I was wrong -- just as long as everyone else that wrote articles and everything says the same thing."
It's one thing writing articles criticizing Jordan's supporting cast, but it's quite another for Jordan to do it publicly. One of Jordan's few weaknesses as a professional has been his lack of trust in his teammates. Even Bulls coach Phil Jackson said Jordan did not become a fan of his fellow Bulls until February, which coincided with the beginning of an 11-game winning streak. Since Feb. 3, the Bulls are a staggering 45-9, and that includes a 14-2 record in the playoffs.
Their sterling play in the Finals has created an ironic situation. Jordan is living his most successful team moment as a professional, but in winning a championship, Jordan will validate some of the past criticisms of his inability to recognize the talent on his team. "For the first time in his life," said a smiling Horace Grant, "he was wrong."
Those who defend Jordan's previous criticisms of his teammates cite truth as the best defense. They say his teammates were not a good supporting cast. But the point is if Jordan did not have confidence in them, how would he know if they were or were not a good supporting cast? Jordan was not very tolerant of failure, and understandably so. He knew if a teammate did not score, he could. And so it became habit to dominate the ball.
But for players to grow, they must be able to learn from their mistakes. Except for Jordan, the Bulls are mortal. Once Jordan could understand that, the other Bulls became better and more confident because they knew he had confidence in them.
"When we first got here, he didn't have the confidence in us for us to make the big shots," Grant said. "But since we've grown over the years together, he knows that in order for us to become champions, he's got to get everybody involved. He has confidence in us, so that's enabled us to go to the basket a lot stronger and not worry about missing shots and things."
Compared to last season, Jordan's dominance of the team hasn't changed that much. This season, he took 26 percent of the Bulls' field-goal attempts and scored 29 percent of the points. Last season he took 28 percent of the shots and scored 31 percent of the points. But now, he is patient. In the pivotal Game 2, Jordan scored only two points in the first quarter, but the Bulls still led by five at the end of the period. They won by 21. Grant was asked if he could have imagined Jordan being content to score only two points in a similar situation last year.
"No," Grant said, smiling again. "To be honest. No. No. Not last year. But I think Michael has humbled himself in such a way that if it takes us to score like that and him scoring two points, he will accept it."
Players and coaches who have reached the NBA Finals will tell you that winning at this level is largely a state of mind. All physical things being equal, part of the mental approach -- believing in yourself and your team -- can be decisive.
Jordan is performing magnificently in the Finals. He owns the series. But his most impressive feat of the year was when he recognized that his teammates had become very good. At that point, Jordan poured the foundation for a championship.