He is sitting. That's the strange part. In the image I'll keep of Michael Jordan -- His Highness, the prince of midair -- he is at rest, at peace with gravity and with himself.
Jordan is sitting next to his wife amid the madness that is the Chicago Bulls championship locker room. There is much screaming and yelling, fingers pointing to the sky, champagne mist hanging in the air.
And Jordan sits. Holding -- no, hugging -- a large, golden trophy. His eyes are wet; it's either the champagne or tears, or both.
The moment is so real. That's one of the wonders of sports, how real it can be, how spontaneous, how much from the gut. And the camera records it all, allowing us to share in the moment and understand it.
What this picture said about Jordan was clear. That although he's the most famous athlete on the planet, Jordan, in his mind and certainly in the minds of many others, had only now arrived. After seven years in the NBA, he had finally led the Bulls to an NBA championship, meaning he wasn't only a scoring champion but also a real champion. He wasn't a basketball freak; he was a winner. He was not Wilt Chamberlain to Magic Johnson's Bill Russell. He hugged the trophy that told him so.
It's so ridiculous, of course, this suggestion that Jordan was somehow not a winner. My God, he is the winner of winners, the Schwarzkopf of winners. And it's not the shoes, either.
He took what Julius Erving showed him and improved on it until you wonder how anyone could ever do it better. And America, with Nike pushing us along, fell in love with his clean-cut face and his dirty-dancing moves. How could we not? And yet, there were people who wanted to say that until Jordan won a championship, he hadn't proved a thing.
Did they say that about Jerry West, who took years to win one? Or Elgin Baylor? Or Julius Erving? Or Oscar Robertson?
I think the knock on Jordan evolved from the obvious point that he was so good, so unbelievably good, that the people around seemed not to matter. Even he got caught up in that. Jordan came to think of his teammates as his "supporting cast." I'm willing to believe that this concept was burned into his brain and that, somewhere inside, he knows better.
I know he said he wasn't telling anyone he was going to Disneyland -- for $100,000 from the folks at Disney -- unless the entire starting unit joined him. Maybe he's learning. Because it wasn't until the Bulls matured as a team, until Scottie Pippen emerged as a star and Horace Grant emerged as a solid player and John Paxson buried a thousand jumpers in a row, that Jordan got the ring.
"Nobody does it by themselves," Magic Johnson had said during the series. "It doesn't matter how great you are, how great Michael is, you gotta have the guys around you. Michael knows that."
Before there was a Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had won one NBA title. With Magic, he won five more. Without Kareem as a teammate, Magic has no rings. Does either of them have anything to prove? Is that a question anyone seriously needs to ask?
The record should have been clear on Jordan anyway. He played on a team that won an NCAA championship. He was the star of the gold-medal Olympic team in 1984. He has heart and soul and legs that lift him above the rest of us mortals.
The disappointment in this series was that although there was plenty of Michael, there wasn't enough Magic, who had to contend with a team that was too slow and too beaten up for him to perform any wonders. Magic did what he could. He played 48 minutes in the final game and turned in the usual triple-double, including 20 assists. How many does Elden Campbell score playing with anyone else but Magic? But although Johnson remains the first player I'd take to begin any basketball team, that takes nothing away from Jordan. It's like picking between Lennon and McCartney if you were starting a rock-and-roll band.
In Jordan, you have one of the great fourth-quarter players, in the mold of Jerry West, who kept losing to the Celtics anyway. He loves the last shot. He loves to make the big defensive play.
A winner? Sometimes we look at Jordan and are blinded by the beauty of his game, by the rush of excitement that comes behind each dunk. We don't see how good a player he is. We don't see a guy who is not a point guard and yet can average 10 assists in a playoff series. We don't factor in the pressure defense he plays against everyone's top guard, including Magic Johnson.
There is nothing Jordan can't do. It didn't take a ring to prove that. It didn't take an trophy either. But he hugged it to his chest anyway as if letting it go would mean that it had all been a dream. It was real, all right. We watched it. And anyone who loves basketball and also believes that genius should be rewarded couldn't help but enjoy seeing Jordan win it all.