CHICAGO -- Michael had a cigar in his mouth. Perfect. He was blowing cigar smoke in this face and that action-cam, as happy as any youngster, his head spinning like a top, trying to blow smoke on everybody, just riding the wave of joy. Remember Larry and Kevin a decade ago in Houston? Different cigar, but same look. Perfect.
"MICHAEL!" a chubby man shouted. "Mexico wants you. Mexican TV wants to hear what you say. Mexico, Michael. MEXICO!"
It was a mob in Chicago Stadium. Every video-cam of every Chicago station already had had him, networks, too, and now Michael was trying to get back to his dressing room. Impossible. The whole concession staff of Chicago Stadium seemed to have Bulls hats outstretched, pens in hand, all of them saying, "Michael, you promised."
Girls and women were squealing at America's latest icon, Mexico was screaming for him, and Michael Jordan was headed to the wrong locker room.
It had been 1938 since a league title had been clinched in Chicago Stadium, the Blackhawks doing it way back then, and this night the Bulls had been moved out of their scrimpy locker room down the hall to the more spacious Blackhawks locker room. TV, you know, champagne, crowds, all of it.Room was needed, more room.
I had only two questions I wanted to ask Michael Jordan. Would he be a Sitting Bull again, and refuse to go to the White House? And the Olympics, didn't he think he already had enough basketball for the year? But Mexico, the girls, the Dove Bar kids with their pens, all the action-cams were in the way, the tiny hallway much too narrow, and cigar smoke was blowing in all our eyes.
His own team doctor had sat down only a few hours earlier and told me, "Every part of him is aching. The charley horse in his thigh, his ankle -- Michael doesn't mind sprained ankles, he's had so many of them, but he says, 'I just hate to soak my ankle in ice afterward' -- and his feet. As a fan of the Bulls, I think he should stay home."
Michael's own father was saying the same thing; Michael Jordan was not needed in Barcelona. I agree. Pick any 12 NBA names out of a hat and it'd still be USA 102 and Lithuania 63. Silly.
But he is an icon now, Michael Jordan. Jordan had said earlier in the day, "If we can't beat China with me playing seven minutes, then we're in trouble," and he's right. Of course. Michael's Porsche and all his BMWs all have big "recycle" stickers in the bottom-left corner of their windshields and maybe Michael is too straight-and-narrow to offend the patriot-zealots once again. After all, Sitting Bull already had offended the Great White Chief in Washington last year. That was enough.
Or maybe it's because Chevrolet and Gatorade and Nike already have wrapped millions of dollars inside the flag with Michael Jordan -- Michael Jordan winning the gold for the USA! Drive, drink and soar with him! BUY OUR STUFF! Maybe that's why Michael Jordan will go, even though he has to be in San Diego next week for practice, then back to Portland the week after for practice games to make more money for everybody, then off to Monte Carlo next month and, finally, Spain. Every game is going to be 114-53. Weren't Grenada and Panama enough for America?
Still, though, it's impossible to get close to Jordan. Mexico had the pole position and Mexico couldn't get Michael to stop puffing that cigar and talk for a moment. He was just a young man enjoying himself.
Upstairs, Chicago Stadium was emptying out, finally, but Darryl Stingley still couldn't leave. He was taking in every last morsel of these wonderful moments for Chicago. "This is so great," said the former Patriot, his wheelchair off by the Bulls' bench, "this is so wonderful."
Surely, this ragged series didn't ignite America but it captivated Chicago totally. In one of the truly spontaneous scenes of American sports, the 20,000 fans at Chicago Stadium had refused to leave 90 minutes earlier when the game was over. And the word filtered to the Bulls down there in the Blackhawks' locker room, and up the 22 steps to court level the Bulls returned, the crowd making even more noise than in the fourth quarter, which, said the Blazers' Danny Ainge, "was the loudest crowd I've ever heard."
And Michael jumped on the scorer's table and danced, and soon all the other Bulls and friends of Bulls and acquaintances of Bulls were up there with him, dancing. "I'll tell you," said Brian McIntire, the NBA's PR honcho, "the tape of those guys up on the scorer's table should be the opening scene of all our highlight films for the next year." For the next five years, I said; it was something.