When Orlando Magic coach Brian Hill was asked in October who is the best player in the NBA, he could have walked the company line and mentioned either of his two stars -- Shaquille O'Neal or Anfernee Hardaway -- and gotten few arguments.
But he knew better.
"I think Hakeem Olajuwon has earned the respect of being the best player in the NBA," Hill said, referring to the Houston Rockets center's two straight NBA titles. "But you have to put an asterisk next to that because of a guy named Michael Jordan.
"I think he will come back on a mission," Hill said, "to prove he's the best player."
When the Chicago Bulls play host to the Seattle SuperSonics in Game 1 of the NBA Finals tomorrow night, it will mark the return to the spotlight of probably the best player in the history of the sport.
Jordan is the reason the Bulls finished the regular season with the best record in NBA history (72-10) -- and the reason Chicago has breezed through the playoffs, losing once in 12 games.
"Jordan is Jordan," O'Neal said matter-of-factly after Jordan's 45 points in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals ended the Magic's season. "That's why he's the best player in the world."
But the best ever? Although he's one of the cockiest players in the league, Jordan publicly leaves that debate to others.
"I don't view it as I'm better than Magic Johnson or Larry Bird," Jordan said, almost sheepishly, when asked about the "best ever" title. "We all were good in different eras."
A year ago, after he returned from nearly two years away from the game, there were signs that the Jordan era was over. Or at least going downhill. There were flashes of brilliance, most noticeably his 55-point effort against the New York Knicks, but there also were flaws that led to his embarrassing effort in the conference semifinal loss to the Magic.
"We all were disappointed last year," he said. "And we all came back to redeem ourselves as a unit."
As part of the redemption process, Jordan underwent a vigorous off-season training regimen. And, at the age of 33, he even began to change his game.
Rare now are the reckless flights in the air for creative dunks; the new Jordan is more grounded and more apt to break opponents' hearts with a fadeaway jumper.
Some might say that the new Jordan is a step slower, but few can say that he is any less effective after adding his fourth Most Valuable Player award, eighth NBA scoring title, second All-Star MVP award and seventh spot on the All-Defensive first team.
If the Bulls win the championship, it would be Jordan's fourth in his past four full seasons.
"For me, it's a great [pleasure] to get back to the Finals," Jordan said. "I'm very happy that I could come back and be a part of this team that I really haven't spent a lot of time with. Somewhere over the course, I was able to blend in."
Blend in? Before his return, the idea of Jordan's simply blending in was unthinkable. Teammates often suffered his wrath when they didn't perform up to his high standards. Maturity and the year and a half away in professional baseball have led to a mind-set that is slightly different.
"Being away taught me how to deal with people who may not have the level of talent that I have," Jordan said. "For a stretch of my career, I looked at other players and wondered why they didn't have the burning desire to achieve what I had achieved. But being in the minor leagues and seeing players who hadn't realized their dreams, that opened my eyes."
Jordan might be more understanding, but his desire to excel has not cooled. When the Eastern Conference finals against the Magic began, it was Jordan's intention to lay back and get his teammates involved. But when they performed lethargically in Game 4, it was Jordan who challenged them -- at times loudly -- to raise their game another level.
"He's the type of guy that's not afraid of getting in a guy's face and saying something," said Orlando forward Jon Koncak. "I think, as a competitor, he's the epitome of what a great player is. He's got tremendous heart, he plays both ends of the floor and he sticks the dagger in your heart at the right time."
Miami Heat coach Pat Riley offered similar thoughts as his team was being swept in the first round.
"This man is a great player," Riley said, "and he has a will to win that probably surpasses that of anybody in the NBA."
That will apparently had waned in 1993 when Jordan retired, explaining that there were fewer challenges facing him in the NBA.
But the humbling experience from last year's playoff failure seemingly presented the challenge that Jordan needed. In leading the Bulls to their record-setting 72-10 regular season, it was evident to all that his will to win is as intense as ever.
"It's a matter of being older and knowing you have very little time left playing at this level," he said. "I missed the game. I missed the camaraderie in the midst of winning.
"It's great to be back in the Finals. But we have one more tough fight."
Jordan might be stretching it when he describes the Finals as being tough. No one expects the Sonics to present much of a challenge, with the only doubt being whether the Bulls will sweep.
That they are such overwhelming favorites is because of the man who wears No. 23.
# Chicago vs. Seattle
(Line in parentheses)
Day .. .. .. Site .. .. .. .. .. Time
Tomorrow ... at Chicago .. (-9) 9 p.m.
Friday .. .. at Chicago .. .. . 9 p.m.
Sunday .. .. at Seattle ... 7: 30 p.m.
June 12 . .. at Seattle .. .. . 9 p.m.
June 14* ... at Seattle .. .. . 9 p.m.
June 16* ... at Chicago ... 7: 30 p.m.
June 19* ... at Chicago .. .. . 9 p.m.
TV: All games on chs. 11, 4
Pub Date: 6/04/96