Jordan's challenge: What does he do next? Unanswered questions drive Bulls guard

June 16, 1998|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY -- This would have been the perfect ending to Michael Jordan's spectacular career: grabbing the microphone at the Delta Center moments after his championship-winning shot, and announcing to the world he was leaving the game.

Forever etched in everyone's mind was the ankle-breaking move that threw Bryon Russell off-balance, and the subtle push-off with the left hand that knocked the Utah guard completely out of the play. The picture-perfect 17-foot jumper, complete with the left-foot landing and hop that playground Michael wannabes have been attempting to perfect for years.

And the pose. Jordan standing at the foul line, right wrist down in perfect follow-through. Just like an artist, admiring the completion of his 45-point masterpiece.

But Jordan's not only a dramatic showman, he's also a fierce competitor. And that competitive drive is why Jordan will wait until later in the summer to make his decision, wait to see if the Bulls can assemble enough components to make a serious push for their seventh NBA title in nine years.

"My answer is there's still a lot of unanswered questions," Jordan said, when asked whether it was annoying to talk about his team's future on a night when the Bulls won their sixth title in eight years. "It's a lot of sympathetic feelings about this team, and where we want it to go. But as time gets involved some of the feelings may change. You never know."

Despite his success this decade, despite his six Most Valuable Player awards during the NBA Finals, despite his two sweeps of all three MVP awards (regular season, All-Star, Finals) in the same season, the consensus appears to be for Jordan to play on.

If not for Jordan, Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan might be wearing two NBA championship rings today. And still, moments after Jordan's game-winning shot with 5.6 seconds left gave the Bulls the 87-86 win on Sunday, Sloan sought out Jordan at center court and whispered the two words that everyone wanted to tell Jordan after one of the greatest clutch performances: Don't quit.

"I told him that he played a great game and that I hope he plays again," said Sloan who, as a member of the Bulls, demonstrated the same intensity as Jordan. "I've always felt he's the greatest player that's ever played this game. The league needs players like that.

"We just have so many things that are sideshows to this game, and he hasn't allowed that to happen," Sloan added. "I think that's the most important thing, being as great as he is, that he has allowed the game to be the most important thing."

There's no question that Jordan, at the age of 35, is still a tremendous athlete.

"Michael probably has another five years left on his career, even before we can even see a decline in him," Scottie Pippen, perhaps the glue to keeping Jordan from retiring, said. "Right now, we're probably seeing him at the top of his game because he has so much knowledge, as well as physical skills."

That "knowledge" is what told Jordan to linger in the lane when John Stockton threw a pass to Karl Malone in the final minute, recording a key steal. And knowledge came into play when Jordan didn't call a timeout, preferring to not allow Utah a chance to set up its defense.

What's also special about Jordan is that while he is the best player, he's also the team leader. So while some of the league's so-called superstars sit out games with sore shoulders, or sprained ankles or headaches, Jordan competes. And when your best player hasn't missed a game since his return from baseball in 1995, and when your best player plays hard in practice every day, it's easy for the Jud Buechlers, the Bill Wenningtons and the Randy Browns to follow suit.

"I think it's made me a better player -- I learned from the best," said first-time champion Scott Burrell, a player whom Jordan called his pet project. "He gets on people and makes them work harder and he drives people to be the best player they can be."

And with no clear sign of slippage in terms of effectiveness, Jordan can have that effect for some time.

"As long as they have Michael, they're the best team in the league," said New Jersey Nets coach John Calipari, whose team lost to Chicago in the first round. "He never thinks about anything but winning. They have great talent, but they have the one guy who's outstanding."

Added Indiana Pacers coach Larry Bird, whose team lost to Chicago in the Eastern Conference finals. "I really don't see him slowing down at all. He is very capable of turning it on to another level, where other players can't really do that."

So will the man who on the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated, the man who is responsible for staggering television ratings, the man who is a corporation in himself and has a reported mind-boggling $10 billion impact on the world economy, walk away?

"Sure, the economy may take a different turn, but I would advise you to invest wisely," Jordan said, on the possibility he has played his final game. "My life has to continue. And I know I have to get to it in some point in life. And hopefully the fans and people understand that.

"If and when the time comes where I've got to walk away," he added. "I hope that because I walked away, no one will look at me less."

Don't worry. With all the memorable moments you've provided as one of the greatest athletes of our time, that will not happen.

Pub Date: 6/16/98

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