Jordan towers over game on and off court

January 13, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

First time I ever saw him live, the Bulls were in Madison Square Garden. It must have been the late 1980s. I went as a fan, sat 10 rows behind the basket. And I can still hear the guy behind me, shrieking with delight the entire game, chanting in almost a singsong voice, "Jor-dan! Jor-dan!"

More or less, that's what we've all been doing from the moment Michael Jordan provided his first big thrill, hitting the shot to lift North Carolina over Georgetown in the 1982 NCAA final. The entire country -- no, the entire world -- has spent the past 17 years bouncing up and down, screaming, "Jor-dan! Jor-dan!"

He is retiring at the perfect time, with his final spectacular highlight -- the series-clinching shot in Utah, his right arm extending in majestic follow-through, the crowd at the Delta Center standing in shock -- still indelible in our minds.

Let the NBA quiver -- it deserves the uncertainty of life without Jordan after a six-month lockout that exposed the greed of both the players and owners. And let the Bulls rot -- the two Jerrys might have avoided losing their best player if they had committed to keeping their championship team intact, starting with coach Phil Jackson.

Jordan rose above all that, both literally and figuratively. He will be remembered for his breathtaking natural ability, but what set him apart was his fierce desire to win, his relentless work ethic, his obsessive-competitive personality. As ESPN's Dick Schaap so eloquently put it, Jordan displayed the skill of Chamberlain and the will of Russell. He wasn't born a star. He made himself one.

You know the legend. Cut as a freshman in high school. Selected third in the 1984 draft behind Akeem (now Hakeem) Olajuwon and Sam Bowie. Criticized as a player who might never win after the three straight playoff eliminations by Detroit. Such talk seems absurd in retrospect, but at one time it was quite real. Jordan put an end to it, transforming himself into the ultimate team player, refusing to lose.

We all have our memories, big and small. Game 6 of the '98 Finals, his last and greatest effort. Game 5 of the '97 Finals, when he scored 38 points with the flu. Game 1 of the '92 Finals, when he scored 35 points in the first half, including six threes. The 55-point effort in his fifth game back from retirement in '95. The electrifying dunks. The countless buzzer-beaters.

Former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell still talks about a 72-71 loss at Chapel Hill in 1983, when Jordan and Sam Perkins combined to block a shot by Driesell's son, Chuck, with two seconds left. "I still think Jordan went up through the net and knocked it out of there," Driesell will tell you, more than 15 years later.

I remember the first-round playoff series against the Washington Bullets in '97. Jordan went for 55 in a game that probably wouldn't rank among his top 20 playoff performances. He made one move -- splitting two defenders, floating toward the baseline, draining an impossible 10-footer -- that left even referee Hugh Evans shuddering.

The interview room was buzzing afterward, with reporters visibly excited. A friend of mine, a columnist who frequently writes on the NBA, pulled me aside, knowing I rarely covered Jordan. "It's amazing to see live, isn't it?" he said, his face filled with joy. Sportswriters almost never react that way -- but they often reacted that way to Jordan.

I remember '94 spring training, when Jordan was in his baseball phase, trying to make the Chicago White Sox. I arrived at the White Sox complex at 7 one morning, figuring I'd catch Jordan early. He was already in the batting cage with former White Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak. A half-hour later, he emerged, glistening with sweat. No other player was in uniform, much less working out.

It was obvious that Jordan was serious about baseball, and remarkable that he played as well as he did at Double-A (.202, 30 steals, 51 RBIs). He played in the Arizona Fall League after that season, and frequently organized pickup basketball games. Former Orioles catcher Gregg Zaun still recalls Jordan blocking his shot and snarling, "Tell it to your grandkids!"

He meant so much to many, young and old, rich and poor, black and white. He wasn't simply a great athlete. He was one of the greatest salesmen in history. One of his most famous commercials -- the "Be Like Mike" campaign for Gatorade -- became the rallying cry for a generation. And, of course, Jordan practically invented Nike.

His worldwide appeal was apparent at the '92 Olympics, when a huge Jordan mural hung from a building overlooking one of the main thoroughfares in Barcelona, Spain. He bridged the gender gap, too, and not just because of his good looks. Two women from The Sun's features department were glued to the television yesterday morning, watching Jordan highlights on ESPN.

For children, he was something else entirely, a dunking machine, the star of "Space Jam," an almost magical figure. Jordan might have retired from the NBA, but as far as my kids are concerned, you can still choose him for your team on the "Space Jam" Playstation game, along with Lola Bunny and Wile E. Coyote. The legend lives on.

Last June 14, we gathered around the TV to watch Jordan attempt to put away the Jazz for his sixth NBA championship. The game was impossibly close, and my 7-year-old son reacted as if he were watching a horror movie, jumping up and down, screaming, "I'm scared! I'm scared!"

There was no need to reassure him.

MJ always delivered happy endings.

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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