His greatness on court product of desire, work

January 14, 1999|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- From a man who provided numerous memorable moments in his 13 years in the NBA, there isn't one that defines Michael Jordan's greatness as a player.

Not his last NBA shot in Game 6 of last years Finals, when he deftly used his left hand to shove Utah's Bryon Russell aside before hitting an 18-foot, game-winning jumper for Chicago's sixth title of the 1990s.

Not his Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, when Jordan -- obviously ill -- got out of his sick bed to score 38 in a pivotal game against the Jazz.

Or not in one of my personal favorites, Game 2 of the opening round of the 1997 playoffs, when Jordan -- despite Washington guard Calbert Cheaney playing the defensive game of his life -- still scored 55 in a victory at the United Center.

To me, what separates Jordan from any other player that I've seen in five years of covering the NBA was the amazing desire, intensity and work ethic he carried every time he stepped onto the court. Whether it was a significant playoff game against the hated New York Knicks, or a meaningless regular-season game against the Vancouver Grizzlies, Jordan came out to give the fans a show and to win.

Every night.

"Anytime you played the Bulls, you knew you would never get a break because he's a guy that looked to score on every single play," Wizards guard Tim Legler said. "Against any other player, you can pick your spots where you can relax. Against [Indiana Pacers guard] Reggie Miller, for instance, you knew there were times where he would dump the ball down to Rik Smits.

"But in Chicago, everything went through Jordan. And every night he had that fire, that intensity."

The results of that intensity are phenomenal. Six times an NBA champion, each time winning the MVP Award. Ten times the league's scoring champion. Nine times a member of the NBA all-defensive first team.

His 31.5-point scoring average is the best in league history, as well as his 33.4 playoff scoring average. He leaves Chicago as the team's all-time leader in every major category: scoring, rebounds, assists and steals.

Whether he was making $2 million a year or the $30 million he made in each of his last two seasons, Jordan never lost that desire.

The same can't be said for Derrick Coleman, whose career went south after he signed his first big-money deal. And the jury is out on Cleveland Cavaliers forward Shawn Kemp, who, a year after signing his $100 million deal, has gained more than 40 pounds.

As celebrated as Jordan is today, it's almost forgotten that early in his career he wasn't deemed as so likable. Remember, he was frozen out of his first All-Star Game by veterans jealous of his talents. On the court he was criticized as being a ball hog, a proficient scorer with a "me-first" attitude.

Jordan admitted yesterday that the early losing -- and the criticism that went along with it -- provided some of the most difficult moments of his career.

"I used that negative as a positive," Jordan said. "I think they helped me evolve to the person that I am."

And the person and player that Jordan became was the standard that many NBA players tried to reach. It was almost comical when word of this week's retirement began to leak, hearing New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing saying he was sorry because he wanted to beat Jordan on the way to his first title. Jordan's retirement simply enhances the chances of Ewing and others.

"I've talked to Patrick, I've talked to Charles [Barkley], I've talked to Karl [Malone], I've talked to all of them," Jordan said. "They all wanted me to come back just so that if they win a championship, they could say that they've gone through Chicago or Michael Jordan to win it to give the meaning of taking a title away from Chicago.

"Patrick, I don't know, he won't be able to live with himself if he can't beat Michael Jordan in a series, and Charles Barkley, I told him, would never win because he doesn't dedicate himself to winning," Jordan said, laughing. "That is a cute thing about retiring and I will always hold that in high respect when I see these guys socially."

And Jordan gets to hold that little ace card because he realizes that, on the verge of turning 36 next month, he can't guarantee the personal dedication to the game night in and night out.

In the end, Jordan did not want to cheat the fans. He did not want to become another Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali or Willie Mays, athletes who tried to hold onto their greatness too long.

"I have to make a judgment in terms of the desire all the times that I step onto the basketball court -- not one-fourth of the time -- but every time I step on the court," Jordan said. "I can't honestly say that's going to be there every time I step into this building for 82 games or 100-and-something games that we play in the course of a year."

He leaves us with a final image of greatness, last year's Game 6 against Utah when Jordan stripped the ball from Malone to set up the storybook ending. After shoving Russell away, Jordan launched his jump shot and, upon release, held his right wrist down in a picture-perfect pose.

Swish. Game. Championship. Goodbye.

In a league that has produced many greats -- from George Mikan to Bill Russell to Wilt Chamberlain to Julius Erving to Larry Bird to Magic Johnson -- Michael Jordan has raised the bar to an extremely lofty level.

We may never see another Michael Jordan. But we can only hope that the new breed of young, budding stars at least attempts to reach the high level of excellence that he has set.

Pub Date: 1/14/99

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