Michael Jordan transcends hoops
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
Was it really less than a decade ago that some doubted Michael Jordan? That he was considered all style and no substance? That he would continue to win scoring championships but that he would never elevate his team to a championship?
Now, as the century draws to a close, Jordan is recognized as an icon. Tall, dark and bald, he is the first man of the planet. The former Chicago Bulls guard had the rarest of gifts, the ability to transcend his sport. His fame and skill were intertwined, much as they were in earlier generations for a select few, such as the Babe and Ali.
"What has made Michael Jordan the First Celebrity of the World is not merely his athletic talent," Sports Illustrated wrote, "but also a unique confluence of artistry, dignity and history."
His array of incredible moves and scintillating dunks delighted fans. There is an aura of class surrounding him that is lacking in many of today's athletes, even down to his dress, which is normally a thousand-dollar suit, tie knotted perfectly and a diamond-studded hoop in his left ear. But more than the clothes making the man, this man has made himself.
"In a world where celebrity wannabes feel they have a right to be whiny and boorish," Frank Deford wrote in SI, "Jordan has been remarkably dignified."
Unassuming as he appears, Jordan became a star of stars, chauffeured in limos, escorted by bodyguards, pursued by fans, media and sponsors. He made millions from the Bulls and millions more from his role as pitchman for everything from Wheaties to Gatorade, from McDonald's to Nike, with his Air Jordan sneakers spurring Nike's growth.
Jordan wasn't born a star, the player of whom Larry Bird said, "It's just God disguised as Michael Jordan." Jordan couldn't even make the varsity as a sophomore at Laney High School in Wilmington, N.C.
"It was embarrassing not making that team," said the owner of two Olympic gold medals. "They posted the roster and it was there for a long, long time without my name on it. I remember being really mad, too, because there was a guy who made it that really wasn't as good as me."
Instead of pouting or making excuses over failure, Jordan uses it to spur him to greater achievement. For that alone youngsters should want to "Be Like Mike."
Jordan made himself into a megastar. His burning desire to win, his utter refusal to quit, his desire to carry his team to the mountaintop made him a legend in his time.
"Whenever I was working out and got tired and figured I ought to stop, I'd close my eyes and see that list in the locker room without my name on it," Jordan said, "and that usually got me going again."
Lead the Bulls to one NBA championship and he wanted a second. Win five rings and he wanted a sixth. He didn't know when to stop. In a world where so many people are satisfied with themselves, the 6-foot-6 Jordan was always pushing, pushing, pushing, both himself and his teammates.
Listen to two people who knew him before he was famous. There's Ruby Sutton, phys ed teacher at Laney: "He never wanted to lose in anything. That was in-born into him. I normally get to school between 7 and 7:30. Michael would be at school before I would. Every time I'd come in and open these doors, I'd hear the basketball. Fall, wintertime, summertime. Most mornings I had to run Michael out of the gym."
Said Fred Lynch, then assistant coach, now head coach at Laney: "More than anything, he was a sore loser. Just playing pickup games. He'd get on his teammates all the time. He hasn't changed that. What he always expected was everybody play the game as hard as he played it."
While many have played sports hard, few have ever combined such desire with skill and grace under pressure. Probably no player in the history of basketball has ever stuck so many significant shots as Jordan. Think of how many times that Jordan - literally and figuratively - has risen to the occasion.
The first time was as a North Carolina freshman against Georgetown. Legs up, wrist back, tongue out, his 17-foot jumper with 15 seconds left gave the Tar Heels the 1982 NCAA championship. "The kid doesn't even realize it yet, but he's part of history now," said Eddie Fogler, then a North Carolina assistant coach. "People will remember that shot 25 years from now."
There was his hanging, double-clutch jumper for the Bulls over the Cleveland Cavaliers' Craig Ehlo at the buzzer in a deciding 1989 playoff game. And how many times did he make the Jazz sing "Uncle?" There was Game 5 of the 1997 Finals when, ravaged by a stomach virus, Jordan crawled out of his sick bed to score 38 points, including the decisive three-pointer with 25 seconds left. And in his final contest, Game 6 of the 1998 Finals, with the Bulls down by three with 40 seconds left, he scored on a layup, stole the ball, and hit the winning jumper. How many superstars have exited on such a high?
(Of course, this is only a partial list of Jordan's clutch performances. Because the computer only has several billion bytes, we'll stop now before we fill it up.)
That final jump shot gave the Bulls their second three-peat of the nineties. If not for Jordan's decision to take more than a year and a half off beginning in 1993 and play minor league baseball for a season, it's possible the Bulls could have won eight consecutive championships.
And through all his brilliant successes, Jordan showed his human side. Even his gambling excesses on golf courses and at casinos make him appear more human. With his father James at his side in 1991, he openly cried while cradling the Larry O'Brien Trophy after the Bulls won their first championship.
Five years later, after beating the Sonics on Father's Day for the title, he again sobbed openly while laying face down on the locker room carpet. The previous time the Bulls had a won a title, in 1993, it also was on Father's Day, which was the last for James Jordan. The son had shown the country his pain when his father was murdered that summer.
Jordan was born on Feb. 17, 1963 in Brooklyn, N.Y., the fourth of five children. That spring, the family moved to Wilmington. After playing junior varsity basketball as a high school sophomore, Jordan made the varsity his final two years, starring as a senior and earning a scholarship to North Carolina.
He started as a freshman, a rarity for a Dean Smith team. His shot against Georgetown boosted his confidence, and the next two seasons he was a first-team All-American. Turning pro in 1984 after his junior season when he was College Player of the Year, he was the third pick in the draft, after Akeem Olajuwon by Houston and Sam Bowie by Portland.
While the Bulls knew they were getting an outstanding player, they didn't realize how great he would become. Playing 11 full seasons, he led the league in scoring a record 10 times, and in 1986-87 became the only player besides Wilt Chamberlain to score more than 3,000 points in a season, getting 3,041. His 31.5 scoring average is the highest in NBA history and with 29,277 points he's fourth all-time behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain and Karl Malone.
He won the regular-season MVP five times and the Finals MVP six times. In 1991 and 1992, he became the only player to win back-to-back regular season and Finals MVP awards, and in 1993 he became the first to win the Finals MVP three consecutive years, a feat he repeated from 1996-98.
On Jan. 13, 1999, Jordan, at 35, retired - again. This time, his Airness said he was at peace with his decision and that it appeared to be for good. "I know from a career standpoint I have accomplished everything that I could as an individual," he said.