Sep 11, 2009


Tonight, the NBA will induct its latest class into the Basketball Hall of Fame. David Robinson (always one of my favorite players), John Stockton (always one of my least favorite players), Jerry Sloan (disliked also, but a great coach). All are worthy candidates. But this really is the Michael Jordan show.

It kind of is appropriate that it is this way. When Jordan was playing, he was such a force that the rest of the league actually paled by comparison. Robinson was tremendous, but didn't really come into his own until Jordan was retired and Duncan joined the squad. Stockton and Sloan both saw what could be a dynasty in Utah squelched by Jordan's Bulls - forcing them to be the NBA equivalent of the Buffalo Bills. Chris Robinson wrote a tremendous piece today for ESPN about Robinson - and the kind of person and player he was. It certainly was a compelling argument for why the big guy will have a bigger impact than Jordan. But it also kind of sounded like someone supporting the fourth place candidate in a Presidential primary.

Jordan, plain and simple, was the greatest player. He came along at the perfect time. The NBA was in need of a new icon, with Magic and Bird on the decline. The television and international exposure for the NBA was in its heights. And the new marketing element for players was hitting a new level. Jordan tapped into all of that. He had a winning smile, an attractive face, a highly rewatchable playing style, a great voice, and a willingness to capitalize on all of that. His deal with Nike was revolutionary. No one ever had been that tied to a company. But that was also the deal he had with Gatorade . . . and Hanes . . . and Ball Park franks. He transcended sports. Remember, he was in Space Jam. He captured the imagination.

His play was phenomenal. I remember watching him all the time on television. He hit the NBA about the same time I got interested. I watched his 69 point game against Cleveland in 1990. (The night made even more memorable by Stacey King's epic quote: "I like to think of it as the night that Michael Jordan and I scored 70 points together.") I remember the early years, when he was just a freak on a mediocre team. I remember when the Bulls butt up against the Pistons and their nauseating "beat the crap out of Jordan" approach. I remember when the Bulls finally broke through and won their first three championships.

To someone who has only heard of Jordan from history, or seen replays of him, you cannot possibly understand just how ridonkulous he was live. You were sitting there, watching the other team pull ahead near the end of the game. And you just KNEW. You knew he was going to go on a tear. When he pulls the heart out of the entire city of Cleveland, it was like you KNEW it was coming. He did things on the court that did not seem possible. He would jump and the defender would go up and come down before Jordan would drop. He would fade back until it looked like he would fall over - and the ball would go in. There were at least five "what the what!?!" moments each game.

The Slam Dunk Contests -- they were just crazy. The 1988 contest, where he went up against Dominique Wilkins was just sick. That was the legen - wait for it - dary free throw line dunk where he just kept going up and up and double pumped the ball. I remember just going crazy when I saw that. Then he quit doing the contests. He had nothing left to prove. He had won two titles in a row and should have won in 84 also. And I think that is what hurt the contest for so long - well that and Spud Webb winning.

What made Jordan even more successful than so many people was that he changed his game when necessary. You can shake rims like that and fly forever. As he began to get older, he perfected other areas of his game. One of the greatest pure scorers ever in the NBA became a perennial member of the All Defense Team - and Defensive Player of the Year. The person playing him didn't just get torched for 50 points, but he also got shut down all night. As he had to give up his perpetual lane invasions, he developed an absolutely deadly fade away jump shot - effectively nullifying blocked shots. Think about it - do you remember him getting his shot blocked? I remember a couple of them. You know what happened next? He would relentlessly attack the clown who dared to block him and score the next six baskets off of him until the opposing coach would call a timeout just to give the poor schlub a break.

The competitive nature was also what set him apart. He pushed his teammates. He pushed his coaches. He was the most talented, dedicated, competitive person on the court. He would not allow himself or his team to lose. But, the funny thing is that this is precisely what actually hurt his reputation. For most of his career, Jordan was seen as a clean-cut guy - immensely talented, funny. He was seen as a family man. Even his first retirement was seen as a guy who just didn't feel challenged any more.

But all of that changed as time wore on. His horrendous gambling problem came to light - making people wonder if that first retirement was actually an under-the-table deal with Commissioner Stern to avoid suspension. When his dad was killed, people wondered aloud if it was gambling related. He got divorced. Jordan un-retired twice - the second time was a pathetic effort by a player who should have left his magical ending in place. Instead he came back with the Wizards and just wasn't the same. His foray into team ownership and management has been equally disappointing. He is highly competitive. Which is exactly why so many former teammates hate him, why he is so lousy at being an executive. He has no patience. He wants to WIN. And that is an unquenchable drive. This is why he basically lives on a golf course or casino. Remember when he found out he was being inducted into the Hall, he almost seemed angry or resentful. It was because it meant he was done - and he can't stand losing -- even to the clock and calendar.

It is sad, actually. The perception of Jordan today is hardly what it was. People today can't help but mention all the stuff in the last paragraph when talking about him. Younger people have no idea what exactly he meant to the league, what a phenomenon he was. Everyone tries to christen the "next Jordan" - which actually tarnishes #23's legacy. By trying to push other inferior people into that role, it makes fans who don't know better think that Jordan may only be that good. Kobe, LeBron, Harold Miner. There are numerous pretenders to that title. In reality, I don't know if even Jordan could be the "next Jordan" if he came along today. He would be so over-exposed. It would all seem so planned and orchestrated. People would hate him like so many people hate Kobe or LeBron. They would have a Jordan puppet. He would demand a trade if the Bulls didn't put enough focus on winning. He would toy with the people of Chicago when it came time to re-sign, threatening to go to New Jersey.

Today, though, I was able to spend a few moments remembering what it was like to see someone so incredible. I watched his whole career - from UNC to DC. I could take time to think about all that "other stuff" that clouds the picture. But today, on the induction day, I wanted to remember what it was like to really think that a man could do the impossible. It was good to revisit what, as a kid, it was like to imagine a man could fly and never land. There's plenty of other days to remember that he actually did land.

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