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Jordan: The stuff of an NBA legend

“I think when all this is done, Michael’s place in the history of basketball will be clear,” said Dean Smith, the University of North Carolina coaching legend who took Jordan from Wilmington to the world. “Very, very, very clear.”

“Michael had that rare capacity to be a genius who constantly wanted to upgrade his genius,” said former Bulls assistant coach John Bach.
“Michael had that rare capacity to be a genius who constantly wanted to upgrade his genius,” said former Bulls assistant coach John Bach.
John Zich/AP

Originally published Jan. 13, 1999

He energized winters and immortalized springs.

And when Michael Jordan departs for good today at the United Center, he will fly away as the most successful aerial artist the show business of basketball ever has produced.

He will exit as one of the greatest American sports icons of the 20th century, a figure so transcendent in his athletic and pop-cultural majesty that only mythic names like Thorpe, Ruth and Ali can stake any sort of claim to the same enduring summit.

Financially, none in that holy trinity could come close to looking the market-breaking Jordan in the exchequer. No athlete has earned more than the estimated $480 million Jordan has in salaries, endorsements and other income since 1984.

“But if I never win a championship in Chicago, what kind of legacy would my career have?” he asked two chilled sportswriters on a long, long ago April morning at a northwest suburban golf course.

Jordan long, long ago preempted that courtside consideration. This morning, when the counting on Jordan’s celestial ledger is done, it will read: Six NBA championships. Ten NBA scoring titles. Five Most Valuable Player awards. Six NBA Finals MVP trophies. Two Olympic gold medals. One NCAA title.

“Who was greater?” asked Phil Jackson, Jordan’s coach and key buffer for those six championships.

“I think when all this is done, Michael’s place in the history of basketball will be clear,” said Dean Smith, the University of North Carolina coaching legend who took Jordan from Wilmington to the world.

“Very, very, very clear.”

“He was probably as close to the complete basketball player as the good lord has ever made,” said NBC’s Doug Collins, Jordan’s third head coach with the Bulls (1986-89) and himself one of the lost American heroes of the sport.

Jordan has been as complete a global sports showman as the world has had the opportunity to access. From Madison Street to Beijing and beyond, literally billions of people know Jordan’s name and his game and have lived and died with his on- and off-court episodes.

And have bought the products he has endorsed.

“Michael’s basketball achievements fuel the machine, but it is the new possibilities and imaginations in worldwide sports marketing that may also ultimately stand as a major part of his playing legacy,” said David Falk, Jordan’s primary business representative since 1985.

Added the late Rob Strasser, a marketing executive with Nike during Jordan’s initial years with the international gym-shoe giant: “He has shattered almost every existing myth and constraint surrounding the marketing of an American team athlete to the world, particularly a black American team athlete.

“The blueprints that have been laid down by Michael for sports marketing successes will be used as reference points by sports-stars-to-be for decades to come.”

As a player, it has been his relentless dedication to evolution and excellence that will serve as reference points for generations of hard-courters to come.

“The Michael Jordan you saw in the playoffs last spring (vs. Utah) was so different from the Michael Jordan that I first played back in 1985 that it was as if they were two different people,” said Joe Dumars, one of the good guys on the Detroit Pistons’ Bad Boys championship teams of 1989 and 1990.

“He went from being a frisky, spontaneous all-court player to being one of the best low-post offensive players in the game. Not to mention a master tactician. And through it all, of course, one of the greatest scoring machines basketball’s ever seen.”

Michael Jordan is fouled by the Pistons’ Joe Dumars.
Michael Jordan is fouled by the Pistons’ Joe Dumars.
Tom Cruze/Sun-Times

Said former Bulls assistant coach John Bach: “Michael had that rare capacity to be a genius who constantly wanted to upgrade his genius.”

“And, perhaps most importantly,” Orlando Magic coach Chuck Daly said, “Jordan has that rarest of all basketball superstar qualities — the fact that he was coachable.

”Even when he was obviously the greatest player on the planet, he still was willing to at least listen to suggestions about how he or his teams could get even better.

“Believe me, you don’t get that from every great player today.”

Jordan’s scoring feats — including the highest career per-game average (31.5 over 13 seasons) and the fifth-place slot on the all-time NBA/ABA points list (29,277) behind Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving and Moses Malone — were Herculean.

But it was the subtleties of his game — things such as his free-safety defense, his sense of the moment, his pacing, poise and confidence and fuel injection of those sensitivities to teammates_that made him the greatest force in basketball over the past decade.

“The only player I would ever consider putting up against Jordan as the greatest NBA winner of all time is Bill Russell,” said K.C. Jones, one of the stalwarts (1957-66) of the 11-time champion Boston Celtics dynasty (1957, 1959-66, 1968-69).

And Russell said last spring, during a trip to Chicago to present Jordan with his fifth MVP trophy, “If it comes down to me or Michael, I’m not voting for me.”

Most contemporary NBA fans would agree. And while Jordan’s on-court achievements were truly majestic, it was his recurring off-court flotsam that completed the texturization of Michael the human being to many.

“Jordan has always had an amazing capacity to be very human very publicly,” sportswriter Frank Deford said. “While we celebrate an athlete’s achievements in the arena, we generally pay little attention to their true human sides until some sort of tragedy or travail intervenes into their lives.”

No greater travail intervened into Jordan’s life than the 1993 murder of his father, James. Mr. Jordan — a sharecropper’s son who became a plant supervisor for General Electric — was shot and left dead on a stretch of highway in rural North Carolina six weeks after the Bulls won their third NBA crown.

Because Mr. Jordan’s body was deposited in a swamp in South Carolina, Michael Jordan and his family didn’t learn of the patriarch’s passing until after local authorities had cremated the remains. “It remains the great tragedy of Michael’s life,” said George Kohler, the Chicago chauffeur who has been associated with Jordan since June, 1984.

Michael Jordan hugs his mother, Delores, in this Sept. 15, 1990, file photo as his father, James, looks on, during a gala dinner for the Michael Jordan Foundation at the Hotel Nikko in Chicago.
Michael Jordan hugs his mother, Delores, in this Sept. 15, 1990, file photo as his father, James, looks on, during a gala dinner for the Michael Jordan Foundation at the Hotel Nikko in Chicago.
AP

Less than 11 weeks after his father’s funeral, Jordan shocked the world by retiring from basketball. That shock was spun into an entirely different realm eight weeks later, when he was participating in secret baseball workouts at Comiskey Park.

Six weeks later, Jordan confirmed he was giving baseball a shot. “My father and I talked about this often,” Jordan said at an athletic facility at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “He always wanted me to try baseball.”

The try eventually proved less than successful, although Jordan’s summer with the Birmingham Barons (the White Sox’ Class AA farm team) provided him with a time to re-energize and re-evaluate and also as a convenient focal point for the script of his profitable 1996 movie “Space Jam.”

As further evidence the Jordan profit machine never missed a beat during his diamond summer, even some of his ad-libbed words at that IIT press conference — ”I can’t accept not trying” — were grafted into the title of a best-selling minibook by executives of San Francisco-based publishing giant HarperCollins.

Where Jordan really never stopped trying was during his two tours of duty with the Bulls. After being selected with the third pick of the 1984 NBA draft (behind Houston’s Akeem Olajuwon and Portland’s Sam Bowie), Jordan reported to a Bulls team clearly fogged in by a culture of malaise.

Although the team had nine other first-round draft picks from various years and various teams on its roster when Jordan reported to Angel Guardian Gym on Chicago’s North Side for his first practice in late September, 1984, it hadn’t made the playoffs in three years. “We seemed to be mired in a losing mentality,” Dave Corzine said later.

But within minutes of the team’s first drill, there was a sense that something spectacular could be happening. “Within four or five trips of the first three-on-three, you could see that Michael was going to be something extraordinary,” said Kevin Loughery, the Bulls’ coach and the same mentor who had tossed young Julius Erving into the superstar rapids back with the New Jersey Nets of the ABA.

“It was also clear from the first two practices that the coaches had two sets of rules and two sets of expectations,” Quintin Dailey said at the time. “One was for Michael and the other was for the rest of us.”

“I don’t think giving a Michael Jordan the maximum chance for complete success will ever be perceived by any reasonable man as any sort of crime,” Bulls assistant coach Fred Carter (now an NBA analyst with ESPN) said then.

The Bulls entered their new era toward the end of Jordan’s rookie season, in March, 1985, when an ownership group headed by Jerry Reinsdorf took control of the team. Reinsdorf’s first major move was to fire Rod Thorn_the man who drafted Jordan_and hire Jerry Krause as director of basketball operations.

Thus was born the greatest source of tension in Jordan’s professional career. Almost from Day 1 — and certainly up to the news conference today at the United Center — the ill will on that Jordan-Krause high wire has diminished much of the organizational joy surrounding the team’s successes.

The defining moments of the Krause-Jordan estrangement were cemented in the winter of 1986, during Jordan’s second season. Jordan had broken a bone in his left foot in the third game of the season at Golden State.

Within seven weeks, he felt he could come back and even had begun playing in “secret” pickup games in North Carolina. The Bulls — by then truly a patchwork unit coached by Stan Albeck and featuring old-ice scoring ace George Gervin — were struggling.

But Krause, citing numerous doctors’ opinions, felt that holding Jordan out for the season both reduced his star’s chances of a more serious re-injury and would set up the Bulls with a higher first-round draft pick after the season.

The entire matter came to a head at a bizarre midnight news conference at Reinsdorf’s Balcor office in Skokie. Jordan was allowed to return to play, but only under terms of a progressive minutes-per-game formula concocted by Krause and Reinsdorf.

After that, Jordan and Krause were forever distanced. Krause also drew Jordan’s ire after Jordan’s second season when he fired Albeck — whom Jordan liked — and brought in the high-strung Collins.

That firing came less than four weeks after Jordan’s brilliant 63-point performance at Boston Garden during a 135-131 loss in double overtime in Game 2 of an Eastern Conference first-round playoff series.

If ever the nascent basketball genius of Jordan was laid bare for all the world to see, it was on that sunny Beantown Sunday.

Boston was 40-1 at home with a lineup for the ages featuring Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. The Bulls had backed into the playoffs as the eighth seed.

Jordan was five weeks into his comeback with such teammates as Gene Banks, Sidney Green and Orlando Woolridge. It was his first network game as a pro. But he was unbelievable that afternoon, so much so that it prompted Bird’s famous line: “That was God disguised as Michael Jordan out there today.”

Two years into Collins’ reign, Jordan was privately laying blame for the heightened tension at Krause’s door. One summer, sitting in the stands at the Horizon watching his brother Larry play in a 6-4-and-under league, a discouraged Jordan was asked for his assessment of the Krause-Collins Bulls:

“I would give everything I’ll ever make from here on out to even have the chance of winning one NBA championship,” Jordan said. “Because I’m telling you, with that (Krause) around, it’s just not going to happen in Chicago. You going to tell me he didn’t know what he was getting with Doug?”

But by 1989, Collins and his high-voltage act was short-circuited and Jackson was in place. Jordan, after extensive consultations with his advisers, primarily Dean Smith, elected to embrace Jackson as the last possible chance he had to win a championship with the Bulls.

“Phil was the fourth head coach I had had in my first 50 months with the Bulls,” Jordan said later. “What kind of continuity and planning does that tell you we had coming out of (the executive offices)? There was no way we were going to win a championship until we got some continuity at head coach.”

Two seasons later, Jordan and the Bulls were kings of the NBA hill. And they would extend that status to a three-year run, which was then the league’s ultimate goal because Bird’s Celtics, Magic Johnson’s Lakers and Isiah Thomas’ Pistons had been unable to realize a three-peat.

Then came the gambling haze, the death of his father and the summer in Birmingham. And the second comeback, this one into the phenomenal 1995-96 season_72 victories in 82 games and the most entertaining Chicago team since Ditka’s shufflin’ Super Bowl crew.

The fifth championship, including the profile-in-courage Game 5 at Utah in which the flu-ridden Jordan rose from the bed to bury the Jazz.

And last year, a capping and truly bizarre finale. A season that began with no room at the wedding for Jackson. A season when Scottie Pippen pouted ... again. A season when Krause — unconscionably, unbelievably — weakened a championship-contending team with the midseason trade of Jason Caffey.

But in the playoffs, once again, paging Mr. Jordan: New Jersey, down. Charlotte, Glen Rice, down. Indiana, battling, but finally down.

And then, once again, the Jazz. The split in Utah. The blowout in Game 3. The surprise counterpunching in Game 5.

And then Game 6. And the final sequence. The essence of Jordan. A will for the ages. The steal, the set-up, the squeak stop and the shot.

Then the follow-through. The arm raised. Accentuating. Dead on. Right on. Right in.

It officially ends today. And if that raised arm was the Jordanian farewell — the last vision before the fade to black — it sure beats the athletic ends of Thorpe, Ruth or Ali.

With his retirement today, Jordan becomes only the third of the NBA’s “50 Greatest” to be able to say his final game was one in which he won a championship. (Russell and Bill Sharman are the others.)

In the gloamin’, from the grave, maybe the father knew best.

“When all of this is done,” James Jordan said six weeks before his death, “I just hope everyone who was along for the ride can say, `Boy we sure had some cruise, didn’t we?’

”Some kind of wonderful, wonderful cruise.”

Yes, Mr. Jordan, we did.

Through all sorts of energetic winters and immortal springs.

And the revival meeting went very well, thank you.