Michael Jordan turns the Big Five-oh this month -- go ahead, you remind him -- and nobody is more upset about it than me. Or more happy at the same time.
Jordan and I crossed paths for the better part of 13 seasons, him as a Bulls legend, me as a local sportswriter. As the only beat reporter to cover his Chicago career from start to finish -- shameless self-promotion alert! -- I attended nearly two-thirds of his 1,109 games in a Bulls uniform.
Even if we're still here 50 years from now, the memories will never grow old . . .
23. The Jordan epic might have turned out much differently if Portland general manager Harry Glickman hadn't selected brittle Sam Bowie one spot ahead of him in the 1984 draft. True, nobody predicted that Jordan was headed for all-time greatness at the time. But the Trail Blazers already had rolled the dice on injury-prone center Bill Walton and lost their shirts. In fact, they traded a talented kid named Moses Malone to ensure a spot for him.
Imagine what the Trail Blazers would have been with a nucleus of Jordan, Malone, Maurice Lucas, Bob Gross, Johnny Davis and Lionel Hollins . . .
22. Early preseason, 1984. I'm at courtside with Bulls GM Rod Thorn at Angel Guardian gym, which passed for the Bulls practice facility at the time.
"Paul, we don't know what we got in Michael exactly, but I know some of our veterans are impressed already," Thorn tells me in his West Virginia drawl. "The kid likes to compete. I don't know if he'll ever become a big scorer, but he may be able to give us 20 points a game eventually. And if we're lucky, he'll play in an All-Star Game one day."
Angel Guardian, indeed.
21. Early in his career, there were signs that Jordan was destined to become Ernie Banks in short pants. Fans looked forward to the postgame concerts at old Chicago Stadium as much as they did the games. (I liked the Temptations, personally.)
20. What I admired most about Jordan wasn't his otherwordly athleticism and outrageous basketball skills. It was his competitive spirit. In a league known for bad actors, he simply wanted it more than anyone and everyone.
19. That Jordan was a bad loser was one of his greatest strengths. After practice, he frequently would play games against teammates. (He likes to gamble a little bit, if you haven't heard.) On the rare occasion when he was behind, he wouldn't allow them to walk away until the score was even at least.
18. Know those stories about Jordan's intense dislike for Jerry Krause, the blustery Bulls general manager? Well, almost all of them are true. Trust me.
17. The best slam dunk contest ever? It's no contest -- Jordan versus Dominique Wilkins, 1988 All-Star Weekend. The race was too close to call, but 'Nique had absolutely no chance to leave Chicago with the trophy that day.
16. My most vivid memory of Jordan's game-winner against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1989 playoffs has nothing to do with him or the team. It's the vision of giddy Chicago Sun-Times beat writer Lacy Banks jumping up and down at courtside, screaming "We did it! We did it! We did it!"
15. The Detroit Pistons were the only team that didn't kneel at the Jordan shrine, bless their little hearts. The Bulls didn't want to admit it, but the Bad Boys taught them the tough lessons they needed to learn to become champions themselves.
14. Jordan didn't intimidate just opponents. One day Steve Kerr showed up with a black eye at practice. His young son had inadvertently shut the door on his face, he explained to reporters. Closer to the truth, an angry Jordan had clocked in a scrimmage game. It turned out that a local beat writer had known about the incident for days, but he was reluctant to report it out of fear for Jordan's wrath.
13. Jordan made lives miserable. Take that of Bryon Russell, the guy he pushed off to drain the game-winner in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. When I asked the disconsolate Utah Jazz veteran about the play on his way out the Delta Center, he could only shrug, "We know what happened, but he's Michael Jordan, right?" The poor dude has been asked about the sequence almost every day of his life since then.
Then there's Toni Kukoc, one Krause's pet projects. Jordan and Scottie Pippen attacked the would-be Croatian sensation unmercifully in practice and ignored him away from it. Kukoc went on to have a somewhat successful career, but it wasn't what Krause had predicted of him.
12. Then again, Jordan was a ruthless s.o.b to any teammate who fell short of expectations. I'm shocked that Scott Burrell hasn't checked into a rehab center yet.
11. Jordan was such a kind, gentle and compassioinate soul that he put no-names on posters regularly. He even built statues like the one that looks a lot like former Houston Rockets journeyman Dave Jamerson outside the United Center.
Hey, honey, see the guy being dunked on?! That's me!
10. I still have doubts about why Jordan retired the first time. I can attest that he was emotionally spent in the 1993 NBA Finals, but I find it very strange that someone so talented, so hypercompetitive, so successful would call it quits in the middle of a full-blown dynasty. We may never know the real story unless you-know-who wants us to know it.
(The three things I remember most about Jordan the baseball player -- strikeouts, popups and routine groundballs.)
9. There was one person who could get inside Jordan's head, believe it or not. His name was Hue Hollins, perhaps the only referee who refused to be swayed by the hype. I swear, when Jordan and his teammates learned that Hollins was in the building, they would turn white all of a sudden.
8. Clearly, Hollins was the exception. I mean, when the New York Knickerbockers came to town, center Patrick Ewing got off the team bus with two fouls. Opponents became so convinced that they wouldn't receive a fair shake that it affected their play. Which is precisely the way His Airness wanted it, naturally.
7. If ever the right person came along at the right time in the right place, then Jordan was the one. After the Bird-Magic era, the league was desperate for someone to take the torch and run with hit. By the mid-1990s, Jordan controlled everything, even media access. The Bulls locker room didn't open after games until he gave the go-ahead, which was usually 10 minutes late, and there wasn't a darn thing the league could do about it.
6. The popularity of Jordan and his Supporting Cast became so great that, when they won a record 72 games in the 1997-98 season, I felt that I was following the Rolling Stones on tour. Yet I don't recall a more miserable team from start to finish. The front office was ready to pull the plug on the dynasty, and I doubt that Jordan and Krause said a word to one another the entire season. Actually, the call was made by team investors who believed it was time to cash in on six championships.
5. It was Krause who once said infamously, "Organizations win championships," a statement that will roll Jordan's eyes even decades later. Well, here's my top 10 list of credits in the Bulls glory years: 1. Jordan; 2. Jordan; 3. Jordan; 4. Jordan; 5. Jordan; 6. Jordan; 7. Jordan; 8. head coach Phil Jackson; 9. Pippen; 10. Krause.
4. My biggest disappointment was that Jordan never had a legitimate rival. Bill Russell had Wilt Chamberlain. Magic Johnson had Larry Bird. If Jordan had someone, the 1990s would have been a whole lot better.
3. Those who consider Jordan to be the greatest basketball player ever will get no argument here. Me? I'll just say he's on my short list with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson and leave it at that.
2. I'm not surprised that Jordan has come up empty as a team executive. He never was a 9-to-5 guy in the first place. And has a talent evaluator, he made one helluva player.
1. The last time I saw Jordan was April 4, 2005, in St. Louis. North Carolina had just won the NCAA championship, and he gave me a high-five on the way to the locker room. He had a wide smile on his face.
Happy, b-day, Mike. Here's to at least 23 more.
Paul has covered the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB as a beat reporter, feature writer and columnist for more than three decades. His work has appeared in the Daily Southtown and Northwest Herald newspapers, Hoop, Inside Sports and In Your Face Hockey magazines and the The Fourth Period and SheridanHoops Internet sites among others.
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