The mostly untold secret of Michael Jordan’s basketball career was that he was a pretty big jerk. When the Bulls let Charles Oakley go and brought in Bill Cartwright, Jordan resented the loss of his friend and took it out on Cartwright, calling him “Medical Bill” and intentionally throwing impossible-to-handle passes at him in practice to draw attention to what he perceived to be his bad hands. David Halberstam’s “
Playing for Keeps,” my favorite book about Jordan, is filled with similar stories involving teammates from Scott Williams to Toni Kukoc to Horace Grant. Jordan gained a reputation for pushing his teammates to be better, but it turns out he did that by demeaning them on a regular basis. Like many great athletes, the competitiveness that made him so great also marked him out as something of a sociopath.
It was also hilarious, though, because it was so utterly in keeping with Jordan’s personality. This man does not thank or appreciate openly — he seizes upon weaknesses and exploits them. He’s vicious and not especially kind.
The question is how we go about isolating his status as the greatest basketball player we’ve ever seen from his personal faults, if it’s possible at all.
If the Los Angeles Lakers were to somehow mount a miraculous recovery and make their way all the way to the 2013 NBA Finals to meet the Miami Heat, the hype behind a Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James matchup would still pale in comparison to the massive buildup to the 1991 Finals – featuring a nearly as unlikely Los Angeles Lakers team led by Magic Johnson. Magic’s slow-time Lakers had surprised the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals that year, setting up a pairing for the ages as the team of the 1980s prepared to take on the squad that was expected to dominate the 1990s.
Jordan, by then renowned for his end-game magic, had a chance to win Game 1 of that series with a few seconds left on the clock, and was even able to get a hard-stop jumper (even working with a bum right big toe during that year’s Finals) against the much slower Sam Perkins. The obvious script seemed to be unfolding before our eyes, as Jordan was about to grab the torch and put Chicago up 1-0 and …
… it spun out.
We will revisit the ramifications of such later in this list.
— Kelly Dwyer * * * 32. His 1992 Eastern Conference Semifinals performance against the Knicks.
The Bulls swept the Knicks out in the first round of the 1991 playoffs, but the Pat Riley-led bunch they met the following postseason was a very different animal from the John McLeod-helmed group that dropped three straight. Facing a New York squad that featured a pair of new interior bruisers, Xavier McDaniel and Anthony Mason, to pair with once and future MJ enforcer Charles Oakley, Jordan was in for a tougher, more physical challenge, a point underscored when the Knicks took Game 1 at Chicago Stadium by holding the Bulls to just 89 points, tied for Chicago's third-lowest output of the season.
So Jordan put on his hard hat and went to work. He took the likes of John Starks and Gerald Wilkins down into the post and working them over with an evil array of turnarounds. He repeatedly attacked the Knicks' second-best-in-the-league D with the aim of getting New York in the penalty, taking 66 foul shots in the seven-game series.
He had a key final-minute assist, steal and rebound to seal Game 2, and then went for 32 and 9 at MSG in Game 3 to retake home-court advantage. He popped for 37 (going 15-for-17 from the stripe) in Game 5 to put New York on the brink, and then, after the Knicks held him down (just 21 points on 25 shots) to hold serve in Game 6, predictably, he dropped the hammer in Game 7, shaking loose for his best game of the series. Forty-two points on 15 for 29 shooting, 12 for 13 from the foul line, six rebounds, four assists, three blocks and two steals in a 110-81 whitewashing that was over in the third quarter, a game that sent the Knicks home for the summer.
Jordan's line for the series: 31.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 47.7 percent from the floor and 77.3 percent from the line, and Chicago needed every ounce of it to move on to face Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals en route to a second straight championship.
— Dan Devine * * * 31. Winning the scoring title and Defensive Player of the Year in 1987-88
It’s probably true that Michael Jordan wasn’t the best overall defender in the NBA during the 1987-88 season. Defensive rebounding and blocked shots play a significant role in securing possessions after a stop, and while Jordan was easily the NBA’s best perimeter defender that year, Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon (who led the NBA in Defensive Win Shares and Defensive Rating that year) may have been a more apt choice, even if voters were swayed by storyline and the Rockets’ disappointing season.
Still, for Jordan to even be considered in a season where he averaged 35 points per game on 53 percent shooting is remarkable. To this date Jordan, who led the NBA with 3.2 steals and contributed 1.6 blocks per game that remarkable season, remains the only player to earn both the scoring title and Defensive Player of the Year award in the same year. LeBron James, who has only led the NBA in scoring once and would need a groundswell of support and storylines to help voters overlook the work of big forwards and centers, remains the most likely candidate to match the feat.
— Kelly Dwyer * * * 30. The storied 1984 NBA draft
You have the first overall pick in hand, and you have a choice between a big man from an area of the world that had yet to produce an NBA talent, much less a franchise player, a center that had already gone through severe leg injuries while at school, or a current Olympic Team USA member that was coming off a Naismith and Wooden-award winning junior season two years after nailing a clutch shot to win the 1982 NCAA title.
Houston and Portland owned the first two picks in the 1984 NBA draft. Somehow, Michael Jordan went third, to the Chicago Bulls.
That’s the blinders-on, 2013-approach. It’s a waste to wonder why Houston would take another center and pass on Jordan with a seeming franchise center in Ralph Sampson in hand, or ask why Portland just couldn’t have traded Jim Paxson and gone with Jordan and Clyde Drexler on the wings for the next 15 years. This was a different era, and no all-world shooting or even point guard had led an NBA team to a title without the help of the best center in the league. Even Jerry West and Oscar Robertson just couldn’t cut it, in those eight-team leagues, until expansion (in both the NBA and ABA) hit and the guards were afforded Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar via trade.
Houston, which took Hakeem Olajuwon, has no such regrets. Portland has many, especially as we learned in 2012 about Trail Blazer draftee Sam Bowie’s
serious leg issues that were in place well before the draft. This is how the league worked back then, and as we discussed last winter, and belittling Portland for what felt like the obvious choice at the time wouldn’t be getting it right.
Jordan fell to the Bulls at number three. Chicago GM Rod Thorn warned Bulls fans that they had drafted “a very good offensive player, but not an overpowering offensive player.”
— Kelly Dwyer * * * 29. The 1987 Slam Dunk Contest
* * *
28. The return to basketball in 1995
Michael Jordan’s 1995 return to the NBA was probably hastened by his relative struggles as a minor league baseball player, his love of basketball, and the 1994 MLB strike. The same competitiveness that drove him as a player and also drove him into trying baseball and making two NBA comebacks was also on full display in a back and forth he had with reporters during the summer of 1994 — the first public hint that he still had a basketball jones deep in the heart of a baseball summer.
Discussing rumors of a potential 13-year, $100 million contract for Milwaukee Bucks rookie Glenn Robinson, Jordan mused about whether he would be worth three times as much. He wasn’t being flippant, and there was a bit of an edge there. This wasn’t barstool talk about “what ifs,” this was a reminder sent to reporters and by extension the NBA that Michael Jordan was still basketball’s world class, even he was still working his way through various
Walt Hriniak tapes.
By the time 1995’s MLB spring training rolled around, baseball was still caught in a labor dispute, and Jordan would have no part in crossing the picket line. After leaving camp, the rumors started to swirl as Jordan rejoined his family in suburban Chicago. After a few days of practices with both the team and individual Bulls players left over from Jordan’s last season in Chicago, Jordan announced his return with
a two-word statement.
A day later he returned in a nationally televised game (in all markets everywhere but Utah and, ironically considering Jordan’s North Carolina roots and current status as Charlotte Bobcat owner, Charlotte – as both markets had regional action on NBC) against the Indiana Pacers. Jordan stunk,
missing 21 of 28 shots on his way to 19 points and looking without lift as he led an average Bulls team to a seven-point overtime loss against one of the East’s best.
Jordan was wearing the number 45, and it was hard to tell if he could get rim or keep up with Reggie Miller. He wasn’t wearing stirrups, though, and that was all that counted.
— Kelly Dwyer * * * 27. His ability to "just happen"
In his excellent 2009 book,
"The Art of a Beautiful Game," Sports Illustrated writer Chris Ballard dug deep on a plethora of topics near and dear to the hearts of hoops obsessives —including the lonely, thankless plight of the defensive stopper. One of the players he interviewed for that chapter was former Cavaliers guard Craig Ehlo, who you might remember from another entry in this list.
But while Ehlo did (of course) talk about "The Shot," he also remembered another instance of checking Jordan that likely wouldn't register for any particular reason with fans, but has always stuck with him as an especially great encapsulation of the seemingly impossible nature of Jordan's brilliance:
Ehlo remembers Jordan once coming off a down screen in the triangle offense. Reading the play, Ehlo stepped out into the passing lane, only Jordan instinctively countered him by stepping back, where he caught the ball, changed direction and hit a jump shot.
"How did you do that?" Ehlo asked as they ran back down the court. "I totally had you covered on that one."
Jordan shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know, Craig," Jordan said. "It just happened."
Given all the time, energy and words we (and countless others) have spent trying to get at what made Jordan so great and so special, it seems kind of ridiculous to think that "I don't know, it just happened" is probably a better encapsulation than any we could offer. Sometimes even he didn't know what made him so good.
— Dan Devine * * * 26. The revenge against Orlando in 1996, after 1995’s embarrassment
By the start of the second round of the 1995 playoffs, a good month and a half and 21 games after Michael Jordan’s return to basketball, nobody knew exactly what to think about Jordan and his team. Especially as they prepared to take on the upstart Orlando Magic, who had just closed down the Boston Garden in dismissing the Boston Celtics in three games by an average of 14,003 points per contest.
The series was set to tip in Orlando, and Chicago (coming off of a tough win over the last year of the Alonzo Mourning-Larry Johnson Charlotte Hornets) actually kept and maintained a solid enough advantage over the Magic in the fourth quarter. With 18 seconds left Jordan was asked to dribble out the clock with a one-point lead, and somehow Chicago native Nick Anderson managed to swipe the ball from behind MJ even though it was a situation that called for Jordan to hold the ball and await an intentional foul.
Second-year guard Penny Hardaway, a current Jordan-mold if there ever was one, then ran the length of the floor to dish to former Bulls forward Horace Grant, who dunked over current (and, at the time, lesser and lacking) Bulls forward Toni Kukoc for the go ahead stuff. It was about as symbolic as NBA plays come.
On the next play, with the Bulls down one and with Jordan given a clear one-on-one look, he gave the ball up to a cutting Scottie Pippen – throwing it behind the Bulls All-Star, thinking Pippen was spotting up rather than going to the basket. Two shots at closing it for Jordan, resulting in two crucial turnovers. Phil Jackson would later write that the Bulls were tempting karma with Jordan’s return – during the regular season the team had stood around and watched Jordan during games instead of working through growing pains with him. The short term payoff was big scoring totals for Michael and regular season wins, but the needed chemistry had never been established.
Chicago lost the series in six games for this and other reasons, falling back into the old habits as they watched MJ average 33.4 points per game over the rest of the series. Jordan famously switched back to his number 23 jersey after the Game 1 embarrassment, but the cohesion needed to keep an opponent’s defense on edge just wasn’t there. In a nod to his own stellar play (“let
anyone but Horace beat us!” Bulls GM Jerry Krause yelled at Phil Jackson during the series) and strenuous contract negotiations with Chicago the year before, Orlando carried Horace Grant off the court.
A year later, Jordan got his revenge; doing it with the group he had spent 82 games and two tough playoff series’ working with. Jordan scored 35 and 45 points in Games 2 and 4, close contests, but by and large this was a triumph of team basketball. Orlando couldn’t hang with Chicago’s ball movement offensively, and the Bulls defense was at its long-armed best against a Magic team that just wanted to give up on its way to a sweep.
Chicago was on to Finals that it would win, unlike Orlando the year before, and Shaquille O’Neal would soon be on his way to Los Angeles and way the hell away from Michael Jordan’s Eastern conference.
— Kelly Dwyer * * * 25. Front office mistakes
Jordan was such a great player that, when he became the Washington Wizards’ president of basketball operations in January 2000, few could be forgiven for assuming that he’d succeed at that job, as well. However, MJ has proven to be one of the worst NBA personnel men of the past 10 years, prone to picking highly publicized players over the most NBA-ready options and taking several very high-profile flops.
His most notorious flub will always be taking Kwame Brown with the first pick of the 2000 draft. Jordan mistook Brown’s impressive athleticism for elite talent and overlooked several glaring issues, including his relatively small hands and questionable maturity. To make matters worse, MJ also put undue pressure on Brown as both an executive and player, expecting a teenager to play like a veteran simply because it was what his boss desired.
Jordan was arguably worse in his tenure as chief talent evaluator of the Charlotte Bobcats, taking Adam Morrison over Brandon Roy in the 2006 draft even though Morrison had a few discernible NBA skills despite scoring (which, it turns out, he couldn’t do against superior athletes, either). As a general rule, Jordan has opted for players who got a good deal of attention in college, causing many observers to believe that he doesn’t put in the amount of work required of a top NBA executive.
The lesson of his front office travails is clear: greatness in one arena does not guarantee success in a tangentially related field, particularly if the person does not understand that the factors that made him such a phenomenal performer aren’t present in every athlete.
— Eric Freeman * * * 24. The Dream Team
On a team featuring Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Michael Jordan was the unquestioned leader. On a squad featuring the all-around talents of the emerging Scottie Pippen and a leading scorer in the next season’s NBA MVP in Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan was the go-to guy. On a roster featuring the frightening athletic talents of in-prime Patrick Ewing and continually underrated David Robinson, Michael Jordan was the scariest thing in the lineup. In a staff featuring
the college coach that snubbed him and the NBA coach that defeated him three straight seasons from 1988 to 1990, Jordan’s was the voice everyone feared.
In an era that was bored with football and just about to give up on baseball, Jordan was the icon. On an international stage and with every country watching, at the height of his powers, Michael Jordan was the most famous person on earth.
He also played 36 holes of golf a day on his European vacation.
— Kelly Dwyer * * * 23. His starring role in “Space Jam”
I will probably be kicked off the basketball internet for saying this, but here goes: I do not think “Space Jam” is a good or even particularly enjoyable movie. Over the course of its 88 minutes, the film trots out a number of beloved cartoon characters for easy jokes, softens the manic energy that made Looney Tunes so great in the first place, and creates an elaborate comic justification for Michael Jordan’s return to the NBA that has nothing to do with gambling conspiracy theories or anything else that might present its star in a negative light.
Nevertheless, the movie is about as credible as a cartoon fantasy starring an NBA legend can be. For the most part, that’s simply because Jordan is a charismatic presence no matter the medium, a person with a bona fide aura. There’s no real reason why a basketball player talking to cartoons should be even mildly entertaining — imagine Shaquille O’Neal in the same role or, heaven forbid, a non-acting contemporary like Larry Bird. With MJ, the movie isn’t a disaster, and that’s because he’s watchable and important enough to seem at home when talking to “actors” that weren’t even present on set.
(Still, if you want to watch a better Looney Tunes movie, check out 2003’s “
Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” which takes its cues from Daffy Duck, Looney Tunes’ true star.) — Eric Freeman CLICK HERE TO CONTINUE READING MJ'S TOP 50 MOMENTS Related Michael Jordan video on Yahoo! Sports: Other popular MJ content on Yahoo! Sports: • How Michael Jordan still earns $80 million a year • Memorable encounters with Michael Jordan that helped build legend • Slideshow: A look at Air Jordans from 1984-2012 • Michael Jordan mysteries: Strange statues, shifting numbers and one odd song