Good Sport

The Gamer

Michael Jordan’s reign.

The USAir Arena sits on the edge of the Beltway, old and dim, not much more than a big gymnasium. The Washington Bullets play here, often quite badly. They haven’t made the playoffs in eight years. They were supposed to be better this year but have found ways to enforce the tradition of mediocrity. The arena is usually sold out–technically–but with plenty of empty seats, the signature of a town full of lawyers and big shots who aren’t sure they want to be sports fans.

But on Friday, Feb. 21, everything was different. A strange and powerful gravitational force surrounded that stale and unloved arena that night. People swarmed the access road outside, begging for tickets. The mayor of Washington showed up, and the coach of the Redskins, and then, to snarl traffic once and for all, the president of the United States came rolling up in his motorcade.

Clinton took his seat with little fanfare. No one played “Hail to the Chief.” The crowd applauded politely. The real action was over in the corner, outside the locker room of the Chicago Bulls. Fans were straining at the railings of the stands. Eyes were riveted on the locker room’s exit. No one dared look away. The great one was about to emerge. When he finally appeared, people did not clap–they shouted, screamed, as guards told them to back off.

“Michael! Michael!”

Michael Jordan didn’t look up. His head was bowed as he jogged toward the court. Everywhere he goes, people shout his name. He has mastered the art of not noticing them.

Jordan is smoother than everyone else–his movements, his skin, the top of his shaved head. He looks polished. Next to Jordan, the other Bulls are big slabs of meat with protruding limbs. Luc Longley: a human ham hock. Dennis Rodman: all knuckles and knees and elbows and tattoos and nose rings and yellow hair. For Rodman, every night’s a full moon.

On the radio the other day, sportswriter Frank Deford called Jordan “our Lindbergh.” (Was Lindbergh really that good? What was his percentage from three-point range?) This night at the USAir Arena, the sportswriters kept looking at Jordan and saying, “He’s Babe Ruth.” Like Ruth, Jordan so exceeds the norm as to be an anomaly. Ruth didn’t just hit more home runs than anyone else. He hit a lot more home runs than anyone else. How did he do it? OK, he was strong, he used a big, heavy bat, and he had an elegant uppercut swing. But the formula for “greatest-ever” is always mysterious. You can’t reduce it to any obvious variables. You just say a god walked among us.

Jordan is 34 years old, borderline geriatric, and he still leads the league in scoring, racking up nearly 31 points a game, while the next-highest scorer averages only about 26. How does Jordan do it? He’s got that Babe Ruth stuff. The god force. We just have to watch and wonder.

For the national anthem Jordan rocked from one leg to the other, still staring at the floor in front of him, while nearby the president lustily sang–or at least moved his mouth dramatically so that even fans across the arena could see him singing.

Seconds after tipoff, Jordan launched a turnaround jumper, his new signature shot, hitting nothing but net. That proved to be the anomaly for the next three quarters of the game. Jordan missed a shot, and then he missed four more shots, and he threw the ball out of bounds, and he got slapped with two fouls, and by the end of the first quarter he had stunk up the joint. He had five measly points while his sidekick, Scottie Pippen, had scorched the Bullets for 17.

The sportswriters had a potential story line: Jordan might not be the high scorer on his team for the third consecutive game, something that hasn’t happened in years. Was Jordan slipping? Were we seeing it tonight? The sportswriters were tapping on their laptops. In a night game, you have to write as the game progresses. It might be too soon to write the end-of-an-era story, but one could hint at it, start practicing the inevitable eulogy.

Jordan kept struggling. At one point, he’d taken 14 shots and hit only four. By the end of the third quarter, he’d cobbled together 18 sloppy points to Pippen’s authoritative 28. The Bulls were winning by 11 points, but the Bullets were hanging tough. Jordan had been outplayed by their Calbert Cheaney, a streaky player.

T hen the fourth quarter began. The fourth quarter is Jordan Time.

Jordan got free on a fast break. He streaked down the right side of the court, took a pass, veered toward the bucket, and went airborne. The tongue emerged. When the tongue comes out, fans stand up to watch. Jordan, flying, wore a face of absolute manic rage. The dunk was apocalyptic. It was the kind of dunk you wouldn’t want a small child to see. It was as though Jordan was funneling all his frustration into a single thermonuclear jam. The fans of both teams roared. The Bullets called a timeout, knowing they’d have no chance if Jordan caught fire.

A minute later Jordan hit a pull-up jumper. Then he hit another.

One of the young Bullets, Jaren Jackson, tried to smother Jordan and prevent him from getting the ball. Jordan knew what to do: Cheat a little. With his left hand Jordan almost imperceptibly held Jackson–this showed up on the television replay–and then dashed past him toward the hoop, taking a pass and launching himself for a two-handed dunk, hanging on the rim an extra second to make sure everyone knew who was in charge.

The next time down the court Jordan hit a wide-open three-point shot. The Bullets kept assigning different players to cover him, but Jordan seemed to be emitting some kind of paralysis beam. Even Jordan’s teammates were rooted in place. The game plan was, “Pass it to Jordan.”

Jordan hit an impossible 15-foot turnaround jumper.

Jordan hit foul shots.

Jordan hit another three-pointer.

Jordan juked right, shook his man, dashed right past 7-foot-7 Gheorghe Muresan, and burgled the backboard for an easy layup.

Jordan hit six shots in a row, missed one, then hit again, at which point he was laughing. He knew what everyone else in the arena was thinking: Jordan had done it again! Impossible! A 34-year-old geezer! The paralysis beam still works. Statisticians insist there is no such thing as a “hot hand” in basketball, that accurate shots distribute themselves in random patterns, that just the fact that a player has made several shots in a row does not increase the likelihood that he will make the next one. So we are to believe that Jordan’s feat this night–his ability to seize a game and absolutely dominate it in the fourth quarter when everything is on the line–is a fluke. What the statisticians don’t realize is that some things in life aren’t logical, and that the Jordan phenomenon is one of them.He scored 18 points in the fourth quarter, 36 for the game, making him the high scorer. The Bulls won 103-99.

“There’s no way Michael was going to let the Bulls lose in front of the president,” Johnny Red Kerr, a Hall of Famer and former Bulls coach, said outside the locker room.

There has been talk in recent days about human cloning, and you repeatedly hear people mention the idea of cloning Michael Jordan. The New York Times cited the idea of a Jordan clone in its lead editorial. Such talk robs Jordan of his due. It subtly suggests that he is just a “natural athlete” who merely has to walk onto the court and let his DNA take over. The fact is, Jordan’s greatest gift is in his head. He dominates the game at 34 even though he can no longer out-quick and out-jump and out-dunk his opponents. When he came into the league he was strictly a slasher, relying on speed and a 42-inch vertical leap. He wasn’t considered a top-flight shooter. Now he has this deadly turnaround jumper and routinely hits three-pointers. What do you call someone who changes his game, his style, his tactics, and still comes out on top? A genius. (Come to think of it, didn’t Babe Ruth start out as a pitcher?)

Like that politician sitting in the stands, Jordan is compulsively competitive. When you apply the lessons of their successes to your life, you get caught short, because the rest of us don’t want it that badly. Jordan has to win at everything, at cards, at tennis, at golf (he has lost hundreds of thousands gambling at that game). After the death of his father, Jordan took up the doomed mission of becoming a professional baseball player. “He had balls the size of an elephant to fail in public in another sport,” my colleague Tony Kornheiser said before the Bulls game. Bob Greene reports that Jordan–the greatest basketball player of all time–was motivated by a sports fantasy: that he’d be batting for the White Sox in his first professional baseball game, and would hit a home run, round the bases and, never stopping running, just head straight from home plate to the tunnel leading out of the stadium, disappearing in front of the awed crowd.

As the USAir Arena emptied out, the sportswriters gathered outside the Bulls’ locker room. The president of the United States suddenly appeared a short distance away, heading toward his limo. He saw the press and, for a moment, seemed to be coming toward us. Then he stopped, and just stared. One could imagine that he felt a little hurt when he realized that we didn’t want to talk to him. No one even shouted a question. He boarded the limo and left.

We went into the locker room, and soon Jordan emerged, already dressed in a perfectly pressed olive suit, his tie knotted tight at the stiff collar of a white shirt. Jordan always dresses this way in public. A professional.

“I totally hadn’t found my rhythm the first three quarters,” Jordan said. “When I found it, things started to click.”

Sweat popped out on his head in the close-up glare of television lights. Reporters pressed him up against the little wire cage that passes for a locker. He obliged every question, then stepped outside to sign a few autographs.

His agent, David Falk, said his client would play as long as he meets his own standards. He’d decide year by year. He’s a free agent after this season and if the Bulls want him back they’ll have to pay the big money. This year Falk got Jordan $30 million. Next year? Falk wouldn’t say what it would take. How would one ever calculate such a thing? Some things are beyond money, beyond numbers. How much would you pay the amber fields, the purple mountains?

Someone asked Jordan if he’d stick around town the next day to watch his alma mater, North Carolina, play Maryland. It was a huge game in college basketball.

He shook his head.

“I got a job to do.”

Jordan drives to the hoop in Game 2 of the 1991 NBA Championship Series against the Los Angeles Lakers (30 seconds; video only):