Why do we love Michael Jordan? For the same reasons we love Peter Pan. Because he can fly. Because he is a kid and always will be. "I'm never gonna grow up/Never gonna grow up/Not me!"
Breathes there a human anywhere who can float longer than the 23-year-old, 6'6", 200-pound Jordan? Someday an updraft will catch him in midglide, or Tinker Bell herself will sprinkle him with fairy dust, and he will waft on over the basket and up into the wires and lights of an NBA arena like a raptor soaring into the clouds. And no one will be surprised.
"I've never had my vertical leap measured," says the child-pilot himself, "but sometimes I think about how high I get up." He, too, marvels at his gravity-defying feats, searching for an explanation. "I always spread my legs when I jump high, like on my Rock-a-baby, and it seems like I've opened a parachute, like, that slowly brings me back to the floor. I was really up against New York in our first game. On my last dunk I think I was close to eye level with the rim. Sometimes you just hit your wrists on the rim, but this time it was my elbows and everything. I almost overdunked the whole rim."
In the opener against the Knicks, in which Jordan scored 50 points, setting a Madison Square Garden record for an opposing player, he almost burst into flames in the final period. He scored the Bulls' last 11 points and 21 of their final 31, leading the team to a come-from-behind 108-103 victory. Afterward he tried to explain to his father, James, who was visiting from Wilmington, N.C., how the roaring Knicks fans had juiced him up. "So you were playing on the crowd, not even on the floor?" said Dad.
November 17, 1986
"I always play on the crowd."
He scored 41 points, including the Bulls' final 8, in a 94-89 win the next night against Cleveland. Two nights later he scored 34 points in the Bulls' 111-104 home-opening victory against San Antonio, including 16 in the final period. His lowest output—33 points—came on Friday night in a 115-109 loss to the Pistons in Detroit, but he followed that up with 39 at home on Saturday in a 101-96 win against Phoenix. The Bulls—picked by most experts to finish well below .500 this season—found themselves with an improbable 4-1 record, and in each game Jordan, averaging 39.4 points a game, had thrilled the viewers with an assortment of flying jams, double-pump bankers and hovering, under-the-basket, off-the-glass reverses.
And what about that tongue hanging out, that pink badge of foolhardiness glistening against the ebony skin? Is there any adult anywhere who does that when he plays? "My father used to have his tongue out when he'd be working, doing mechanical stuff," says Jordan, "and I just picked it up from him. Coach [Dean] Smith wanted me to stop it when I was back at UNC. But it's not a conscious thing. I can't play with it in." He sighs and shakes his head, for he knows that playground kids—who imitate his every nuance and dress habit, who see in him, if not a person whose skills might be attainable, then at least a big buddy—have started hanging their tongues out acourt. "I'm afraid they'll bite them off," Jordan says. He then warns: "For your tongues' sake, kids, don't do it."
For young boys everywhere, we can take a moment to describe Jordan's current, and less risky, basketball couture. The new Air Jordans (see box, page 21) are laced only to the second eyelet from the top ("I've just always done it that way," Jordan says). The single wristband (white at home, red away) is worn midway up the left forearm. The band serves no purpose now; Jordan started wearing one as a sophomore at North Carolina "in memory" of his teammate and roomie Buzz Peterson, who injured his knee that year, and he has been wearing one ever since. On his left knee he wears an elastic brace, reversible red or black. And then there are the gigantic trunks that make Jordan look a little like Larry Holmes stepping into the ring against Michael Spinks. Jordan likes his shorts big so he can grab them as he rests and pull them up when he hunkers down on defense. "Last year they were 36's," he says. "This year they're 34's that are two inches longer than normal." None of which would mean a blessed thing if Jordan weren't the charismatic entertainer he is.
"He's got a lot of Elgin in him, and a lot of Earl," says Bulls vice-president Jerry Krause. "Baylor had that intensity and carriage. And nobody played the crowd like Monroe."
In fact, these days Jordan is in a class of one. With Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar fading, Magic Johnson hobbling and Larry Bird rooted to the earth, Jordan has the realm of midair largely to himself. Only Dominique Wilkins offers serious competition, and he isn't as important to his team as Jordan is to the Bulls. In just 112 career NBA games Jordan has seven of the top 13 Bulls' alltime single-game scoring performances. In five games this season he has taken 31.5% of the Bulls' shots and scored 37.7% of the team's points, and he has a tendency to get hotter as the game progresses. "What I'm trying to convince the guys of," says first-year coach Doug Collins, "is to just stay close-for three quarters, and then we've got something spectacular to use." Jordan was the 1984-85 NBA Rookie of the Year, leading the league in points (2,313) and averaging 28.2 points per game. He also led the Bulls in minutes played, rebounds, assists and steals.
"The name of the game is to force a player to do the one thing he can't do real well," says 7'2" San Antonio center Artis Gilmore, "but as far as I can tell, Jordan doesn't have that one thing."
And when the money's on the line, Jordan becomes a dervish. "You can see him change, see it in his face," says San Antonio guard Alvin Robertson.
Jordan is well mannered, but frisky and playful as a nursery schooler. As he walks around the undersized pool table in the basement of his suburban town house, sinking balls against a very rusty opponent, he says, "Uh huh, the house wins. The house always wins." Much of his carefreeness comes from having parents who never pushed Michael, the second youngest of their five children, but were always there when he needed them.
The town house is neat and clean, Jordan's handiwork. He has a "special" girlfriend in Chicago now, but when he was in high school he wasn't lucky with girls, and he took a home economics class because he figured he would always be a bachelor and would need the skills. Now he can sew and iron and cook and be the perfect domestic. He was upset that the Bulls were out of town on Halloween. "I had McDonald's cards all printed up with my name on them for free Big Macs for trick-or-treaters," he says. "I really wanted to see the kids."
Perhaps the surest sign that Jordan has arrived as a cultural icon can be found in the high demand for his services in the endorsement and publicity marketplace. Nike, for one good example, sank a lot of money into Jordan as a symbol and Air Jordan as a virtual subsidiary of the parent company. It all was stalled on Oct. 29, 1985, when Jordan broke a bone in his left foot during the third game of the season. He sat out for 64 games, and it seemed possible people might forget about him.
Jordan was going crazy. The Bulls, under doctors' orders, would not let him practice until the bone was completely healed. In February, Jordan went back to Chapel Hill, ostensibly to work toward his degree in geography. And, indeed, he did graduate last summer. But the real reason he left Chicago was to play basketball, pickup games with his pals. When Krause found out what Jordan was doing he was furious. In March Jordan returned to Chicago and said he was fit enough to rejoin the team. The doctors said there was still a 10% chance the bone could break again, but Jordan, who felt fine, didn't care. He was dying without his game.
"If you had an investment that was 90 percent sure, wouldn't you take it?" he said. Jordan may have been foolhardy, but his passion was touching, for it revealed the depth of his love for the game.
Finally the Bulls let Jordan suit up, but they limited his playing time at first to seven minutes a half before gradually increasing it. Jordan was out of control in those first games. He averaged 24.7 points in the three games last year before his injury; at the end of the regular season, he had a 22.7 average in 18 games. He tried to pack everything he had missed into each brief appearance. "I was too hyper," he says now. He also was disillusioned with management, telling Krause, "You have to let me be a human being. I'm not a piece of meat."
All Jordan's frustrations were vented in the playoff series against the Celtics, the first games he was allowed to play in without restriction. In the opener he scored 49 points. In the second game he had 63, an NBA playoff record. Afterward Celtics guard Dennis Johnson, an All-Defensive team member for eight consecutive years, said, "As you can see, no one can guard him." And after the playoffs Bird said, in his now-famous appraisal of the player, the kid is "God disguised as Michael Jordan."
It was during the 63-point outburst that basketball fans could see a new philosophy being espoused. Basketball coaches have always told their players to know what they are doing before they leave the ground. And here was Michael Jordan leaping into the air, soaring, without any precise notion at all of what he might do, just waiting to react to "awkward situations." The air had become his ground. "I go up for a normal shot, but after that I don't have any plans," he says. "I never practice those moves. I don't know how I do them. It's amazing."
That Jordan is a blessed human being is beyond argument. "When I think of Jordan, I think of somebody who has all his planets in a row," says Chicago Sun-Times beat writer Mark Vancil.
So many things have gone just right for him in his life—including the fact that he was not a spoiled high school superstar, that he was coached by Smith, that as a North Carolina freshman he was able to hit the jump shot that won the NCAA championship, that even though he rested his foot last summer and didn't work out, he reported to camp with 3.4% body fat and ran the mile in 5:22. It is a good thing he can do so much so well, because for the Bulls, quite often, he must. Besides forward Charles Oakley, the Bulls do not have another blue-chip player. The four players who start with Jordan—Oakley, Earl Cureton, Steve Colter and Granville Waiters—have a combined average of 33 points per game.
There is no resentment by Bulls players over Jordan's gifts. "No resentment at all," says center Dave Corzine. "Anyone who can score 40 a night is a pleasure." But some others have reservations. "He's the greatest one-on-one player ever," says announcer Al McGuire. "The question is, does he elevate the play of those around him? It's an open issue."
But nobody would deny that there is an infectious joy about Jordan. "Money is nothing to me," says Jordan, whose five-year, $4 million contract is far less lucrative than those of Bird or Magic or the Doctor. "People say I'm underpaid, but that's not a big issue. I'm playing." Then again, this is only his third year in the league, and he earns perhaps three times his salary from endorsements.
While reviewing Jordan's contract after taking over basketball operations last year, Krause was stunned to see something quite different from money terms included. There at the end was a clause stating that Jordan, unlike most other NBA players, can play basketball anytime he wants to during the off-season. "I would never offer that to another player," says Krause vigorously. The addendum is now referred to as Jordan's "love-of-the-game clause" and is the rough equivalent of someone like Bruce Springsteen signing an agreement with his manager stating that Springsteen can sing for free whenever he wants.
Will Jordan be an Ernie Banks, one wonders, another Chicago megastar with never a supporting cast to carry him to the top? The Bulls have three first-round picks next year, and maybe something will come of that. And then, one worries about Jordan's fragility. How is that foot? But Jordan has no time to worry about that. He sits now in a hotel room before an away game and thinks about flying.
"I wish I could show you a film of a dunk I had in Milwaukee," he says. "It's in slow motion, and it looks like I'm taking off, like somebody put wings on me. I get chills when I see it." He smiles, as thrilled by what he did as any observer could be. "I think, when does 'jump' become 'flying'? I don't have the answer yet." Oakley comes by to ask Jordan if he wants to join a card game across the hall. Jordan says in a minute, then grins.
"I may never grow up, huh? Well...I do hate it when people call me 'Sir,' or 'Mr. Jordan.' And I want to stay young as long as I can. That's why I have a little-boy haircut. And there's no hair on my face, just a little peach fuzz. But that took 23 years."
He chuckles, throws his hands in the air and heads off for the card game.
"I can fly/I can fly/I can fly...."