May 21, 1995

It has been billed as the ultimate confrontation, Air Jordan
vs. Shaq, which is misleading because they confront each other
only occasionally. Every now and again Chicago Bull guard
Michael Jordan will soar down the lane to find Orlando Magic
center Shaquille O'Neal in his path, and O'Neal will
periodically look down to find Jordan slapping at the ball
during one of the Bulls' countless efforts to double-team him.
But this is not Chamberlain against Russell, or even Ewing
against Olajuwon. These rivals do not often stare into each
other's eyes.

In fact, the most remarkable aspect of the competition between
Jordan and O'Neal in the Eastern Conference semifinal series
that unfolded last week was that they came in contact at all,
considering the myriad opponents they had to wade through. Shaq
was so bedeviled by the Hack Pack -- Bull centers Luc Longley,
Will Perdue and Bill Wennington -- that he put out a call for a
tag-team partner in what had turned into a steel-cage match
under the boards. ``Hulk [Hogan], I need you, man,'' O'Neal said
after Game 2.

Jordan, meanwhile, had his own three-headed foe. There was
Jordan vs. the NBA, whose policy he was defying by continuing to
wear his preretirement jersey number, 23, instead of the number
45 he chose when he returned to the league. There was Jordan vs.
the media, to whom he did not speak all last week -- despite the
urging of league officials -- except for a brief television
interview after Game 4 on Sunday. And there was Jordan vs.
Jordan, the current model vs. the preretirement version of
himself, who seemed to live in midair and never fail when the
game hung in the balance.

Both O'Neal and Jordan have been alternately the victor and the
vanquished in their various side battles, just as their teams
alternated wins in the best-of-seven series that was tied 2-2
after the Bulls' 106-95 win in Chicago on Sunday, with Game 5
scheduled for Tuesday in Orlando. Though they had played for a
week and settled nothing, both teams had learned quite a bit
about their opponents and themselves. The Magic found that
opponents who think Jordan isn't quite the spectacular player he
was before his 17-month sabbatical from the NBA would be wise to
keep that opinion to themselves, lest they be subjected to the
kind of 38-point scolding Jordan gave in the Bulls' 104-94 Game
2 win in Orlando on May 10. That performance came in response to
Magic guard Nick Anderson's innocent suggestion that the
32-year- old Jordan might have a tad less spring in his step
than he did when he was leading Chicago to three straight NBA
championships from 1991 to '93.

Jordan's performance was so convincing that it took only one
more game -- in which he scored 40 points, though the Bulls lost
110-101 -- for another question to be raised: Was Jordan's
domination of the offense (he took 30 and 31 shots in Games 2
and 3, respectively) limiting the effectiveness of his
teammates? But Jordan had the answer for that one, too. He has
always had the power to modulate his game as circumstances
dictate, and he did it again in Game 4, making sure that
forwards Scottie Pippen (24 points) and Toni Kukoc (13 points,
nine assists, seven rebounds) and guard B.J. Armstrong (18
points) were off and scoring before he began to look at the
basket himself.

Jordan finished with 26 points, seven rebounds and four steals,
and the Bulls finished with their most balanced effort of the
series. ``We found out that we're at our best when we move the
ball and everyone is involved,'' said Wennington afterward. ``I
think that's been the biggest lesson of the four games, and it's
something we'll take into the rest of the series.''

But Chicago has also discovered that Orlando is no longer a
playoff greenhorn. That hard-earned Game 3 win on the road put
to rest the notion that the Magic is all flash and no substance
and that under postseason pressure, it can be expected to
crumble like a burnt cookie. ``People didn't think we could take
it,'' said Orlando guard Brian Shaw after Game 4. ``They didn't
think we could handle the road and the playoffs and Michael
Jordan all put together, but we came here, won one game and
almost won another one. People won't really believe in us until
we win the championship, but we believe in ourselves, and that's
more important.''

The Magic had to be equally encouraged by its ability to play
the Bulls to a standstill without a dominating performance from
either of its two stars, O'Neal and point guard Anfernee
Hardaway. Both had their moments, especially O'Neal, whose free
throw shooting was a revelation. He made 71.4% (40 of 56)
compared with 53.3% in the regular season. He also had a
20-point first half in Game 3 and became more effective on
offense when he began moving to the basket before a second
defender could arrive. ``My mother, my grandmother, everybody
told me to make quicker moves to the basket,'' he said after
finishing with 28 points in the third game. But neither O'Neal
nor Hardaway was as consistent through the first four games of
the series as Orlando forward Horace Grant, the ex-Bull who made
his former teammates pay for leaving him open while they
double-teamed O'Neal. Grant nailed one jump shot after another
en route to averaging 19.5 points and 12.3 rebounds through the
first four games. ``We're making him score, and he's doing it,''
said Chicago coach Phil Jackson after Game 4.

Grant, who joined Orlando as a free agent last summer amid
charges and countercharges of bad faith in negotiations with the
Bulls, was careful not to gloat. He gave the impression that the
time for that would come later. Asked if he would say there was
any special incentive in playing against Chicago, Grant smiled
broadly and said, ``Not yet.''

Although O'Neal was shackled by the Bulls' three centers at
times and by foul trouble at others, he and Jordan still lived
up to their billing, leading their respective teams in scoring
average over the first four games. Both players, however, had
their share of fourth-quarter difficulties -- Jordan committed
key turnovers and O'Neal had a hard time getting the ball down
the stretch.

But O'Neal held the clear advantage over Jordan in the charm
department. While the latter was keeping his own counsel, the
former was properly deferential to Jordan -- ``He's Superman,
I'm Superboy,'' Shaq said - - and engaging with reporters,
telling them how he still has the autograph Jordan gave him when
O'Neal was a 17-year-old visiting North Carolina on a recruiting
trip. ``Michael came in the locker room and gave me an autograph
without me even asking,'' he recalled. ``He said if I went
there, he'd play some games with me during the summer and dunk
over me.''

Jordan never got the chance to dunk over O'Neal (who chose LSU)
in those days, nor did he do it in the first four games of this
series. But he did challenge the Orlando big men and delivered
his share of airborne improvisations. ``Michael can get any shot
he wants anytime he wants,'' said Hardaway. ``That much hasn't

The series has been a succession of moves and countermoves,
beginning with Anderson's comments and Jordan's response. After
he had helped Orlando to a 94-91 Game 1 win by making a key
steal from Jordan in the final moments, Anderson compared Jordan
with his old Airness, complimenting him at length but finally
allowing that there may have been slippage. ``Number 45 doesn't
explode like number 23 used to,'' he said. ``Number 23, he could
just blow by you. He took off like a space shuttle. Number 45,
he revs up, but he doesn't really take off.''

Jordan responded by conspiring with the Bulls' equipment
manager, John Ligmanowski, to execute the infamous number switch
before Game 2. Ligmanowski suggested the change after the Game 1
loss, and before Game 2 he put a 23 and a 45 jersey in Jordan's

Jordan is clearly sensitive to suggestions that his talents have
eroded with age. After a 48-point performance in the Bulls'
first-round series against Charlotte, he was asked if he felt he
had stepped back in time. ``Yes,'' he said, ``and my step isn't
as slow as some people think.'' So, when he saw the two jerseys
in his locker in Orlando, he slipped on his old 23 and played
like the old number 23, with those 38 points that helped tie the
series 1-1. ``I'm a big believer in letting sleeping dogs
lie,'' said Magic coach Brian Hill. ``We talked about how
everything that's said is magnified in the playoffs, about not
saying things to pump the other team up, but I guess not
everybody paid attention.''

Jordan paid just as little attention to the league's wishes. The
Bulls were fined $25,000 for allowing him to violate the NBA
policy against changing uniform numbers without league
permission, and he continued to wear 23. Chicago owner Jerry
Reinsdorf issued a statement saying the Bulls would support
Jordan's choice because it was ``extremely important to
Michael,'' and the NBA said it will decide on a penalty after
the season.

The Great Number Switch quickly developed into a seriocomic
issue, with Jordan among those most amused by it all. Before
Game 3, a jersey with no number at all hung in his locker. As he
walked by, Jordan smiled devilishly and said, ``Like my
uniform?'' The day before Game 4, Grant said he was going to
talk to NBA commissioner David Stern. ``I'm planning to wear
number 54 1/2,'' he said.

The Luvabulls, Chicago's dance troupe, planned a routine in
which they would wear jackets with number 45 on the back, then
drop their jackets to reveal uniforms bearing the number 23. But
the Bulls nixed the idea, not wanting to aggravate the situation
with the NBA. That was wise, because not everyone was laughing.
The Magic protested that O'Neal had sought permission to change
his number from 32 to his college number, 33, earlier in the
season but had been rebuffed.

The issue became a matter of public debate, with some arguing
that even if the number on a jersey was inconsequential (except
to the folks who market NBA apparel), the flaunting of league
rules was not. When Jordan returned to the NBA two months ago,
he said that one of his objectives was to teach the younger
players respect for the league. Some observers wondered if
violating an NBA policy and ignoring the media taught the kind
of lesson he had in mind.

Other players were clearly following his lead in dealing with
reporters. After Game 3, six of the 10 starters -- Anderson and
Grant of Orlando, and Armstrong, Jordan, Kukoc and Pippen of
Chicago -- declined to speak with the media. When Bull guard
Steve Kerr's two-year-old son, Nicholas, grabbed a radio
microphone and uttered a few unintelligible noises after Game 4,
he was being more communicative than several players in the

That is not what league officials had in mind for their showcase
series, and Stern and NBA vice president of public relations
Brian McIntyre were in Chicago over the weekend, quietly
encouraging players to make themselves more available to the
media. ``The media gets information to the fans,'' McIntyre
said. ``If players aren't talking to the media, the fans get

But they were getting their money's worth from the games,
watching the sport's two most recognizable stars play to their
vastly different strengths. It would be a pity if any of the
players choose to remain silent, because Jordan and O'Neal
appear ready to provide a series ending that will be well worth
talking about.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER COVER PHOTO NBA PLAYOFFS BATTLE OF THE TITANS MICHAEL VS. SHAQ [Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal reach for the airbourne basketball] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER [Michael Jordan attempting to make a basket as Shaquille O'Neal reaches for the basketball] COLOR PHOTO: BEN VAN HOOK Grant floored Pippen and his former mates but was tight-lipped on the subject of revenge. [Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen on the floor of the basketballcourt] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER The Magic tied the series the hard way: without one of its stars, Hardaway, at the top of his game. [Michael Jordan blocking Anfernee Hardaway] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER With Chicago focusing on shackling Shaq, Grant broke loose for 19.5 points and 12.3 rebounds a game. [Horace Grant reaching for the airbourne basketball, with Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal behind him]