Cover Story

Checking Michael Jordan isn't so strenuous, but it's sure frustrating, says Steve Smith, who did the thankless task for Atlanta
May 18, 1997

Steve Smith is beaming, looking nothing like a player who has just had his ticket punched to basketball hell. It is Sunday, May 4, and the Atlanta Hawks have just beaten the Detroit Pistons in the deciding game of their first-round NBA playoff series, thereby earning the right to play the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals. This means Smith, the Hawks' shooting guard, has been sentenced to at least a week of hard labor--trying to shackle the best player on the planet, the Bulls' Michael Jordan.

Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Smith donated $2.5
million to his alma mater, Michigan State, in January; he buys
40 tickets to every Hawks home game and passes them out to youth
groups and senior citizens; and he gives $50 to the Georgia
chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation for every three-pointer he
makes. "And for all that, what does he get? Michael Jordan, for
a whole series," says his teammate, forward Tyrone Corbin.
"That's not fair. The only thing tougher than guarding Jordan
all night is guarding Jordan every night."

Playing defense against Jordan for an entire playoff series is
like facing Tiger Woods for 72 holes of match play. Guarding
Jordan grows more difficult over the course of a series, which
is why so many of the teams he faces in the postseason rotate
defenders against him. "He can really work you over physically
and psychologically during a game," says Atlanta assistant Bill
Hanzlik. "But in the regular season you see him for a night, and
then you don't have to worry about him again for a few weeks. In
a playoff series he gets to work on you over and over again. You
have to be so mentally strong not to let the frustration build,
not to let up even if it seems like nothing you do against him
is working. Guarding him night in and night out is the ultimate
challenge."

Smith knows this well; he has been matched up against Jordan
more times than he cares to count in his six-year career. At
6'8" he is two inches taller than Jordan, and with his long arms
he is well suited to guard him. But he has only once faced
Jordan in his most lethal form, the postseason Jordan, and that
was in 1992, when Smith was a rookie playing for Miami and
Chicago swept the Heat 3-0 in the first round. "I know what's
going to happen," Smith says. "I know his eyes are going to get
even more intense. His cuts are going to get even sharper, his
moves are going to get even quicker." And Smith is going to get
a close-up view of it all. He's going to be chained to the
all-you-can-eat Jordan buffet. But if Smith is worried, he's
doing a superb job of hiding it during this postgame
celebration. Someone asks how he will try to contain Jordan.
Smith laughs and says, "I don't know. I don't want to think
about that until tomorrow."

MONDAY, MAY 5

Video day. The Hawks go over videotape of the Bulls in
preparation for Game 1 on Tuesday night. Smith studies the Bulls
in general, not Jordan in particular. He believes the best
approach to guarding Jordan is to make sure his mind does not
become a 24-hour, all-Jordan, all-the-time channel. Some players
get so-called individual edits, tapes that have been put
together to isolate the player they will be matched up against.
This is the last thing Smith wants to prepare for Jordan, even
though he has nothing against watching videos; he has every
episode of Sanford and Son on tape and rarely goes a day without
watching at least one. But he gets far more amusement from Fred
and Lamont than from Michael. "If I wanted to watch a tape of
strictly Michael Jordan, I'd buy one of his highlight videos,"
Smith says. "You don't want to study him too much because you
can find yourself starting to be in awe a little bit. Besides,
it's not like I'm going to find a weakness to take advantage of,
because he doesn't have any."

Smith's teammates keep their advice to a minimum. "There's not a
lot you can say that he doesn't already know," says reserve
guard Jon Barry. "It's more like, 'Hey, Smitty, do your best,
and, uh, we're right behind you.'" Atlanta coach Lenny Wilkens
tries to offer more concrete help. He would like to get away
with having Smith guard Jordan one-on-one as much as possible,
but the Hawks will send over one of their big men--usually 6'11"
forward-center Christian Laettner but sometimes 7'2" center
Dikembe Mutombo--for an occasional double-team. Wilkens wants to
send a big man rather than a guard because he knows Jordan's
favorite weapon these days is the fadeaway jumper, and Laettner
and Mutombo are more likely to disrupt that shot. "He doesn't
seem to want to take the ball to the hoop as much," Wilkens
says. "So if we can force him to do something he doesn't want to
do, that's one small victory." Smith expects help from the big
men, but he isn't picky. "Anybody who wants to help, Christian,
Dikembe, the popcorn guy, the Gatorade kid, I'll take it," he
says.

TUESDAY, MAY 6

"You ready?" Smith says to Jordan as they meet at half-court for
the tip-off.

"I'm ready. You ready?" Jordan replies, smiling.

It is the first of what will be many exchanges between Jordan
and Smith during this series. "A little late on that one,
weren't you?" Jordan says after making a jump shot over Smith.
"Is that all you got?" Smith asks on the way downcourt after a
Jordan miss. On one of Jordan's highlight videos, he is seen
sneaking up behind an opposing player and tickling his
fingertips during a break in the action. The player is Smith. "I
enjoy playing against Steve," says Jordan. "We have the same
kind of personality out on the court. We like to exchange a few
words out there, but we're careful not to cross the line."

Jordan sometimes seduces his opponents into forgetting how
dangerous he is by engaging them in conversation. This is what
New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy was referring to in January
when he called Jordan a con man--and unwisely incurred his
wrath. "I definitely wouldn't say that about him," Smith says,
"but I would say you have to always keep in mind that he's
looking for a way to take advantage of you."

On this night Jordan finds little to take advantage of early.
Smith handles him without much double-team help, partly because
it seems that Jordan is floating around the edges of the game,
waiting to see what shape it takes before he fully involves
himself. At halftime Jordan has only 13 points, but in the third
quarter he decides it's time: He hits two free throws, then
scrapes Smith off a screen and makes a three-pointer. Later in
the quarter he gets away from Smith for a fast-break dunk, one
of two for the period. He is on one of his rolls, and the Hawks
are just hoping to ride it out. By the time the quarter ends
Jordan has scored 20 points in the period, and a 50-39 Atlanta
halftime lead has become a 77-70 advantage for the Bulls.

Jordan is quiet again in the fourth quarter, but Chicago forward
Scottie Pippen hits a three-pointer with 43.9 seconds to give
the Bulls a 100-97 win and a 1-0 lead in the series. "I stayed
in front of him for three quarters," Smith says afterward of
Jordan, who nevertheless finished with 34 points. "But in the
third quarter he got that look in his eye. He started making his
move to the basket right away, and he had no pattern. He went
left, he went right. He drove, he pulled up. When he gets like
that, you just have to do your best and hope he eventually cools
off. I'll go home and think about the good things I did against
him more than the problems I had. But most of all, I'll think
about Game 2."

THURSDAY, MAY 8

Smith sits in the visitors' locker room at the United Center
before Game 2, ignoring the tape of Game 1 that is playing
across the room. He calls out to the reporters who are leaving
the room, having completed their pregame interviews. "I want to
see you guys come rushing back in here after we win," he says.

One night of guarding Jordan hasn't shaken his confidence. "I
can't afford to get frustrated, not against him," Smith says.
"He reads you. If he sees you get down, drop your head, he'll
try to crush you. You can't let yourself get frustrated, because
it will show, and then he's got you."

There's a theory that Jordan's favorite shooting spot is on the
right wing facing the basket. Smith and the Hawks don't
subscribe to that, and as Game 2 starts Jordan seems intent on
proving that he has no favorite place on the court. He takes
Smith to the right wing twice for turnaround jumpers, then takes
him to the left side for another basket. Smith will see much of
Jordan's repertoire tonight. He will be reminded of one
attribute of Jordan's that is often overlooked--his speed--when
Jordan grabs a rebound while Smith is down on the baseline and
goes the length of the court for a bucket before Smith can chase
him down. Jordan will also show off a few veteran tricks,
including one, in the third quarter, when he grabs Smith's shirt
and pulls him one way while he goes the other for an alley-oop
pass and a dunk.

Jordan is giving the Hawks a difficult time, but he has trouble
of his own. He's guarding Atlanta's Mookie Blaylock, exactly the
kind of small, quick guard he detests covering, and Blaylock is
on his way to scoring 26 points, including eight three-pointers.
Jordan not only has to chase Blaylock but also fill the
rebounding void left by Chicago forward Dennis Rodman, who does
not seem to be of sound mind or body tonight. Rodman, hampered
by a knee strain, finishes with just five rebounds and earns his
nightly technical, so Jordan picks up the slack with 16
rebounds. But all this extra work leaves him too tired to
perform his typical late-game magic. He misses a three-pointer
with Smith standing flat-footed at the top of the key and later
runs Smith off a pick and frees himself for a layup, which he
misses. He finishes with 27 points, as does Smith, on 12-of-29
shooting, and the Hawks tie the series with a 103-95 win.

The Hawks' plan of sending a big man at Jordan seems to have
helped, but fatigue appears to have been Jordan's biggest
obstacle on this night. "He just had to do too much tonight,"
Smith says afterward. "He was trying to take over in the fourth
quarter, you could see it in his eyes. I tried to make him go
over me, not around me, and he just missed some shots. He's
human, even though sometimes he makes you wonder."

SATURDAY, MAY 10

The series shifts to Atlanta with the Hawks in position to put a
scare into the Bulls. "There are two situations where you have
to be especially careful with Michael," says Wilkens. "When he
thinks he has you in trouble, and when you think you have him in
trouble."

Smith is braced for an early flurry from Jordan, but he's not
worried, as some of his teammates are, that guarding Jordan will
ultimately take its toll on Smith's offense. He scored 19 points
in Game 1 and 27 in Game 2. "Guarding Michael is easy--wait, I
don't mean easy, don't say that," he says. "I mean in some ways
you don't get as tired as you do guarding other players.
Somebody like Reggie Miller will run you back and forth across
the floor through a million picks on every possession. But
Michael doesn't waste much motion, he doesn't play with you.
When he doesn't have the ball, he doesn't do much, except wait
for an opening. When he gets the ball, he lets you get set, then
he does what he's going to do. It usually won't be more than a
couple of dribbles. So you don't get especially worn out
guarding him."

Smith doesn't have much chance to get tired early in Game 3. He
picks up his second foul in the first quarter, and he sits down
with 8:04 left in the period. But Jordan and the rest of the
Bulls have trouble finding offensive consistency in the first
half, and they trail 52-46 at intermission. In the second half
the Chicago starters continue to struggle offensively. Jordan
and Pippen each make only 8 of 20 shots for the game, but
reserves Toni Kukoc and Brian Williams combine for 30 points to
spark the Bulls to a 100-80 win and a 2-1 series lead.

Afterward, reporters come in waves to Smith's locker, asking
about the Hawks' collapse; no one asks about guarding Jordan,
who finishes with a quiet 21 points. Someone says that the lack
of questions must mean Smith did a good job. "Not good enough to
win," he says.

SUNDAY, MAY 11

Through the first three games of the series, the Hawks couldn't
be happier about Smith's work on Jordan. "He's only really had
one explosive run, in the third quarter of Game 1," says
Wilkens. "As great as he is, he has not been the story of this
series, which is a credit to Steve."

Still, the Bulls are in position to go up three games to one,
and when they take a 75-53 lead with 4.4 seconds left in the
third quarter, it's clear Wilkens needs to try something
different. He sends in backup point guard Eldridge Recasner to
defend Jordan and, after briefly resting Smith, sends him back
to guard Pippen. Recasner gives up three inches to Jordan, but
the different look seems to catch Jordan by surprise. Recasner
hits a pair of threes and helps harass Jordan into a traveling
violation as the Hawks stage a furious comeback, getting within
83-80 with just under a minute left. Then Jordan breaks the
Hawks' heart. He posts up Recasner, draws a foul and makes both
free throws. He seals Chicago's 89-80 victory with a steal and a
dunk.

In the locker room later Smith is considerably more grim-faced
than he had been a week earlier. Seven days of having Jordan on
the brain had taken its toll. In another part of the locker
room, Recasner was being complimented for his work against
Jordan in the fourth quarter. "We just wanted to show him
something different," Recasner is saying. "It worked for a
little while at least."

Would Recasner like to try his luck against Jordan full time? "I
would give it my best if I was asked," he says. "But guarding
Jordan for a whole series? I couldn't imagine that."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)