He's Got Game Michael Finley, who began playing against Michael Jordan while still a schoolkid, can do it all--except lift his Mavs out of the doldrums

April 12, 1998

It was a simple game of H-O-R-S-E, arranged by a Chicago TV
station, but the 18-year-old Michael Finley's heart was pounding
and his palms were sweating as if he were about to play in Game
7 of the NBA Finals. "Let's see how nervous you are," Michael
Jordan said to him with a grin before making a layup to start
the game.

As a small crowd looked on at the Chicago Bulls' practice
facility in Deerfield, Ill., the teenager, a standout senior
forward at Proviso East High in nearby Maywood, took a deep
breath and matched his opponent's layup and several other harder
shots that followed. When at last it was his turn to take the
first shot, he wasted no time showing what he could do. Rising
from the floor like a bird, the long, lean youth cradled the
ball in his right hand and slammed home a dunk that left the
backboard shaking. "Hey, you're stealing my stuff, man," Jordan
said with a laugh.

Seven years later Finley still cherishes the memory of that
encounter with his idol. Although he lost--Jordan had a couple
of letters at the finish, as best Finley can remember--Finley at
least had shown that he wasn't afraid to compete with a legend.

These days Finley, a swingman for the Dallas Mavericks, shares
more with His Airness than that game of H-O-R-S-E. Like Jordan
in his early years with the Bulls--and like a few other
stalwarts on the NBA's sad-sack clubs (chart, page 40)--Finley
is emerging as one of the game's best young talents while
toiling for one of the league's less-than-championship-caliber
teams. At week's end, with Dallas standing 19-57 and fifth in
the Midwest Division, Finley was leading the Mavericks in
scoring (21.4 points per game), assists (4.8), steals (1.6) and
minutes (41.3). The only other players leading their teams in
all four categories were Houston Rockets guard Clyde Drexler,
Miami Heat guard Tim Hardaway, Detroit Pistons forward Grant
Hill and Philadelphia Sixers guard Allen Iverson. "He's our
centerpiece," says Dallas general manager and coach Don Nelson.
"He's made a major breakthrough as a player this year."

Like Jordan, albeit to a lesser extent, the 6'7", 215-pound
Finley can create off the dribble, post up smaller players and
play defense. His outside shooting, once suspect, has improved.
"He's got a good jab step, and he can score in a lot of ways,"
Nets forward Kendall Gill says. "He's also playing with a lot of
confidence."

Finley's emergence isn't surprising. A three-time
honorable-mention All-America forward at Wisconsin from 1993-95,
he was the 21st player selected in the '95 draft, by the Phoenix
Suns. As a rookie he appeared in all 82 regular season games,
averaging 15.0 points and 4.6 rebounds. He played solid defense,
threw down tomahawk dunks and showed flashes of open-court
brilliance. The Suns loved his potential, but when the
opportunity arose midway through last season to acquire All-Star
point guard Jason Kidd from the Mavericks, Phoenix reluctantly
shipped Finley, guard Sam Cassell, forward A.C. Green and a
second-round pick to Dallas for Kidd, guard Tony Dumas and
center-forward Loren Meyer. "We hated to give him up," says Suns
general manager Bryan Colangelo. "We felt Michael Finley was
going to be one of the bright young stars of this league."

Recognizing Finley's emerging stardom, Dallas signed him to a
five-year, $42 million contract extension last summer and
designated him as the go-to guy this season. "I've been given an
opportunity, and I'm trying to make the most of it," Finley
says. "My rookie year I was lucky enough to be around guys like
Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson and Danny Manning. I learned a
lot from them. I saw how they wanted the ball in crunch time and
how guys respected them for that. That's what I'm trying to do
here."

That's what he did on March 12, when he scored a game-high 32
points in Dallas's stunning 104-97 overtime defeat of the Bulls
at Reunion Arena. He also had eight rebounds and five assists
while holding Jordan to 26 points on 10-of-24 shooting.
Afterward, Nelson praised Finley for "standing up" to Jordan and
the Bulls.

With his steely eyes and goatee, Finley has something of a
sinister look about him. But only this season has he made his
game equally daunting by forcefully taking the ball to the hole.
"He's not settling for the pull-up jumper as much," says Phoenix
guard Rex Chapman. "Last year when you stopped his first move,
he'd basically concede. Now he'll give you a spin move or maybe
an up-and-under and take the ball strong to the hoop."

Finley has also assumed a bigger leadership role in the locker
room. Once a remote figure who cracked jokes with teammates but
rarely criticized them, Finley has become more vocal about his
feelings. After the Mavs lost 110-98 to the woeful Denver
Nuggets in January, he called his team's level of play "an
embarrassment" and said his teammates needed to play harder. "He
used to be a good player, but a quiet player," Nelson says. "Now
he's embracing the leadership role."

As well as Finley has played, however, he knows that some
coaches, players and fans around the league shrug off his
accomplishments because of the Mavericks' poor record. Before
this year's All-Star Game, he was barely mentioned as a
candidate for the Western Conference team, despite trailing only
the Sacramento Kings' Mitch Richmond in scoring among conference
guards. "That's O.K. That's the way it's been my whole career,"
says Finley, who, hours after the selections were announced,
scored a career-high 39 points, including seven of Dallas's nine
in overtime, to lead the Mavericks to an 84-77 win over the
Cleveland Cavaliers. "I just try to use it as motivation."

Such competitiveness and hunger to prove critics wrong are signs
of Jordan's influence. Like many young NBA players, Finley grew
up idolizing Jordan. Finley's mother, Bertha, a secretary,
recalls her son taping Jordan posters to his walls, watching
Bulls games on TV and even falling asleep to a motivational tape
by Jordan. At games Finley displays many of the same mannerisms
as his boyhood hero, from clapping talcum powder in the faces of
the Mavericks' announcers when he takes the court to draping a
towel over his shoulders and head while seated on the bench.

Unlike those Jordan worshipers who shave their heads and wear
jersey number 23, however, Finley, who does neither of those
things, embraces Jordan's substance more than his style. In an
echo of his hero's durability, Finley hasn't missed a
regular-season game in his three years, and at week's end he led
the NBA in minutes per game this season. "A lot of guys try to
emulate Jordan, and some of them go overboard," says Suns
forward Dennis Scott, who was one of Finley's best friends on
the Mavericks before he was dealt to Phoenix earlier this
season. "Michael took only the best pieces from Jordan. Like
being a professional and being a hard worker and absolutely
hating to lose."

Jordan, who has watched Finley's development closely over the
years, said recently that he thinks Finley could become the
franchise player in Dallas. He even handpicked Finley to be one
of five players, along with Milwaukee Bucks guard Ray Allen,
Cavaliers guard Derek Anderson, Seattle SuperSonics forward Vin
Baker and Los Angeles Lakers guard Eddie Jones, to be official
endorsers of his new line of apparel. Jordan and Finley also
share the same personal trainer.

Finley often thinks about the similarities between Jordan and
himself as he goes about trying to turn around the Mavericks.
Although he admits it's going to take more improvement on his
part, as well as "a couple more star players" to do the trick,
he says he's ready for the long haul. After all, he says, "it
took Michael seven years to win his first title."

COLOR PHOTO: GLENN JAMES/NBA PHOTOS GO-TO GUY Finley is Dallas's pacesetter in scoring, assists, steals, minutes and positive attitude. [Kevin Garnett, Michael Finley and Cherokee Parks in game] COLOR PHOTO: BARRY GOSSAGE/NBA PHOTOS [Doug Christie in game] COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER [Donyell Marshall in game] COLOR PHOTO: BARRY GOSSAGE/NBA PHOTOS RARE AIR Finley got the upper hand on his idol last month by leading the Mavericks to a 104-97 overtime victory against the Bulls. [Michael Jordan and Michael Finley in game]

Diamonds in the (Very) Rough
Like Michael Finley, these players sparkle though their teams
are at the bottom of the standings. (Statistics through Sunday.)

PLAYER, TEAM AVERAGES

Shareef Abdur-Rahim, F, Grizzlies 22.0 pts., 7.1 rebs.

CITATION FOR VALOR

Silky moves have made him 10th-leading scorer in the NBA

[PLAYER, TEAM AVERAGES]

Doug Christie (below, left), G, Raptors 16.3 pts., 2.4 steals

[CITATION FOR VALOR]

Third in NBA in steals and has blossomed amid chaos

[PLAYER, TEAM AVERAGES]

LaPhonso Ellis, F, Nuggets 13.8 pts., 6.9 rebs.

[CITATION FOR VALOR]

Team leader has refused to pack it in despite the Denver debacle

[PLAYER, TEAM AVERAGES]

Donyell Marshall (below, right), F, Warriors 15.4 pts., 8.6 rebs.

[CITATION FOR VALOR]

A bust till this season, he's now a most improved player candidate

[PLAYER, TEAM AVERAGES]

Rodney Rogers, F, Clippers 15.2 pts., 5.7 rebs.

[CITATION FOR VALOR]

Club still flounders, but Rogers has had his most solid season

Finley's hunger to prove critics wrong is a sign of Jordan's
influence.

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)