“The Best There Was, The Best There Will Ever
Shared by: AlisterM
“The Best There Was, the Best There Will Ever Be” This is just a few pages of my memories and opinions about Michael Jordan. Hope you enjoy it. When I originally thought of this column, my intended title was “The Best There Is, the Best There Was, the Best There Will Ever Be”. Some of you may remember this (even if you aren‟t that proud to admit it) as a tag line for WWF / WCW Champion wrestler Bret “The Hitman” Hart. And while the merit of using such a phrase to describe anyone in a sport where the outcome is predetermined is a separate discussion, I thought it was the best description of Michael Jordan. Then I discovered that someone else beat me to it by 16 years. The shortened phrase that is now my title was etched onto the statue of him in front of the United Center in Chicago. It was fitting in 1993, and still is in 2009. He could only be called the best ever to play the game. During his Championship years with the Bulls, he eliminated an astounding list of current and future Hall of Fame player‟s teams from the playoffs. The Detroit Pistons with Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, Charles Barkley‟s 76ers, Magic Johnson and James Worthy‟s Lakers, Partick Ewing‟s Knicks, Clyde Drexler‟s Portland Trail Blazers, Charles Barkley‟s Phoenix Suns, Alonzo Mourning‟s Hornets and Miami Heat teams, Shaquille O‟Neal‟s Orlando Magic, Gary Payton‟s Seattle Sonics, Reggie Miller‟s Indiana Pacers, and John Stockton and Karl Malone‟s Utah Jazz teams all lost in elimination series to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Even the problems that Jordan faced along the way helped to shape his career, and make him more determined. Would Jordan have been as driven if he was not left off the varsity team at Laney High School? If he hadn‟t been drafted by a team that was in as bad shape as the 1984-85 Bulls were? What if he hadn‟t broken his foot during the 1985- 86 season? If the Bulls hadn‟t been eliminated by the Pistons in four consecutive years? All of these circumstances that would have had a greater negative affect on players with less mental toughness only served to fuel his drive to win, which served him well as he wrested NBA titles from the superstars of his era. In an effort to try and stop Jordan from scoring at will, the Detroit Pistons devised “The Jordan Rules” in which the team attempted to inflict punishment on Jordan whenever the ball was in his hands. This led to a slowdown in the overall pace of play in the NBA as teams noticed that Detroit had success against the Bulls by deliberately playing from a half-court offense throughout the season. Jordan‟s next major challenge, the New York Knicks of the early 1990‟s took this to another level, becoming the “Pistons 2.0”, and the league took notice. By the mid-90‟s scoring had dropped off considerably from the peak at the beginning of the decade. In a way this played into Jordan‟s hands, as he may not have been able to keep up with a “run and gun” league later in his career. It was Jordan‟s tireless work ethic that kept him above the other stars of his day. Despite the accolades, despite the commercials, he never stopped working on his game, and on staying several steps ahead of the competition. His work with trainer Tim Grover changed Jordan from a 185 pound gazelle who would invariably run into trouble against teams that tried to wear him out physically like the Detroit Pistons, into a 215 pound horse who could take a hit, draw the foul, make the shot, and in doing so deliver some punishment of his own. He continually kept his work with Grover a guarded secret, lest another star player learn of his work and steal the advantage that he had over the rest of the league. Despite my current admiration, during the 1990‟s I couldn‟t stand Michael Jordan. He killed my Knicks, eliminating them from the playoffs in ‟89, ‟91, ‟92, ‟93, and ‟96. New York signed free agent coach Pat Riley in 1992, and immediately began working toward a lock-down defensive identity. With Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Xavier McDaniel, Anthony Mason, Rolando Blackman, Derek Harper, and John Starks on their roster, they took the Pistons defensive team mindset to the next level. The Knicks from 1993 held opponents to 95.4 ppg., quite an accomplishment in the early 90‟s. When they faced the Bulls in the playoffs that year, the Knicks won the first two games at home. The Bulls held the home court only to set up one of the most anticipated Game Five‟s of that era at Madison Square Garden. The Bulls won 97-94, with Jordan putting up a triple-double and making a critical assist on a 3-pointer, and Pippen keeping Charles Smith from scoring in the closing seconds. Chicago closed out the series at home. The one year the Knicks bested the Bulls, 1994, Michael Jordan was in his first retirement. Even still, it took them until the last two minutes of Game 7 to pull out the victory. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Scottie Pippen and that Chicago team pushed the Knicks to a Game 7 in part due to the toughness that Jordan instilled on them during practices in the years before. My memories as a true fan of Michael Jordan are relatively brief since, I didn‟t admire his accomplishments as a player until after his second retirement. So, with the distorted lens of a biased and abused Knicks fan, I refused to see him play in person. In 1996, with Knicks tickets outrageously expensive for a college student / hotel bellman, I purchased a ten-game pass to see the New Jersey Nets. With a starting five of Kerry Kittles, Kendall Gill, Tony Massenburg, Jayson Williams and Shawn Bradley, you‟d better believe the Nets were featuring some of the visiting playoff teams to sell packaged ticket plans. With an option to see the Chicago Bulls, I chose the other package, with a less flattering array of opponents just because I didn‟t want to see Jordan annihilate an NBA team in person. It was after his second retirement that I picked up “Playing For Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made” by David Halberstam, which gave me a fascinating insight into the person behind the guy who destroyed my Knicks each spring. I seriously wished that I could have seen him play in person. In 2001, Michael Jordan famously “scratched the itch” and returned to the game for a third time, now with the Washington Wizards. When Jordan served as President of Basketball Operations for the Wizards, he had to know that even in his 1990-91 form, there was no way this team could contend for a title. He came back anyway, in his words, “for the love of the game”. His first opponent was the team that he destroyed so many times before, the New York Knicks. The symbolism of the NBA‟s living legend returning in a contest that featured teams from the cities that suffered the most on the recent tragedy of September 11 was not lost on the nation. That symbolism would continue with a game-winning shot that Jordan missed in the final 20 seconds, a harbinger that his third arrival would miss his intended mark. The idea that he would come back and teach the intangibles of winning to the team he once led from the front office dissipated through his two years in Washington. What was left was a team and a franchise all too ready to show him the way out by the end of the 2002-2003 season. In late 2001, I remember watching the SportsCenter recap to the first game that an opponent held him to under 10 points in a single game. I remember saying to someone close to me “If Michael has any fire left, he is going to come out next game and annihilate his next opponent just because of what happened tonight”. And he did. He blistered the Charlotte Hornets for 51 points, becoming the oldest player in NBA history to top 50 points in a game three nights later, and I couldn‟t have been happier. I finally got the chance to see the unyielding will that Jordan possessed, not as someone tired of his act, but as a true fan of his work. Maybe it was the fact that he had nothing left to prove to anyone, and that he came back with a team devoid of playoff-caliber talent for the sole purpose of playing the game that he loved. And for all of the imperfections during his time with the Wizards that he was bashed for, he played the game at a higher level than any other player did before him at such an advanced age. He did it on creaky knees, as the star player on a lower-tier team, and he did it with every NBA star who he had dominated years before gunning for him. I thought that him laying it all out there, risking humiliating himself on some nights to play the game he clearly still loved was a brave thing to do. I finally got the chance to see Jordan play on April 11, 2003. There would be only four games left in his career, and he gave his “I will die with no bullets left in my gun” speech about a week before. I was eager to see what, if anything, Jordan had left in the tank. He did not disappoint. After Heat Coach Pat Riley retired his number 23 (An easy bet to win with anyone who isn‟t a true basketball fan is to wager them that the Heat retired Michael Jordan‟s #23. They think they‟re stealing your money by taking the bet. I can‟t describe the glow on my face and the shock on theirs in the moment they discover that I‟m right.) in front of a sold-out crowd at the American Airlines Arena, Jordan lived up to his now retired number by putting up 23 points in the first half. These weren‟t exactly „Vintage Jordan‟ points. They came in jump shots over Anthony Carter, post up moves around Brian Grant and Mike James. He was shooting around Caron Butler, Rasoul Butler, and anyone else the Heat could throw at him. I was waiting for Dolphins LB Jason Taylor jump out from his courtside seat to try and keep Jordan from putting up points. Keep in mind, the man was 40 years old. But in that first half, with his career quickly drawing to a close, and his ability to soar dampened by bad knees, he absolutely could not be stopped. From my seats in the lower level, I could see his willingness to drive to the basket to score, that his fall away jumper barely allowed him the separation needed to get the shot off, and that he wanted to win the game so badly. He played 40 minutes, scored 25 points, and the Wizards won 91-87. After the game, Jordan‟s said the following about the Heat retiring his number: I thought Pat was trying to get my mind thinking about all the accolades, and then next thing you know, I forget about the game," Jordan said. "I said 'I ain't going to fall for that.' Pat Riley was honoring him and yet Jordan thought that Riley, with a Heat team that would finish 24 games out of first place, was on some level trying to steal a game from him by retiring his jersey. With three games left, he still had the focused competitive drive that fueled his career. I will never forget that I was able to see him play. Before I could finish this column, I got the chance to see Michael Jordan‟s retirement speech. (Some of this is similar to the opinion of J.A. Adande on espn.com today. In reality, I had this part written on Sunday. I couldn’t get this sent out sooner, because like J.A., I have two jobs. Unfortunately sportswriting isn’t one of them) Later the next day, I saw a sportswriter for a prominent outlet state that Jordan‟s speech was „petty and punitive‟ and beneath his status. But what you saw up on stage that day calling out other players and being vicious was the real Michael Jordan. Not the MJ from the Hanes commercials, Gatorade ads, or Space Jam, but the real MJ. The guy who cheats at card games against his college roommate‟s mother. The multi-millionaire who bet nine teammates $100 each to see which player‟s luggage would come off the plane first, knowing full well he had paid the porter $50 minutes before to make sure his was the first one out. The guy who got himself worked up for games against bottom rung teams in February by making up imagined slights against his opponents. The sportswriters and fans who feel that he in some way demeaned himself through his speech, just don‟t get it. That‟s who he really is. And you can‟t have Michael Jordan the six-time champion without getting Michael Jordan the ruthless competitor. Could you imagine Jordan in 1992 saying, „Well, I‟ve had my championship, I think it‟s Clyde Drexler‟s turn this year‟? Or a year later saying, “Charles Barkley is my best friend in the league, I‟ll go easy on him” As James Jordan said, “…if he didn‟t have a competition problem, nobody ever would have written about him in the first place, and he never would have gotten to the level he did.” That level that he is on means that he will be remembered in NBA history as the best there was, the best there will ever be.