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Right time, right place, right man make MJ greatest ever

By David Aldridge, for
Posted Sep 11 2009 9:37AM

It may have well happened if he hadn't been there. Someone else may well have been the beneficiary of the confluence that occurred in the early 1980s: the merging of globalization, marketing, Larry and Magic, ESPN-led media proliferation and luck (luck is in everything) that helped turn a basketball star into a global icon.

Maybe it would have been Clyde Drexler ("If I could be ... like Clyde"). Maybe, a few years later, David Robinson would have caught the wave ("Off the battleship, behind the submarine, under the Coast Guard cutter ... nothing but net"). Surely, Charles Barkley could have starred in a movie with Bugs Bunny and Bill Murray, instead of just making a cameo appearance.

No human is irreplaceable, after all.

But he was there, and no one ever looked more delivered from central casting than Michael Jordan.

By the time Jordan got to the NBA, he had hit the game-winning shot for North Carolina in the 1982 NCAA Championship game, giving Dean Smith his first national title. He had been an all-American and helped deliver the gold medal with the U.S. Olympic team in 1984. He was extremely talented and well-schooled in fundamentals. There was no doubting he would become a star in the pros, a big one. But no one, not even Jordan himself, knew what the next 20 years would bring.

Fast-forward two decades and Jordan, at 46, in his first year of eligibility after being retired five years, will be inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Sept. 11 (There is a delicious rumor, too good to pass up, that Jordan thought about coming back to play last year for Charlotte, just for a game, so that he could start the five-year clock again, so loath is he to acknowledge, finally, that he can't play anymore.) He enters the Hall as one of sports' most indelible, familiar and successful figures, bigger than the game he played. He is a symbol of his times: the guy who made bald heads cool, sold a billion sneakers and changed many people's perceptions of African-American men.

Pretty good trifecta.

He had billboards that lined the sides of buildings in Barcelona, and had hundreds trailing him along the Champs Elysees, and reached people who could not communicate with him that they knew who he was and what he did for a living.

"My 'Eureka!' moment was in 1990," says David Stern, warming to a story he has told many times, "and I was in China. I was in Xi'an, the ancient capital of China, where the Terra Cotta soldiers are. And our guide said to us, a guide in Xi'an, having heard I was involved with basketball, said she was a huge fan of the 'Red Oxen.' And my interpreter said, 'That silly girl! She doesn't understand that it's 'Bulls!' And I scratched my head and said 'Holy Moses.'"

Years later, Stern was in South Africa.

"On the way to South Africa, a smaller group, of which I was not part, had stopped at a refugee camp in Zambia," Stern said. "And everybody was so thrilled to see our players, our coaches. They swept the dirt floor and they put on their finest clothing. Which were Chicago Bulls T-shirts. I knew there was something going on that we really couldn't appreciate."

The Commish is duly proud of the work he and his league have put into bringing the NBA back from irrelevancy in the late 70s -- "I'm not falsely modest," he says. But he's also aware that he didn't do it alone, and that people in business suits aren't wholly responsible. The ground for Jordan's ascension was laid by Russell's Celtics, and West's and Baylor's Lakers, and the Knicks of Clyde Frazier and Dollar Bill Bradley, and Dr. J and the ABA, and Rick Barry, and Bill Walton, and Wes Unseld, and Kareem, and Earl the Pearl, and a hundred other guys.

Jordan's name has become synonymous with excellence.
NBAE/Getty Images

If Bird and Magic hadn't gotten the party started in 1979, when they played for the national championship in college, then taken their barnstorming act to Boston and L.A., respectively, where their battles enthralled fans for most of the '80s, there's no way we're having this conversation. If Dick Ebersol wasn't in charge of NBC Sports in the early 1990s, there may not have been a weekly showcase for Jordan's greatness. If the Albany Patroons had paid Phil Jackson a little more scratch, he may have never left the CBA.

And Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright, John Paxson, Ron Harper, Dennis Rodman and a couple dozen other Bulls -- all brought in by general manager Jerry Krause, Jordan's longtime foil -- were a lot more than, as Jordan uncharitably put it one year, his "supporting cast." He wouldn't have won anything if they hadn't risen to his level of competitiveness, and provided him with the defensive bulwark necessary to win championships.

But it's Jordan that's become a synonym for American excellence, the way GM and IBM used to be. Google "the Michael Jordan of ..." and you get the following:

... Turkey (Hedo Turkoglu)

... Rapping (Kanye West)

... Porn (Jenna Jameson)

... Electronic Games (one Dennis "Thresh" Fong)

... Washing Machines (the "Tian Chi" Chinese Washing Machine)

... Bagpipes--but just in Portland, Oregon (a gentleman by the name of Alasdair Gilles)

... Cricket (Brian Lana)

... Economics (Dr. Gary Becker)

... Golf (Tiger, natch)

... Walking Trails (the Bent Creek Recreation Area in Asheville, N.C.)

I do not want this to be an exercise in hagiography. Jordan was, and is, a man, subject to missteps and mistakes and occasional petulance. Every business in which he invested did not make millions; every team he played on did not win a championship. Indeed, until 1991, the shorthand on Jordan from basketball's chattering class was that he -- all together, now -- did not make his teammates better. He could not cure diseases or end poverty. And he gambled too much. Not so much that it made him poor, but too much to be accepted comfortably. His father famously said his son didn't have a gambling problem; he had a competition problem.

Jordan's off-court detractors, and there were many, pointed out the underside of his iconic status. With globalization came a detachment from the people that made the products -- often, women and children in foreign countries making pennies to make the shoes that made him millions. With his celebrity came an inability to make regular contact with kids in the inner cities that desperately wanted to meet him. With his endorsements came an unwillingness to speak out on causes, lest he alienate a quarter or a third or a half or more of the populace that consumed his products. (Remember "Republicans buy shoes, too"?)

Of course, charity is supposed to be anonymous, not a photo-op, and thus those people don't know about the millions Jordan has donated to various worthwhile endeavors, or the times he was left weeping after a half-dozen Make-A-Wish visits with dying children, or the kids he's put through college, or the hundreds of things he never let anybody know about. Besides, the whole point of the civil rights movement was that we could do and be whatever and whoever we wanted to do and be.

Same issue with his final two years playing with the Wizards. He's ruining his legacy, whined the pundits. Well, whose legacy was it, anyway? Yours, or his? When you think of Willie Mays, do you think of the 1973 version stumbling around with the Mets or the Say Hey Kid, running down Vic Wertz's fly ball in that sepia-toned fuzzy film? Do you remember Ali losing to Trevor Berbick, or Ali knocking out Sonny Liston and George Foreman?

If Jordan still had an itch to play at 38, goodness, let him scratch. (And it's not like he sucked with the Wizards, by the way. He had bad nights with Paul Pierce and Tracy McGrady, true, but the Wizards won about twice as many games with him on the court as they did without him.)

No one will remember those years in Washington, anyway. What they will remember is that Michael Jordan was the best basketball player ever.

David, did you just say that?

Sure did.

Not the biggest winner (that would be Bill Russell), or the best shooter (Jerry West had him beat) or the fiercest competitor (you go tell Oscar Robertson that Jordan wanted to win more than he did). The best player.

No one can prove that, of course. This isn't baseball, ruled by sabrematricians who can crunch numbers from a hundred years ago and definitively pick Cy Young or Roger Clemens, God love them. Basketball is as much art as science; jazz compared to classical. It is, as Ben Franklin once said about something else, half improvised and half compromised. So it is just a feeling that, if Jordan were to walk on the blacktop against any other human, past or present, and play to 11, Jordan would win.

"I've said for years that he's the greatest player I've ever seen," West says by telephone. "He was the best offensive player and he was the best defensive player. I know Scottie Pippen got a lot of credit for being a great defensive player. He wasn't Michael Jordan, trust me."

"MJ was different than any other player you could prepare for," e-mails Joe Dumars, himself a Hall of Famer, and the lynchpin to the Pistons' infamous "Jordan Rules," Detroit's line of defense against Jordan. "You simply defended him as tough as possible and HOPED that he was off that night."

"Michael's competitive nature probably forced people to do things that they wouldn't normally due -- which is hold themselves accountable and responsible," says B.J. Armstrong, who won three championships in Chicago playing with Jordan in the backcourt. "If you didn't hold yourself accountable, I don't think you'd last very long on a team with Michael Jordan."

He left Mark Price and Brad Daugherty and Dominique Wilkins and Reggie Miller and Barkley and Patrick Ewing and John Stockton and Karl Malone without a single NBA championship among them. Hakeem Olajuwon won two titles (and Drexler one) while Jordan was away playing baseball; Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton got their ring only after he was gone for good.

Pat Riley used to always say there were only two states in the NBA: winning and misery. Jordan inflicted much of that misery on Riley, first in New York with the Knicks, and then in Miami with the Heat. Riley had gotten used to championships and champagne with the Lakers. And then came Jordan, and it was almost 20 years before Riley won another title, coaching Mourning, Payton and Dwyane Wade to the 2006 championship--when Jordan was safely in Charlotte.

"When we had the teams with the Lakers in the 80s, seven out of nine years we were in the Finals," Riley said. "Magic was there nine times in 12 years. At that time, there were two or three other truly great teams in the Western Conference that were simply put together at the wrong time. And it was the same thing while Michael Jordan was running a rampage through the league. It was exhilarating to compete against him. The one year we did beat Chicago (in 1994) he was playing baseball. It was quite thrilling to compete against Michael's team."

No doubt in Riley's mind about who the best player ever is.

"When you're talking about the best of all time category, and you have a debate about it, there are always other players who have flaws," he says. "You can pick out a flaw... Michael didn't have hany. He was flawless, across the board. The thing that made him above and beyond everyone else was his intimidating, prodigious appetite to win, and the graceful disdain he showed for the opponent." Riley would never use Jordan as an example for his players. He tried every psychological trick he could to stoke up their hatred for Jordan, because he knew that Jordan would destroy the meek, the players of lesser talents that held him in too much regard, gave too much respect.

""I used to get my players together in the huddle and say, 'you're going to allow this man to keep you from sleeping at night for the rest of your life if you don't meet him at the rim,'" Riley said. "That's how he was. If you don't meet him at the rim, he's going to laugh at you. And we never really met him at the rim...he was going to go harder and higher, and even if you met him there, he was going to beat you."

West, an Alpha male if there ever was one, surely recognizes the same in Jordan. Riley, who played with West at the end of West's Lakers career, sees it. Same efficient game, same killer instinct, same hyperdrive. They both have iconic logos. (I would never want to replace West as the NBA's Logo Man, but if I did, would there be anything more appropriate than Jordan's Jumpman?) But West says Jordan was better than he.

"He's really a man's man," West says. "I love being around him. I love the fact that he knows about basketball. He played the game at its very highest level in terms of his commitment and more important, his dedication...he got the intellectual part of it right. Magic had the intellect to play the game, John Stockton, who gets no credit I think he and Rick Barry are two of the smartest players to play the game. But Michael, with his intellect, combined with the physical equipment he had, he was like Superman out there."

Even today, Riley says he has a "respectful, chilly relationship" with the man he nonetheless decided to honor by retiring his jersey in Miami, when Jordan was playing with the Wizards--the ultimate tribute to an opponent.

"It was sort of spontaneous," Riley recalls. "The fact that he came back to Washington and he tried to start that thing up again. Micky (Arison, the Heat owner) and I were just talking one night. I was saying, people come into the Garden, and the Forum--and now, the Staples Center--and they see these jerseys hanging from the rafters. And they say, what a tradition, what a respect, what a place to be. Rivalries should be above any kind of pettiness, and when there's truly a guy like Michael Jordan, we should hang his jersey in honor of him, and what he meant to the league, and what he meant to this game."

Sam Smith brilliantly detailed the ups and downs of playing with and coaching Jordan in his 1991 book The Jordan Rules. Jordan, obviously, didn't like Smith's portrayal of him as brilliant but difficult. But all the great ones were difficult to play with. Being around Russell after a loss probably wasn't a barrel of laughs, and I know how teammates alternately admired and feared the wrath of Bird, Magic and Isiah.

"He was a person who was looking to perfect his craft," Armstrong says of Jordan. "Was he difficult to play with? I didn't find him difficult at all, because he came out with the idea of doing his best. He wanted to do his best. I think that probably scared a lot of people. I think that probably intimidated a lot of people, because he never backed down from a challenge. Certainly in all the years I've known him, he never made excuses. Once he understood the key to this league is responsibility and accountability. Once he had achieved success, the responsibility was all our responsibility."

For years, the Bulls couldn't solve Detroit, which won back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990 by overwhelming Chicago with defense, intimidation and will. The actual "Jordan Rules" invoked by the Pistons' defense were nothing more than being physical with Jordan at every opportunity and daring his teammates to do something about it.

Jordan scowled his way through the 1990 Eastern Conference finals, when the Pistons got the better of his Bulls, yet again, in seven excruciating games. He barely spoke with the media and belittled his teammates' toughness as they were pushed around by Detroit's champions. His silence spoke volumes in the Bulls' locker room, both during and after the series.

The Pistons proved to be worthy opponents as they shut the Bulls offense down in the 1989 and 1990 conference Finals.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

"That's when we made a jump as a group," Armstrong says. "It's really easy being on a team and saying why we're going to win. But why aren't we gonna win? We're not good enough. You look at that man in the mirror. I am the team. Our team is not good. You're only as good as your best player. That's when we learned that. That summer was the biggest summer for each and every one of us. Because there was no more team. Each and every one of us knew we should have won that series. But we didn't do what was necessary to win. We didn't hold up our responsibility.

"We didn't win because of Xs and Os; we didn't win because I wasn't good enough. I looked at that person every morning. And in '91, each and every person was better than the year before ... all of the anger and emotion that was expressed; that was his frustration. But that was when we looked at ourselves ... we came out and we played with a certain energy that we didn't have the year before. Game 7 was the key to the Bulls' run. Because we had to look at ourselves."

Jordan also made a major change in his approach. He finally accepted that he shouldn't dominate games just because he could. He had to trust his teammates and save himself for what Magic called "winnin' time."

"We don't need you that first 47 minutes," Armstrong said. "We need you in the last four minutes. We need you, with four minutes to go, to close the game out. That takes great self awareness. Michael literally stopped playing the game of basketball. And that takes maturity; that takes awareness; that takes belief in the team. The team has to do its job. And if the game was within one or two points with four minutes left; man, I felt good about that."

Oral Histories, Part I

Someone as famous as Jordan makes an impression on people even when he's not trying. Thousands of people likely judge him by one encounter, one shared moment in an elevator, at a restaurant, in a movie theatre. And it's been that way his entire adult life. That's a different kind of pressure than having to make a free throw in the final seconds, yet Jordan seems to deliver much more often than not.

Landon Turner had just won a national championship with Indiana University as the Hoosiers' starting forward when he was in a tragic automobile accident that left him paralyzed in the summer of 1981. Arthur Triche, now the vice president of public relations for the Atlanta Hawks, first saw Jordan while a student at Tulane University in 1982. Jewel Love was a classmate of Jordan's at North Carolina.

Gary Harris was a diehard Knicks fan and a talent scout for EMI Records who went on to sign R&B artist D'Angelo. David Cornwell was a business attorney in 1993 when he saw Jordan celebrating his third straight title with the Bulls -- and last one before he shocked the world by announcing his retirement from the game at age 30. Chuck Swirsky covered Jordan for nearly a decade, from his rookie season in Chicago through 1993, as a Bulls' radio broadcaster. Bob Rathbun was the Hawks' play-by-play man when Jordan made his final visit as a Bull to Atlanta in 1998.

Landon Turner: I remember rooting for Georgetown in the 1982 Championship game against North Carolina. It was looking good for me until a freshman named Michael Jordan hit a clutch shot from the corner to take the lead. We know from there what Fred Brown did. I remember saying to myself, that guy is going to be a great player. I never thought that he would be one of the best, if not the best ever to play the game!

Arthur Triche: I was the student basketball manager at Tulane University, host school for the (Final Four). Obviously, that came during the weekend of soon-to-be legendary game-winning shot, and we renewed those moments when he returned to the city for Playboy Magazine's All-America team photo shoot two years later. We took a photo that hangs on my office wall and not only does it now continue to remind me how long ago that was (sadly, LOL), I'm proud to say I knew him before he became the best basketball player in the world and icon he is today.

David Cornwell: I was in the Bulls' locker room after they beat the Suns to win a championship. I was struck by Michael's presence and sense of accomplishment. In short, his humanity I don't recall whether it was this time or another, but another thing that struck me was the resemblance between Michael and his father. I believe it was shortly after this series that his father was killed.

Landon Turner: I was in Bloomington, Indiana finishing up some classes in 1984 and I had the pleasure to see the Olympic team that (Bob) Knight coached. One night I went to the hotel the players were staying in and they wanted to do something. I suggested going to a movie and they all agreed. Several players climbed into my van but the last person to get in, and sitting shotgun, was Michael Jordan. We arrived at the movie theater and the lady wanted us to pay but I charmed her for some free-bees. We saw Gremlins and every player was laughing and having a good time. I saw Michael several times when the Bulls played the Pacers and he was nice enough to give me his autographed signed shoes. Michael is a great person and I'm blessed to have met him.

Jewel Love: We were nearing the end of our junior year (1984) at Chapel Hill and about to go into exams. Late one night, I went into the Hardees on Franklin Street to grab a quick bite. I believe Michael was already in Hardees when I came in. We started chatting and laughing. As I got ready to order my food, he offered to pay for it and I politely declined. He continued insisting on paying and said something like, 'No, really. You gotta let me pay for this.' The next day he announced that he was turning pro and when I heard, I smiled.

Gary Harris:The first time we met, I was at the Coffee Shop (in New York) in May of '92 having brunch with Russell Simmons and Christy Turlington and a date. It was a gorgeous spring afternoon and we'd caught a playoff matinee earlier that day at the Garden. One of the partners in the restaurant came over to tell us that Spike would be bringing Michael and some friends by. I was in full Knick regalia: a blue windbreaker, new blue Nikes, Gap jeans and shirt, and a fresh, crispy, blue, orange and white Knick baseball cap. At the time, Chicago was defending their first of the Jordan/Pippen/Jackson titles and they were riding high. Pat Riley had led his team into Chicago and stolen the series opener and he would have gotten the second one too, if not for some late game heroics from B.J. Armstrong.

An impromptu table was improvised for the Jordan/Lee party. Michael was at the head of one end of the table. Russell, Christy and my date went and spoke to His Airness, I kept it moving and went down to the other end of the table to speak to Oak. I felt the need to stress the importance of hitting his free throws to him. I also spoke to Spike and his old partner Monty Ross. I was just about to leave when Michael made a huge smile, extended his hand toward me and said. 'Hi, I'm Michael Jordan. Don't be mad.'

Chuck Swirsky: One defining moment I will never forget from the Jordan era did not take place on the court but in the locker room after a game ... the media scene after a Bulls game in the late 80s-90s was wave upon wave of reporters. It was the Cowboys/NFL version of America's NBA team. In the old Chicago Stadium the locker-room was among, if not THE, smallest (perhaps Boston's was tighter) places in the league for a player and a reporter to have space to do their job.

He was impeccable with a beautiful suit and tie to present himself in front of the cameras. It also set the tone for others in the locker room to dress the part as well; i.e., (Horace) Grant, (Charles) Oakley, (Scottie) Pippen, etc.

On this night I waited my turn after the first wave of reporters had their time with him. Then the next wave of 5-8 reporters asked questions or attempted to ask the same question in a different manner.

About 30 minutes after three rounds of reporters peppered Jordan, a high school reporter with a one-game press pass nervously approached Jordan and told him he was doing a story/report for his high school newspaper and inquired if he could ask a few questions. Jordan was gracious and accommodating and gave the teenager insightful answers and made him feel at ease, treating him as if he covered the team for a daily major market newspaper.

That's when I realized that Jordan's competitive passion for the game stretched far beyond points, assists and rebounds. It was about understanding, without an agenda, what the word 'professional' was all about.

David Cornwell: I was General Counsel for The Upper Deck Company and had an all-access credential. Though I rarely ask professional athletes for their autograph, I was giddy and appreciative to have MJ sign my credential after the game.

Jordan was a professional and down-to-earth guy when out of the spotlight.
Walter Iooss Jr./NBAE/Getty Images

Bob Rathbun: March 27th, 1998, is a night I'll never forget. The Hawks hosted the Bulls at the Georgia Dome. The populace felt like this would be his final game in Atlanta. [A crowd of] 62,046 showed up and set the NBA attendance record. It wasn't the fact that that many fans turned out -- MJ could fill the Dome 10 times over -- but the fact that close to 10,000 fans attended AND COULDN'T SEE THE COURT. They just wanted to be in the same building as MJ. Staggering popularity left previously to kings, queens and other deity.

Gary Harris: The second time we met, I was having dinner at (the) Coffee Shop with the noted journalist and screenplay writer Barry Michael Cooper. It was early November of '93. The leaves had fallen and you could smell basketball in the air. It was the beginning of his first retirement. We were seated in a banquette in the back and Michael was in a booth in the front. I walked up to his table to remind him that we'd met in the same restaurant the previous year when he was with Spike Lee and Charles Oakley (a great Knick). I told him that I didn't want to interrupt his meal but I was dining with the author of New Jack City and that I would bring him over to introduce them to each other in a bit.

Less than 20 minutes later, the most famous athlete of our era made his way over to our table through a packed joint and introduced himself. He was thoughtful, polite and humble with a mild exception; he threatened to come out of retirement by the end of the season and crush my dreams of a Knick title one more time ...

Most recently, I ran into him last year on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend here in Charlotte. My old friend Q-Tip was in town to do a show in support of his latest release. We ran into MJ as we were going to the show. The Celtics had played his Bobcats earlier that evening and I asked if they had won. He graciously replied 'no.' It's interesting to see how he has had to learn how to lose later in life, as he'd helped to teach me earlier through his consistent mistreatment of my beloved Knicks.

Interlude: In Which I Re-Asssess Tightly Held Beliefs

I've been thinking about that whole "Oscar was more competitive than Jordan" premise.

Maybe I'm wrong.

"Oscar Robertson was the best player I played against at my position," West says. "He made you compete. From my perspective, and I have nothing but the utmost respect, I loved Oscar ... but I just think we're talking about a different breed of animal here."

I also remembered something Jordan did in March, 1993.

That night, the Bulls were playing the then-Bullets. I was the Bullets' beat guy for The Washington Post. On that night, a guard named LaBradford Smith scored 37 points against Chicago, many of them on Jordan. (Jordan wasn't horrible, scoring 25, and of course, the Bulls still won; this wasn't a fairy tale, after all.) It was the first night of a back-to-back set of games between the teams.

The next night, in Washington, an engaged Jordan scored 36 points against Washington, most of them on Smith. In the first half. He would have had 37 for the half, except he missed a free throw. The Bulls won again. In the locker room afterward, and in the subsequent days, a narrative began emerging that Jordan had become enraged when Smith, after the first game, walked up to him and said, "Good game, Mike," or words to that effect. The notion, supposedly, was that Smith was not showing good sportsmanship, but subtly sticking it to Jordan, like, your team may have won, but I beat you. And the next night, Jordan got his revenge.

Jordan is one of four players to have won both an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year award in their career.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

It was a great story. It was also complete BS.

Smith never said anything to Jordan after the game. I know. I was there.

"I don't say nothing to (Jordan). Leave him alone," Smith said after the first game.

"That was a very embarassing situation for me," Jordan said after the first game, not mentioning anything about the supposed slight, probably because it never happened.

Jordan had just had an off night the first game. He'd been shown up by some kid, and he had to make sure the natural order of his world was re-set, and quickly. He concocted that story out of whole cloth to motivate himself to play better against Smith the next time around.

Jordan could take anything and convert it into performance fuel. My friend Jan Hubbard, who now works for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, tells the story of when he and other NBA writers decided to have a fantasy league at the Tournament of the Americas, the qualifying tournament for the Olympics in this region of the world. In 1992, of course, the Dream Team had been assembled to destroy all international competition and was about to start crushing people at the Tournament, being held that year in Portland. Hubbard assembled a group of writers and Brian McIntyre, the league's longtime vice president of public relations, to pick players.

"The Dream Team was obviously not going to have a dominant player," Hubbard recalls, "and indeed there were players from Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil who were drafted before Americans.

"After our draft, Brian saw Michael and told him that he had drafted him. Michael told him that he had made a big mistake. He was tired from the long season and the Finals had ended only a few days before Olympic training camp. He said he was going to take it easy and let others carry the scoring load, and that's what he did early in the tournament.

"So one night, Brian worked out a trade which I don't think either of us can remember, but it didn't really matter. The next time Brian saw Jordan, he told him 'I took your advice and I traded you.'

"Michael sputtered a little bit and said, 'You did what?'

"He then asked for details and Brian told him. At the next game, Brian was sitting courtside and Jordan had been out of the game, but went to check back in. When he got there, he went over, got his powder, checked into the game and before he went in, he walked to where Brian was sitting and said: 'You f----d up.'

"He then went, of course, and began jumping all over the place, shooting, scoring, playing madman defense and dominating. That's how I remember it but if a few details are off, Brian can correct them."

Other than thinking maybe it was the Olympics and not the Tournament of the Americas, McIntyre confirmed Hubbard's account via e-mail.

"But who else can say they traded Michael Jordan?," McIntyre asks. "Who else would ever admit to it?"

Oral Histories, Part II

"The NBA schedule demands that you put games behind you and move on," Dumars says, "but you always knew you had just endured a battle with Jordan when it was over."

Watching Jordan play produced emotions in people that were out of character. After Jordan's "spectacular move," to quote Marv, in Game 2 of the 1991 Finals -- when Jordan came down the lane with the ball in his right hand, encountered the Lakers' Sam Perkins in mid-air, switched the ball to his left hand, slithered around A.C. Green and laid the ball in off the glass -- one of the current co-hosts of ESPN's ''Pardon the Interruption' (you guess which one), knowing that cheering on press row was not allowed, turned to his left -- he was sitting next to me -- and proceeded to bite my suit jacket.

He bit into the padded part of the shoulder, so it didn't hurt. Thanks for asking.

Being on the same court with Jordan often created similar feelings, whether you were a teammate or opponent.

Chicago high school phenom Marcus Liberty caught the young Air Jordan in 1987 in a pro-am game in Chicago. Kendall Phills' husband, the late Bobby Phills, was coming into his prime as a defensive-oriented two-guard playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1995 against Jordan, who had just returned to the NBA after playing minor league baseball for two years following his first retirement.

Keith Closs was a free agent center for the Los Angeles Clippers in 1997 when he played against Jordan, who was then in his last season with the Bulls. Jeff Capel -- now the coach at the University of Oklahoma, which just sent Blake Griffin to the NBA as this year's No. 1 Draft choice -- was, a decade ago, playing for the Grand Rapids Hoops of the Continental Basketball Association.

Marcus Liberty: He tossed in 60 easy points playing against other professional basketball players. I had just graduated from high school and I'm playing on the same team as MJ. I couldn't keep my eyes off of him, watching his every move. But before the game was over he came over to me and said, 'Get in the game.' As I was walking to the scorer's table, I turned around and said, 'For who?' And MJ said, 'For me.' Here it is this little skinny high school kid from Chicago (who) is about to substitute for the greatest basketball player of all time.

Kendall Phills: Bobby would always tell me that he looked forward to the challenge of guarding the world's greatest player, because MJ simply brought out the best in him! Not just Bobby but every NBA player that took the floor with him. Everyone came with their 'A' game to play against him.

Keith Closs: Wow, it's really him! That was the first thought that came to mind when I first saw MJ during a game against his Bulls during my rookie season. I had collected his cards like so many others throughout my youth, and was now preparing to play against him. The first game in L.A., I managed to block a few of his shots. He was killing us silently the whole game. Not one word came out of his mouth until they beat us in double overtime: 'Good game, young fella.'

Marcus Liberty: After the game MJ calls me over to his private locker room and gave me his cell phone number and said if you ever need something, call me. And I never called him because I really didn't know what to say to MJ. But I will say this: He definitely put the basketball in a lot of kids' hands across the world. Thank you Air Jordan Air Jordan Air Jordan! Next stop: Hall of Fame.

Jeff Capel: It was the summer of 1999, and I was back in Durham getting prepared to go try out for the Golden State Warriors' summer league team. My brother had just completed his freshman season as a starting forward for UNC, and he was in Chapel Hill in summer school working Carolina's summer basketball camp. Back in those days, one of the highlights for UNC's camp was former players used to comeback and play with the current players, and occasionally, these contests would happen in front of the camp (I remember this happening when I was a camper at UNC's camp!).

Anyway, one afternoon, I get a call from my brother saying, 'You'll never guess who showed up to play today.' After refusing to guess, he said 'Black Cat.' My response was 'really? How was he?' My brother replied, 'he was just okay. You could tell he hadn't played in a while.' Then he said, 'it was funny though, because we won. We beat them, and he was upset. He wanted to play again.' So after telling Michael that they were not gonna play again that day, that he would have to wait until tomorrow, my brother told me, 'man, i'm not sure what you are doing tomorrow, but we are playing pickup tomorrow night. You may want to come. I think he's gonna play with us.'

This put me in a tough spot, as tomorrow was Friday, and I had already planned to drive to Charlotte to visit my girlfriend (who is now my wife), who was working as a summer associate at a law firm up there. To make a long story short, I chose to stay in the hope that I would get to play with or against the best player to ever lace 'em up (it ended up being one of the worst arguments me and my wife have ever been in by the way)...

Keith Closs: We played them in Chicago next. Coach (Bill) Fitch called timeout and told me I was going in. I took my place on the bench in between Rodney Rogers and Lamond Murray. Fitch says 'Closs, you've got Jordan.' I immediately protested out of pure respect and intimidation. I asked, 'why don't you put Rodney or Lamond on him? They're forwards and I'm the center.' Fitch said, "well, now you're the 3 man! Do you wanna play or not?' The sweat started pouring down my face and I hadn't even checked in yet!

I hit the scorer's table for the rosin, hoping to dry my sweaty palms. It just hit the floor in muddy clumps. I used it one more time and got the same result and said forget it. I asked the guys to have my back out there. They assured me they would. I was so nervous that my warmup pants were still on when I stepped on the court!

Jordan took the NBA to unthinkable heights with his aerial play.
Jerry Wachter/NBAE/Getty Images

On their first posession MJ saw that I was guarding him, got the ball and immediately calls an isolation. Now, I thought, I'm screwed. 'You guys got me?' No response. I turned around and my teammates were hugging their men on the other sideline! Yup, I'm screwed!

He tried crossing me over to his right, toward the middle of the floor, and I cut him off. For his next move, he faked the same crossover move and hit me with an in and out. I slipped but caught myself and blocked his dunk from behind. Foul. I argued that it was a superstar call. MJ slapped the ball outta my hands and told me to 'shut the hell up rook!' He casually walked to the line and sank them both. I managed to score a jump hook over him for my only two points that game. But they were two points on the greatest basketball player of all time! MJ will forever be the greatest in my book.

Kendall Phills:Bobby's best defensive game that I recall was in Cleveland in '95 when he shut Mike down to less than 22 pts (9 for 26 maybe?) in a playoff game!! (Editor's note: Phills did hold Jordan to 21 points, on 9-of-26 shooting while scoring 19 himself, in a game in April, 1995. But it was a regular-season game.) It was a great night in the Phills household -- I chanted 'JORDAN STOPPER' all night!

Mike is indeed the greatest player to ever play the game of basketball. My husband admired his work ethic and competitive spirit. And I commend Michael for his generous philanthropic heart and support that he has shown my family and I to continue my late husband's legacy! I even buried 'B' in a pair of MJ practice shorts that he took out (of) MJ's locker during a summer camp in Chi-town -- oops, did I just say that? ... Bobby wore those red shorts under EVERYTHING (his suits, uniform). He actually took two pairs. (Their son) Trey will sport the other pair under his gear, when he can fill them up.

Jeff Capel: As I'm walking down the hallway in the Smith Center to the courts, I can hear a ball bouncing. I get to where I can see the first court, and don't see anyone. I get in a little deeper to where I can see the second court, and see no one, but still here the ball bouncing. Finally, I'm all the way in the Smith Center, and on the far court, I see a dark skinned guy, in some black Jumpman shorts, a lime green Jumpman shirt, and some black Jordans trimmed in lime green. It was none other than MJ, and he had a sweat going and was working on his game.

For about the next 20 minutes, until everyone got there, he was playing guys one on one, and I got to witness first hand the legendary trash talking. Then the games started, and I had to sit out the first game, as the Carolina guys manned the court. I had next up, and picked 3 other guys to be on my team. I saved a spot just in case. Well, MJ's team lost, and for the final spot on my team, it came down to Michael Jordan, and Jason Capel, my younger brother.

Obviously, I picked MJ. What ensued for the next 2 hours was one of the greatest athletic experiences of my life. We did not lose a game that night. What made it so incredible was how good MJ was. To see it on TV is one thing. To watch it live and in person is another. To experience it on the same court as him is a whole different level. He was by far the best player on the court!!!

Offensively, defensively, competitively, EVERYTHING. And there were some big time guys there that day playing ... (Jerry) Stackhouse, (Antawn) Jamison, (Vince) Carter, Rasheed Wallace to name a few!

MJ was scoring, talking trash, defending, leading, inspiring. I remember during a break in games, I asked him, 'do you still play often?' His response was, 'man, this is the second time I've played since we beat Utah in the finals a year ago. Yesterday was the first. And I was bad. I got in the gym last night and worked out. I was in here this morning getting a lift in and getting some more shots up. I was here about an hour before anyone else got here getting some more shots up.'

I thought to myself, this is why you are the GREATEST player to ever live. It's a story I use with my players to this day about PRIDE. MJ had so much pride in his game, that he could not stand to not be at his best, to play at the standard he defined for himself. In my opinion, that is the epitome of GREATNESS!!!

Send your MJ posters, questions and snark to If we pick your e-mail you'll get a copy of Sam Smith's The Jordan Rules, autographed by Sam Mitchell. Make that Joe Smith. Actually, you won't get a copy of the book at all, though it's still in fine bookstores nationwide. But we will print your e-mail.

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