Posted Oct 26 2009 10:55AM
Maybe this was what it looked like the first time that a colt named Secretariat stepped outside the stable and stretched those spindly legs toward history.
Perhaps this was how it felt when a young Mozart first sat down at a piano and tinkled out those early tentative notes down the path of immortality.
There was no lightning bolt moment of sudden inspiration, no thunderclap from above or a rolling of the ground under foot to mark a seismic shift of the tectonic plates.
But when Michael Jordan stepped onto the court at Chicago Stadium 25 years ago tonight -- Oct. 26, 1984 -- everything we thought we knew about the basketball world was about to change.
"I don't think you could think that way back then," said Rod Higgins, then Jordan's teammate and now his partner as general manager of the Charlotte Bobcats. "He wasn't a dominant 7-foot center, the kind of traditional big man you built teams around, or a point guard who always had the ball in his hands. I mean, he was a shooting guard. How much could he control?"
On that first night there were only inklings as the Jordan Era began with a humdrum 109-93 win over the Washington Bullets. Jordan shot 5-for-16 from the field and 6-for-7 from the free throw line to score 16 points. He grabbed six rebounds and had seven assists.
The jump shot didn't fall easily for him, but the classic form that would eventually become deadly and clutch was there. He was active, aggressive, flitting inside and outside looking to make plays.
You watch the old videos today and it's a bit like flipping through the family photo album, instantly recognizing the young face as the seeds being planted. Wearing the very plain home white uniform with the block letters -- B-U-L-L-S -- across the chest, it's a skinny Jordan in short shorts who uses head fakes and shimmies to go around the likes of Washington's Frank Johnson and Gus Williams on the perimeter and to elude the physical 1-2 punch of Jeff Ruland and Rick Mahorn -- the "Bruise Brothers" -- close to the basket.
The famous tongue dangles from the corner of his mouth while he shoots free throws. But the gleaming shaved head and the long, baggy pants that literally changed the look of the NBA in the '90s were nowhere to be found.
"I can't remember yesterday, so never mind the specifics of one game 25 years ago," cracked Mahorn. "My memories and impressions in general were of a young player trying to find his place in the league."
But this was a young player, the No. 3 pick in the draft behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie, who was driven like few others in any sport to do more than simply find a place to fit in. Jordan sought to set up residence above and beyond everyone else.
"Listening to his speech at the Hall of Fame, not being accepted early in high school was a tremendous motivation for him and was the driving force behind every doubt, every challenge, every obstacle he ever faced in his basketball career," said Kevin Loughery, who coached the Bulls during Jordan's rookie season.
"Look, we all knew he was gonna be a good player, obviously. But he had played for Dean Smith and played in the Olympics with Bobby Knight and it was all a passing game offense.
"We found out right away that he was a better shooter than people thought. But the biggest difference we found in his ability was how well he could handle the basketball. By the second or third day of training camp, you knew you had something special. He put his mark on the team from Day One. With his work habits, his competitiveness, being vocal and he'd go after you and tear you up if you didn't want to play or practice at his same level of intensity."
Higgins was entering his third season in the NBA and the Bulls roster that year was filled with proven veterans -- Orlando Woolridge, Caldwell Jones, Dave Corzine, Steve Johnson, David Greenwood.
"When you're a veteran, what you see right when Michael comes into camp is that somebody's minutes are going to be cut," Higgins said. "At first, he was not very verbal. He let his play do the talking. But we could all see from the very first drill that if you didn't bring it every day in practice, he was gonna embarrass you."
And he was never going to stop until he won. Loughery was 44 years old then, not so far removed from his own NBA playing days, still a pretty good shooter, and laughs remembering the post-practice shooting contests where Jordan wouldn't let him leave the gym until the rookie beat the head coach.
"There are actually very few real leaders," Loughery said. "A lot of great players I've been around, they think of it as a business, a job. But as a coach, I had Dr. J for three years in the ABA and he just loved the game and it showed all the time. He was great and he was a leader. Well, that was Michael. He loved to play. In that first season, those first weeks, you could see he could never get enough."
Time and again on that first night, in that first game, the shots didn't go down and Jordan didn't back down. Once he went backdoor to take a feed from Woolridge, but had his shot blocked by Ruland. When Ruland turned the ball back over, Jordan went up again, using the double-pump, the hang time that would became a signature of his game and banked the ball home over a sprawling Ruland. On another drive into the paint, Ruland fouled Jordan hard, nothing dirty, but sent the rookie slamming to the floor.
"He told me, 'Wow! That's a tough dude,' " Higgins recalled. "But Michael just bounced right back up and kept going at them."
He averaged 28.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists in his rookie season as the Bulls finished 38-44 and lost in the first round of the playoffs to Milwaukee. The heroics, the epic feats -- 63 points at Boston Garden in Game 2 of the 1986 playoffs, the MVP awards, the clutch shots, the six championships -- would come later.
That first night provided just a peek. With just over three minutes left in the game, Mahorn missed a layup for the Bullets and Jordan grabbed the loose ball rebound near the free throw line in his right hand. In one stride he was off, going behind his back around the defense, dribbling down the floor with his left hand, then switching back to his right at the opposite free throw line as he elevated, split Ruland and Johnson and laid the ball softly off the glass.
The crowd at Chicago Stadium rose to its feet and roared, figuring they had seen something very special. If only they knew.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.
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