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Fran Blinebury

Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan could elevate and score at will against much taller opponents.
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Jordan transcended gravity, dominated from the wings

Posted Aug 31 2011 9:57AM

There have always been athletes we defined by the sheer numbers of their feats: slam dunks or home runs, late touchdown passes or buzzer-beating 3-pointers, singular victories or bundles of championships piled up.

Michael Jordan, as it turns out, was different, because he was the yardstick.

From inside the confines of every sport to outside the boundaries of music and finance and literature and virtually any endeavor on the planet, it was enough to label a subject "the Michael Jordan of..." to convey not only greatness, but sheer dominance.

From 1991-93 and '96-98, the Chicago Bulls stampeded through the NBA with Jordan as the snorting symbol of power and will that would not, could not, be denied. For more than a decade, Jordan hovered over the game -- and all of sports -- like the splayed-legged "Jumpman" logo that Nike used to turn him into a global icon.

The NBA had seen dominant individuals before. George Mikan was a superstar of the 1950s in Minneapolis and Wilt Chamberlain was a larger-than-life performer of outlandish feats through the 1960s and '70s on both coasts in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The NBA had seen dynastic leaders before. Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships in 13 seasons through 1969.

But Jordan was completely different, a product of the media and the marketing explosion of the times mixing with his bombastic talent to produce one of the loudest noises since the Big Bang.

There were the six championships, the six Finals MVPs, the five regular-season MVPs, the 10 All-NBA First Team selections and 14 All-Star Game nods that are enough to overload any trophy case.

There was "The Eruption" of a 63-point game against the Celtics in the 1986 playoffs, "The Shot" over Craig Ehlo to beat Cleveland in 1989, "The Shrug" in the 1992 Finals when he couldn't miss against Portland and "The Walk-Off" when he stuck the jumper over Bryon Russell that closed out the Bulls' dynasty with an 87-86 win at Utah in 1998 that are all part of a seemingly unbeatable portfolio.

Jordan was different because he transcended the notion from previous eras that true greatness could only shine against the backdrop of an equal counterpart. Did you prefer Wilt or Russell? Oscar or West? Bird or Magic? His only consistent rivals seemed to be gravity and imagination, the seeming limitlessness of his determination.

And never mind those old Hatfield-McCoy feuds between the Celtics and Sixers, Lakers and Celtics, Lakers and Sixers. Jordan simply treated the entire league as if they were ducks in a shooting gallery, lining up and knocking down everything in his sights. In their six title runs, the Bulls beat five different Western Conference foes (Lakers, Blazers, Suns, Sonics and Jazz) in The Finals.

"Michael is the greatest player ever and Bill Russell is the greatest winner ever," said Magic Johnson in 2003 when USA Today conducted a poll that put Jordan No. 1 on the all-time NBA list.

"Michael has done things in sports that -- forget basketball, sports in general -- no other man has done. He is always going to be bigger than the game, bigger than sports. He's a worldwide hero. There will never be another Bill Russell and there will never be another Jordan."

Part of Jordan's magic was that he was not the colossal big man in the middle -- ala Wilt, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal -- and never even had a defensive stopper such as Russell to guard his back. He did it all from the wings and often even felt like he had them.

"I don't know about flying, but sometimes I feel like I have these little wings on my feet," Jordan once said.

There was the day game he seemed to soar above the parquet floor at the old Boston Garden, pumping in his 63 against the Celtics, which prompted none other than Larry Bird to say: "I think he's God disguised as Michael Jordan."

Looking back now after all of the championships and all of the awesome highlights, it seems as if Jordan was always there at the end of every game as the alarm bells rang, pulling the Bulls out of the fire. But the truth is that the skinny freshman who hit the jumper that beat Georgetown to deliver the 1982 NCAA crown to North Carolina had to suffer his bumps and bruises and grow into the NBA legend.

It wasn't until his seventh season with the Bulls that he shook off the reputation as merely a prolific scorer and began the transformation into game-changer. But after claiming that first Larry O'Brien Trophy by downing the Lakers in 1991, Jordan was like a rocket launched in all its' splendor from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

His run included a record 10 NBA scoring titles and nine times voted to the All-Defensive First Team with those six championships in eight seasons tucked neatly in the middle. He was everywhere and he was all things -- sports star, movie star, product endorser and embraceable, smiling hero. Jordan was the opponent who could come into your gym, slip the knife into your ribs, then with a wink and a smile leave your home-town fans cheering in appreciation.

There was the tongue. The smile. The Swoosh.

From Nike to Gatorade, from batteries to breakfast cereal, he raised the level of celebrity pitchman to lofty, unprecedented heights and, in the process, became so much more than a great athlete. Just his silhouette -- on athletic apparel or a cologne bottle -- could drive millions in sales across the spectrum of consumers in every culture in the world.

When the Bulls traveled to France to take part in the McDonald's Open, a front page story in a national newspaper, Le Soir, said: "Michael Jordan is in Paris. That's better than the Pope. It is God in person."

In the then-emerging market of China, the "Team of the Red Ox" -- the Bulls -- was in the minds and on the tongue of every kid with a jump shot or crossover dribble in Beijing and Shanghai.

How pervasive was the Jordan Effect? Well, he made bald heads and baggy shorts sexy.

Charles Barkley, one of Jordan's best friends, maintains that Jordan "took the game and the sport to a whole new level and the Bulls would have won two more titles if he didn't retire the first time."

His image became so immense that he outgrew the normal boundaries of the game. National TV networks moved the Bulls games into prime time because audiences couldn't get enough of him. Unlike other dynasties, the appeal was never to see who could bring him down, but rather what he might do next to extend the myth.

Jordan himself pushed at the envelope by constantly pushing at himself with a competitive drive that that was off the charts. The tales are legendary of him verbally and physically beating teammates in practice to force them to play harder. He perceived -- and sometimes made up -- slights to spur himself on. He answered all questions and challenges.

Karl Malone recalled a regular-season game at Utah when Jordan came down the floor and dunked over 6-foot-1 John Stockton. A fan yelled out, "Hey, pick on somebody your own size." So the next time down the floor, Jordan slammed one home over 6-foot-11, 240-pound Mel Turpin, then turned to the fan and said, "Is he big enough?"

There was the "Flu Game" in the 1997 Finals at Salt Lake City, when a nauseated, barely-able-to-walk Jordan hobbled into the locker room looking so haggard that Scottie Pippen figured there was no way he could make it out onto the court. Yet Jordan played 44 minutes, scored 38 points and also finished with seven rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots in the Bulls' 90-88 win.

His legendary competitive streak was always wider and deeper than the Grand Canyon, no matter the venue.

The late Chuck Daly, the Hall of Fame coach who led the Dream Team, loved to tell of the off-day at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics when he barely edged out Jordan in a round of golf. A visibly upset Jordan demanded an immediate rematch, but Daly simply smiled and walked off with his victory. The next morning at 4 a.m. there was a knock on Daly's hotel room door. "Chuck, it's Michael," came the voice from the other side. "Let's go play."

There were all of the years, all of the games, all of the feats, all of his influence.

While Russell was always hailed as the quintessential team player and leader, Jordan held that distinction for his generation in addition to towering above his sport -- and every corner of pop culture -- as its brightest individual star.

"There's been a lot of great players," said Lenny Wilkens, a Hall of Famer as a player and a coach, voted one of the 50 Greatest in NBA history. "(Jordan) combined the best of everybody I've ever seen. He did it all, on and off the court."

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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