Part V: Healthy Jordan puts on a show all season long, page 2
In 1986-87, Jordan's third pro season, he had shown he was the best individual player in the game. He recorded 37 games of at least 40 points, and averaged of 37.1 points per game on the year. His next mission would be to show he could be part of the bes
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With Sam Bowie out almost all season with another foot problem, the draft pick was looking worse and worse. Portland management remained on the defensive, continuing to insist it was the right pick because although Jordan was scoring and was spectacular, the Trail Blazers were better and would be even better when Bowie returned.
So Jordan, as he would in the 1992 Finals when there was talk Clyde Drexler should have been MVP, took it to Drexler. Jordan scored 53 points, adding five assists and three steals. The Blazers had Drexler on Jordan and Jim Paxson double teaming, the two guys they had at the time and a big reason they chose to pass on Jordan. The Bulls won 121-117 and word continued to spread.
Charles Barkley would become good friends with Jordan, and they had bonded in the 1984 Olympic tryouts when Barkley was cut. With Bobby Knight as coach, Barkley had no chance and just let it fly.
As Jordan had joked when asked about the differences between his college coach, Dean Smith, and Knight: "Smith employed the four corners offense and Knight the four letter words."
Barkley bragged if Jordan tried to score like that against his team, he'd break him in pieces. The Bulls won 105-89 with Jordan getting 47 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and four steals. Barkley had 21 points and a good time losing, which was common in his career.
Just to make sure Barkley knew it was no fluke, Jordan scored 49 points a few weeks later when the Bulls went into Philadelphia, though the Bulls lost 121-112 as Barkley had 40.
Jordan headed into the All-Star break this time as undoubtedly the most electrifying player in the game, and back then the best players competed in the contests, Jordan in the slam dunk and Larry Bird in the three-point shooting contest. Unlike in this era, the best players then weren't worried about embarrassing themselves if they lost. They believed in themselves and believed they'd win and sought out competition wherever they could find it. It's why that era was the best the NBA has seen, and a major reason why this generation of players, as talented as they are, don't measure up. They generally won't seek out competition and challenge themselves on a daily basis like the players of the 1980s. Perhaps Kobe Bryant is an exception.
Jordan never stepped back from any challenge back then, and he won the slam dunk contest, earning $12,000, which he split with his teammates. His winning dunk was a tribute to Julius Erving, who had won the inaugural ABA slam dunk contest with a running dunk from around the free throw line. Jordan jazzed it up a bit with a double pump.
Earlier, Jordan had offered to let Erving take his place in the starting lineup in Erving's final All-Star game. But it was Isiah Thomas who stepped aside so Jordan could play alongside Erving. And years later, in 2003 in Jordan's last All-Star game, it would be Thomas as coach, then with the Indiana Pacers, who would persuade Vince Carter to let Jordan have Carter's starting spot.
The great irony of the angry Jordan-Thomas feud and Chicago's subsequent bitterness toward Thomas was how badly Thomas was trying to be drafted by the Bulls in 1981. The Bulls had lost Magic Johnson in the 1979 coin flip for the No. 1 pick at a time Johnson was asking his representatives to get him to Chicago because he thought Artis Gilmore was a better center to play with for his game and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had fallen off badly and wasn't motivated enough.
Chicago needed a star, and Thomas would be perfect, a local kid from the West Side who was a hero at Indiana University. Thomas was regarded as the best player in the 1981 draft and Dallas had the first pick. Thomas went to see the Mavs and famously told them he didn't want to play for them. He said, "I'm not into that cowboy (crap)." Then-owner Don Carter, who wore a big Stetson, had heard enough. Thomas tried the same thing with the Pistons, saying he wanted to be in Chicago. But Pistons General Manager Jack McCloskey said no matter what Thomas said or did he was being drafted by the Pistons. The Bulls, with No. 6, selected Woolridge.
Jordan had just 11 points on five-of-12 shooting in 28 minutes in a 154-149 East loss in that All Star game, though no one mentioned anything about a conspiracy. Jordan had made his points all season long and in the much anticipated dunk competition.
There, no doubt, was jealousy among the stars of the game, but they were quietly accepting they could not do the things Jordan could. Plus, the nation was in love with Jordan.
Tom Brokaw of NBC News profiled Jordan. CBS's famed 60 Minutes did a fawning profile that Jordan advisors said was better than any marketing commercial they'd made for him. Magic and Larry generally have been credited from saving the NBA from the drug backlash of the 1970s and restoring the game. But it was Jordan's brilliance and open attitude which charmed a skeptical nation and truly established the NBA as a premier sports league.
Jordan came out of the All-Star break barely winded with 45 points against Seattle and then 43 against the Kings in the third game in four nights. That's why everyone needs to stop asking about back-to-backs and four in five night sets in the NBA. If you are a great player, you produce. If you are a fraud, you make excuses. Jordan didn't make excuses, and few ever were carrying a team like Jordan did those Bulls.
The criticism of Jordan, when there was, now came down to not being able to win and being selfish, not making his teammates better. Jordan shook his head. He saw Magic playing with Worthy and Kareem, Bird playing with McHale, Parish and Dennis Johnson. Jordan was playing with Granville Waiters, Brad Sellers, Mike Brown, Earl Cureton, Dave Corzine, Charles Oakley, John Paxson, Pete Myers, Elston Turner, Darren Daye, Gene Banks and Steve Colter. Find All-Stars there? Oakley did make an All-Star team when he was with the Knicks, though he may have scared the coaches into voting for him.
"Are you telling me Kareem and James wouldn't be All-Stars without Magic?" would be Jordan's frequent refrain with sometimes demeaning references to his illustrious cast. "That McHale or Parish or DJ wouldn't be without Bird?"
These games were getting ridiculous.
Against the Cavs on Feb. 22, Jordan scored 43 points and had eight steals and six assists. Jordan then hit the Nets for 58 points on Feb. 26, a regular season franchise scoring record as Jordan was 26-of-27 from the free throw line. Jordan also had eight rebounds and when he broke Chet Walker's team scoring record of 56 points, he asked to be taken out of the blowout win with about three minutes left despite the home crowd screaming for 60. "I did want to break the Bulls record," Jordan said. "But I didn't want to go any farther than that. I was happy with what the team was doing."
Players were now beginning to mutter about not being able to touch Jordan, but few players took as much contact, as the games with the Pistons demonstrated. They weren't officially the Bad Boys, but looking back it's amazing the NBA not only allowed the Pistons to get away with that nascent brutality but eventually turned it into a marketing ploy.
If there was a load on Jordan you'd never know.
How about this for a four in five nights starting Feb. 28. Jordan scored 37 in a win over the Bucks, 30 in a loss in New Jersey, 30 in a win back home over the Clippers and then in the fourth game of the five-night set, Jordan faced the Pistons.
How about this 125-120 overtime win in Detroit with the Pistons playing then in the Silverdome: 61 points, seven rebounds, three blocks and three steals. To get the Bulls into overtime, Jordan scored 26 points in the fourth quarter. No one, really, had seen anything like this. Wilt had scored more—and only Wilt—but not from the perimeter as Jordan was doing.
So much for that team record 58 points which didn't last long. Jordan tied the game at the end of regulation and then stole the ball to prevent a Pistons chance at a regulation winner. Thomas was awfully good with 31 points and 18 rebounds, and he was now learning to lose all the personal duels with Jordan.
The Bulls returned home and lost by a point to the Knicks as Jordan had just 27. But he also had eight steals and eight rebounds. The man never rested.
Though Barkley was the mouth, the games with the 76ers were of greater significance to Jordan because it was the final season for Julius Erving. Jordan, clearly, had become the heir to Erving's throne as something of the spokesman of the game given his popularity and exciting style.
In Philadelphia on March 11, Jordan had 49 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and four blocks. Jordan was just letting Dr. J. know he was worthy.
The Bulls continued to hang around .500, a few above or below all season as they left on their final western trip. From a season high five over .500, they lost six of eight heading into Portland to conclude the trip. Even Portland management officials were opening questioning Jordan to justify their historic mistake. Portland won by a basket as Jordan had 46 points.
March 24th was another historic night in the Chicago Stadium as it was Erving's final appearance in Chicago. There have been few more gracious men in the history of the game, and Erving couldn't have been more complimentary of Jordan. I recall Erving that night saying how much easier it was for him to retire knowing Jordan was there to carry the torch forward for the league.
Jordan wouldn't disappoint, as he led the Bulls to a 93-91 win with 56 points, eight steals and seven rebounds.
The contretemps with the Pistons continued as the Bulls beat Detroit by 30 at home. Laimbeer pushed Jordan into the basket support on a drive in Laimbeer's standard method of hitting players in the back. Jordan retaliated with a push at Laimbeer and later in the game Adrian Dantley clotheslined Jordan and complained Jordan gets too much respect from the referees.
The Bulls had fallen below .500, and Jordan was pushing for a winning record. With the team 38-40 after a loss at Philadelphia, how about this Jordan closing kick in consecutive games: 53 points and eight assists in a win against the Pacers; 50 points and nine rebounds in a win at Milwaukee, and then 61 points and 10 rebounds in a loss to Atlanta. That 61 in the last home game of the regular season was a memorable shootout with Dominique Wilkins, who had 34 points and finished second in the league in scoring, more than eight points behind Jordan. It was the first time since Wilt anyone scored at least 50 points in three straight games. In a run starting in the second quarter, Jordan scored 23 straight points.
The loss left the Bulls 40-41 heading into Boston for the closing game before opening the playoffs against the Celtics. Jordan rested, scored 17 points in 25 minutes as the Bulls lost to finish 40-42.
But it was a regular season for the ages with 37 games of at least 40 points, an average of 37.1. Jordan scored 3,041 points, the most ever by a guard, and became the first player ever with more than 100 blocks and steals. Despite being second in steals to Alvin Robertson, Jordan wasn't named to the first- or second all-defensive teams, amazingly. It just shows, as I've often said, how little attention so many coaches actually pay to the game and protect their favorites. Jordan made it clear the coaches couldn't deny him the following season as in the media voting he was named Defensive Player of the Year and led the NBA in steals.
The Bulls couldn't compete with the Celtics as Jordan was merely mortal-for him-averaging 35.7 points and six assists. The Bulls were swept by the Celtics in three games in the opening round for the second straight season. But the building blocks for the championship run were about to be put into place with the second best draft in franchise history. Jordan had shown he was the best individual player in the game. Now it was time to begin to show he could be part of the best team.