THE WORLD WATCHED AS MJ STOOD CENTER STAGE FOR 13 UNFORGETTABLE SEASONS
Jordan's Three-Act Play in the NBA
Not much can be written about Michael Jordan that has not already been said in one way or another, in languages from Chinese to Slovak. His accomplishments on the basketball court defy description and imitation, and his skills drew the respect and admiration of both fans and those who really weren't interested in sports. He was the idol of most of the younger players in the NBA today, many of whom credit Jordan with inspiring them to excel at the sport. His impact on the sport cannot be measured, yet he was and is so much more than just a sports star; he is a cultural icon. And now, once again, it's time to say farewell.
"I've accomplished everything I could as an individual," he said. "I don't have the mental challenge to proceed as I have in the past."
It was hard enough to say goodbye the first time. In October 1993, Jordan decided to retire to pursue a longtime dream of playing professional baseball. We were all sad then, wringing our hands and lamenting about the prospect of Life After Michael. But he was still so young, with additional tangible basketball goals within his grasp, that many predicted he would return. And he did, to conclude a fantastic career with a final act that in many ways was greater than those proceeding it.
But now the curtain seems to have fallen for good. No more encores, despite all the applause we can muster. Yet instead of mourning the loss of the greatest basketball player ever, it's time to celebrate his glorious accomplishments and appreciate the fact that we were all around to see and remember his numerous feats. For no playwright could have scripted Jordan's legacy.
"Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time.
I don't think Michael Jordan could guard Michael Jordan."
-- Paul Westphal
Act I: The Early Years
Everyone knows how the legend began, with the skinny kid in Wilmington, N.C., who barely made his high school basketball team. But instead of joining the chess club (breath a sigh of relief, Bobby Fischer), Jordan worked harder, earning a scholarship to play for Dean Smith and the Tar Heels at UNC. Not expected to star there, he won the 1982 NCAA title for Carolina with a last second shot, the first of many momentous game winners in his illustrious career. After three college seasons, it was on to the NBA, where still Jordan's stardom was somewhat in doubt as he joined the Chicago Bulls, who selected him with the third pick of the 1984 NBA Draft.
Not for long, though. In 1986 he became immortalized by Larry Bird, who called him "God disguised as Michael Jordan," after Jordan scored 63 against the Celtics in a double-overtime thriller on the hallowed parquet of Boston Garden. In 1988, he cemented himself as Chicago's favorite son after sweeping through the NBA All-Star Weekend at Chicago Stadium, winning the Slam-Dunk title in spectacular fashion as well as the game's MVP award. And on May 7, 1989, he made what may have been his most famous basket, that one we've seen replayed so many times. The hanging jumper over Craig Ehlo to win Game 5 and eliminate the Cavaliers from the first round of the playoffs. Air Jordan truly had arrived.
Act II: Call to Glory
While everyone admired Jordan's acrobatic moves and prolific scoring ability, it wasn't until the Bulls started to win, and win big, that his basketball genius was truly appreciated. After losing to the eventual NBA champ Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1989 and 1990, Jordan and the Bulls broke through to the top in 1991. With a stellar supporting cast that included Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, Jordan led Chicago to three consecutive titles from 1991-93, beating three cream-of-the-crop teams: Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers, Clyde Drexler's Portland Trail Blazers and Charles Barkley's Phoenix Suns.
Jordan hit this jumper in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals against the Utah Jazz to clinch the Bulls' sixth championship.
"Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time," said former Suns (and current Seattle) coach Paul Westphal after Phoenix lost in '93. "He's the greatest point guard ever. He's the greatest shooting guard ever. He's the greatest small forward ever. He'd probably rank in the top five among power forwards and centers. I don't think Michael Jordan could guard Michael Jordan."
Act III: The Return of the Legend
After a long intermission where Jordan took a break from basketball and
took a shot at professional baseball, he returned to the NBA in March of
1995. With all eyes upon him, many of them eager to point out a decline in his skills, Jordan's immeasurable talent shone through the rust almost immediately. In only his fifth game back, Jordan waltzed into Madison Square Garden, a stage for many of his triumphs, and scored 55 points to lead the Bulls over the Knicks, 113-111. The next season he embarked on the second of his three-peats, making victims of Seattle once and Utah twice.
The Jazz played host to two of Jordan's finest moments in those championship series. In Game 5 in 1997, a sickly and dehydrated Jordan summoned his inhuman will to score 38 points in a 90-88 Chicago victory that many consider his greatest performance ever. And in the final seconds of what turned out to be his final NBA game, Jordan hit the winning jumper with 5.2 seconds remaining to give the Bulls their sixth NBA title.
Will basketball and the NBA continue without him? Of course they will.
"I think the game itself is a lot bigger than Michael Jordan," said Jordan at his retirement press conference. "The game will continue on."
"This is a perfect time for me to walk away from the game," he continued. "I'm at peace with that."
And as the curtain falls, we have to be at peace with that, too.