HOOP MAGAZINE: DEC. 1987 - ON MICHAEL'S SMASHING '86-87 SEASON
What Does He Do for an Encore?
By Paul Ladewski (Southtown Economist)
ON A BLUSTERY NIGHT IN CHICAGO when Michael Jordan hits the Portland Trail Blazers with a 53-point avalanche, reporters gather around Clyde Drexler to catch his drift. And the Glide of Portland isn't shoveling bull about this Bull.
"What happened in the fourth quarter?" Someone asks.
"They started to execute their offense. In other words, Michael took over."
"Just how good is Michael?"
"MVP. He's got my vote."
OK. But what about Larry and Magic?
"If Michael had the same supporting cast as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, he would win as often as they do. If your talking who's most valuable to his team, it's Michael."
Yo, Michael. Your best game of the season?
"A good game for myself."
A good game? Fifty-three points, 20-of-34 shooting, five assists, three steals, two blocks, one MVP nomination and one victory? Gimme a break.
"I know I'm scoring a lot of points. I feel as though I'm stealing something from my teammates."
But what about MVP talk?
"I'm not thinking about that MVP crap. All I want to do is help the team win."
The mind-boggling numbers say no NBA guard has had a scoring season quite like Michael Jordan's a year ago. Not Magic. Not Jerry West. Not Nate Archibald. Not George Gervin. Jordan wrote his own record book, establishing club marks for most points in a game (61) and season (3,041), to name two. His 37.1 point average led the league and shattered Archibald's one season standards in the backcourt. Overall, he was the team leader in 11 major categories. Only Oscar Robertson approached such dizzying heights in 1962, when he averaged a triple-double -- 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 11.4 assists -- in a league that boasted more 6-foot guards than 7-foot centers.
To understand fully the extent of Jordan's statistical dominance, consider that he became the first player at any position to invade what long had been Wilt Chamberlain's private domain. His scoring total ranked third on the all-time list behind only Chamberlain. He accounted for 35 percent of his team's points, also No. 3 behind Chamberlain. And for the first time since the Big Dipper hung up his headband and finger roll, Jordan hit the 60-point mark twice in one season and 50 or more in three straight games. All this plus a Bulls home attendance record, too.
Yet despite the records and gravity-defying dunks and nationwide fan adoration, Jordan was hardly a contented 24-year-old man. If the cold numbers were numbing, so was their toll, physically and mentally. The more Jordan scored, it seemed, the Bulls struggled just the same and the less he enjoyed it. By season's end, he was tired, beaten and openly wondering whether he had done too much for everybody's own good.
"In Michael Jordan, we have the sleek roadster, the Corvette," says Coach Doug Collins. "The rest of the guys are the bruisers, the Mack trucks. I think we've done a pretty good job of blending power with finesse and speed. It all gets back to this: Are you getting the most with what you've got? I think the answer is yes."
With Jordan grounded for 64 regular season games the previous year because of a broken navicular tarsal bone in his left foot, the Bulls finished 30-52 and made a token playoff appearance. With Jordan healthy, they got out of the gate deceptively fast. But it wasn't long before opponents worked Jordan hard at both ends of the floor, became more attentive to his lesser teammates and, in the process, turned what had been a season of exclamation points into questionmarks.
Then there was the hurt of growing whispers that suggested he was little more than a glorified scorer. It didn't seem to matter that his teams had been successful wherever he had gone previously, whether it be North Carolina or the Olympics. Or that the Lakers' Magic admits, "I have a few more horses than he does." As Jordan's points and shot attempts soared, so did criticism, some of it from people whom he respected and even envied.
Among them was Bird, who only the previous year had called Jordan "the best player in the league." He amended the statement, saying, "When he came into the league, I thought (Jordan) would be a great all-around player, but his game has completely changed. Right now, the only thing he does is shoot 30 times a game. I'd never want to play like that. He's got to play like that, I guess, but I would never ever want to take 30-to-35 shots a game. It's too much of a load every game."
Others followed, including Chamberlain, who questioned Jordan's shooting ability. Some were not quite as harsh. Said Houston Coach Bill Fitch: "Michael Jordan is a helluva player who has turned the Bulls into a good team. But it's deceiving the way they're using him. If you're asking me who the MVP is, that's something I can answer only after I've seen the final standings."
Jordan understands such criticism, even if his critics don't always seem to understand his motives. In three short years, Jordan has done virtually everything except win, a fact that hangs like a millstone around his neck. Robertson is arguably the greatest guard to have played the game, but not until he won an NBA title as an aging Milwaukee Buck was his career considered to be complete. Chamberlain dominated like no other player before or since, but will forever be known as Bill Russell's fall guy. Jordan is aware hat Bird and Magic accept only championships in their exclusive MVP Club.
Perhaps that explains why few noticed that, for example, Jordan had more blocked shots than any guard since 1973-74 (the statistic was not recorded before that season) and was the first player in league history to record at least 100 blocks and 200 steals.
"The one thing I've concentrated on defense," he says. "That's an important area for this team, and I want to be a part of it. Defense is part of my background. I was taught the fundamentals at North Carolina, although people aren't aware of it. Before I retire, I want them to see that I'm a good defensive player. I can play defense, but nobody knows it."
Check out Michael Jordan's Greatest Hits of 1986-87, an impressive collection:
Nov. 4: In a grand home opener against San Antonio, Jordan has 34 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks and limits Mike Mitchell to one point in the final 8:17. Yet it concerns him to lead the club in nine categories, and have 47 of its 86 free-throw attempts and 50 of its 86 fourth-quarter points after three games.
"It's very important to get my teammates involved," he says. "It's my role to keep them in the game."
Nov. 11: Unbeaten Atlanta closes within a point in the final minute when the Bulls execute their offense. Jordan jumps, double pumps, knifes between two defenders and deposits a 15-foot bank. The Bulls hand the Hawks their first loss and gain a share of the Central Division lead.
Was it a bad shot?
"Did it go in?" he asks.
"Then it wasn't a bad shot."
Says Collins: "When Michael takes it, there's no such thing as an impossible shot."
Nov. 21: After New York catches the Bulls at 99-99, Jordan takes the ensuring in-bounds pass, drives coast-to-coast and nails a 20-footer from the deep corner with Gerald Wilkins and Kenny Walker in his face. Despite a painful corn between his right toes, Jordan scores 40, including the Bulls' final 18.
Knicks center Patrick Ewing, a victim of Jordan's buzzer-beater four years earlier in the NCAA title game, can only shake his head and say, "He's amazing."
Dec. 9: Shaking off a 43 percent shooting slump on a just-concluded road trip, Jordan hits 16-of-30 shots against Denver. He scores at least 40 for the seventh straight game, seven short of Chamberlain's record.
"If Michael maintains this pace for the whole season," says Bulls assistant coach Billy McKinney. "I'll buy him a cape with an 'S' on it."
Dec. 27: Suffering from a scratchy throat and aching head, Jordan mumbles with a thermometer stuck in his mouth, "I feel terrible."
Consider how Indiana feels when Jordan, his team down to eight healthy bodies, crawls out of bed to administer a 44-point booster shot.
"We needed this one," he says, "so I wasn't going to miss it."
Jan. 20: In a slugfest right out of the WBA, Jordan finishes with 31 points, seven rebounds, five stitches in his lips, one sore hip, one sprained right wrist and one shot of Novocain.
" They said the pain would be back later tonight when I try to sleep," he says.
Feb. 13: With 10 seconds left in a win over Seattle, Jordan sits on the bench, his head pounding, right eye swollen and face buried in a bag of ice. "I had trouble seeing the basket in the fourth-quarter," he says. "Every time my heart pounded, my vision blurred. I drove more to the basket so I could get a better look at it."
Incredibly, the distractions didn't prevent him from scoring 45 points-- 16 in the final quarter.
Feb. 24: After Jordan's 34-point, 12-rebound, five-blocked shot performance, Atlanta Coach Mike Fratello says he has seen it all.
"We saw a total performance. Michael scored when needed, hit the open man with passes, hit the boards and, defensively, forced turnovers," he says. "What more can you ask?"
Feb. 26: Jordan proves his elevator has more stops than the Sears Tower as he reaches yet another level with a club-record 58 points against New Jersey. In 37 breath-taking minutes, he hits 16-of-25 from the field, 26-of-27 form the line- both team records- to go along with eight rebounds, three steals, two blocks and one understatement: "I had a good game," he says.
"When Michael gets going, he's unstoppable," says former teammate Orlando Woolridge. "The key is to break his momentum early. We didn't, and you saw the result. I got charged up just watching him."
March 8: "I'm in pieces right now. I've never felt worse as a pro," insists Jordan. His performance is routine: 33 points, five steals and three blocks in an overtime win over Dallas. Already bothered by a week-old cold, he suffers a hip pointer in a collision with Sam Perkins, his former North Carolina teammate.
Boston's Larry Bird wondered how Jordan handled so much pressure to score.
"Anybody else would miss some time," says trainer Mark Pfeil, "but we're talking about Michael Jordan here." The Bulls play 15 games in the next 24 days, and Jordan plays all of them.
April 16: With a third-quarter lay-up against Atlanta, Jordan becomes the first player since Wilt Chamberlain in 1963 to reach 3,000 points. The bucket also gives him a league-record 23 straight points. He finishes with 61- his third straight game of 50 or more- but the Bulls lose.
"This caps a great season for me," he says, "but I'd feel a lot better if we had won. I certainly would have traded the 61 points for a 'W', but I can't get down.
On the night Boston sweeps the Bulls out of the playoffs for the second year in a row, an exhausted Jordan is down. Only now does he vent emotions that had been building inside for months.
"We made a lot of dumb mistakes," he says.
"We stood around as if to say, 'Let's see what Michael can do.' It shouldn't be that way. If they expect me to average 37 points next year, well, I don't want to do it."
That was his announcement of the coming of a new, even improved, Michael Jordan this season. No longer will his team put all its eggs in one basket, he predicts. No longer will he miss more field-goal tries than any of his teammates would attempt. Maybe his jet-propelled legs will take him to a rebounding title. Or maybe he'll duel Magic in assists. With the support of a promising off-season draft, maybe, just maybe, he'll find a way to compete with Bird's Celtics come playoff time. Maybe then people will realize he can do more things than dunk a basketball 101 different ways.
It wasn't long before Jordan was back onto the swing of things. After the playoffs, he left for North Carolina, where he overdosed on golf, which ranks a close third behind a fianc‚e and basketball on his list of favorite things. He played 36 holes on each of 10 straight days and, between rounds, took lessons from pro Ed Ibarguen in an attempt to cure a wicked hook.
Jordan took up golf three years ago in his continuous pursuit of a challenge. Jordan thrives on challenges the way he does lead-footed guards. "I'm addicted to golf," he says. "I can't get it out of my system." He learned from the pros. Davis Love III taught him style. Greg Norman taught him aggressiveness. Calvin Peete taught him to stay within his limitations.
The result is a 10 handicap- down from 18 three summers ago. Some claim Jordan would rank among the longest hitters on the PGA Tour. When he's through driving the lane, which Jordan envisions will come at age 32, he insists he will drive the green as a Tour member. So far, nobody has bet against him.
"Golf isn't a team game like basketball," he explains, "and that's why it's such a challenge. Basketball can be mastered because it has so many options. If your outside shot doesn't fall, you can move inside. If you can't dribble, you can pass. When that doesn't work, you have four teammates to help. In golf, it's you, the ball and nothing else. If you don't perform, everybody knows it by the end of the day."
Near the end of one torturous practice round last June at Butler National Golf Club outside Chicago, Jordan was ready to take a familiar way out. His putter ailing, Jordan picked up the ball on the green and nonchalantly threw up a make-believe jumper at the hole.
Nothing but net.
That done, a new challenge awaits him.
This article also appeared in the December 1987 issue of Hoop.
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