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Like No Other

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By Art Thiel

In a culture with an inexhaustible passion to rank, to quantify, to compare and contrast everything, Michael Jordan has been the universal measuring device in appraising greatness. The overpowering magnificence of Jordan, the athlete and cultural phenomenon, has had such a profound effect on global society that descriptions of athletes, artists, business executives and Christmas decorations as "The Michael Jordan of [the sport, the art, the business, the magnum Nativity scene in the neighborhood]" are now common.

Of course, the item being described is never quite the Jordan of whatever, but it does enlighten the conversation. Accuracy is not paramount, because, once the Jordan description is deployed, everyone understands.

"Oh, really? Wow."

On the threshold of his retirement, a new social superlative will be needed. Not only is Jordan first in basketball, he is so ubiquitous in popular culture that the runner-up spot may as well be vacant in both leagues. Really, who is the second-best basketball player? Shaquille O'Neal? Scottie Pippen? Gary Payton? Karl Malone? Grant Hill? Good choices, but that's the point that ends the argument. There is no debate about No. 1. Who is the runner-up pop phenom? Schwarzenegger? Madonna? The Spice Girls? A sunken luxury liner? Until the Beatles drop 30 years and add Garth Brooks, millions will continue the pursuit to be like Mike.

Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan first captivated basketball fans with his ability to fly, as shown here in the 1987 Slam Dunk contest.

In a nation that invented the short attention span, the Jordan preeminence seems always to have been that way. But it took 10 years, from the skinny North Carolina freshman's jump shot to win the 1981 NCAA Championship to the Bulls' defeat of the Los Angeles Lakers for the 1991 NBA title, before his nonpareil status was certified. Until then, the conventional wisdom was that Jordan was much like many an individual scoring champion and/or spectacular player -- a part greater than the whole. His championships, in a culture that insists upon teamwork, distinguished him from his predecessors and elevated his greatness.

As Jordan embarked upon his decade-long tear down of the perception that a supreme scorer could never be a basketball champion, he was also distinguishing himself personally from all other athletes. In a 1980s world newly impressed by ESPN, MTV and the worldwide video explosion, Jordan shaved his head clean, wore audacious red sneakers and let the hem of his shorts flirt with his knees. He didn't invent the fashions, just as he didn't invent the smile and the wink, but he combined all of them in such an engaging manner that the once-unsightly affectations became trendy, and his image became nearly as admirable as his unsurpassed skills.

Now, at the presumptive end of his career, he has created his own line of cologne and clothing, presuming shrewdly that, while no one can be like Mike exactly, the chance to smell and dress like him will be -- in a world given over to computer-generated simulations -- virtually enough.

It is a mark of Jordan's uniqueness that even his athletic shortcomings served to enhance his image. When he left basketball for minor-league baseball following the 1993 season, casual sports fans and even non-sports fans figured his athletic genius would do the the trick.

Those closer to the sport knew the truth, and when Jordan himself accepted the reality, it made him all the more human. Think about it. If he had succeeded as a .300 hitter in the major leagues, there would be no possibility of relating to the man.

While some might suggest that Jordan is now unreachable for even the most active imagination, in fact his relative humanity is at the vortex of his appeal. He is, after all, the grandson of a sharecropper and was cut from his high school basketball team, and could not afford his own bicycle until he was 16. Though his basketball skills are transcendent, they are not so freakish as to be unfathomable, as with Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He is a shorter, slender man dominating giants, and for that there is no shortage of fantasy projection from millions convinced of their own dwarfism.

Throw in eye contact, articulation, a handsome sexiness and acceptance from Bugs Bunny, and we have someone who has sold tight underwear and baggy outerwear to mainstream America that would have considered such fashion delivered another way as a threat from the streets.

It is a measure of the man against whom individual human things are measured that he can even persuade his massive public on the toughest sell of all -- his own vulnerabilities. Our habit with secular deities is to demand near-perfection. When the inevitable surrender to temptation is disclosed, we savor, guiltily but readily, the embarrassing clayfootedness.

Jordan's career once was speckled with stories about high-stakes gambling escapades. Several years ago, he was linked with some dubious non-sports characters. But, to a public that has been captivated, his foibles are reduced to trifles.

Michael Jordan

Jordan has made several spectacular plays during his career, but none more famous than his hanging, one-handed layup against the Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals.

"As I often say, Mr. Jordan is from another planet; he is not a mere mortal," said Anita DeFrantz, Vice President of the International Olympic Committee. "He is so far removed from day-to-day life . Even the 'bad stuff' he does is so removed from the commonplace citizen it doesn't relate to me."

That almost cosmic distance that separates him from the second-best creates a suction that brings in what has distinguished his following from all others -- millions upon millions of casual fans, many of whom seldom pay attention to the playoff race but set their VCRs to his national TV schedule. Virtuosos have a way of drawing to them curious minds that otherwise would have no knowledge or affinity for the exercise.

In sports, Tiger Woods is the latest expression of that phenomenon. Jordan's predecessor was Muhammad Ali, and before him Joe DiMaggio, and before him Babe Ruth. As a pop icon, Jordan occupies a stratum that had been reserved for those who resonated emotionally through music -- Elvis, the Beatles, Frank Sinatra. Upon the death of Princess Diana, reporters rushed to Jordan to seek comparisons about skirmishes with the paparazzi. Who else could relate to the perils of royalty?

That Jordan has stimulated so many so deeply is a result of a unique confluence of events. His magnetism, as well as his astonishing force of basketball will, intertwined fortuitously with the invention of athletic-shoe marketing, a combination no veteran hoopster or wizened Wall Streeter could have foreseen 15 years ago. The timing coincided with an explosion of sports media, not only print and broadcast, but advertising.

Jordan's singular supremacy also broke an informal tradition that sports shared with quality literature: The requirement of an antagonist for the protagonist.

Ali had Frazier. Chamberlain had Russell. Magic had Bird. Palmer had Nicklaus. Ohio State had Michigan. The Dodgers had the Yankees. U.S. track had the Soviets. Jordan had . air.

The Bulls' five championship series with Jordan produced five different Western Conference opponents. His nine individual scoring championships produced no duels. His feats were measured not by rivals but by lack of same. Unsplintered, the focus went to the ultimate player instead of the ultimate battle.

The burgeoning sports-marketing wave sent his and the NBA's image around world to millions who would not otherwise have noticed. Upon his arrival in Paris for the McDonald's Championship last October, the page 1A story in the France-Soir newspaper began: "Michael Jordan is in Paris. That's better than the Pope. It's God in person."

On the other side of the world about that same time, some American visitors were hiking up a steep trail on the side of a dormant volcano in one of New Zealand's national parks. The group paused to let pass downhill a party of students, the last of whom was a young teenage girl sporting the familiar No. 23 Chicago jersey.

Cultural anthropologists will divine many explanations, and a few lamentations, for the spread of this seed, but there is no argument that the breadth of the bloom among the casual fan is breathtaking. So pervasive is his sweep that Jordan in December was the first athlete named No. 1 in The Sporting News' annual list of the most powerful people in sports. The distinction is normally reserved for media moguls whose influence is felt in multiple sports. In choosing Jordan, the magazine identified the lone one-sport athlete who touches multiple industries and nations.

Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan poses with the MVP trophy he earned for leading the Bulls to an NBA-record 72 wins in 1995-96.

For the basketball aficionado who cares nothing about net worth and more about nothing-but-net, there is an aspect of the Jordan legacy that is most arresting. Beyond the nine individual scoring titles, four Most Valuable Player awards, multiple All-Defense accolades and a 31.7-points-per-game average that is the highest in NBA history, there is the fact that in the Bulls' five titles over the last seven seasons, he has had only one teammate through all -- Pippen.

In virtually every other sustained run of excellence in NBA history, the champions had three, four, even five stalwarts that sustained the dynasty, and one was always a good center. Jordan and Pippen, neither taller than 6-7, have been the only player constants in the Chicago reign. In an era of free-agent roster convulsions and incomprehensible contracts, the achievement is as incandescent as Jordan's individual eminence. But in the two years Jordan did not play full seasons, the Bulls were eliminated from the playoffs in the second round.

What has launched him to this frontier is a competitive nature that apparently knows no frontier. By now, anyone who has followed the Bulls has a favorite story of Jordan's desire to win, be it golf, table tennis, or quickest to sleep.

Orlando Magic Coach Chuck Daly tells the story of his time at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona when he edged Jordan in a round of golf. Jordan was beside himself with defeat, demanding another shot. Daly declined and went off to the hotel, only to be awakened at 4 a.m. by a pounding on his door.

"Chuck, it's Michael," Daly recalled hearing. "Let's go play."

Nor can Jordan stand to be second in the game of one-upmanship. At the same Olympics, he was lounging at the hotel with two of sports' ultimate gamesmen, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, when Johnson allowed as to how he was thinking of unretiring and returning to the Lakers.

"It's so easy going out to L.A. now," said a dubiously wistful Jordan, referring to the passage of the Showtime atmosphere when the Lakers were formidable with Johnson. "I think I'm going to start taking my two kids on road trips to L.A. But if you come back, out of respect to you, I'll only bring one."

To create a competitive edge after so much success, Jordan is always on search mode for inspiration. Before a game against Seattle, Sonics Coach George Karl was quoted in the papers saying Jordan no longer drives to the basket as much, preferring his fadeaway jumper.

It was hardly a scoop. But Jordan made himself a mountain from Karl's molehill, going for 38 points and later saying sarcastically that his fellow Tar Heel alum was probably right, that he, Jordan, probably was losing a step and getting soft. Karl was left in the familiar position of Jordan victims: sputtering.

"I said it," he said, "but I didn't mean it that way."

Too late. With Jordan, there are no do-overs.

Being pitted against Jordan in anything leaves an indelible impression that must be experienced to be understood. Even by one so cool and clever as David Stern.

"I've never seen anyone who can possibly be more competitive than Michael Jordan," Stern said. "We had a conversation during the lockout, a back-and-forth exchange on the merits of both sides. It was apparent to me again that he doesn't like to lose. It was clear this was another competition, and in almost a friendly way."

Almost a friendly way. If it were anybody but the erudite and lawyerly commissioner offering the description, the dialogue probably would have qualified as trash talk.

"I was . enlightened," Stern said, pausing for the right adjective. "I was seeing a very consistent Michael, in a good-natured way. But, through the good nature, you could see a very determined person."

So too have others been enlightened, by this fierceness wrapped in grace. It is foolish to say that there will never be another Michael Jordan, because no one anticipated the first one. But he will be what all those after him are measured against, just as we futilely measure all against him now.

He capitalized what we breathe. That can happen once.

Although he would discourage comparisons, we like to think of Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Art Thiel as the Michael Jordan of Seattle sports writers. For more than two decades, Thiel has been entertaining Seattle sports fans with his wry wit and elegant writing. His most recent article in Hoop appeared in the May issue when he wrote about former Sonic Jack Sikma.

This article also appears in the June 1998 issue of Hoop.