Sam Smith: Jordan to take official place in basketball immortality

Sam Smith: Jordan to take official place in basketball immortality

Sam Smith

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Posted by Sam Smith | | 04.05.09 | 6:15 p.m. CT

The Basketball Hall of Fame has a problem. How do you honor someone with enshrinement who already transcends the game?

On Monday, basketball’s Hall of Fame will announce that Michael Jordan will lead the Class of 2009 for inclusion in the Hall of Fame, generally regarded as the sport’s highest honor.

It’s not that Jordan won’t be humbled and appreciative. I’m quite sure he will be. But this is more a moment for the history of the sport.

The game’s greatest player gaining entry into the game’s pantheon. It’s probably not unlike when Babe Ruth was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame’s first class in 1936. Ruth already was an American icon. Statues already had been erected, as there is for Jordan outside the United Center. His jersey even has been retired by teams he only played against, like in the Miami Heat’s arena.

Like Ruth, Jordan, in a sense, has become bigger than the game. The game always lives on. But for a moment in time, when the most special one comes along, the game becomes something of a prop, just a stage for the most eminent one of them all.

Jordan’s induction will be celebrated again in Springfield, Mass. in September when the full class is enshrined. It will be one of those “have to be there” moments in history, not unlike Barack Obama’s inauguration.

It’s the most estimable player getting his official place in basketball immortality.

And I expect Jordan will again be a bit embarrassed by it all.

I think that’s why we see so little of him anymore.

Jordan always loved the spotlight, the big stage, though less for the personal recognition than the ability to show what he could do.

We all know about the legendary competitiveness and we’ve all seen the great moments, the numbing shots and gasp inducing moves that created and enhanced the legend.

Though Jordan mostly was in it for the game.

Sure, he enjoyed the fame and riches and celebrity that came from it all. And he was hardly shy when it came to a challenge. But he had to grow into the cultural icon, and it always was a bit more work than he cared for. So I’m hardly surprised he’s one of the least seen, least involved figures in the game.

It’s not so much the attention that his presence attracts—and it still ranks above anyone perhaps other than Obama—but his essential private nature of our most public sports stars.

There were always hints of it when Jordan arrived in Chicago in 1984, and I was fortunate to be there and writing about him from the beginning.

I was writing for the Chicago Tribune then, but I’d gotten a freelance assignment from US magazine and went to spend an afternoon with Jordan at the modest townhouse he’d bought near his new buddy Rod Higgins in Deerfield. When I entered, Jordan was ironing a shirt. I’d remarked it was something I’d never learned to do, and Jordan said he knew he didn’t have to anymore with his then massive $900,000 annual salary. But it was relaxing. Jordan said he’d taken home economics in high school because he was shy with girls and was self conscious about his looks, especially his jutting ears. He said the other guys had made fun of him often in front of girls and he was convinced he’d be a bachelor. So be prepared. He was not always a Boy Scout, but he earned merit badges like no one else.

Jordan, really, was only trying to fit in then, and when he came to the Bulls, really.

I remember then coach Kevin Loughery saying how Jordan was pretty quiet, except for his game. The Bulls had a bunch of high lottery picks then and young veterans, and there was some jealousies. Quentin Dailey that first season complained of staff favoritism toward Jordan.

Jordan hated that stuff.

He never was close with many Bulls teammates. Higgins, at first, and Higgins now is Jordan’s general manager in Charlotte. Charles Oakley. He always had a small group. Back then it was Fred Whitfield, who’s still with him, also in Charlotte, and two others, Adolph Shiver, who was a bit of an amusing con man, and Fred Kearns, whom I think was an undertaker. All guys from back home in North Carolina. They’d meet up with Jordan on the road. Four was important to play cards.

I wasn’t much of a card player or gambler, and couldn’t keep up with Jordan, anyway. My traveling buddy from the Sun-Times, Lacy Banks, was better at that stuff, and he and Jordan had this long running game of Tonk, a card game I never quite figured out, and when the Freds and Adolph weren’t able to come in (they paid for their own flights) Jordan would get into a game with Lacy, or ping pong. Lacy was good at ping pong and kept beating Jordan until one day Lacy couldn’t beat him anymore. Not even one game.

I remember Higgins having a pool table in his condo and beating Jordan, and then Jordan getting one and practicing all the time until Higgins couldn’t beat him anymore.

It’s the stuff Jordan loved. Competing with the guys, the trash talking, the man’s man kind of stuff. Jordan was always great company for guys because there always had to be some contest going on. He made sitting around fun because he’d challenge you at everything.

That was when he was comfortable. Though he grew into a worldwide ambassador as befitting his status, that never was his comfort zone.

I once went to play golf with him when he was just learning the game, and as his penchant, was determined to be the best. It was another trait that separated him, never fearing to fail. Fear, it’s said, is the great motivator. Just about all of us are driven to avoid it. Jordan embraced it and was determined to beat it as well.

He was a good player, better than I was, and while I hit balls on the range getting ready to play he was getting tips and swing lessons from all the pros at the course. I mentioned I’d love that. Nah, he said. That was one of the most frustrating parts. Everywhere he went everyone wanted to help him, and he really was too polite to say no. It was messing up his swing.

Never one to disappoint

Jordan certainly understood his status, and though he took criticism at times for his apolitical stances, he understood what he meant to basketball.

You don’t see it anymore with the big stars, but I always remember the preseason exhibition games in all these places like Lincoln, Neb. and pre-Raptors Canada where they didn’t have the NBA. No one wanted to play in those games, and sometimes I’d wonder about Jordan playing so much. The coach would tell him he didn’t have to, and it was tempting, but eventually he’d end up playing 30, 35 minutes. I’d ask him why afterward. “It’s what people expect,” he’d say.

Plus, he did love playing, no matter the circumstances.

I loved when he started and Loughery used to say how he’d put Jordan with the first team and they’d win. And then he’d put him with the second team and they’d win. And then he’d mix up the teams to offensive guys against defensive guys and no matter which, Jordan’s team would win. Loughery would delight in telling general manager Rod Thorn, “We’ll you finally didn’t mess up a draft.”

So it was not surprising when they had that infamous alleged freezeout of Jordan at the 1985 All-Star game. He was two of nine shooting for seven points. But he was a rookie. Supposedly, it was all over him wearing Nike garb instead of All-Star stuff. But mostly Jordan was upset because he really wanted to fit in with the stars of the game. He didn’t see himself as more. He admired those guys. Not that he didn’t think he could compete with them.

But it was the way you did things.

It’s easy to forget with all the individual brilliance, but Jordan came from a solid, grounded family with siblings he competed against. He grew up in college not to be a star—though his talent was undeniable—but to be a part of the North Carolina system.

Leading by example

If Jordan excelled, it was by showing people what he did. Not telling them.

Oh, he’d tell them how he did it. Trash talking may have been his first words. But you also deferred to seniority, or seniors.

But that had to change for the other part of the equation. Jordan needed to win, and he wasn’t going to unless he began to assert himself in more vocal ways. It didn’t always please his teammates, and the stories became legend, also the demands and his own pent up competitiveness as the Bulls struggled for years and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were considered the winners and Jordan the celebrity.

So Jordan would take it out on his teammates at times, and it wasn’t always pleasant. I recall times when he was so frustrated at the playoff failures he’d stop talking to everyone connected with or around the team, including teammates and coaches. I fondly remember his late father, James, more friend than father, being the buffer. He’d always make a point to smooth things over. He’d stop by the writers and explain, “Michael isn’t mad at you guys. Don’t worry. He’s just upset the way the games have gone. He’ll be fine.”

He always was, and then when the Bulls began to win and basically never stopped as long as he was with them, the legend grew so big that Jordan could no longer be a part of the fabric of the community.

There was no one to defer to any longer.

I had my issues with Jordan when I wrote The Jordan Rules in 1991, the diary of that 1990-91 championship season. And I always understood why. Jordan thought I’d betrayed him since we’d always gotten along well and I was one of the few traveling with him in those early years when even the local media was viewing him as something of an attraction rather than a Holy Grail.

I’d told some of those tales of his disputes with teammates that season, and Jordan, I knew, always feared so called bad publicity would cost him his valued image. I knew there was nothing in that book that would do so, and though our relationship never fully was mended, Jordan always treated me with respect and dignity as he moved on in his career and eventually to play in Washington. A lesser man would have isolated or even embarrassed me in front of my peers or the world, and who would side with a reporter over Michael Jordan? But Jordan always was professional.

Though being the professional basketball player was what truly separated Jordan and why he is being honored by the Hall of Fame.

Vintage Rare Air

Everyone has a favorite moment or game or time or play.

Mine was that shot against Cleveland in 1989.

I thought that started it all, beating a better Cleveland team and finally beginning to become the team that would be legendary.

Most recall the posed last shot in the 1998 Finals.

It was classic Jordan that he just knew he’d make it.

He missed his share as well, though what distinguishes the great ones is the desire to try knowing you won’t always be the hero and you have to stand up when you are the blame. Few recall it was the game before that winning shot in 1989 when Jordan blew a few free throws and cost Game 4 back in Chicago. That, to me, was even more significant than making the shot. When Jordan failed, all he wanted to do was try again. He never considered not succeeding.

Was Babe Ruth the fastest or strongest or most skilled? I’m sure he wasn’t close to Willie Mays. But no one dominated baseball and the public consciousness in his time like Ruth. And no one dominated basketball and the public consciousness in his time like Jordan.

I loved that then Bulls assistant Tex Winter always used to say Jordan wasn’t skilled enough and said he needed to teach Michael the chest pass better. I’m sure Jordan could have mastered it.

The elements of true sporting excellence are those intangibles, like the manic competitiveness, the ultimate confidence, the refusal to admit defeat or be beaten. Others could shoot better, run faster, and, yes, jump higher than Jordan. But he combined those athletic abilities that few had with the mind and heart of the insatiable competitor, and that is a formula that cannot be duplicated.

He was the master of the comeback, and no one could compete with him in conversation as well. When Scottie Pippen would joke about North Carolina and say Arkansas was God’s country, Jordan without hesitation would snap: “Arkansas is pig’s country.”

The only serious injury Jordan had, a broken foot in his second season, left him so determined to rule out whispered thoughts at the time he’d lose his acrobatic ability, he hit maybe the best Boston team ever for 63 in a playoff game. That was a beauty. The Pistons’ Jordan Rules. It was about clogging the lane, double and triple teaming and taking dirty, cheap shots.

My favorite, other than when Jordan goaded the Pistons into that 1991 walkoff when he said after Game 3 they were unworthy champions because they cheated—he knew how to get to anyone—was one shootout he had with Isiah Thomas in a 1987 overtime game.

Thomas was amazing with 31 points and 18 assists and a three that went in and out that would have produced a second overtime. Jordan’s 61 won it. The duels were something to behold. He had some great ones with Dominique Wilkins. I remember Wilkins coming into the Stadium in that first 50-win season in 1987-88 in what was the first home sellout since Jordan came to the Bulls. Yes, believe it or not, it took more than three years. Chicago doesn’t believe easily. Wilkins had 36 and Jordan 33, but the Bulls won. Perhaps more famous was late the previous season when Jordan had 61, but the Bulls lost at home to Wilkins’ 34.

Yes, it did take awhile to want to Be Like Mike.

Gotta be the shoes

He really did change everything.

The long shorts, the bald look, the shoes, yes, the shoes. I remember Bill Walton telling the story of winning a championship in Portland, the home to this little shoe company, Nike, and owner Phil Knight proposing a Walton shoe. No one’s going to buy a shoe because a player’s name is on it, Walton explained. Walton declined to go 50-50 with Knight on Nike. Apocryphal? Heck of a good story, though, and it gets a good laugh from Walton.

Jordan made sports fashion fashionable.

He made everything possible for everyone, the movies and rap songs, though he didn’t sing. Didn’t swim, either. He said he was afraid of water and always stayed out of the ocean. Who didn’t want to be like Mike? I’d stay out of the ocean as well. What’s the point?

There was always Cleveland to torment, and that great switch hands layup in the 1991 Finals. That was my favorite team. The first one after such a long journey seemed to mean the most. Jordan cried twice. That time and when the Bulls won on Father’s Day after his beloved father James had been murdered.

How about right before that game winner in 1998? Swiping the ball from Karl Malone as Malone looked ready to set up a Game 7 at home. Getting out of the sickbed the year before in Salt Lake City for 38.

There was those half a dozen threes and the shrug to open the 1992 playoffs when everyone was saying Clyde Drexler really was the MVP. Oh yeah.

There was the early spring of 1995 when everyone was mesmerized by what he would do and when he would be back. It took two words. And then 55 in Madison Square Garden a little while after for the official declaration.

There were so many more. Little ones you remember, like when some guy named LaBradford Smith had 37 to beat the Bulls late in that 1992-93 season and Jordan was fuming as the kid was chortling about it. The team in a schedule quirk played he next night in Washington. Jordan told his teammates he’d have 37 on Smith by halftime. It’s one thing to do it. It’s another thing to say you will and then do it. Jordan rimmed out a shot just before halftime to end with 36 in the half. Point made.

You had to smile and shake your head about stuff like that. No one did that!

Though what I liked best was the years of struggle, the mid and late 1980s, when everyone was beating the Bulls and Jordan barely could contain himself at times. He’d lash out at teammates in frustration, at management. But he always was true to his belief. He wasn’t going anywhere and wasn’t going to take any short cuts. He signed on to do a job, to resurrect a franchise and win a championship when none before him ever had.

So Jordan said he wasn’t leaving Chicago and was going to win in Chicago, and it never could be too soon for him, he wasn’t going to quit and never was going to stop until he got there.

That’s also what it’s about in addition to the highlights, a commitment to a project and an ideal, a determination to get the job done and work hard. It’s one reason why despite being sporting royalty, Jordan also endeared himself to Chicago. He wasn’t blue collar. He was basketball blue blood. But the philosophy was the same. Work hard and don’t cut corners and earn your pay and leave it all on the job. Jordan did every day he was on the basketball court.

There isn’t another like him, and he’ll make the Basketball Hall of Fame a better place.