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Michael and Me

MOST PEOPLE APPRECIATE MICHAEL JORDAN as a premier athlete who can run fast, jump high and routinely deliver in the clutch. To them, he's simply physically superior to his contemporaries.

All this is true, but there are other truths about Michael that are not so easily seen: his understanding of team concepts, his competitive drive and his compassion. It's these hidden truths that form the deepest bond between Michael and me.

I must confess to being spoiled by Michael's leadership and by his ability to rise to every competitive occasion. He could easily average around 30 points a game, but he's committed to team goals and to making his teammates more effective.

After coaching him for eight seasons, I still marvel at how much Michael's enthusiasm energizes us, even at practice. I mean he never takes a day off. As a player, I had only modest skills, so I always had to operate at a maximum effort to compete. His work ethic is an important personal bond between us.

The thing about Michael is, he takes nothing about his game for granted. When he first came to the NBA back in 1984, he was primarily a penetrator. His outside shooting wasn't up to pro standards. So he put in his gym time during the off-season, shooting hundreds of shots each day. Eventually, he became a deadly three-point shooter.

Playing outstanding defense didn't come automatically to him, either. He had to study his opponents, learn their favorite moves and then dedicate himself to learning the techniques necessary to stop them. He's worked extremely hard to perfect his footwork and his balance.

Nowadays, so many kids come into the league with arrogant attitudes, thinking that their talent is all they need to succeed. By contrast, there's a certain humility in Michael's willingness to take on the difficult work of making himself a more complete player. For me, one of the signs of Michael's greatness is that he turned his weaknesses into strengths.

Another of the qualities I most respect in Michael is his demeanor on the court. There are so many young players who play with anger, taunting one another and beating their chests after a dunk. These guys are chiefly interested in ego gratification.

Michael's model for on-court decorum was Julius Erving. The only time I've ever seen Michael go jaw-to-jaw with another player was in a 1992 playoff game against the Knicks. Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley and Xavier McDaniel were trying to knock the stuffing out of Scottie Pippen, and Michael got into Ewing's face about it. Michael wasn't crowing about a spectacular play or trying to build himself up by tearing someone else down. He was just standing up for a teammate. It was a courageous act of leadership.

Being Michael's coach has been an unmitigated joy. But even more important than our professional relationship, I consider Michael to be a friend. It's undeniable that Michael has been elevated to an exalted status in our culture - you can hardly turn on the TV without seeing him endorsing some product or other. But through it all, he remains an authentic person, not taken in by his own celebrity.

Every season, he makes himself available to dozens of children who belong to the Make-A-Wish foundation - children with fatal diseases. Imagine how difficult it is to approach these kids with cheer and goodwill. Yet in a totally sincere way, Michael puts them at ease, lets them have a laugh and makes it possible for them to enjoy basketball.

After Michael retires, I only hope that the young players who will come to the fore - players like Grant Hill and Kobe Bryant - will be influenced by Michael's demeanor and by his sense of unselfish competitiveness. More than his championship rings, I hope this will be Michael's legacy.

This article originally appeared in the June/July 1998 issue of "Inside Stuff" magazine