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Michael Jordan: Modern-Day Icon

By Art Thiel

In a culture with an inexhaustible passion to rank, to quantify, to compare and contrast everything, Michael Jordan became the universal measuring device for appraising greatness. Jordan the athlete, as well as cultural icon, had such an effect on global society that descriptions of standout athletes in other sports, as well as top artists, business executives and elite achievers in any field, began with: "He/she is the Michael Jordan of ... "

This article appears in the Official NBA Encyclopedia
The person being described was never quite "the Jordan of ..." but it was a point of reference almost universally understood. The standard response?

"Oh, really? Wow."

Jordan so dominated the basketball world that, for the second half of a pro career that spanned 1984-98, there was no debate about the game's supreme player -- an astonishing distinction in a time when superb athletes proliferate. Previous eras argued Wilt versus Russell, Robertson versus West, Magic versus Bird. But Jordan stood alone, so far ahead of his peers that individual rivalry ceased.

He was so far apart that he even broke a basic rule of literature: All protagonists must have antagonists. Jordan remained a great drama despite the lack of a persistent adversary. With attention unsplintered, the focus went to the ultimate player instead of the ultimate battle.

He even undid team rivalries. His Chicago Bulls won six of the eight championships from 1991-98 against five different teams from the Western Conference. The Bulls' misses were in 1994 and 1995 when Jordan missed most of two seasons while playing baseball. It was the only period in Jordan's pro athletic career when the phrase "minor league" could be attached with accuracy.

Jordan, who won five MVP awards, left the NBA as on of the most decorated players of all time.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE Photos
Even his Bulls teammates had a hard time keeping up. In spanning the decade of the '90s with championships, he had only a single teammate for the entire time -- Scottie Pippen. The Bulls' roster was remade several times, but the Jordan-Pippen axis was invulnerable to any basketball force from outside or inside.

Most remarkably, neither Jordan nor Pippen was the 7-foot monolith previously believed to be the mandatory requirement for sustained NBA success. Basketball's presumed minimum physical virtue, height, was not a part of their games and almost no part of the Bulls' championships. Jordan was of mortal appearance, but not of mortal deed. Or as Larry Bird put it after he watched Jordan score 63 points in a playoff game against his Celtics in 1986, "I think he's God disguised as Michael Jordan."

A little hyperbolic, but it also seemed as if earth rules never applied. Even he seemed to sense something a little cosmic.

"I don't know about flying," Jordan said in 1995, "but sometimes it feels like I have these little wings on my feet."

The last image of Jordan's on-court career -- a game-winning 20-foot jumper in Salt Lake City's Delta Center in June, 1998, to beat the Jazz for the Bulls' final Jordan-era championship -- was a repeat of so many devastating knockout punches that it seemed he had been doing these feats forever. In fact, it took a long time to reach the pro pinnacle, a steady appreciation over nine years -- from the skinny North Carolina freshman's jump shot to win the 1982 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 like many an individual scoring champion and/or highlight-video player -- a part greater than the whole. But Jordan demonstrated that extraordinary physical gifts were not sufficient by themselves to create the game's greatest player.

"The thing about Michael is he takes nothing about his game for granted," said Phil Jackson, who shared Jordan's six title rings while coaching the Bulls. "When he first came into the league in 1984, he was primarily a penetrator. His outside shooting wasn't up to pro standards. So he put in his gym time in the offseason, shooting hundreds of shots each day. Eventually, he became a deadly three-point shooter."

The Knicks were a frequent victim of Jordan as he led the Bulls to 6 NBA titles.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE Photos
He led the NBA in scoring a record 10 times with a 31.5 points per game average, another all-time mark. What made the achievement even more remarkable was that he did so while playing the other end of the floor as well. Nine times he was named to the NBA's All-Defensive First Team, and in 1988, he was named NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

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

As Jordan embarked upon his teardown of the perception that a supreme scorer could never be a champion, he was also distinguishing himself personally from all other athletes. In a 1980s world newly impressed by ESPN, MTV and the worldwide media explosion, Jordan shaved his skull, 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.

As his playing career was closing, Jordan 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.

While some suggest that Jordan was already unreachable even for the most active imagination, his relative humanity is at the center of his appeal. A grandson of a sharecropper, Jordan was cut from his high school varsity basketball team as a sophomore, 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. He was a shorter, slender man dominating giants, and for that there is no shortage of projection from millions of people convinced they were built too closely to the planet surface.

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

The distance that separated him from the second-best also created a suction that brought to basketball millions upon millions of casual fans, many of whom seldom paid attention to the playoff race but set their VCRs to his national TV schedule.

Following the electric rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird that dominated the 1980s, Jordan's wonders helped continue the NBA's huge leap in national and international popularity. The parallel ascensions of Jordan and the league were not coincidence. During the press conference announcing Jordan's retirement on January 13, 1999, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf hit the trenchant point.

"The truth is that for what Michael has meant to the NBA," he said, "his number 23 could very well be retired in every arena in the league.''

His aura extended worldwide, often to countries where basketball had been only a minor diversion. Upon the Bulls' arrival in Paris for the McDonald's Championship in October, 1997, the front-page story in the France-Soir national newspaper began:

"Michael Jordan is in Paris. That's better than the Pope. It's God in person.''

Jordan was among the handful of sports figures of the 20th century whose virtuosity and personality was so transcendent that he drew millions who otherwise would have no particular knowledge or affinity for the exercise. Jordan's predecessor in that regard was Muhammad Ali, and before him Joe DiMaggio. Before DiMaggio, there was Babe Ruth. Following Jordan is golfer Tiger Woods.

But no athlete reached Jordan's breadth of emotional impact. He hit notes normally reserved for pop music stars -- Elvis, the Beatles, Frank Sinatra. Upon the death of Princess Diana, reporters rushed to Jordan to seek comparisons about skirmishes with the paparazzi.

Who better to speak about the perils of royalty?

That Jordan 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 20 years ago. The timing coincided with an explosion of sports media, not only print and broadcast, but also advertising. The burgeoning sports-marketing wave sent his and the NBA's image around the world to millions who would not otherwise have noticed.

Cultural anthropologists will divine many explanations, and a few lamentations, for the spread of this seed, but there is no argument that the distribution was breathtaking. Jordan in December, 1997, was the first athlete named No.1 in The Sporting News' annual list of the most powerful people in sports. In choosing Jordan, the magazine identified him as the lone one-sport athlete who touched multiple industries and nations, a distinction normally reserved for media moguls whose influence is felt in multiple sports.

What has launched Jordan to this frontier was a competitive nature that apparently was unprecedented in the world of pro athletics. By now, anyone who followed the Bulls has a story of Jordan's relentless desire.

"He came into camp like a man possessed," said Steve Kerr, a teammate on three title teams. "Every practice, every shooting drill was just a huge competition. It set the tone for our season. There was definitely a purpose to it. He was trying to show us what we had to do to be champions."

When Jordan joined Magic Johnson and Larry Bird on the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team, it was a dream come true...for all three and the rest of the basketball world.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE Photos
Chuck Daly, the coach of the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, tells the story of his time at the Olympics when he edged Jordan in a round of golf. Jordan was beside himself in defeat, demanding another round. Daly, a man who knows when to quit while ahead, declined and ambled off to his hotel.

The knock on his door came at 4 a.m.

"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 sport's 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 [playing against] L.A. now," said a mockingly wistful Jordan, referring to the passage of the Showtime atmosphere when the Lakers under Johnson were formidable. "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."

As the championships piled up, Jordan had to search for ways to create a competitive edge. During the 1996 Finals against the Seattle SuperSonics, after the Bulls had won an NBA-record 72 regular-season games, Jordan was looking for something fresh, no matter how contrived. George Karl, a fellow North Carolina alum, provided it.

The Sonics coach was quoted in the papers saying Jordan no longer drove to the basket as much, preferring his fadeaway jumper. The observation was hardly a scoop, having been noted for years by many NBA observers. But Jordan made himself a mountain from Karl's molehill. He put up 38 points, saying afterwards, with a strong hint of sarcasm, that his skills probably had diminished, that Karl probably was right. 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.

Four years later, as the NBA entered a new millennium, Jordan moved to the management side of the league. Almost two years after his retirement as a player, Jordan became president of basketball operations and part-owner of the Washington Wizards.

Jordan was back, albeit in a suit. Still, there was the same fierceness wrapped in grace that the world had witnessed. For Jordan, the job will be different because it can never be what he had before: "The easiest job in America,'' as he once described playing basketball. "You could go out and play for two hours and gain the notoriety and respect of millions, yet be the best at what you do."

No, the easiest job was watching Michael Jordan. It is foolish to say that there will never be another like him. Who imagined the first one? But he will be what all those who follow him are measured against -- the standard bearer for the sports world, and worlds beyond.

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