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Jordan was clutch
Murray: It's basketball played on a higher plane
Michael Jordan transcends hoops
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
"Jordan said, 'A lot of times I'll dream I'm a bad alcoholic and I can't stop drinking and embarrassing myself. And I'm going to lose everything. I wake up from that dream in a sweat.' He knows that one slip up, one mistake, can throw it all away. And I think he lived in terror of that for a very long time," says author Bob Greene on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
Was it really only a little more than a decade ago that some doubted Michael Jordan? That he was considered all style and no substance? That he would continue to win scoring championships but that he would never elevate his team to a championship?
"What has made Michael Jordan the First Celebrity of the World is not merely his athletic talent," Sports Illustrated wrote, "but also a unique confluence of artistry, dignity and history."
His array of incredible moves and scintillating dunks delighted fans. There is an aura of class surrounding him that is lacking in many of today's athletes, even down to his dress, which is normally a thousand-dollar suit, tie knotted perfectly and a diamond-studded hoop in his left ear. But more than the clothes making the man, this man has made himself.
"In a world where celebrity wannabes feel they have a right to be whiny and boorish," Frank Deford wrote in SI, "Jordan has been remarkably dignified."
Unassuming as he appears, Jordan became a star of stars, chauffeured in limos, escorted by bodyguards, pursued by fans, media and sponsors. He made millions from the Bulls and millions more from his role as pitchman for everything from Wheaties to Gatorade, from McDonald's to Nike, with his Air Jordan sneakers spurring Nike's growth.
Jordan wasn't born a star, the player of whom Larry Bird said, "It's just God disguised as Michael Jordan." Jordan couldn't even make the varsity as a sophomore at Laney High School in Wilmington, N.C.
"It was embarrassing not making that team," said the owner of two Olympic gold medals. "They posted the roster and it was there for a long, long time without my name on it. I remember being really mad, too, because there was a guy who made it that really wasn't as good as me."
Instead of pouting or making excuses over failure, Jordan uses it to spur him to greater achievement. For that alone youngsters should want to "Be Like Mike."
Jordan made himself into a megastar. His burning desire to win, his utter refusal to quit, his desire to carry his team to the mountaintop made him a legend in his time.
"Whenever I was working out and got tired and figured I ought to stop, I'd close my eyes and see that list in the locker room without my name on it," Jordan said, "and that usually got me going again."
Lead the Bulls to one NBA championship and he wanted a second. Win five rings and he wanted a sixth. He didn't know when to stop. In a world where so many people are satisfied with themselves, the 6-foot-6 Jordan was always pushing, pushing, pushing, both himself and his teammates.
Listen to two people who knew him before he was famous. There's Ruby Sutton, phys ed teacher at Laney: "He never wanted to lose in anything. That was in-born into him. I normally get to school between 7 and 7:30. Michael would be at school before I would. Every time I'd come in and open these doors, I'd hear the basketball. Fall, wintertime, summertime. Most mornings I had to run Michael out of the gym."
Said Fred Lynch, then assistant coach, now head coach at Laney: "More than anything, he was a sore loser. Just playing pickup games. He'd get on his teammates all the time. He hasn't changed that. What he always expected was everybody play the game as hard as he played it."
While many have played sports hard, few have ever combined such desire with skill and grace under pressure. Probably no player in the history of basketball has ever stuck so many significant shots as Jordan. Think of how many times that Jordan -- literally and figuratively -- has risen to the occasion.
The first time was as a North Carolina freshman against Georgetown in the 1982 NCAA final. Legs up, wrist back, tongue out, his 17-foot jumper with 15 seconds left gave the Tar Heels a 63-62 victory and the national championship. "The kid doesn't even realize it yet, but he's part of history now," said Eddie Fogler, then a North Carolina assistant coach. "People will remember that shot 25 years from now."
There was his hanging, double-clutch jumper for the Bulls over the Cleveland Cavaliers' Craig Ehlo at the buzzer in a deciding 1989 playoff game. And how many times did he make the Jazz sing "Uncle?" There was Game 5 of the 1997 Finals when, ravaged by a stomach virus, Jordan crawled out of his sick bed to score 38 points, including the decisive three-pointer with 25 seconds left.
And in his final contest before his second (but not his last) retirement, Game 6 of the 1998 Finals, with the Bulls down by three with 40 seconds left, he scored on a layup, stole the ball, and hit the winning jumper.
(Of course, this is just a partial list of Jordan's clutch performances. Because the computer only has several billion bytes, we'll stop now before we fill it up.)
And through all his brilliant successes, Jordan showed his human side. Even his gambling excesses on golf courses and at casinos make him appear more human. With his father James at his side in 1991, he openly cried while cradling the Larry O'Brien Trophy after the Bulls won their first championship.
Five years later, after beating the Sonics on Father's Day for the title, he again sobbed openly while laying face down on the locker room carpet. The previous time the Bulls had a won a title, in 1993, it also was on Father's Day, which was the last for James Jordan. The son had shown the country his pain when his father was murdered that summer.
Jordan was born on Feb. 17, 1963 in Brooklyn, N.Y., the fourth of five children, while his father was attending a training school for work. When Michael was still an infant, James and his wife Deloris moved the family back to their native North Carolina. They eventually settled in the seaside town of Wilmington, where James built a house.
After Michael starred on the junior varsity basketball as a high school sophomore, he made the varsity his final two years. After averaging 27.1 points as a senior, he enrolled at North Carolina.
Bulls general manager Rod Thorn didn't think Jordan was a franchise player. "He is a very good offensive player," Thorn said, "but he's not an overpowering offensive player."
Jordan proved otherwise. Playing 11 full seasons with the Bulls, he led the league in scoring a record 10 times, and in 1986-87 became the only player besides Wilt Chamberlain to score more than 3,000 points in a season, netting 3,041.
He won the regular-season MVP five times and the Finals MVP six times. In 1991 and 1992, he became the only player to win back-to-back regular season and Finals MVP awards, and in 1993 he became the first to win the Finals MVP three consecutive years, a feat he repeated from 1996-98.
On Jan. 13, 1999, Jordan, at 35, retired -- again. This time, his Airness said he was at peace with his decision and that it was for good. "I know from a career standpoint I have accomplished everything that I could as an individual," he said.
A year later, on Jan. 19, 2000, Jordan started a new career when he became president of basketball operations and a minority owner of the Washington Wizards. As a player, Jordan sometimes beat teams by himself. As an executive, that's not something that even an icon can do.
But after a season and a half of watching his inept team, Jordan -- at 38 -- had a change of heart. Jordan, who said that he was "99.9 percent" he would never play again at his second retirement press conference, went for the one-tenth of a percent on Sept. 25, 2001, and announced for the second time that he was coming back, this time with the Wizards. After resigning his front-office position and selling his shares in the team, Jordan said, "I am returning as a player to the game I love."
While Jordan averaged 22.9 and 20 points, he ticked off some of his younger teammates with his drive to succeed and couldn't push the Wizards into the playoffs. He left the court in 2003 -- for good -- with 32,292 points and a 30.12 average, the highest in NBA history, .05 better than Chamberlain's.
After retiring, Jordan had expected to get back his old job. But in May 2003, he was shocked when owner Abe Pollin told him that he wouldn't be re-signed as president of basketball operations.
As Jordan learned, icons can lose their value.
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