How He Got Up There

  • Share
  • Read Later
DAVID HALBERSTAMHe was exhausted after Game 7 of last season's semifinal matchup against the Indiana Pacers. But his friends on the team noticed that when the final game was over, he seemed almost giddy as he raced back to the locker room, like a joyous schoolboy liberated from class after the last day of school. He was equally gleeful on the first flight out to Salt Lake City to begin the National Basketball Association's final series--surprising for a player who was supposed to be old and tired and about to face a team, the Utah Jazz, that was rested and that held the home-court advantage. Some thought his odd boyishness came from the fact that he knew the Bulls had just barely dodged a bullet against the Pacers, that by the third game, as Indiana coach Larry Bird began to make adjustments, the matchups--particularly in the second half of the games--had begun to favor the younger, deeper Pacers. In particular, Bird was throwing younger, bigger guards at Jordan, and they were arriving well-rested at a time in the game when Jordan normally liked to take over the floor and when his defensive opponent was usually tired.In Game 7, with about six minutes left, it appeared for a moment that the Bulls were going to lose: they seemed tired, Jordan palpably weary, bent over, hands on hips when others were shooting fouls, one of his telltale signs of fatigue. Then, in one of those remarkable demonstrations of willpower that have become the signature of his entire career, Jordan's compulsion to excel energized his body, and he summoned just enough strength to continue to drive to the basket, get to the foul line, or draw a crowd and pass off to teammates for open shots. That allowed him and his colleagues to escape the Pacer bullet. He was still the invincible man. Now at age 35, when younger players should begin supplanting him and his teammates as champions, he was once again going to the finals.The boyishness on the plane was a signal that he did not fear Utah, even if the well-rested Jazz were playing at home at an altitude of some 1,400 m and were on a roll after inhaling the seemingly mighty Los Angeles Lakers. In truth, they were not that much younger, and what he saw were the matchups: their significantly smaller guards going against him, Pippen, Ron Harper and even Toni Kukoc. He clearly liked these pairings, much more than he had liked what Bird was able to throw at him. He remained upbeat even after the Bulls lost Game 1 to the Jazz in overtime.In Game 2 they began the process of dismantling Utah, and they did it with their defense. Defensive artistry and intelligence have been the keys to this Chicago team for several years. In big-time, highly contested games, the Bulls have always begun by taking away what their opponents want to do; by playing brilliant, aggressive defense and then, when their opponents flounder because what worked all season no longer works, slowly and systematically exerting their will. Thus their big games were rarely shoot-outs. Nor were they always artistic, or if they were, it was only for those fans who loved seeing skilled, highly intelligent players stealing another team's game in front of a national audience. In these big games, even when Jordan and Pippen were not shooting well, they would forgo their jump shots, drive to the basket, and at the very least shoot fouls and slowly take over the tempo of the game. They knew how to grind down other teams when they did not have all of their game. PAGE 1  |    |  
In Game 3 against the Jazz, a 96-54 blowout, that was exactly what happened: they did not shoot particularly well in the first half, but their defensive pressure and their almost instantaneous rotations on defense were dazzling. Afterward, Utah coach Jerry Sloan, himself a legendary defensive player, paid tribute to them: he had never seen defensive players quicker to the ball. That, of course, was what had made the Bulls champions over the years: the ability to exert their will over other teams that sometimes, on paper at least, seemed to be more talented.Their trademark was defense. You don't know how lucky you are, veteran coach Don Nelson once told his Bulls counterpart Phil Jackson, when your two best offensive players are your two best defensive players. Nelson said that early on, before the Bulls added Dennis Rodman, himself a skilled defensive player. It was typical of Jordan, of the almost unique completeness of his game, that he willed himself to excel on defense as well as offense. He had been well-coached in college; North Carolina coach Dean Smith, sensing Jordan's offensive brilliance, his surpassing natural ability and his potential for a professional career without limitations, pushed him to work on his defensive game. Jordan did that in college and then in the pros, unusual for a young player coming in with such remarkable offensive skills. Not many players who can score that readily have much taste for the exhausting, gritty work at the other end of the court.But to Jordan it always mattered--playing good defense, he was taught at North Carolina, was what won close games, and what he always hungered for was championships, not individual honors. Early in his professional career, he mentioned casually to reporters that he hoped one day to be named defensive player of the year as well as most valuable player. A young writer named Jan Hubbard, then with the Dallas Morning News, said at the time that it could not be done, that it took too much additional energy to be that kind of defensive star and that no one would have enough stamina to do both. But then in 1987-88, Jordan was named both MVP and defensive player of the year, and Hubbard acknowledged his error. Jordan, who always wanted the last word, never let Hubbard forget that he had, however momentarily, underestimated Michael Jordan, a journalistic misdemeanor perilously close to a felony, and there would be periodic references when he saw Hubbard to all that crap he once wrote years ago.Scottie Pippen, of course, prospered under Jordan's instruction in practice. He had arrived in the league with great but raw natural skills, virtually untutored. He had unusually long arms, a wingspan that exceeded Jordan's and allowed him to play in the backcourt with the quickness of a guard and the reach of a center. As such he had, if anything, even greater potential as a defensive player than Jordan. Nothing in those early years helped him more than playing against Jordan every day in practice, for Jordan was both a teacher and a killer with a reputation for either making or destroying some of his colleagues. He may have helped drive some teammates out of the league, but he gave the young, gifted, hungry Pippen a rare daily clinic. The equation was simple: if Pippen could guard Michael, then he could guard anyone in the league. It was the combination of these two players that was so lethal on defense, of Jordan with the player who, he said, was like having a twin brother on the court.  |  2  |  
A number of things set Jordan apart from all the other champions of his era: his great natural athletic ability, honed every year as he worked to improve his game; his high intelligence; his shrewd knowledge of the game; and his acute awareness of his opponents' strengths and weaknesses--psychological as well as physical. In the end, he emerged as the rarest of birds: a player without a weakness--and one who thrived and hungered for big games. To Danny Ainge, who played and coached against him, Jordan was the ultimate assassin: He comes not just to kill you but to cut your heart out.No one who arrived in the league as an All-Star ever worked harder to improve his game. When Jordan began his pro career, he was startlingly quick and stunningly athletic, but after several years of being pounded by the very physical Detroit Pistons he decided to build up his body. He went from roughly 88 kg to 98 kg without losing any quickness and started handing out more punishment than he received. Again, before he arrived in the league, no one had ever driven to the basket quite like he did. His jump shot was good, yet hardly great, about a B-minus, thought his first coach, Kevin Loughery. He thereupon worked harder than any teammate to improve it (in part, to prevent defenses from dropping off and cheating on him), and in time he became one of the tiny handful of great pure shooters in the NBA. Indeed, he had arguably the best jump shot in the league. While there were other wondrous pure shooters out there who might be more dazzling with an open shot, no one was better than Jordan at creating and getting his own shot in difficult, highly contested games. No one had a better jump shot under combat conditions. Late in his career, his pure physical skills just slightly diminished, he added a new twist to his jump shot, one in which as he hit the apex of his jump, he fell back slightly. Owing to his jumping ability and the threat he posed to drive, that gave him just the right degree of separation to get his shot and made for a virtually unstoppable one.What most fans saw was the balletic quality of his drives to the basket. What professionals, coaches and scouts saw was the complete quality of his game, the almost perfect fundamentals he brought every night and the shrewd sense of each game's tempo, which made him almost a coach on the floor. When Jordan was at his prime, it was common among some professional basketball people to joke about the Carolina program and to zing Dean Smith for presumably suppressing the greatness of Jordan's game during his college years. But the reverse was true. It has become obvious that Smith did not limit Jordan's game, but instead made it what it was. Smith and his assistants knew from the first time they saw Jordan that his great physical ability and hunger for the game were givens. And so Smith set out in the three years he coached him to add all the other little things that became so critical to Jordan's greatness: the little moves on defense that came from repeating endless, boring drills; and the skills that allowed him to know when and how to pass off the double team or how to split it. The result was an almost perfect basketball player, a man with skills that few others of comparable physical ability could match and that eventually would set him apart at the championship level. For that was when the professional game changed from a somewhat casual full-court contest that showcased pure natural ability to a fierce, defensively driven half-court game. In that latter arena, pure athletic ability was of a more limited advantage and the discipline and completeness of a player's skills were equally important. Jordan is a reminder of something desperately undervalued in contemporary life: the value of a real apprenticeship for even the most talented.The truth about Michael is that we will probably never see his like again--someone with as great and complete a game. It is not that we will lack for players of comparable physical ability, but such ability is only a small part of the picture. For the way the basketball system--ever more predatory--operates these days, players of that ability are not likely to hang around college for more than a year or two. It will be harder than ever to get them to listen to their coaches even while they remain. Increasingly, they will arrive and depart on their own terms. Then, once in the pros, there is simply too much money already guaranteed for most of them to work as hard as Michael Jordan did, year after year, to perfect his game.David Halberstam is completing a book about Michael Jordan and the Bulls. His recently published book, The Children, is about the early civil rights protesters he covered in 1960  |    |  3