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Picture this. Twelve guys are moving across a basketball court. Eleven run backwards—concentrating on their feet, or peering over their shoulders, as if worried that someone has placed ottomans in their paths. At the end of the line, one man trots straight ahead, face forward, his eyes averted as if not to embarrass his teammates by paying the slightest attention to a drill he doesn’t need. Eleven guys skip sideways, back across the court hopping like girls making fun of one another. At the end of the line, one man trots straight ahead, face forward. Eleven guys are dressed in motley conglomerations of sweat shirts and pants, but all wear the reversible practice jerseys of the Chicago Bulls, some white side out, some red. One player doesn’t bother with the practice jersey. When the team separates into two opposing practice squads, no one is going to have any trouble remembering which team that player is on.
There is a player like this on every team in every sport around the world, a guy who doesn’t bother with what he doesn’t have to, and Michael Jordan has probably been that player on every team he ever played on.
Michael Jordan can do this because Michael Jordan can do this:
- He steps in front of an opponent’s pass and is gone, down the sideline, and closing on the hoop he rises, feet apart, pumps the ball once, twice, and then jams it in as if trying to get it through without the hoop’s noticing. Three of the opponents don’t even move from their spots upcourt. After a moment’s pause two others jog back—someone has to—in Jordan’s wide and considerable wake, to take the ball out from underneath the basket.
- He is double-teamed and trapped along the base line. Cutting around the center to lose them, he shimmies like a boy going through a gap in a fence, leaps again, and with one hand slams the ball through the hoop.
- On defense again, playing about five feet off the man he’s guarding, he jumps like a puppet jerked by its string. His arms flail up and his hands close upon the basketball as it passes. overhead, as if it were the most amazing piece of luck in the world.
- In overtime, screaming as he dribbles near the free-throw circle, he orders his teammates to spread out to the corners of the court, then moves in with the staggered rhythm—quick, then slow, lurching, then erect—with which he both intimidates and hypnotizes his opponents. He fakes with his shoulders one way, moves to the free-throw line, fakes three times quickly to rock the man back on his heels, then leaps and, from a moment of stillness, shoots. He is on his way downcourt, his back to the basket, as the ball rattles off the back rim and through the hoop.
- While driving in, as three opponents leap to block the expected dunk, he releases the ball with fingers spaced wide, as if he were freeing a dove. It rises as of its own volition up, off the backboard, and through the hoop.
In short, Michael Jordan can do things no one else can. Yet ask him how it is he does these things and he is apt to say, “I try to be creative,” or “It just happens,” or “It just comes to me.” Playing basketball is, for him, a creative process, and he seems reluctant to discuss it. If writing is, as E.B. White explained, the art of bringing down thoughts on the wing, Jordan desires a way not of bringing down those thoughts, but of becoming them as they fly.
He is the reigning Most Valuable Player of the National Basketball Association, winning the award last summer for a season in which he became the first person to lead the league in both steals and points scored. He stands out as the most arresting and, not coincidentally, the most marketable player in the sport. He outscores his closest competitor by more than five points a game—500 points over the course of a season. He is, by himself, a one-man team, clearly deserving of the MVP award; but in a league that is evolving toward deeper, more balanced play, he is something of an oddity—almost an albatross. How can a player so good treat others as equals? How can a player so accomplished be simply a member of a team?
For Jordan, there is another question equally important: How can he win an NBA championship if he isn’t?
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Photograph: Chicago Tribune