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Michael Jordan’s Best Shot

The best player in basketball needs a better team. Can he let the Bulls become one?

Michael Jordan
Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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?

 

Michael Jordan is an owner’s dream true: He is guaranteed to put fans in the stands as long as he stays healthy. The Bulls, who drew 6,000 fans a game as recently as 1984, before Jordan’s arrival, now have a waiting list for season tickets. The Chicago Stadium is packed 17,000 strong for every game. Yet for that reason he offers certain problems to Jerry Krause, the Bulls’ vice-president for basketball operations. As a guard, handling the ball much of the time, Jordan is both in the fans’ eye and at the edge of the team’s offense. No team with Michael Jordan is ever going to be so bad that it qualifies for one of the top picks in the college draft, yet no team dominated by a single player as the Bulls are dominated by Jordan is likely to win an NBA championship.

During the 1985-86 season, when Jordan was injured, it appeared the Bulls would fail to make the playoffs, and thus qualify for a shot at drafting center Patrick Ewing out of Georgetown. But Jordan returned in brilliant form and rallied the team into the last play-off spot-and out of a center. Meanwhile, the eight-year, $25-million contract he deservedly signed last year has put certain constraints on the Bulls’ chances for improvement. The league’s per-team salary cap prevents Chicago from snaring another high-priced star.

And exploiting Michael Jordan’s talents has become more difficult. Nowadays when he finds himself suddenly open, with no one between him and the basket, it’s not because he simply stumbled into the situation. When Jordan breaks free, more often than not it’s because of a pick set by the center, or because the man assigned to guard him was rushing to block an apparent outside shot by the other guard, or because of some intuitive pass—somehow on the same level as Jordan—that found him open just at the one moment the defense had neglected him. When Michael Jordan is closing on the basket, about to perform some move not even he himself has yet envisioned, it is because of the efforts of some one or two or three or even four members of his team. This year, more than any other during Michael Jordan’s tenure with the Bulls, the team is responsible for Jordan’s success almost as much as he is responsible for its success.

Last year, the team’s success was considerable. The Bulls won 50 of their 82 games for the first time since the days when Dick Motta coached Bob Love and Chet Walker, Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier, 15 years ago. They did so with a team that was geared to get the ball to Jordan and, for the most part, to Jordan alone.

Yet for the Bulls to remain at the same level would have been to fall behind new, developing NBA powers in Cleveland and New York, recently infused by college talent in the person of Brad Daugherty and Patrick Ewing, both large, dominating centers. In addition, the league’s elite teams have been in transition in recent years from star-dominated offenses to more team-oriented, balanced offensive and defensive play, with the rise of the Detroit Pistons serving as the most noticeable example. The Bulls could have entered this season as they left last season: knowing that the team would win most of the time, that Jordan would capture another scoring title, that the Chicago Stadium would be filled with ever-more-opulent fans, but that the team would lose when Jordan had an off night, or when-in the play-offs, for instance-his best simply wasn’t enough.

So the Bulls decided to diversify. Yet in moving from a specialized to an egalitarian style of play, each player—Jordan included—encountered new roles. A good basketball team operates almost instinctively, naturally, and the Bulls have had to ingrain that new way of doing things.

The team practices at the Deerfield Multiplex, a health club in the northern suburbs, on a court whose few windows open onto a deserted weight room. Club members stroll by or sit to watch the practice, sometimes holding small children up to the windows. the thick glass, smeared with fingerprints, gives the place the atmosphere of a zoo exhibit, and the children try to pick Michael Jordan out from the group of running, jumping athletes. It’s amazing how often a two- or three-year-old will succeed right away.

It’s not necessarily because Jordan is dressed so distinctively, although he is. A typical practice outfit is long, red, almost knee-length Air Jordan shorts worn under shorter, black Bulls practice shorts, with a black shirt cut high on the biceps worn under a sleeveless white T-shirt; on his feet, all-black Air Jordan sneakers. He is basketball’s version of the hipster—all cool style and comfort. Yet it’s his unique carriage that attracts the eye. Jordan may trot through the not-quite-obligatory calisthenics, and he may entertain coach Doug Collins and center Bill Cartwright, during an idle moment, by imitating Cartwright’s free-throw shooting (tiny dribbles, a peering toward the hoop, and an attempt to squeeze the ball toward the basket the way you’d squirt an apple seed from between your thumb and index finger), but once practice starts in earnest and Collins pulls his agenda sheet from his pocket, Jordan, too, is all business-in a way, even more businesslike than he is in a game.

It is Jordan and his band in the rehearsal room, but, where Jordan once improvised off a set blues progression, he now improvises off—and involves the others in—more jazzy, complicated structures, He cruises the court with that atypical, polyrhythmic dribble, the head held low, the shoulders shimmying from side to side. Contrary to common belief (and contrary to the rumors his teammates playfully spread), Jordan does not practice dunking during practice; he saves that for games. So five guys are on the court, imagining themselves covered by five others, and Jordan cuts around a pick, posts up near the base line, accepts the pass, squares to shoot, cuts back around the pick on the dribble, finds himself in the open on the way to the basket, and then, shooting quite literally from the hip, tosses the ball almost absent-mindedly off the backboard. It caroms and passes through the hoop, And then they take it from the top again.

One way for the Bulls to achieve better balance would be to add a player as talented as Jordan, preferably a forward, to the other side of the offense, The few players like that, however, are plainly unavailable. The other solution is to add a center, a quality player in the middle, to keep the other team’s defense from double-teaming Jordan.

The position of center for the Bulls has become a bit of a joke, like third base for the White Sox or relief pitcher for the Cubs or Vice-President in Republican administrations. It’s a position that has been a chronic weakness for the Bulls, who have had but one good low-post player, Artis Gilmore, in the 23-year history of the franchise. (A low-post center, usually muscular and domineering, plays close to the basket; a high-post center concentrates on setting up plays from outside.) Gilmore was replaced earlier this decade by Dave Corzine, a former De Paul star who spent time in Washington and San Antonio before finding a home here, Corzine is a high-post player, and Stadium fans, failing to recognize his strengths, booed him mercilessly until the Bulls finally got a good, strong rebounding forward who made up for Corzine’s shortcomings. That man was Charles Oakley, a one-dimensional player whose one great strength, as a rebounder, tended to mitigate Jordan’s weakness, missed shots from the outside.

Oakley, however, is now gone; the Bulls were facing diminishing returns from him as he demanded an increasingly large role in the offense, a role he frequently proved he wasn’t capable of filling. In his place as the man expected to bring balance to the Bulls is a new low-post player, Bill Cartwright, a seven-foot-one-inch-tall center, an All-American at the University of San Francisco, a former NBA All-Star, and one of the most accurate shooters in league history. How did the Bulls stumble on such a find? With the Knicks, injuries had kept Cartwright from playing a full season as an NBA starter since 1984, and by last year his principal role was as back-up to Patrick Ewing.

Trading Oakley for Cartwright was an astute if controversial move. As Collins phrased itearlier this season: “You look at the team and think, Are we going to win 50 games with the same team we finished the season with last year and the 19th pick in the draft? And our feeling was no, that in order to get better we were going to have to get better in the middle.”

Cartwright is tall and lean (the foot injury that allowed him to play only two games in two seasons now requires him to watch his weight), and he speaks in a soft, almost purring voice. During interviews, he tends to look off into the distance with a thoughtful, pensive air. Small, circular spots of gray in his goatee and on the crown of his head are the sole signs of age, though there is also something wizened and aware in the corners of his eyes. He appears fully healed, but at 31 he is also probably looking at his last chance to be a starter on a contending team. He himself seems aware of this, and it has given his play this season an added sense of dignity.

“It would have been actually easier for me to stay in New York,” Cartwright explains. “My expectations there were basically just come off the bench, back up Patrick, play 20 to 25 minutes in a game—you know, a very easy, very safe existence. But I would rather be in the type of situation where I could play, and be on a good team where it’s a challenge.”

The transition for the rest of the Bulls hasn’t been easy. They’ve sometimes concentrated so much on getting Cartwright the ball that they’ve forgotten to keep moving for an open shot or for rebounding position.

“We’re still improving,” Jordan says. “I wouldn’t give us a B or an A. I think we’re still moving up toward that caliber but we haven’t gotten there yet. With our low-post man, it helps to have guys who can shoot the ball with range. When we can space the floor that way, it helps extend the defense and forces them to play out at 25 feet, which helps give your post man room to operate. Our main focus is to get the ball inside and try to create whatever. Get their big guys in foul trouble. If he can’t score and he kicks it back out then I think that opens up things for everyone else. He is the key to us right now.”

 

The word most commonly heard around the Bulls through the first half of the season was that crutch of the movie reviewer, “chemistry.”

“Chemistry is extremely important to me,” Krause says. “You want to have people who get along, who learn to play together, and who learn to live together. Chemistry is more important in the NBA than it is in any other sport.” Here his voice deepens, and he sounds for a moment like John Wayne preparing for a cattle drive. “When you travel together, you make 41 road trips,” he says. “You better learn to get along.

“You also gotta have good people, We work very hard to get quality people—check their background, talk to them—we spend a lot of time researching each individual. When I came here we had a lot of people you didn’t want to be around. Now, we don’t have anybody on this team who I wouldn’t go to dinner with.”

Gone are Oakley, Orlando Woolridge, and the infamous Quintin Dailey. In their place is a group of younger, less surly players, almost too pleasant at times. The Bulls this year have a typically Chicago demeanor–friendly, back-slapping, but also hardworking. These days, when a Bulls draft pick is controversial, it’s for the simple reason he’s not someone else.

That’s certainly Brad Sellers’s case. When Sellers came to the Bulls in 1986 he was—in Krause’s opinion—the best college player available. Yet he continues to be booed by thee faithful, who think they’d be better off with Johnny Dawkins, the Duke University guard Krause passed over to get Sellers. It’s the same sort of treatment the fans gave Corzine before he finally won them over.

Sellers is one of the few seven-footers who look more comfortable in street clothes than they do on the court. He sometimes arrives at practices or in the locker room before a game wearing round, black-framed John Lennon spectacles, so that he looks like some bookish student at the top of a library ladder. Yet, too slight to play NBA center and too gawky to cover small forwards, he underwent a difficult transition he likens to “throwing me out to the wolves.”

“I had to learn on the job,” he says. “I didn’t have the luxury of watching and being able to move in–they threw me right in. I had to learn how to guard players like Larry Bird and Dominique [Wilkins], and it took me a while, but I feel like I’m getting help and I’m getting better each time out.” Sellers, in fact, is now assigned the other team’s shooting forward—oftentimes the most demanding defensive assignment—regardless of whether that player is small or large. Offensively, Sellers has a set role, “to run real wide,” he says, “on the wing,” so that Jordan or the point guard has someone to bailout to if the going gets tight in the free-throw lane. He’s a player of finite abilities who has worked hard to improve. He’ll never score 50 points a game, but if Jordan and the Bulls have a good season this year, it means Brad Sellers has done his job.

That’s guard John Paxson’s story, as well. Over the years he’s developed a more consistent outside shot. The standard Paxson play has him passing low to Cartwright, so that if Paxson’s man follows the ball in to double-team the center, then Cartwright passes back out to Paxson for an open shot. If Paxson is suddenly covered, he looks to swing the ball across court to Jordan or to Sellers for the open shot.

Throughout the first half of the season, the weak link—or perhaps the link subject to the most pressure—was starting point guard Sam Vincent. He arrived with the Bulls midseason last year, and he quickly established himself, but he’s inconsistent. Even on a good night, Vincent runs the offense with all the surface cool of a compulsive coffee drinker.

The Bulls’ hope for the immediate future lies in last season’s draft picks, Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen. Doug Collins compares them to two young players on the Pistons, Dennis Rodman and John Salley, whose development played a critical role in getting the Detroit team over the hump to championship caliber.

Grant is a tall, aggressive player whose chipmunk cheeks and childlike look call attention to his continuing development; the Bulls expect him to become a more able player as he increases his physical strength. He entered the season obsessed with replacing Oakley as the team’s leading rebounder—he explained his new role to everyone around—but his own high expectations have sometimes made his play seem forced. Other times, when he relaxed, he became a better-rounded player—hitting the open shot, finding the open man, rebounding the ball not as forcibly as Oakley but convincingly. He showed signs of becoming better than Oakley will ever be.

Pippen is handsome and popular; popular; his almond-shaped eyes, full lips, and almost Roman nose give him the sculptured appearance of an Asian god. He is a swing man, playing the position of either a small forward or a big guard, and he had a good rookie year after being drafted out of Central Arkansas. A back injury, which required surgery last summer, kept him out of the line-up until late November. The danger of Pippen’s absence early in the season was that the team could develop habits that would be difficult to break on his return. As Jordan said, “When he comes back, it’s going to change the continuity we’ve tried to establish from the beginning.” Yet, as the Bulls struggled around .500 in the early going, it was obvious that something else was needed.

 

The question in the early season was not only whether they would develop the balance they require to improve, but whether Jordan would allow them to. What makes him a great player is his impatience with defeat. It’s also the quality that dismisses any talk of his being a prima donna. No one who’s ever seen Jordan disgusted with himself or his teammates on an off night can question this impulse. His face contorts, he shakes his head, he screams at the referee, he scolds his teammates, but, most often and most important, he looks inward and tries to raise his game another notch. If, at some point, the offense fizzles or the chemistry just won’t come, then Jordan decides to take things into his own hands. His efforts, at these times, take on the crazed determination of a man trying to halt an avalanche; for anyone who remembers Walter Payton struggling with bad Bears teams a decade ago, these moments are all too familiar. It’s what makes both players so fascinating arid so frustrating to watch. Yet even Jordan’s immense efforts may have peaked, for the time being, in a victory in the Stadium earlier this year against the Atlanta Hawks.

The Hawks are much like the Bulls: They, too, are struggling to keep up with the improving competition in the NBA; likewise, they have recently added a powerful center, Moses Malone, to a team that tended to rely too much on one player, Dominique Wilkins. The confrontation with Malone also made for an early-season litmus test on Cartwright; it wasn’t yet known whether he could play effectively for 40 minutes against the league’s better centers. It was also the first game back for Pippen. In other words, the elements of drama were unusually well placed for an early-season contest.

The Bulls got off to a good start, a balanced start, with Brad Sellers keeping the Hawks’ defense honest as he made a series of open shots. When he left the game for Pippen, the fans cheered lustily, and Sellers welcomed Pippen back with a slow, clasped double high-five. When the Bulls went through a short doldrum in the first half, it was Cartwright—not Jordan—who called for the ball. He put it up over Malone with his slow, mechanical shot with the deceptively light touch.

It was a rough game; three times Cartwright fell hard to the floor, once landing firmly on his knees with a thud that threatened to crack the hockey ice under the floor boards. Yet as the fourth quarter opened with the Bulls ahead 77-74, again it was Cartwright calling for the ball. Toward the end of the game, Collins went to what Pippen calls the “big line-up,” with Pippen and Jordan at guards, Sellers and Grant at forwards, and Cartwright at center. Pippen had 13 points, Grant and Sellers 14, Cartwright 17, and Jordan 16—balanced as balanced could be.

Then the offense began to fizzle. Jordan and Pippen were taking turns setting up plays, but both threw passes away. Atlanta pulled ahead 100-93 with 90 seconds left in the game. Jordan rallied the Bulls, however, on two consecutive possessions, and John Paxson made a three-pointer to tie the game, throwing up the shot from his shoulder with two hands, like a four-year old. Sellers forced Wilkins to take a poor shot in the final seconds, and the teams were tied 102-102.

Cartwright controlled the tip to open the overtime period, but Jordan was almost immediately called for palming the ball. He was irate, screaming at the official (although he did, indeed, appear guilty), and from that moment on he was at that higher level. He ran the offense from the point-guard position, and on defense he hounded the other team’s point guard and double-teamed the ball on passes to nearby players. When the ball was passed across to the other side of the court, he guarded his man with an almost vulturous aspect: His shoulders were hunched, his arms hung low, his mouth was open, and his gaze was directed down, unfocused, as if he were relying on some higher sense.

With the Hawks double-teaming him on offense, Jordan worked the pick-and-roll with Grant to give the Bulls the lead, then—having set himself up–drove in for a mighty stuff over the Hawks burly Antoine Carr. Then he signaled his teammates wide and went one on one against Reggie Theus, rocking him back oril1is heels and putting a jump shot up and in from the free-throw line. As the final seconds ticked down and the Bulls led 112-110, it was Jordan–and Jordan almost exclusively—who handled the ball. He was fouled, and his two free throws touched nothing but net to clinch the victory.

Had the game been played during the play-offs—or even now, after the football season—it would have been the talk of Chicago for a week. Collins said afterward, ‘’To win that game, might be a game you look back on in the season at some point and say, ‘That game might have been a big turnaround for us.’ ” Yet the Bulls followed this game with a difficult West Coast road trip that left the Hawks game behind as simply one of those regularly erratic tastes of the Bulls playing at championship caliber. Or maybe what it was, was the Bulls playing as a team up to a certain point, and then failing, and Jordan playing at championship caliber to save the game. The paradox of the Bulls is that they never would have won that game if it hadn’t been for Jordan, but they may never develop into a solid team if Jordan doesn’t allow them—and himself—to fail from time to time.

And what’s he supposed to do, let them lose?

After that game, as the Bulls opened the locker room to the media, 11 guys prepared to answer questions from a group of reporters. One man threw his gym bag over his shoulder, cut through the open door, and was gone down the gangway. No one tried to stop him.

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