Almost two decades have passed since Michael Jordan, a legendary figure in the 90’s and one of the best players to ever play the game, retired from the sport of basketball. However, his name has been ever-present in the basketball world to this day and his movie-like career is firmly set as a standard and a measuring stick for every player coming in the NBA with the goal of achieving greatness. After LeBron James led the Cavs to a historic comeback win in the 2016 NBA finals, he said that the only thing left for him to chase is the ghost of Michael Jordan. The term “ghost” perfectly epitomizes the likelihood of any single player actually achieving what Michael did. He led the Chicago Bulls, previously a completely irrelevant franchise, to 6 rings with 6 finals MVPs in 6 finals appearances. That feat was only bettered by Bill Russell in the early, and still not completely developed, era of basketball. He made the 90s Bulls so dominant, that out of those 6 finals, not a single one went to a game 7. Nowadays, not a day passes in which media doesn’t debate who the best player is, but that was not the case during Michael’s paying days. All his peers, all the media and the fans, pretty much everybody involved with basketball in any way, shape or form knew there was no question about it. He was the best scorer in the league, he was the most gifted athletically, he was among the premier defenders and, above all else, he was the most competitive and ruthless of them all. Even though his career eventually unfolded like it did and pretty much ended in storybook fashion, it wasn’t a road with no bumps and he wasn’t always that highly regarded.
North Carolina days:
From 1981 to 1984, Michael spent three successful seasons in North Carolina, winning one national title. In high school, he was considered the 4th best prospect, one spot ahead of his future rival Patrick Ewing. In North Carolina, he had a great team waiting for him, led by James Worthy and coached by Dean Smith. Smith described him as a late bloomer, whose game was not polished coming in, but his upside already clearly high enough for him to start from the very first game. His offensive prowess was on full display from the get-go, as he immediately proved he was a threat from anywhere on the court. He shot 55 percent inside, 45 percent outside, he was quick and athletic in the open court, he’d already possessed his picture perfect jumper, and he had an overall great feel for the game. The part of his game which needed improving was the defensive side, and the improvement came very quickly along with the growth of his body.
During those three years in college, North Carolina went 88-13, with 8-2 in the NCAA tournament. Jordan averaged 18 points and 5 rebounds, on 54 percent shooting. Even though those numbers and results were impressive, they were not something way out of the ordinary and were not enough of a sign of what was to come. However, the moment that did show a glimpse of potential greatness was his game-winning shot in the 1981-82 national championship game versus Georgetown. Worthy was the team’s best player that night with 28 points, but Jordan came through in the clutch and showcased what kind of a winner he was for the first time. He later told reporters that he had a pre-game vision of that game-sinking shot. This mental, intangible part of his game, relishing the toughest moments and the hunger to prove himself when it’s most important, is the key reason for all of his accomplishments, more so than the tangible skill set and athleticism.
Later in his career, he commented on the impact on that shot against Georgetown: “I couldn’t be Michael Jordan any more. I was always Michael Jordan who made the winning shot against Georgetown. I didn’t want to be remembered only for that. I wanted to be recognized as a complete player. I don’t want people to think of me as a guy who comes through in the last minute, I want them to know that I’m there the entire game”.
Even though Jordan showed more than enough promise to go number one in the 1984 draft, he was drafted in third place after Houston and Portland missed out on him. Having in mind that the role of centers was pivotal for any success in that era in the NBA, Houston made an obvious choice at the time to draft a highly skilled center in Olajuwon. Portland, however, made a huge mistake in drafting Sam Bowie over Michael. Their reasoning was that they already had a star in Clyde Drexler, who played the exact same position and had similar style to Michael. This is why the Chicago Bulls were lucky enough to draft a once in a generation player with the third pick. Their team was not build for immediate success with many aging players on the roster, but Jordan gave his all from the start. He was seen as the team’s best player as a rookie, which is very rare at such a high level. The numbers were just eye-popping – throughout his rookie year, he averaged 28 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6 assists. By November, it was clear he was going to win the rookie of the year award, and many fans and media members considered him a star in the league. The impact three years in North Carolina along with Dean Smith’s coaching had on Michael was evident, his maturity allowed him to focus solely on basketball and avoid troubles in a troubled Bulls team that year. His play was good in enough to lead a mediocre team to the playoffs, where they lost to the Bucks in 4 games.
During his next two years, he established himself as a true superstar in the league. In his second year, he overcame a horrific foot injury and managed to get back the very same year, just in time for the playoffs. The Bulls played the Celtics in the first round, a team which is regarded as one of the best in NBA history. Their roster included 6 future members of the hall of fame: Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Bill Walton. That year, the Celtics lost only one game on the home court, so what Michael managed to do in the series opener was more than impressive. He put up 63 points, still the record for points scored in a playoff game, and managed to get the game to OT. Celtics came away with the win and later swept the series, but this game was Jordan’s coming out party and a sign of things to come. Larry Bird, a multiple-time champion and MVP, claimed that he witnessed “God disguised as Michael Jordan” in that game. That claim holds that much more value having in mind that Bird was probably the best player in the world in that period, and was rarely impressed by anybody.
The 80s basketball was probably the toughest era to play in and Jordan simply didn’t have enough around him to compete with powerhouses in Boston, LA and Detroit. After 2 consecutive eliminations at the hands of the Celtics, the Detroit Pistons took control of the eastern conference with their hard-nosed, uncompromisingly rough style of play. Jordan and the Bulls for three straight years couldn’t find ways around the Pistons, as they had a complete game book on how to stop Michael called “the Jordan rules”. They would let others hurt them and solely concentrated their efforts on making it difficult for Jordan. But in some way, if it wasn’t for those losses, Jordan might have never developed to the level he did. Once he gained some muscles and more experience playing with Scottie Pippen, there was no stopping that dynamic duo for an entire decade.
Jordan represented USA at the 1984 Olympics, before even stepping foot on the NBA courts. He led the team in scoring on their way to the gold medal without losing a game. His legacy also includes the 1992 Olympic gold medal, where he was a part of a legendary “Dream Team”, probably the most talented group of players on one roster. He was the second highest scorer of that team, which also went undefeated throughout the competition.
Years of dominance:
By 1991, all that was left for him to do was deliver a title to the city of Chicago. He was already a league MVP, defensive player of the year, scoring champion, winner of the dunk contest. Once the Pistons were no longer a threat and the Celtics got old, the only powerhouse standing in his way was Magic Johnson and his Lakers. When they met in the finals, it was clear that Magic’s time was running out and Michaels was only beginning. The Bulls lost the first game, but came back with 4 straight to finally get the first championship. The next year, he defeated Drexler and the Blazers in the finals, quickly making it obvious that Drexler, although highly respected was not on his level. Jordan was motivated to prove he is the best ever by achieving something Bird and Magic haven’t managed, three-peat. In order to make that happen, he had to go through Charles Barkley, reigning MVP of that regular season. That Phoenix team was the best offensive team in basketball, but were no match for the Bulls, as no one superstar could get the better of Michael. The only things that could possibly stop him at that pinnacle of his career were difficulties unrelated to basketball.
After his father was tragically killed, Michael had no more motivation to continue playing and stepped out to play baseball. If that wasn’t the case, he would probably win more than his 6 rings and pretty much stop every star of the 90s from getting one. Olajuwon and the Rockets seized that 2-year opportunity to win consecutive titles, but once Jordan decided to come back, it was back to normal for the NBA. Yet another three-peat, 3 more finals MVPs, not a stain on his resume. One month ago, ESPN released all collected footage from Jordan’s last season with the Bulls in a documentary called “The Last Dance”. That title run was probably the most impressive of the 6, as there was real turmoil within the organization. The general manager of the Bulls, Jerry Kraus wanted coach Phil Jackson out no matter the circumstances and the team owner sided with him. Scottie Pippen, the Robin to Michael’s Batman, was severely underpaid and wanted out. Through all that, knowing that it was probably his last season with the Bulls, Jordan was focused on getting the whole team clicking to get the best out of the group. In game 6 of the finals against the Jazz, Pippen injured his back and the Jazz looked to have clinched a game 7 on their court as they jumped to a huge lead. But Jordan kept scoring every possession, playing almost what seemed like 1 on 5 at times. In his last minute as a Bull, with game on the line, he stole the ball from Malone and made a game winning jumper on the other end. Those types of moments make chasing his resume comparable to chasing a shadow. How can anyone achieve something that seems like it was written for a movie. He was a winner to his core, made everyone around him work their tails off knowing that’s what he does and expects as a norm. He willed every shot in, used the slightest criticism as motivation and even made stuff up if there wasn’t any, just so that every time he steps on the court, the world sees him at his best.