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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Michael Jordan Always Attacked the Citadels

Michael Jordan's upcoming 50th birthday has inspired much commentary and reflection about his legacy and impact. While Jerry West transitioned from being "Mr. Clutch" on the court to being one of pro basketball's great executives, it does not seem likely that Jordan's career as an NBA owner/executive is going to add much to his legacy; now is as good a time as ever to place Jordan's career in proper context without resorting either to hagiography or to the kind of nitpicking critiques that are applied to most great players but have not often been leveled at Jordan since he led the Chicago Bulls to a second "three-peat."

Jordan entered the NBA in 1984 as a highly regarded performer--an NCAA and Olympic champion who had just been the consensus NCAA Player of the Year as a junior--but no one predicted or expected just how great he would be on the court, let alone the culture-shifting impact he would have off of the court as an iconic figure who transcended not just his sport but sport in general. Rod Thorn was an assistant coach for the New York Nets when Julius Erving dominated the ABA and Thorn drafted Michael Jordan third overall for the Bulls, so Thorn has a unique perspective on Jordan's greatness and on Jordan's place in pro basketball history: "Up to this point, I think that the best all-around player has been Michael Jordan. When you compare Michael to Julius, Julius was a better rebounder. As defenders, both of them were top flight. Michael was a better shooter. Athletically, they were both in the top one percent. But I just think that because of everything that he did in the NBA and the way that his career went, I think that Jordan, to me, is the best player."

Kevin Loughery is the only person who served as both Erving's head coach (from 1973-76 in the ABA, when Erving won three regular season MVPs, two championships and two playoff MVPs) and Jordan's head coach (1984-85, when Jordan led the Bulls in scoring, rebounding and assists en route to winning the Rookie of the Year award). Here is Loughery's take on Erving versus Jordan: "There are a lot of similarities between the Doctor and Michael. I think the ability to handle the ball probably puts Michael a tad ahead of the Doctor." Loughery offered this caveat: "In the last year of the ABA, Dr. J. probably played as good a season as anyone who ever played...The Doc put on some show every day." This is Loughery's final verdict: "As it turned out, Michael did become the greatest ever. But when you talk about greatness, it was pretty close between Doc and Michael. You can never leave out Bill Russell, either, because he won 11 championships with the Celtics."

NBA lifer Johnny Bach served as an assistant coach for the Chicago Bulls from 1986-94 and thus had a front row seat as Jordan evolved from a great individual talent into a great champion. Bach marveled about how the young Jordan would  "attack the citadels," Bach's colorful way of saying that Jordan fearlessly drove to the hoop and would not be deterred by bigger players who tried to block his shot and/or deliver hard fouls. Jordan's entire approach to the game involved attacking the citadels; he never backed down from any challenge, even in the last days of his career as a Wizard when he dragged one gimpy leg up and down the court, simultaneously defying the aging process, the younger players who dared to challenge him and the critics who carped that he had overstayed his welcome. One of the most indelible images of Jordan's career--an image that epitomizes who Jordan is at the core of his being--is of old Wizard Jordan chasing down the much younger Ron Mercer, pinning Mercer's shot to the backboard with two hands and then barking defiantly at Mercer; you can catch a glimpse of that play at the 4:10 mark of the "What is Love?" video in the first link after the end of this article. "Love is playing every game as if it's your last," Jordan declares in that video, and he lived up to that motto throughout his career; the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls are the most amazing and captivating team I have ever seen in any sport because--thanks to the leadership of Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Coach Phil Jackson--they seemed to be trying to go 82-0 (the 16-0 New England Patriots displayed similar resolve in 2007 but, unlike the 1996 Bulls, they failed to win the championship).

Jordan is unquestionably a member of pro basketball's Pantheon and many people reflexively call him the greatest player of all-time. When I wrote my Pantheon series I refused to single out one player from that group of 10 (Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Earvin Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Julius Erving, listed in the order that they finished in a 1999 AP vote for the best players of the 20th century) and I still believe that a case could be made for any of those players to be the greatest player of all-time, depending on the criteria used--a stronger case could be made for some of those players than for others but the point is that a case could be made for any of them. Since this article is about Jordan, I will explain how one could make the case for Jordan; there are statistical, technical, aesthetic and iconographic reasons to rank Jordan first.

Statistically, Jordan displayed dominance in a variety of ways; he won a record 10 scoring titles, capturing the crown in every full season of his career except for his rookie season and his two seasons as a Wizard. He shot .500 or better from the field in six of his 13 full seasons and he shot .482 or better in an additional four seasons--Jordan displayed a very rare combination of productivity and efficiency. Jordan's 30.1 ppg regular season scoring average ranks first all-time (just ahead of Wilt Chamberlain, who almost "passed" Jordan when Jordan played for the Wizards), his 33.5 ppg playoff scoring average is the best ever and his 33.6 ppg Finals scoring average trails only Rick Barry's 36.3 ppg scoring average (but Jordan went 6-0 in the Finals, while Barry went 1-1 and barely played enough games to qualify for all-time leadership). Jordan led the league in minutes played three times and he led the league in steals three times. He averaged 30.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg and 5.3 apg in the regular season, pushing those numbers to 33.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 5.7 apg in the playoffs. LeBron James has had an amazing run of high scoring, high efficiency games recently but in the 1988-89 season Jordan racked up 10 triple doubles in an 11 game stretch after Coach Doug Collins shifted Jordan to point guard; Jordan averaged 32.5 ppg (first in the league), 8.0 apg (eighth in the league) and 8.0 rpg that season. While Oscar Robertson is justly praised for putting together the only season-long triple double in pro basketball history (30.8 ppg, 11.4 apg and 12.5 rpg in 1963-64), Jordan's 1989 campaign is the only 32-8-8 season in pro basketball history.

Jordan's five regular season MVPs rank second (tied with Bill Russell) behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's six. His six Finals MVPs lap the field (Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan rank second with three each, though Bill Russell would surely be on this list if the award had existed prior to 1969, Russell's final season). Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon are the only players to win the MVP and the Defensive Player of the Year in the same season; David Robinson won both awards but not in the same season (this is another category in which Russell's presence would have been felt, but the Defensive Player of the Year award did not exist until 1983). Jordan is tied with three other players (Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Gary Payton) for first all-time with nine All-Defensive First Team selections (this honor was created in 1969 and Russell earned a First Team nod in the final season of his career).

While Jordan's numbers are staggering and his resume bulges with awards, his attention to detail made him a nearly flawless player technically. Jordan was a well-coached player who relentlessly honed his craft; he had impeccable footwork at both ends of the court and his game was so fundamentally sound that he would have been an excellent player even if he had not possessed all of his athletic gifts--but his combination of elite athletic ability with sound fundamentals elevated him (literally and figuratively) above his peers.

Aesthetically, Jordan picked up the torch previously carried by elegant high flyers Elgin Baylor, Connie Hawkins and Julius Erving. The ability to soar through the air will always fascinate and captivate young and old people alike because most of the human race cannot defy gravity for even a fraction of a second. Jordan was not only tremendously effective but his style of play was exquisitely beautiful to watch.

Jordan's appeal goes beyond the statistics, the technical mastery of the sport's fundamentals and the aesthetics; all of those elements synergistically combined with the explosion of cable/satellite TV and other media coverage to transform Jordan from a great player into an icon who transcended sport. Jordan left pro basketball for nearly two years to play minor league baseball and he then returned to the NBA to reassert nearly the same level of individual dominance and an even greater level of team dominance (capped off by that unprecedented 72-10 regular season in 1995-96). His teams went six for six in the NBA Finals and he won the Finals MVP each time; other players won more titles and/or made more Finals appearances but Jordan is the one great player who seemingly has a "perfect" Finals resume in terms of won/loss record combined with individual dominance. Those accomplishments created a mystique around Jordan, an iconography that will be difficult for any player to match; no matter how many championships Kobe Bryant or LeBron James win, both players will always have multiple Finals losses on their resumes. Aesthetic and iconographic reasons carry the least weight objectively but they are embedded very deeply in the hearts of most fans (and many commentators as well)--and if you consider cultural impact beyond the world of sports to be part of the equation defining athletic greatness then only a few names can be mentioned alongside Jordan: Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali.

It must be stressed again that, depending on what criteria are used and how those criteria are weighted, good cases could also be made for each of the other Pantheon members to be lauded as the greatest basketball player of all-time--but the case for Jordan is compelling and for the foreseeable future he will be on the short list of players who must be mentioned in any such discussion.

Further Reading:

What is Love? The Greatest NBA Commercial of All-Time

Michael Jordan Views Hall of Fame Induction as Sign of Mortality

Michael Jordan: Feels Like Another One

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:39 AM



At Sunday, February 17, 2013 6:02:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...

Fantastic read as always, David.

I was born in '91 and never really saw Jordan play but watching his clips on YouTube just make me wish I were born a few years earlier to watch him live, etc.

David Stern had an interview with Jeremy Schapp on ESPN and was asked "Is Michael Jordan the Babe Ruth of basketball?" Stern responds by saying "I would say that Babe Ruth is the Michael Jordan of baseball." I thought this quote was very witty and certainly both athletes are the faces of their sports respectively.


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