On the morning of Oct. 6, 1993, in Deerfield, Ill., I was hurrying up a sidewalk outside the Berto Center, the training facility of the Chicago Bulls, to attend a hastily announced morning news conference.
When I approached the door, a man who was entering looked back and held it for me, and as I reached him, it turned out to be Tom Brokaw.
“Well, this is pretty big,” I thought.
That Michael Jordan was a big deal wasn’t news. The man had led the NBA in scoring the previous seven seasons, and led the Bulls to three straight championships, and that didn’t even begin to define why he was a big deal.
He was Michael Jordan. Across the landscape of the years that have passed, some of that sizzle has diminished. Kobe Bryant came along. LeBron James came along. The generations that are 30 years of age or younger now have little or no recollection of Jordan as a champion or a figure of massive celebrity.
As ESPN airs “The Last Dance,” the documentary chronicling the sixth and final championship for Jordan and the Bulls in 1997-98 — the 10-part series continues Sunday night with Parts 3 and 4 — I am also drawn to memories of the first three titles. That run ended with the 1993 news conference announcing Jordan’s “retirement” from the game, and the next championship run didn’t begin until two seasons later, after a season of playing minor league baseball and a late, attenuated comeback the following year.
I happened to be in Chicago for the news conference because it coincided with the American League Championship Series between the White Sox and Blue Jays, which I was covering while the Phillies were working their way past the Braves and toward the World Series.
Sometime during that afternoon’s game in Comiskey Park, just before the White Sox fell into a 2-0 series hole that pointed the Blue Jays toward their date with the Phillies, I filed this lead to The Inquirer:
“Michael Jordan didn’t walk away from basketball yesterday. He sprinted.
Jordan, 30, left on legs still young enough to carry his team to more championships, with skills nearly untouched by the passage of time in his nine seasons in the National Basketball Association.
He left the game that defined him, and that he redefined with his play, without a wrinkle on his face or a tear in his eye.
“I’ve heard all the speculation,” Jordan said, “but I’ve always stressed that when you lose the motivation and the sense that you have something to prove on the basketball court, then it’s time to move away from basketball. I’ve reached the pinnacle. I’ve achieved a lot. I don’t have anything else to prove.”
Not great stuff, but not bad if you’re trying to watch a baseball game at the same time.
The “speculation” of which Jordan spoke was that league commissioner David Stern ordered a quiet, one-year suspension because Jordan had developed an attachment to gambling that crossed the line.
Jordan admitted to having lost considerable money in poker games and golf matches, and some of his personal checks ended up in the hands of a murdered bail bondsman and a convicted drug dealer and money launderer. That’s never good. During the 1993 NBA playoffs, Jordan was in an Atlantic City casino the night before a game against the Knicks. Taken together, it wasn’t pretty.
Jordan and the late commissioner always denied the suspension rumor, and no hard evidence of one has ever been found. Nevertheless, the story persists, and Jordan left basketball at what was thought to be the very top, even though there turned out to be more peaks to summit.
Covering the 76ers and the NBA from 1988 to 1993 for The Inquirer, I had the good fortune to be there for the first three Finals wins, which came against the Lakers, Trail Blazers and Suns. The hysteria in Chicago that accompanied those playoff runs was incredible, with the streets sometimes literally on fire after big wins.
It was a Chicago that hadn’t known significant sports success before Jordan’s arrival, what Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Verdi termed “a city of broad shoulders and narrow trophy cases.”
When the Suns forced a Game 6 in 1993 by beating the Bulls at home, taking the series back to Phoenix, Charles Barkley said, “I guess y’all can take the plywood off the windows now.”
The delay was only temporary, even though I’ll tell you to this day Phoenix had a better overall team than Chicago. What it did not have, however, was a player the equal of Jordan, who set a Finals record by averaging 41 points per game in the series. The record still stands.
The Bulls beat the Suns by a point in Game 6 for the third championship. Jordan scored 33 in the last game, and willed his team to hold on as an eight-point lead entering the final quarter disappeared. Aside from a John Paxson 3-pointer that proved the game-winner, Jordan scored every point in the quarter.
Four months later, Jordan said he had lost that will to compete. His father had been murdered in a carjacking in July, but he didn’t ascribe the decision to that. He just said there was nothing left for him to prove or accomplish.
That’s what separates the great from the greatest. The greatest always think of something else they have to do eventually. For Jordan, it was those next three titles, the last of which is celebrated in the current documentary.
Michael Jordan’s story is complicated, but Michael Jordan’s game wasn’t. He was better than you, and wanted to make sure you knew it. Few missed the point.
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