This is a version of a column printed Feb. 4, 1996, in the Los Angeles Times sports section.
You go to see Michael Jordan play basketball for the same reason you went to see Astaire dance, Olivier act or the sun set over Canada. It’s art. It should be painted, not photographed.
It’s not a game, it’s a recital. He’s not merely a player, he’s a virtuoso. Heifetz with a violin. Horowitz at the piano.
He doesn’t even play the game where everyone else does. He plays it from the air. He comes in for a landing every now and then, usually from above the basket. Then he stays on the runway for a while till the next takeoff. You get the feeling the other players don’t know where he has gone till he cups his mouth and shouts down “Up here!” He should probably be wearing a cape and high boots.
What he’s doing is making a shambles of the game of basketball, laying waste to the landscape. He’s as unstoppable as tomorrow.
Many people were wishing he could hit the curveball. Let pitchers worry about stopping him instead of NBA guards. While he was gone, Hakeem Olajuwon took over. But, while Hakeem is a great player, he pretty much plays a ground game. He’s infantry. He slogs to the basket. Jordan is more like a stealth bomber. You can’t see him coming, and you don’t know where he is until you hear the swish of the net.
It’s hard to believe this talent wasn’t the No. 1 pick in his draft year. You wonder how a general manager could justify passing him up. You get a picture of the GM telling his owner, “Aw, he’s just a baseball player. We need somebody to go to the basket — like Sam Bowie. Besides, he’s too short.”
When you see the numbers Jordan puts up, you might, at that, expect to see someone 7 feet 7 or so, with a steroid musculature of a bouncer, a master of the two-foot basket. But Jordan looks more like a ballroom dancer than a bouncer. His muscles ripple, they don’t bulge. He’s only 6-6. Until he’s airborne, that is. Then he becomes 20 feet. He has to watch out for the rafters, not defensive guards.
He doesn’t stand around in the low post waiting for someone to go get him the ball. He goes and gets it himself. He gets more steals than a pickpocket at the Kentucky Derby and led the league in them his last full season.
He came into town Friday night for the most publicized confrontation since the second Dempsey-Tunney. It came out more like the second Louis-Schmeling.
Michael Jordan vs. Magic Johnson was supposed to have all the dramatic impact of the Red Baron vs. Eddie Rickenbacker, or any of the other great matchups of history. But the matchup it resembled at the end was the Titanic against the iceberg. It was as one-sided as a heart attack.
We were supposed to get a clue as to whether Magic could be enrolled in the crusade to save basketball from the ravages of Air Jordan and company.
Not yet, at any rate. Magic didn’t even have time to get the number of the truck that hit him. The Bulls put their resident Goldilocks — otherwise known as Dennis Rodman — on Magic. Meanwhile, Michael acted as resident decoy, drawing traps while he casually passed the ball to an open Scottie Pippen, who plays the game at treetop level himself.
The job of stopping Michael Jordan and his Bulls now falls on Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal. Anything short of their best, and the league may need an anti- aircraft battery to stop him.
The league may have to resort to drastic Break-Up-Michael-Jordan rules. I mean, here is a team that is 41-3 and hasn’t lost in 18 (count ‘em) games.
They may want to consider leveling the court by 1) making it illegal for him to make a basket without one foot (or both) on the ground; 2) make it a two-shot foul and no basket for any player to rise vertically more than eight feet above the floor; 3) rule that any basket made by a player who is horizontal to the floor at the time shouldn’t count.
Of course, you could make any Michael Jordan basket count only one point and let him go to the free-throw line only if he had to get there by stretcher or on life support. Perhaps they could rule Jordan could have the ball only every other team possession.
They should make these rules retroactive. Anything short of that and the season is over. Jordan’s Chicago Bulls are sitting there with a .932 (you heard me) won-lost percentage when the highest winning percentage in the history of the game was .841 by the 1971-72 Lakers.
There are few players of whom it could be said they swallowed the game they played whole. Babe Ruth did it. Bill Tilden. A case could be made for John Unitas, a young Wayne Gretzky.
But the way Michael Jordan is going, there may be nothing left of the game but a loud belch. He and his Bulls are feasting on the league like Henry VIII on a chicken, bones and all.
“Man, they’re scary!” Magic Johnson exclaimed as he escaped Friday night like a guy who had just crawled ashore from a torpedoed ship.
If the Bulls can scare Magic Johnson, they’re in the wrong arena. We should send them to Bosnia. Maybe the league should find out where it goes to surrender.