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JONATHAN V. LAST

11:00 PM, Jan 24, 1999 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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BOBBY KNIGHT, WHO IS INFALLIBLE, SAYS THAT Michael Jordan is the "best player who's played anything." If there were any argument with the Indiana coach's dictum, consider Jordan's three most impressive statistics: He led the National Basketball Association in scoring 10 times, more than any other player; he won championships in his last six full seasons; in the 1,109 professional games in which he played over the course of 13 seasons with the Chicago Bulls, he was held below 10 points only once (on March 22, 1986, as he was recuperating from a broken foot).

But of course there is no argument. When Jordan retired last week, his dominance, his ability to elevate those around him, and his unearthly consistency were universally acknowledged. For once, the conventional wisdom is right: Jordan was, in fact, the best. But why? Here is where the story gets interesting. The near-beatification of Michael Jordan is a tribute to America's enduring love affair with Success. Yes, we love a winner. What we can't stand these days, though, is the peculiar discipline that produces epic achievement. A fierce desire to win is part of it, but more crucial is the ruthless determination to vanquish your foes. The secret of Michael Jordan's greatness -- of all competitive greatness -- is not merely, as we now instruct our children, to do your best. It is to make your best superior to everyone else's. You must cultivate your own talent, yes; but you must also search out and exploit the weaknesses of your opponent. Somebody must lose so you can win.

Needless to say, this stern message has not been featured prominently in the tributes to Jordan. A culture that simultaneously rewards success and averts its eyes from the traits that produce champions must nourish deep illusions. With Jordan, the first of these illusions is embodied in the public persona he has meticulously cultivated for himself -- the smiling, lovable super-athlete from television commercials. This is the image USA Today must have had in mind when it applauded Jordan's "pride, patience, loyalty, dedication, competitiveness, accountability, and humility." (Humility!) Or the Philadelphia Inquirer, when it said that "He smiled and the world was a smaller place." The second illusion is that Jordan merely applied an exceptional set of physical gifts: The "soaring leaps, darting fakes, flawless ball handling" that the New York Times hailed as "poetic" were just the product of a body that, as President Clinton put it last week, "would do things no one else's would do."

This is an appealing idea for people who want only to bask in the famous Michael Jordan smile. But it's nonsense. The truth is that dozens of players in recent years were as naturally talented as Jordan -- Shaquille O'Neal, Julius Erving, teammate Scottie Pippen, just to name a few. Yet it was Jordan who became the best pro basketball player right out of the University of North Carolina in 1984. And it was Jordan who, in the decade and a half that followed, widened the gulf between himself and everyone else. Jordan defied the immutable law of sports -- that time is an athlete's worst enemy. Age felled every other great athlete the world has ever seen. Ali and Mays, Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle, all of the other greats wilted as their feet became too slow, and their bodies betrayed their minds. Jordan is a better player today, a month from his 36th birthday, than he was ten years ago. The trick is that Michael Jordan was a basketball player the way William Tecumseh Sherman was a soldier and Bill Gates is a businessman.

TO BE THE BEST MEANS CONCEIVING OF ONE'S LIFE AS A quest for domination. Jordan has always felt the need not only to win, but to destroy his opponents. And to do this, he has always been on the prowl for sources of motivation. This was easier at first. Jordan was a coltish kid on a University of North Carolina team chock full of future NBA stars, and so he set about trying to earn the respect of his teammates and win something meaningful. It took him six months. As a freshman, Jordan hit the game-winning shot to beat Georgetown for the NCAA title and became a college superstar.