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THE BEST

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.

After his junior year, Jordan was drafted by the Chicago Bulls, then one of the worst teams in the league. Rod Thorn, the team's general manager at the time, said, "Jordan isn't going to turn this franchise around. I wouldn't ask him to. He's a very good offensive player, but not an overpowering offensive player." Talk about motivation. Jordan took those comments to heart, and in his ninth game as a professional, scored 45 points against San Antonio. Washington Post sportswriter Tony Kornheiser once observed that Jordan "remembers every insult, every innuendo." Thus, in January 1996, a Philadelphia sportswriter said that the 76ers' ballyhooed rookie Jerry Stackhouse might be the second coming of Jordan. Motivation squared. Not long afterwards, an incensed Jordan rang up 48 points playing against Stack-house and hinted after the game that there was no other Michael Jordan.

During the 1997 season, Jeff Van Gundy, head coach of the New York Knicks, had the sand to say that Jordan was a "con man" who befriended players from other teams off the court so that he could exploit them during games. By all accounts, Van Gundy was right. So at their next meeting, Jordan scored 51 points and leveled his menacing gaze at the Knicks' coach after every single basket.

Jordan's revenge scenarios could be fantasies; that didn't make them any less effective. In May 1993, the Bulls met the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the playoffs. Jordan's performance was magnificent. At one point, he blocked Hawks star Dominique Wilkins's shot and then hit a jump shot from half-court at the buzzer. After the game, Jordan would write that he had to play harder for that game because Wilkins was "trying to show me up in front of my family." It goes without saying that there's no way Wilkins would have known the whereabouts of Jordan's family, or would have cared had he known. But Jordan needed a reason to throw himself into battle.

Practices, too, were an arena for conquest. At a camp for the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, Grant Hill, a soft-spoken young college player from Duke University, was doing his best to guard Jordan. Jordan was scoring at will, but he still couldn't resist angrily telling his teammate, "Look, man, this ain't Duke. I can get the ball whenever I want, and I can do whatever I want with it."

For all of Jordan's individual brilliance, there's no getting around the fact that basketball is a team sport. His solution? Motivate his teammates, by whatever means necessary. During Jordan's early years with the Bulls, many of his teammates disliked his version of bonding. So he prodded. He once nonchalantly referred to them as his "supporting cast," a bunch of players who weren't "good for much of anything." After workouts, Jordan would challenge people to shooting contests, for money. And despite being the highest paid player on the team, he always collected.

Not surprisingly, Jordan's competitive spirit animates his life off the basketball court, as well. During his college days he was notorious for upending the Monopoly board when defeat was imminent. David Halberstam tells in Vanity Fair how Jordan once lost three consecutive games of pool to assistant Tar Heel coach Roy Williams. He wouldn't speak to Williams the next day.

His business dealings, too, have proven to be just another arena in which to compete. Fortune recently published a whimsical econometric analysis, estimating that Jordan is personally responsible for the creation of roughly $ 10 billion of wealth. This money comes from his salary, ticket sales, television revenues, licensing fees, movies, and product endorsements, of which he is the undisputed king. Dollars, after all, are another convenient way of keeping score. Making more for endorsing Nike shoes than Allen Iverson does for endorsing Reebok; having Space Jam (the movie he starred in) gross more than Shaquille O'Neal's movie Steel -- these. are victories to be cherished every bit as much as beating the Knicks.

And Jordan, when he lets down his guard, can be surprisingly clear-eyed about his own single-mindedness. For many pro athletes, the game is a means to an end. Wilt Chamberlain, the dominant player of his era, estimated his sexual conquests in the tens of thousands, and NBA groupies are still legion. For Jordan, on the other hand, the game is the end. He strikes the note of a realist in his glossy autobiography For the Love of the Game: "There was a reason for me getting married. That experience of being a husband and a father provided a balance and a focus away from basketball. . . . If I had been single, playing basketball, and making a lot of money, I could have made some wrong decisions." Marriage: another means to becoming the best.

Those who know Jordan are familiar with his ruthlessness and his relentlessness. Doug Collins, his one-time Bulls coach, once observed: "He wants to cut your heart out and then show it to you." Luc Longley, the Bulls' starting center for the last three years and a Jordan booster, was asked to give a one-word definition of his teammate. "Predator," he said.

IN A FEAT ALMOST AS REMARKABLE AS HIS ATHLETIC exploits, Jordan has managed to sustain a public image as benign and cuddly as the cartoon characters he pals around with on television ads. He prudently allied himself with softdrinks that encouraged us "to be like Mike." He stars in underwear commercials frolicking with his wife and children, and in movies with Bugs Bunny and other animated rascals. He never appears in public wearing anything less formal than a suit. He even went to great pains during games to affect an easygoing jokey manner when the cameras were on him. Off-camera he would grab jerseys, throw elbows, and talk trash with the best. And occasionally, the cameras would capture the warrior, as when, during the 1996 NBA Finals, Seattle's point guard Gary Payton tried to argue a call with the referee. Jordan shouldered his way between the two men and began shouting at Payton, over and over again, "This is the Finals! What's wrong with you?"

The two sides of his game showed his deep understanding of what it takes to become a revered champion. It's not enough to be merely very, very good. To be embraced as heroic, you can't be Dan Marino with record upon record but no Super Bowl, Roger Clemens with no-hitters but no World Series ring, or Greg Norman, the all-time leading money man in golf with only two wins in the major tournaments. You have to win everything, and win it often -- but then you have to hide the fierceness. The victorious hero-athlete, 1990s-style, needs to be huggable and lovable, like Mark McGwire, the home-run king with a tear in his eye and an embrace for the children of the man he eclipsed.

But in the end, if you really want to "be like Mike," look at the game tapes and not the commercials. Know that before the games Michael Jordan practiced harder than anyone. And know that after the games, while most of his opponents and teammates kicked back and relaxed, Jordan lifted weights. Look beyond the wagging tongue and the ready smile, and what you see is a man who was never soft, who divided his opponents into potential threats and prey. He was willing to forgo mercy. He never had a second thought about hurting, humiliating, or defeating anyone. It never occurred to him that the 40th or 50th or 63rd point might be overkill, that he didn't need to win this game of pool, that you don't have to humiliate rookies. Embed a deep fear in your opponent, and the next time you meet, you can exploit that fear. The thing that makes a man the best, finally, is his determination to do what other men won't.

On June 14, 1998, in the chaotic twilight of the last game of the championship series, Michael Jordan put the kind of move on Utah's Bryon Russell that destroys a man's career. With 6.6 seconds left and the Jazz clinging desperately to a one-point lead, Jordan faked to his right so hard that Russell actually fell down. With biblical certainty, Jordan took the last shot of his career, and the Bulls won their sixth championship. While people streamed onto the court celebrating and hugging, Jordan ran around the floor, his muscular arms raised, and his hands holding up six fingers. On the tape you can see him yelling the word "six" over and over, a look of vindication and furious anger on his face, and in those delirious moments of what, for him, was jubilation, it became obvious that Michael Jordan had no want or need for love and adoration. What he wanted was to leave his opponents stooped and bowed and to receive the acclaim that is owed the victor.

To afford Michael Jordan the respect he deserves means to acknowledge him as what he is, not what we would like him to be. He is the greatest athlete, the most ruthless competitor -- the best -- the world has ever known.