JONATHAN V. LAST
11:00 PM, Jan 24, 1999 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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.