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JONATHAN V. LAST

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