When Michael Jordan sent the fax that tore up a thousand front pages on March 18, 1995 — “I’m back,” was all it said — it prompted a kind of mass hysteria among sports fans and sportswriters alike. As the nation mobilized for Jordan’s return to the court the very next night, sports editors from Washington to Los Angeles gave their columnists the word: Go follow Jordan. And that spring, dozens of the nation’s best-known sportswriters did just that.
At the New Yorker, esteemed writer David Remnick — better known for his Pulitzer-winning coverage of the end of the Soviet empire — decided he needed to cover the story himself. His friend and former Washington Post colleague Michael Wilbon had told Remnick, “You have to write this story.” Remnick agreed and “self-assigned” the piece at the New Yorker, circumventing then-editor Tina Brown’s comprehensive indifference to sports. “I remember once, before an Olympics,” Remnick says, “we were talking about assignments and Tina said, ‘Oh, God, sports — running, jumping … who the fuck cares?’”
Remnick’s basketball roots ran deep. He’d played the game much of his life, loved watching it, and while writing for the Washington Post sports section in the ’80s, even spent a miserable year as the beat writer for the Washington Bullets. That 1983-84 season, Remnick covered a mediocre team1 whose marquee players were “the Bruise Brothers,” Jeff Ruland and Rick Mahorn. Remnick recalls that “Ruland got it in his head that I’d insulted him in something I’d written about Ralph Sampson,” and so remained alienated from him for most of the season.2 So one of the only good players on a team going nowhere wasn’t cooperating. “I wasn’t very good at [beat reporting],” Remnick professes. “I was glad when I got into another line of work.”
With the sublime Jordan, Remnick knew this much: He didn’t need to cover the performer, he just needed to write about the circus that surrounded him. That decision shaped the story that followed. “This was the opposite of John McPhee on Bill Bradley,” says Remnick, “where the access was complete, marination was long, and the familiarity was intense. I was no more familiar to Michael Jordan than I was to Zsa Zsa Gabor.”
Back in Play
The New Yorker, May 9, 1995
By David Remnick
Nearly all the old American basketball arenas have been abandoned or razed, victims of the corporate demand for more “luxury suites,” more room to hawk the beer and the cheese dogs and the “regulation” Nerf balls. Boston Garden is scheduled for demolition (the Celtics have played their last season on the exquisitely warped floor), and Chicago Stadium, once a graceful barn on the West Side, is already gutted — four walls in search of the wrecking ball. The Bulls play their games now across the street at the United Center (“United” as in the airline, of course), and the place features all the new amenities: lots of bathrooms, nice parking, no rats. The United Center is huge, cool, and white: a mobster’s mausoleum, the world’s largest freezer unit. It is a distant place to watch an intimate sport; the “luxury suites” are so far from the court that the plutocrats keep their televisions on during the game. All around the National Basketball Association, the geniuses who own teams seem to have no faith in the audiences or in basketball itself. At an ordinary weekend game at the Brendan Byrne Arena, in the Jersey swamps, not long ago, I sat through more low-end entertainment than Liberace knew in a lifetime. It was like Vegas Night at the Chamber of Commerce: fireworks and strobe lights during the introduction of the starting lineups; a karaoke contest; a recorded voice urging us to “stand up and cheer”; a recorded laugh mocking the efforts of a player at the foul line; two guys dressed in mattresses who declared themselves “sumo wrestlers” and jumped on top of each other during time-outs; dancing “Jersey Girls”; prepubescent “Junior Jersey Kids”; a mascot called Super Dunk who shot short foam-and-plastic sticks into the crowd. It’s this way just about everywhere — Chicago included.
Michael Jordan once promised that he would never play at the United Center — Chicago Stadium was his old Vic, his artistic home — but, with his decision to rejoin the Bulls after his midlife sabbatical as a minor-league baseball player, he has deigned to enter the vulgar hall, and thus transform it.3 Just when the sports pages had become little more than labor reports and police blotters, Jordan stepped in. He has saved the spring.
Jordan, who is the most self-conscious of performers, began his unretirement from basketball March 19th with a gig in Indiana. Except for some brief thrilling moments — a breakaway dunk in the first half, a ferocious struggle for the ball with Reggie Miller in the second — he proved rusty against the Pacers: errant on the jump shot, winded at times, out of synch with his new teammates, barely reacquainted with the old. The Bulls’ Croatian forward, Toni Kukoc, who had been heartbroken two years ago to discover that Jordan was leaving the team just as he was joining it, seemed daunted now by the return of his hero. Kukoc spent much of the Indiana game with his feet glued to the floor, his jaw slack. Like so many millions of others, Kukoc was delighted just to be watching Jordan — even a temporarily mortal Jordan — play the game again.4
Jordan’s first game in Chicago came five days later, against the Orlando Magic, a first-place team featuring two of the best young talents in the sport: Shaquille O’Neal, a Goliath with grace, and Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway, a silky guard who, with his preternatural sense for the flow of the game, reminds everyone of Earvin (Magic) Johnson. An hour before tipoff, I was talking with Hardaway in the Orlando locker room. The United Center’s locker rooms are, admittedly, very new, very clean, like a suburban den. Ordinarily, teams play tapes of the night’s opponents, but the Orlando players seemed determined to convince themselves that it was Michael Jordan who ought to be concerned about them. An episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” played on the television. Hardaway, for his part, wore a T-shirt bearing the hermetic logo
Step Up, I Lay You,
Step Off, I ‘J’ You,
Foul Me, I Trey You,
I Gotta Get P.A.I.D.
In-your-face braggadocio is the lingua franca of the N.B.A., but where Jordan was concerned Hardaway did not mimic the rhetoric of his T-shirt. He was worshipful, even wary. To play against Jordan “was something I always wanted,” he said. “When he retired before I had a chance to play against him, I felt cheated. It’s strange. One guy comes back and everything changes. Everybody’s thoughts change.” It was amazing how readily the players and coaches around the league deferred to Jordan. Indiana’s coach, Larry Brown, suggested that Chicago, barely a winning team through mid-March, could now win the N.B.A. Championship. Chuck Person, of the San Antonio Spurs, used a mystical vocabulary. “He’s like a poltergeist,” he said of Jordan. “He’s an incident by himself.”
Out on the court, a few players were getting limber, taking desultory jump shots, walking through moves they would later attempt at frenetic speed. Unguarded, unhindered by an opponent whacking him in the ribs or waving a hand in his eyes, even a backup player like the Chicago forward Corie Blount hit seventy or eighty percent of his shots. It means nothing. In baseball, players are competing mainly against the difficulty of the sport itself, the almost laughable improbability of hitting a speeding baseball with a flame-tempered twig. Baseball is such a hard game that smaller children modify it (they hit off a tee) and the middle-aged enlarge it (calling it softball). In basketball, the fundamentals — shooting, passing, rebounding — are relatively easy to manage, at least in the solitude of an empty schoolyard; the difficulty comes in competing against the athleticism, the obstructions and wiles, of an aggressive opponent. Anyone can hit a fifteen-foot shot, sneakers to the floor; only a professional can manage it with a leaping lump of muscle in his face. That’s why Jordan is so much better than anyone else who has ever played the game. He plays as if in solitude. High in the air, his legs splayed, his tongue flopping out of his mouth, he seems weirdly relaxed, calm, as if there were no one special around and plenty of time to think through his next move, floating all the while. Faced with double coverage, as he almost always is, Jordan finds a way to wedge between defenders, elevate as if on an invisible forklift, his legs dangling, and then drop the ball through the hoop. The ease of his game makes the rest of the players, all of them stars in college, look rough, somehow clumsy, a step slow. “Scoring is scoring,” Jordan says serenely in Rare Air, his autobiography. “If I want to average 32 points a game, I can do that easily. It’s just eight, eight, eight, eight. No problem. I can do that anytime. That’s not being cocky. That’s confidence.”
In the late eighties, the Detroit Pistons, coached by Chuck Daly, seemed to find a way to stop a Chicago team that was, at the time, so lopsided in talent that it was often known in the papers as “Michael Jordan and the Jordanaires.” With a jaunty bounce of pride in his voice, Daly told me, “Michael is a player with no weaknesses — he has all these skills, great intelligence, a bionic physical presence — and so when we played him we devised a strategy called the Jordan Rules.5 We committed ourselves to double-teaming him and, if we could, steering him to his left, his presumably weaker hand. But you know what? Jordan outgrew the Jordan Rules. He just learned to play through them.” Others are more dubious, and remember that it was the Pistons’ brutality — their stray elbows and surreptitious shoves — that worked so well. Frank Layden, the former Utah Jazz coach, once said to Jordan’s biographer Jim Naughton, “The Jordan Rules? You know what the Jordan Rule is, don’t you? Knock him on his ass. They can talk all they want, but the one thing they did — when he got in midair — they knocked him down.”
The crowd is desperate to set eyes on Jordan. Four huge video screens above the court are playing a tape loop of his greatest hits-scenes from his career in high school, at the University of North Carolina, and on the Bulls. The screens are also playing his collected commercials — McDonald’s, Gatorade, Nike, Coca-Cola — as if these, too, were part of his game. The film will have to do for a while. Jordan, who has been trying to get used to this alien arena’s bright lights and tight rims with solitary workouts in the afternoon, is out of sight, hanging back in a room reserved for players having their ankles taped. “No Press Beyond This Point,” the sign says. In the open, main part of the locker room, many of the Bulls come and go, dressing, watching film of old Orlando games, wearily answering questions about their returning leader.
The Bulls have handed out hundreds of press passes for this game, and everyone’s mandate is the same: Get Jordan — Jordan pictures, Jordan quotes. Both the Tribune and the Sun-Times published special pullout sections in the morning;6 the local television stations have been broadcasting live from courtside since late afternoon. The press cannot afford to miss a Jordan sighting. A pack of reporters and a half a dozen cameras all cluster near his locker. As a group, we gaze at his open closet and the vestments dangling therein: a mustard-colored sports coat on a hanger, slacks and shirt on hooks. There is, as well, a heap of basketball shoes, a box of Bubble Yum. We all stare, as if doing so would draw Jordan into the room.
It is a strange tableau, and on the other side of the room one of the Bulls’ centers starts laughing. At first, it is hard to tell which center: Luc Longley, the Aussie; Bill Wennington, the bearded one; or Will Perdue, who wears a Hannibal Lecter mask to protect his face. All three are big, bulky white guys; they look like bouncers at a very tough club.7 “Hey, boys, you never look at my locker that way!” It’s Wennington, the one with the beard.
Then, under deadline pressure, one of the cameramen says, “I gotta have something!” He angles his camera lens toward the closet floor. He is filming a jockstrap. Written on the waistband is “Jordan, #45.”
Michael Jordan leads one of the grandest and most peculiar American lives since Elvis left the building. His return this spring has been big news in Chicago, and in Chengdu, too. The China Sports Daily said in its story, “This flying man, Qiao Dan” — M.J. in Mandarin — “is still the most popular sports star on earth.” He may also be the most valuable human commodity in sports. He earns about thirty million dollars a year endorsing products — nearly eight times his basketball salary. Every detail of his return has implications. The mere rumor that he might return to basketball caused Nike stock to soar. Simply by changing his jersey number from 23 to 45, he spawned an industry.8 Every kid in the country wants the new shirt. Champion, the company that makes the official shirts, has ordered its plant in Winston-Salem to add a midnight-to-eight shift to fill the demand.
At the age of thirty-two, Jordan is the subject of picture books, a shelfload of biographies, and countless videocassettes, and his face appears on lunch boxes, drinking cups, sneakers. In Chicago, his image is everywhere, like Kim II Sung’s in Pyongyang. Every one of Jordan’s endorsements is designed to make him (and, therefore, the product) heroic, available, pleasant, elegant, “beyond race.” Even academe has turned its eyes to the Air. (“Finally, there is the subversion of perceived limits through the use of edifying deception, which in Jordan’s case centers around the space/time continuum,” Michael Eric Dyson, of the Chicago Theological Seminary, explains in his essay “Be Like Mike? Michael Jordan and the Pedagogy of Desire.”) So that Jordan can get his teeth fixed without causing a commotion, his dentist comes in on a day off; his barber used to do the same, but Jordan shaves his own head these days, giving it the pleasing burnished look of an antique desk. Once, Jordan was out on the golf course and paused to finish eating an apple. He threw the core into the woods, and suddenly a group of kids, who had been following his foursome, ran off in search of the remains. “Please, please don’t do that,” Jordan said. Jordan receives between forty and fifty letters every week from dying children who tell him that it is their last wish on earth to meet him. He obliges as many as he can; to the rest, he sends a pair of Air Jordans that he has worn in a game. One child, who died of leukemia, was buried wearing the size-13 shoes that Jordan had given him.
On October 6, 1993, Jordan announced that he was quitting professional basketball to spend more time with his family. (Jordan and his wife, Juanita, have three children.) “I’m going to watch the grass grow and I’m going to have to cut it,” he said. Basketball fans accustomed to watching aging superstars lurch on until the last possible paycheck were shocked — Jordan’s skills had not fallen off at all — but, with time, his decision began to make some sense. The Bulls had won three championships in a row, putting to rest the shibboleth of Jordan as a ball hog incapable of giving up some shots for the good of the team. In the end, Jordan had raised the level of every player on the Bulls, including the mysterious and pouty all-star Scottie Pippen. There was nothing left to prove on that score.
Jordan’s decision to retire also had an artistic dimension. His career was his oeuvre, and he refused to tarnish it with an autumnal slide into repetition of self-parody. In the short run, he was depriving us of his presence and weakening the entire enterprise of professional basketball, but in the longer view we would never have to remember him logy and diminished as he closed in on middle age. Jordan had long been a student of the career of Julius Erving — the purposeful flamboyance on the court, the studied grace when dealing with reporters and advertisers — and he did not want to end up as Erving had in his final years, reduced to ordinary standards of play. Jordan’s art would know no senescence; our memories would remain pure.
What was more, his closest friend and advisor — his father, James Jordan — was killed in a robbery that summer. It was hard to argue with the decision. The man was just worn out in every way. After so many years of playing the perfect gentleman for the press, after enduring the sanctimonious criticism of his gambling, Jordan revealed in his retirement news conference a Nixonian prickliness, a mock gratitude that he would no longer have to put up with “you guys,” the reporters.
Jordan was getting out before his desire or his legs or his grace abandoned him. If fans did not like it — well, then we would have to learn to live with it. In an issue of Sport that appeared at a time when he was already reconsidering his decision to retire, Jordan was asked if it concerned him that he had left behind an “emptiness” in his fans and in the game itself. “I’m sorry, but it doesn’t” he said. “Unfortunately, people are going to be thinking that way for years because I’m through. I’m not coming back. At least, that’s my feeling right now. I know there are people who wish I was still playing basketball, but at some point in time, either now or 20 years from now, those people will get over it. I apologize if some people think that’s selfish of me, but that’s the way it is.”
Of course, Jordan’s retirement had little to do with his desire to play catch in the back yard with his children. Having satisfied his familial longings in a matter of a few months, he signed on to play baseball for the Chicago White Sox, who assigned him to their Double-A club, the Birmingham Barons. It was something like a lark — Jordan had not played baseball since he was in high school — but not quite. Jordan is a competition maniac — his friends have seen him get hysterical when he loses at golf, poker, or ping-pong; he has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars betting with shady characters on the golf course — and he cannot, it seems, live without the rush. James Jordan often said, “My son doesn’t have a gambling problem. What he does have is a competition problem.” Unfortunately, he had chosen for his lark the most impossible of games, and one he had little hope of mastering. In countless feature stories on television and in print we were witness to the spectacle of Michael Jordan as George Plimpton, the amateur at play, and it was not an entirely pretty site: Jordan fanned at curveballs, he lost fly balls in the sun. He was game and serious, but as a baseball player he was never more than a novelty act — and, in his own way, he had the decency to admit it. “This has been a very humbling experience,” he said.9
Meanwhile, the vacuum in Chicago was becoming increasingly apparent. The Bulls did well enough without Jordan in the 1993-94 regular season — they won fifty-five of eighty-two games — but, faced with the New York Knicks in the playoffs, they found their limits. They lost, four games to three. This year, the slide was more precipitous: suddenly the Bulls were not much more than a .500 team, a mediocrity. Pippen remained a star, but, unlike Jordan, he could not make stars of his more earthbound teammates. The yearning for Jordan was painful to witness. Every night before Bulls games, fans would come early to the new arena and mill around a statue of Jordan — a soaring construction of the mast about to dunk, and underneath, the inscription “Michael Jordan 1984-93. The best there ever was. The best there ever will be.” Even in the worst Chicago cold, fans would trade Jordan stories, remembering particular moments in his career: the change-of-hands-look-I’m-still-up-here-floating layup that blew everyone’s mind and ruined an aging Lakers team in the 1990-91 finals; the eyes-closed foul shots; the kiss-the-rim slams.
Jordan’s absence from the game left the league with middling champions and no leading man. The N.B.A. is full of young players with fantastic potential: O’Neal and Hardaway may turn out to be the cornerstones for a dynasty in Orlando; a rookie guard in Dallas, Jason Kidd, has made a team out of the beleaguered Mavericks; Glenn (Big Dog) Robinson is a hit in Milwaukee; and Detroit’s Grant Hill, a player of rubbery grace and fine manners, is already the league’s official answer to the spoiled stars who skip games and practices with bogus injuries and then demand salaries in the tens of millions of dollars. But none of these players were ready to fill the Jordan gap, and everyone in the league office and in the press knew it. The N.B.A., which had been so ascendant with Jordan, Magic, and Bird in the game, was in a slump.
Late last spring, while the Knicks were attempting to slug, shove, and trash-talk their way past the Houston Rockets in the N.B.A. championship series, I sat in the Madison Square Garden press section with a friend — Michael Wilbon, who is a columnist for the sports pages at the Washington Post. Wilbon’s life, as far as I have been able to read it, is a non-stop busman’s holiday. He is a basketball fan — a basketball fanatic — who is paid by his editors to follow the game as closely as he can. He complies. He has racked up a million frequent-flier miles, mainly in the pursuit of basketball games, but he is not likely to use his off-season to hit the beaches in, say, Tahiti. As Wilbon would say, “you can’t get no goddam ESPN in no goddam Papeete.” And yet, as we watched the Knicks and the Rockets pound up and down the boards in quest of the N.B.A. title that night at the Garden, it was clear that Wilbon was taking no pleasure in this series. He despised its artlessness. He frowned at every collision, sneered at every turnover. For me, as for nearly everyone else at the Garden that night, the possibility of a Knicks triumph was a chance to relive the singular thrill of an age ago: the championship of 1969-70, when Willis Reed, his injured leg shot up with painkillers, limped out onto the Garden floor (El Cid of Louisiana) and led the team to its legendary victory over Wilt Chamberlain and the Los Angeles Lakers. But Wilbon is not of this city — he is Chicago born — and he was having none of it.
“This game is a dog,” he declared.
“Michael’s hitting .200 in Birmingham and these fools think they’re winning a championship.”10
My illusions were now shot. The Knicks were suddenly there before me in all their limitations — plodding, erratic, hysterical, a squad of larger louts trying to scare their betters by whacking their hands on the bar and talking too loud. The Rockets were more obviously a limited flock, a team with an extraordinary center — the Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon — and four guys named Ed. In the end, the Rockets won the misbegotten series, and everyone except the participants and their dependents has long forgotten the whole thing.
Michael Jordan’s return has rescued basketball from more mediocrity. He reminds us why we buy the tickets, why watching is not a waste of time; and the degree of gratitude is not just great but strange. In early March, while Jordan was merely reconsidering his status, I read a Mike Wilbon column in the Post in which he declared, without irony, that he would gladly give two years of his life if Jordan would only return to the Bulls.
Not long afterward, Wilbon, the league, the city of Chicago, even Knicks fans — all of us — got our wish. Jordan announced his intention by sending a fax through his agent’s office. “I’m back,” Jordan wrote, and that was all. Wilbon, pay up.11
The Orlando game was a bust. Jordan shot too much and he shot too long. Seven of twenty-three from the field. His jumpers kept banging off the butt of the rim. Over and over. He was like a man who keeps pumping the gas pedal until the engine floods and the car dies. And then he turns the key again and pumps, just to make sure: 106-99, Magic. But, in a sense, Jordan was right to shoot as much as he did. Chicago had no prayer of going far in the playoffs unless Jordan got his timing back. A regular-season loss to Orlando was a small price to pay.
Jordan walked into the interview room trailed by a Presidential-size security detail. (He does not do the naked-interview thing. He showers and dresses first, and all await him.12) He managed to look spectacular in that mustard-colored jacket, but he could not hide his frustration. He was more bewildered than anything else. “I just can’t turn it on,” he said. “As much as I want to, I just can’t turn it on. It will take time.”
Jordan was in a five-week, seventeen-game race before the playoffs to retune himself to basketball. He had been away from the professional game for six hundred and thirty-six days — nearly two full seasons — and in that time he had hardly touched a ball bigger than a baseball. “When I was down in the minors, every guy wanted to play me in basketball,” he said. “I used to play on Sundays with some of the guys in Arizona. We’d go and rent a gym and play pickup games. And I think these guys thought I’m retired — or maybe they’re like me, they think they can be a basketball player just as much as I think I can be a baseball player. But, really, each time I played, my appetite got a little bit greater.”
Jordan himself never doubted that he could return and average thirty-odd points a game — in other words, lead the league in scoring — but the Chicago Tribune, which chronicles the Life of Michael with definitive attention, pressed some medical experts on the nervous question. “We tested Michael at our biomechanical lab during his previous playing days,” Dr. Charles Bush-Joseph, of the sports-medicine section of Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center, told the Tribune. “He was off the charts in his ability to generate power in the legs. At thirty-two, he is a bit past a man’s physical prime in terms of quickness and explosiveness, but his high level of skills can more than cover any such loss. He just needs time to get back his neuromuscular edge — more commonly known as timing.”13
For my own peace of mind, I talked with two of Jordan’s precursors at the guard position — Bob Cousy and Walt Frazier — and neither had any doubt that Jordan would scrape off the rust in time for the trials of May. Retired ballplayers — especially players of a certain level — are often touchy about the subject of the current crop. They can be grouchy, deliberately uncomprehending, like aging composers whining about the new-fangled twelve-tone stuff. But not where Jordan is concerned. Cousy, who led the Celtics in the fifties and early sixties, and Frazier, who led the Knicks in the late sixties and the seventies, would not begrudge Jordan his eminence.
“Until six or seven years ago, I thought Larry Bird was the best player I had ever seen,” Cousy, who works as a broadcaster for his old team, said. “Now there is no question in anyone’s mind that Jordan is the best. He has no perceptible weaknesses. He is perhaps the most gifted athlete who has ever played this foolish game, and that helps, but there are a lot of great athletes in his league. It’s a matter of will, too. Jordan is always in what I call a ready position, like a jungle animal who is always alert, stalking, searching. It’s like the shortstop getting down and crouching with every pitch. Jordan has that awareness, and that costs you physically. If you do it, you are so exhausted you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. Not many athletes do it. To me, he hasn’t lost a thing.”
“Leapers are usually not great shooters, but Michael is the exception,” Frazier said. “If you give him a few inches, he buries the jump shot. When he gets inside, his back is to the basket and he’s shakin’ and bakin’ and you’re dead. When he drives, good night. He’s gone. Now that the league has made hand-checking illegal — you can’t push your man around on defense any longer — it’s conceivable that Michael could score even more. I don’t think he’s even sensed that he has more license now. When he does, he’ll be scoring sixty if he feels like it.”
For the next few weeks after the Orlando game, I followed Jordan, at various arenas and on the tube. Game by game, he was playing his way into condition. He hit a game-winning shot against the Hawks in Atlanta. He iced the Celtics in Boston. Most important of all, even when his shot was off he did enough of the other things — passing, rebounding, defending, and exhorting his teammates, his eyes narrowed with impatience — that suddenly the Bulls were once more a top-rank team. Pippen was getting the ball enough to satisfy his sensitivities; Kukoc was realizing he could play with, and not merely worship, Jordan; even the three amigos — Wennington, Longley, and Perdue — seemed smoother, professional, in the game.
Curiously, the only deficiency in Jordan’s game was his tendency to shoot poorly at the United Center. “I guess I’m used to playing across the street at the Stadium,” he said one night. “This is a new surrounding. But the court dimensions are the same.” He had faith in his own powers of concentration. Suddenly his life was strange and cluttered again, a mass of requests and fans and commercials. “But once I step on the court I’m having fun,” he said. “That’s the good part.”
On March 28th, the Bulls played the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. No crowd at the Garden had been this jumpy since the playoffs last year. Most of the new arenas diffuse the noise of the crowd — spread it out and turn it into a muffled undertone, a murmur. The Garden on a good night still rumbles, and once Jordan stepped on the floor the crowd kept up a steady roar — half in pleasure, half in fear for the home team. Against New York, Jordan is guarded by the most temperamental of the defenders he faces — John Starks, a young man who is capable of brilliance one night and errant rage another, and then a long, inert period of funk; he is maddeningly inconsistent, more talent than player. To be a Knicks fan is to be forced to live with the moody vacillations of John Starks. It is no way to live. And yet five minutes into his encounter with Jordan I felt for Starks, felt for him deeply. From the opening tap, Starks did the best he could, steering Jordan to his supposedly bad hand (the left), guiding him into other defenders, jumping high with the shot. It was all for nothing. Jordan opened the game with a jumper, shot as casually as tossing a stone into a lake. The next time Jordan had the ball, he palmed it, and waved it up and down, teasing Starks, as if this were a Globetrotters act and Starks were a paid dupe. Another score. Not long after that, Jordan caught a pass on the baseline and, before putting the ball on the floor, did a little trick in which he began arching his back, rocking back and forth, mesmerizing Starks. Suddenly, as Starks fell into the sleepy rhythm, Jordan spun and dashed around him. The layup, of course, was good. Starks trotted up the court on offense blinking, stone-faced, determined not to betray the frustration he was feeling.
From then on, my notes are a whacked-out mess — a stream of underlinings, exclamation points, hieroglyphs, each centered on another Jordanian amazement. By the end of the first quarter, he had twenty points. What was, secondarily, so thrilling about the game was that the rest of the players on the floor (Starks included) were at their best. I don’t know when I have ever seen a better game in the regular season. The Knicks were freed of their psychoses. No one kicked the scorer’s table. No one dissed the coach. There were no head butts, body slams, or petty screeds. Derek Harper drew a harmless technical foul. (As usual, he earned it, and then pulled off a theatrical palms-up protest of innocence, the way professional wrestlers do when they are accused of producing a “foreign object” from their shorts.) The Knicks were doing all they could to win. Were it not for Jordan’s performance, Patrick Ewing might have been the morning headline.
But, of course, it was Jordan’s night, and, as the game went on, Starks — alas, poor Starks! — began to wear the mask of infinite pain. Jordan hit shot after shot. There have been times in the past when his teammates, wearied of their role as supporting players, have rebelled against their leader’s dominance. At one point against the Knicks, Scottie Pippen, a player of remarkable talents but delicate ego, seemed to ignore Jordan, who was open for a layup, and instead threw up an absurd bomb from long range, as if to say, “No, Michael, I will not always yield to you.” Except for that moment, the Bulls meshed as well as they had in two years.
For the Knicks, and for the rest of the teams in the N.B.A. that may face the Bulls this spring in the playoffs, the final play was the most dangerous — the one that sent out a reminder of Jordan’s dimensions as an athlete. Part of why we cleave to sports and fandom (besides the sheer escapism) is that excellence is so measureable, so knowable in numbers. The .500 shooter averaging twenty-five points and a dozen rebounds a game is an all-star; the .410 shooter averaging fewer points and boards is a mediocrity. Jordan’s numbers — his seven consecutive scoring championships, his stats as a rebounder, passer, and defensive thief — easily identify him as among the best to play the game. The last play against the Knicks shades in the picture; it identifies him as — well, supernatural.
There were fourteen seconds left. The score was 111-111. By then, Jordan had fifty-five points. I was somehow relieved that the game would soon end. Jordan was performing at such a level that it seemed inevitable that he would find a way to score and end it. And to go on watching Starks continue his futile mission had about it a quality of voyeurism, cruelty. Jordan was humiliating a weaker opponent. At times, it was beautiful to witness; at others, it was like watching a man poke a wounded dog with a stick.
Jordan handled the ball. After letting a few seconds melt off the clock, he closed in toward the side of the lane. He drove hard to the right, dipping his shoulder, and then cut sharply to his left and toward the basket. Starks stumbled. He was beginning to lose his man. Suddenly, Ewing, all seven feet of him, stepped forward to help smother Jordan. Now there were just five seconds on the clock. Jordan coiled and jumped, leaving his feet as if to shoot. As he would admit later, shooting had been his intention all along. How can you not shoot with fifty-five points already? (“I’d be lying if I said I came out to pass the ball.”) But now the logic of the moment had changed. Ewing had gambled — it was a smart gamble, for there are times when Jordan is sure that he has a better chance of scoring over two men than a teammate has of scoring unattended. Not now. In the huddle, Jordan had advised Wennington, the slow-footed center, that there was a chance — that he would get a pass if the play broke just so. Which is how it broke. Even in midair, in the tensest moment of a game, Jordan has a look of both concentration and calm, as if he knew he was capable of suspending himself until the proper decision is finally made. Meanwhile, everyone else is frantic, flailing. And now, after passing up what would have been a low-percentage shot, even for him, with Knicks leaping all around him, Jordan shovelled a pass to Wennington. The center gathered the ball in, jumped, and hit the point-blank shot: 113-111. Game.14
Afterward, the Knicks coach, Pat Riley, said that yes, of course he admired Jordan’s performance, but he betrayed, as well, an overtired testiness. “You’re gonna talk a lot about Michael tomorrow,” he told the reporters surrounding him. “But it would have been a hell of a thing if he had scored fifty-five and we’d won. It would have been a different story line.” Three weeks later, at the United Center against the Knicks, Jordan did not need to play half as well as he had in New York. This time, he shared the ball with Pippen, and the two of them destroyed New York. Jordan is right. He’s back.
Of course, Jordan wasn’t all the way back. He did lead the Bulls to a 13-4 finish, including a run of 12-1 near the end of the season. But after beating the Charlotte Hornets in the opening round of the playoffs, the Bulls were eliminated in the conference semifinals by the Orlando Magic, four games to two. Jordan returned the following fall, sporting his old no. 23, and promptly led the Bulls to another title three-peat. Even today, Remnick’s friend Wilbon — who still rues his “I would give two years of my life if Jordan would return” column — points out that if the column did cost him two years, he got to see his beloved Bulls win three more titles.
But the sports world that Remnick described in that spring of ’95 — of dozens of reporters trailing one shining star — anticipated the sports universe of the 21st century.15 Even in the space of a year and a half, cable and satellite television had grown appreciably (ESPN2 launched on October 1, 1993, just five days before Jordan announced his first retirement), sports-talk radio had exploded, the early makings of an Internet sports community were beginning to coalesce. “It was the ushering in of the modern media,” says Wilbon. “The level of it was unprecedented.” In Washington, D.C., during the comeback, a coterie of cars drove up to the Capital Centre, and a dignified man got out of the first limousine. Approaching Tim Hallam, the Bulls’ public relations man, he said, “Excuse me, the Crown Princess of Saudi Arabia would like to meet Mr. Jordan.” Hallam, without missing a beat, shot back, “Pal, there’s a crown princess in every city.”16
“It’s not the sort of piece I enjoy doing,” says Remnick in retrospect, who still gravitates toward the classic profile piece in which he might have extended one-to-one access to his subject. “The apotheosis would be what Gay Talese did with Floyd Patterson.”17 So Remnick finished the Jordan story and moved on, not troubled at all about what Jordan’s reaction to the piece may have been. “I’ve never cared much beyond the level of accuracy what the subject thought of something I wrote,” he says. “People always ask that — ‘What does Obama think of what you wrote?’ I don’t know; I didn’t ask him, and he’s nice enough not to say anything about it.”
Michael MacCambridge is the author of America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation, and the editor of the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia.