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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Considering all parts of his career, MJ will be remembered for mystique

It's not often David Robinson and John Stockton will be referred to as ""those other guys"" in basketball circles. On Friday, however, that's what they'll be.

It is almost unfair because those two brought so much to the game of basketball in terms of grace, skill and, of course, short shorts. But the player they are being compared to is more than just another Hall of Fame player; more than just a legend. That would be Michael Jordan, the greatest player in the history of the sport.

In looking back at all of Jordan's feats, we need to examine what about his career made him the best.

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Was it his unstoppable offensive game, with its power, gravity-defying grace and jump shot that seemed to go in from every angle at the most crucial moments of the game? That's part of it, but others could score in almost as many prodigious ways.

Was it his competitive defense that hounded opponents into turnovers, and made him the best shooting guard ever on that end of the floor? Perhaps, but many excellent defenders have not received their due for greatness.

Could it be the laundry list of honors; five MVPs, six titles, nine times on the all-defensive team or 10 years as the NBA's best scorer? Simply put, that's not it.

MJ's greatness stems not from his reality, but from his myth.

Everyone remembers that he was cut from his high school team as a sophomore; few remember him as an All-American. In college he won college player of the year, but most fans recall the fact that only his coach, Dean Smith, held him below 20 points per game.

There was the slight of being taken after Sam Bowie, overcoming Boston and then Detroit and then the ascension to the first title three-peat since the late 60s.

But then came his heroic struggle, the murder of his father, and the move to baseball.

He returned with the press release simply saying, ""I'm back,"" bursting into the game midseason with a new number, and lit up the Knicks for 55.

Then the next three-peat, the flu game against the Jazz in 1997 and finally the majestic shot over Byron Russell in 1998. He seemed to have the perfect end to the perfect career.

Only it wasn't.

He returned once more, and even though it may have marred his greatness, it reminds us how manically competitive and driven the truly great athletes are.

Jordan had a scribe, Spike Lee, who told his myth in a brave new format (Nike commercials). Through those he even became an amateur philosopher with sayings like, ""I can accept failure, but I cannot accept not trying"" attributed to him. Journalist and author David Halberstam, one of the best writers in recent memory, even described him as the new definition of American male beauty. Simply, the things he said and moments in his career have become part of the cultural lexicon.

And the myth goes deeper.

Jordan was always working to improve, always aggressive and competing (he didn't speak to coach Roy Williams for two days after Williams crushed him in pool). This alienated teammates and made him pretty unlikable, but it also drew respect because he was always driving to improve.

There is a redemptive quality in the way his individual game progressed. When he began his career he tried to take on opponents as an individual, constantly attacking defenses and ignoring coach's game plans.

As he aged, however, he learned to trust his teammates. Before he won titles, Jordan demanded the last shot (and many other ones too). But later he would sublimate his own skills to the triangle offense and twice acted as a decoy to give teammates title-clinching shots.

His whole career can be summed up as storybook (which Lee did neatly in a commercial). He constantly overcame new obstacles, seemed to find a new understanding about himself and matured as a person in ways everyone can admire. He became the perfect archetype of a heroic journey.

Does it matter that reality might not share the luster and shine of that story? No, sports are very much about the myth, the image and the ideal of some higher level of glory.

So when the final chapter is written Friday and Jordan takes his place among the best in the sport, it's this story, with its depth of cultural and allegorical elements that makes him greater than the rest.

Apologies to Mr. Robinson and Mr. Stockton for being overshadowed, but those are the breaks.

Does this column overstate MJ's greatness? E-mail Ben at breiner@wisc.edu

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