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  •   Needing to Play the Game Just Like Mike

    Michael Wilbon
    By Michael Wilbon
    Washington Post Columnist
    Thursday, January 14, 1998; Page D1

    CHICAGO — There is a very distinct reason Michael Jordan is retiring: He couldn't get fired up mentally to go through the marathon grind that is an NBA season. All the extra lockout time in the world didn't change that. No amount of lobbying or begging could change it. The greatness of Michael Jordan was always head to toe, in that order. And if he couldn't get psyched to dismantle opponents, it was time to retire. So he did.

    The Jerrys, Reinsdorf and Krause, didn't make him so miserable he had to quit. The finger he recently sliced while trimming a cigar might have reinforced the point, but Jordan would never let that kind of physical ailment stop him if he was desperate to play. This is not about the lockout, or Scottie Pippen, or Tim Floyd or even Phil Jackson. Jordan told Reinsdorf he was mentally fried back in June; Reinsdorf advised him to mull it over until the start of the 1999 season. Jordan, in recent days, knew nothing had changed, and here we are.

    "Even with Phil back as coach, I'd have had a tough time finding the challenge mentally," Jordan said Wednesday, at a news conference that felt, at times, mighty close to a wake. "At the beginning of last year I wanted to play a couple of more seasons. But by the end of the season, I was mentally drained. For me to lose my motivation in the middle of the season would be unfair to the other players."

    You see, Jordan's ability to psych himself up for every minute of every game no matter how insignificant, even if that meant conjuring up reasons to go after somebody, is what separated him from, say, Dominique Wilkins. And everybody else. Jordan didn't just want to win, he wanted to crush you, take your will, humiliate you so that you wouldn't even bother to show up the next time. He studied every nugget of information about an opponent he could get his hands on. The reporters he liked to spar with were the ones who knew stuff, stuff that might help him get an edge on an opponent, an opposing coach, even a teammate.

    I have always believed Jordan was addicted to competition. And if things are relatively equal physically – as they tend to be in professional sports – then you better be smarter, more relentless. How can I get an edge? What's the best way to get inside this guy's head? Without that, Jordan would be another really good basketball player. With it, he was the best of our time, probably the best ever. And "really good" doesn't even show up on Jordan's radar.

    Craig Hodges, his teammate and backcourt mate on the early Bulls championship teams, said he completely understood when he heard Jordan talk about not being able to create another challenge for himself. The people who incurred Jordan's fury most frequently weren't his opponents, but his teammates.

    "I can remember this time in, I think, 1990 when Scottie decided to challenge Michael one day in practice," Hodges said. "Michael kind of backed up for a half-second. Then he proceeded, literally, to score on Scottie at will. It was incredible. I mean, Scottie Pippen even then was one of the best players in the league and Michael just rained points on him. Scottie had to step back and say, 'Slow up, man.' "

    That's what it's like to be Michael Jordan, to feel compelled to win every duel in every dusty street, to turn back every challenge both real and perceived. One night in Chicago, Jordan asked whom I had come to write about. It was an opposing player with Washington ties who was averaging 20-plus points a game, having a great season. "Well, what are you going to write when he gets no points tonight?" Jordan asked. "I'm telling you right now, your boy is getting nothing." When Jordan and the Chicago starters went to the bench toward the end of a blowout two hours later, the player I went to write about had three points and Jordan had made him nuts.

    Right there he had created a challenge for himself. He created challenges where other players saw nothing. To this day, my favorite one is the LaBradford Smith saga. The story goes that back when Smith was playing for the Bullets, he scored 37 against Jordan and the Bulls one night in Chicago. Jordan put out the word that Smith had mocked him by saying, "Nice game, Mike." Jordan said he wanted all 37 back in the first half the next night in Capital Centre, and he got 36 of them. By halftime.

    Now, here's where the good stuff starts. Jordan, with that signature wink, finally admitted last year he'd made up the whole thing. What's even more amazing is that the Bullets players were so in awe of him, Smith never denied the story and his teammates believed Jordan. In fact, Bullets who didn't even play with Smith had passed on the story and believed it. Even more amazing: Jordan used a fictional story to fire himself up, meaning more than likely, he had to believe the story. His brilliance will never be fully appreciated. Opponents who figured he was just devious never got it.

    The only time Jordan gloated Wednesday at his going-away party was when he talked about his buddies, Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley, who will now never know the feeling of beating Jordan in the playoffs. "Patrick will never be able to live with himself because he can't beat Michael Jordan in a playoff series," Jordan said. "And I always told Charles he never was dedicated enough to winning."

    Here he was in retirement still taking shots, looking for an edge. Problem is, Jordan no longer trusts he can do it every night. Bill Russell said last summer that the highest compliment he could give Jordan is, "He plays like Michael Jordan every single night."

    Jordan always felt he couldn't cruise through a single game because those kids in, say, Vancouver who saved up their money to see him one time in their lives would leave with an impression. "I had to make a judgment," Jordan said Wednesday. "I had to be [mentally ready] every game, not one-fourth of the time. I can't honestly say it will be there 82 times when I walk into the building. I've always been sure about that; now, I'm unsure about it."

    So rather than let us see him – or see himself – mail it in even one night, Jordan has walked away.

    Intellectually, there's no arguing with that. Emotionally, it's devastating, especially for anybody who has fondly called Chicago home. There's no big city in the world as closely identified with one person as Chicago is with Jordan. He began his remarks Wednesday giving thanks, of sorts, that something – in this case his Bulls – finally replaced Al Capone as our leading export. Jordan made us – and I am definitely including myself – feel better about ourselves and our city. This is a bolder, yet more tolerant place because he brought various peoples and cultures together – if only for two hours at a time – which is something segregated Chicago had always resisted.

    The Chicago Tribune this morning, across the top of Page 1, had pictures of the four "Great Icons of Chicago." Chronologically, there was Mrs. O'Leary's cow (which legend has it kicked over the lantern that started the Great Chicago Fire in 1871), Capone, the Sears Tower, and Jordan. That's it, perfectly it. I refuse to talk to anybody from Chicago for the next 48 hours, including my mother, because it's just bound to be one long, teary, depressing conversation that will end in, "But why couldn't he play one more year?"

    It was 11-below zero here when Jordan began his announcement, one of those patently cold Chicago days, the kind that for the past 13 years were thawed by Jordan's presence here. Logic says this is the perfect time for him to retire. Logic says that at age 35 – he'll turn 36 next month – he should get on with his life, and we should do the same. Logic says that if Jordan can't mentally challenge anyone and everyone every time he laces up those sneakers, he should call it a day, as he has. We'll see the logic in this someday; we'll be a little less selfish about this at some point. Just not today. In fact, I suspect no time soon.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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