Never before, Michael Jordan freely admitted, had he felt this nervous. Not as a freshman at North Carolina, when he took and nailed the jump shot that beat Georgetown and won the NCAA championship. Not in any of the games at the Olympics, when he led the United States to the gold medal. Not ever. This was it. Today. At the NBA All-Star Game in front of 43,146 fans and millions more watching on television. Michael Jordan, the most celebrated player to come into the NBA in the 1980s; Michael Jordan, the coolest thing since shaved ice, got so excited, and he couldn't hide it.
"I just couldn't calm myself down," Jordan said, speaking softly without dismay or shame, moments after the game. "Most of the time when you're nervous, you get over it after one or two times up and down the court. But being introduced before the game -- hearing them call out my name as a starter -- that was the highlight of my career. I was out there with so many great players that it was a nervous experience for me. I couldn't get relaxed until the second half."
He shrugged his shoulders.
What can you do?
All season long, Jordan has been nothing less than sensational, averaging 27.4 points and flying through the air so much you'd think he had wings on his feet. Every night, it seems, you can see him on the 11 o'clock news in a highlight package. His Chicago teammate, Sidney Green, has said of Jordan: "He's the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
And today the truth was: Jordan had a poor game. He scored seven points in 22 minutes, and two of those points -- a tip in for the first basket of the game -- weren't even his, but Moses Malone's. Having come into the game with a 52 percent shooting average, he really shot just one for eight, and made only one spectacular move, a swooping drive and dunk with two minutes left and his team already hopelessly behind. Often he seemed reticent on offense; in situations that called for him to dare to be flamboyant, he played shyly instead, kicking the ball out to a teammate rather than taking it for a ride on his personal roller coaster. On defense, Jordan was repeatedly burned by George Gervin, who scored 23 points in 25 minutes. Add to this a runner-up finish in Saturday's slam dunk contest, and you have the makings of a rather lost weekend.
He could easily have hung his head, or done what so many players have done before him after poor games -- run into the trainer's room and hid until the reporters went away.
He did neither.
He faced the clear, white light of truth head on and didn't so much as blink. "I guess it shows I'm human," he said with a self-deprecating laugh. "I'm nervous in situations. I'm not going to be great every time I step on to the court." He fiddled a bit with his sneakers, the Air Jordan model that look like a Salvador Dali vision of a chessboard. "I knew the expectations would be high this weekend," he continued. "I think the crowd expected me to win the dunk contest, and then come back and score 30 points in the all-star game."
He smiled and allowed that if he had been in the crowd, he would have expected the same. "I know what they want to see," he said.
And did they see all of him today?
Jordan shook his head. "No," he said quickly. "No."
How much did they see?
"Hard to say," Jordan said. "Maybe half."
Again, no dismay, no shame. Jordan is hardly the type to put the family fortune on one roll of the wheel; he's been having far too much fun to let one sour note ruin the whole song. "But you see I didn't put those expectations on myself; I didn't expect to score 30," he said. "I just wanted to fit in. I tried to take what was available. I don't think I forced anything; when you're nervous, you have a tendency to force things. I just couldn't get going."
Jordan is, after all, a rookie. And rookies, no matter how outrageous they've been so far, are not supposed to come into an all-star game and be awesome. On the contrary, they are supposed to be awed. In that sense, Jordan was normal after all. And when you think about it, the fact that he was so respectful of this game and of his peers says something rather honorable about young Mr. Jordan.
When Gervin was told of Jordan's nervousness, he smiled. Gervin is 32 years old and has been in 13 of these things counting his ABA days; Jordan is 21. "I was nervous my first time," the one they call the Iceman said. "Very definitely I was. Cause we're human, you know?" Gervin rolled the collar of his fine suit and said, "If I were to talk to Michael about it, I'd say, 'I expected you to be nervous, because you are a rookie. But don't worry about it. Because you are doing very well in this league. You are doing very well.' "
And down the hall, in the quiet of the losing locker room, Michael Jordan was getting dressed and telling anyone who asked, yes, it's been fun; yes, it was a thrill to be here; yes, I was nervous; no, it's not the end of the world. "I expect to be in many more all-star games," Jordan said before leaving. And cool as can be, he promised, "Next time I won't be nervous at all."