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Look of a Winner

The early Jordan was thought to be more acrobat than ringmaster, but there were clear signs of the champion who would soon rule the game

  Jerry Wachter

By Alexander Wolff

Consider Michael Jordan as we may have forgotten him: uncrowned, prechampionship, titleless. Each of his first six professional seasons ended with the Bulls being subdued by some NBA toreador. Back then, Jordan's outthrust tongue seemed trivial, a child's tic that hadn't yet taken on the supertext of mockery. The limbs, neither sculpted nor defined the way they would come to be, still had an adolescent jangle to them. Playing in dark and drafty Chicago Stadium for four coaches, he still looked from time to time like any one of those kids around the world who would one day wish they could replicate the contortions and conjurings of Air Jordan.

In fact, he did already have a title in his portfolio: an NCAA championship, the one he won in 1982 as a freshman at North Carolina. The manner in which the Tar Heels won that crown should have signaled to us that titles at a higher level awaited him. Coach Dean Smith had turned to the 19-year-old Jordan in the timeout huddle in New Orleans late in the final game and called for a left-of-the-key jump shot, telling him to "knock it down." Of course, Jordan did. But back then he seemed to be just a sprocket in Smith's machine, another untouchable in the Carolina caste system, a guy who, like all Tar Heels freshmen, was required to lug the film projector on road trips.

Few suspected that his relationship to film would soon evolve from key grip into star attraction. Not right away, to be sure; during those early seasons in Chicago, he had not fully grasped the extent of his obligation as the game's first global megastar. But for those who cared to notice, Jordan was already hinting at what was to come, never more flagrantly than in that playoff game in Boston Garden in 1986, the one in which he sprang for 63 points. Larry Bird's Celtics won that afternoon, and went on to win the series. But the old order was giving way to the new. The first rock had been hurled at the temple.

Not all of the NBA took to Jordan right away. There was the famous freeze-out at the '85 All-Star Game, at which Isiah Thomas led a movement of several veterans to keep the ball out of the hands of their uppity rookie teammate. And there was Quintin Dailey, poster boy for the Bulls' most bearish seasons, sulking in the locker room in Jordan's first year, wondering why no one was asking him how he did the things he did. But Jordan turned out to be such a force of nature that rivals and teammates alike came to accept him, if only because incipient envy got snuffed out by the fan in each of them. And when Jordan's team began to win—the Bulls went from 30 victories in 1985-86 to 40 in '86-87 to 50 in '87-88 to 55 in '89-90—the deal was sealed. As Jordan and the Bulls elevated, the starmakers were vindicated; everyone else simply let their jaws go slack.

In the bogarting world of the play-for-pays, a title can be a cudgel, a blunt instrument useful for beating another championship out of the rest of the league. After winning his first, in 1991, Jordan would do that five times. But it was as a teenager at Carolina, long before the Bulls imprinted their image on the '90s, that he experienced that sudden, giddy sensation of connecting on the longer shot of an NCAA tournament title. In "knocking it down," he signaled a worthiness to wear the mantle of obligation and, ultimately, multiple NBA crowns as well.

From Sports Illustrated Presents: A Michael Jordan Commemorative. Look for this special issue on newsstands nationwide beginning Friday, January 15. A numbered, hardbound collector's edition may be ordered by phone at (800) 662-4512.

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