Jordan's Journey

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The Price of Glory

MJ would finally ascend to the NBA throne by winning three titles, but that brought forth a new wave of detractors and a new set of demands

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Posted: Wednesday August 22, 2001 12:50 PM
  Manny Millan

By Jack McCallum, Sports Illustrated

When Michael Jordan finally nabbed his first NBA championship, in June 1991, seven long seasons after he began setting the league on fire, we were surprised at the intensity of his reaction. Almost as soon as the decisive Game 5 in Los Angeles against the Lakers was over and Jordan had been presented with the Finals' MVP trophy, he started sobbing uncontrollably in the arms of his father, James. Until then, we had assumed that Michael would receive his championship laurels with his customary gee-whiz charm. It was only when he broke down like a schoolgirl at graduation that we realized that Jordan had, in fact, harbored his moments of uncertainty, that all the whispers saying he didn't possess those he-makes-everybody-better skills of Magic and Larry had indeed nested somewhere in his psyche and that only a championship would chase those doubts away.

As much as that first title certified Jordan's greatness, however, it seemed to signal a subtle shift in the public's perception of him. It was as if, now that the guy finally had it all, it was time to start taking some of it away. Soon after that first championship season, the publication of The Jordan Rules, a behind-the-scenes look at the Bulls, revealed a churlish, even cruel Jordan whose preternaturally competitive nature caused teammates and opponents alike considerable humiliation. There were subsequent reports about Jordan's gambling problems, suggestions that womanizing was hurting his marriage and declarations that the be-like-Mike image put out by his myriad endorsers was a sham.

In some sense, the contract that existed between Jordan and his adoring public was never the same after he won a championship. He was less the carefree boy wonder he had been during the pretitle years and more like a CEO, an efficient basketball machine who appeared to derive fewer and fewer moments of joy from the sport. This was crystallized at the 1992 Summer Olympics. Though no Dream Teamer performed close to Jordan's all-around standards—"It's not just that the guy's better than everyone," observed Dream Team coach Chuck Daly, "it's that he's twice as good"—most of his teammates in Barcelona appeared more comfortable in the spotlight. Charles Barkley became an Olympic pied piper of sorts with his almost nightly pilgrimages to Las Ramblas, Barcelona's version of Broadway. Magic Johnson, who eight months earlier had announced that he was HIV positive, was unquestionably the Dream Team captain, the go-to guy for a quote.

Jordan did have a good time in Barcelona, particularly when he was fooling around with his teammates in the game room of the Dream Team's heavily guarded hotel. But he felt imprisoned by his fame. By the time Jordan had huffed and puffed and put the Bulls on his shoulders one more time, carrying them in 1993 to a six-game Finals victory over Barkley's Phoenix Suns and Chicago's third straight championship, Jordan simply felt there were no basketball worlds left for him to conquer. When he announced his retirement some three months after that title, observers were surprised but not shocked. The loss of a sense of challenge, coupled with the trauma of the murder of his beloved father that summer, had extinguished his fire for the game.

But not for every game. Jordan resurfaced a few months later to announce that he was going to play Double A ball in the Chicago White Sox organization. Who knows whether he truly felt he could become a major leaguer? But that wasn't the point. Baseball helped feed Jordan's ravenous competitive appetite while letting him play in a spotlight that burned much less brightly than it had in Chicago. For the first time since his early years at North Carolina, he was permitted—to a degree—to be part of the backdrop.

Michael Jeffrey Jordan, of course, would eventually realize that he wasn't a backdrop type of guy.

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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