Michael Jordan's picturesque game has changed in style over the years, but every version has been unstoppable

by Phil Taylor

Like most great artists, Michael Jordan has produced a body of work that can be broken down into eras. Each stage of his career has been marked by a certain style, an emphasis on particular aspects of his prodigious talent. There has been Michael the Daring, the young man so physically gifted that he seemed to mock gravity; Michael the Versatile, the athlete in his prime who was capable of analyzing a game and applying whichever skills were necessary to succeed; and Michael the Wise, the player who understands that opponents can be beaten with guile as easily as with sheer athleticism.

The present-day Jordan creates his own shot with a rare blend of altitude and aptitude.

photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBA photos

Throughout his career the 34-year-old Jordan has had rare physical gifts on one side of the scale and an uncanny basketball intelligence on the other. Early in his career the physical abilities outweighed the know-how, in the middle years the two were in almost perfect balance, and in the last two seasons the scales have begun to tip in favor of his basketball mind. Over the years Jordan has constantly adapted his game, thinking not just about how to be the best but about how to remain the best. What follows is an analysis of how he has done it.

MICHAEL THE DARING

Even though Jordan had hit the winning jump shot for North Carolina in the 1982 NCAA championship game against Georgetown, when he arrived in the NBA as a rookie two years later his outside shot was suspect. He was a streaky shooter, a lanky young colt who could launch a textbook jumper on one possession and an awkward one on the next. But one thing became quickly apparent: He could drive to the hoop. Having been freed from North Carolina's highly structured offense and the zone defenses of the college game, the 6'6" Jordan proved to be even more adept at going one-on-one (and sometimes one-on-two or -three) than even the Bulls had expected.

"I saw some of the great defenders in the league matched up against him, and he would go by them like they were standing still," says Doug Collins, Jordan's coach in Chicago from 1986 to '89. "And beyond that was what he would do when he got to the basket. I told people during Michael's rookie year that this kid could be another Julius Erving in terms of the spectacular things he could do around the rim. They looked at me like I was crazy at first, but not after they watched him play a game or two."

Jordan wasn't afraid to take the jump shot, but only after he had exhausted every avenue to the basket. He explained that he wanted to take advantage of his quickness, and that driving increased the possibility of three-point plays and getting opponents into foul trouble. And the pounding he sometimes took as a result? "I'm young," he would tell Collins. "I can handle it."

The signature game of the first Jordan era came during his second pro year, when he turned in a breathtaking 63-point performance against the Boston Celtics in the first round of the 1986 playoffs. He scored seemingly at will with a dizzying array of moves, dribbling around defenders and soaring over Celtics big men for vicious dunks and soft layups. In one often-replayed sequence, Jordan took on Larry Bird one-on-one and twisted Bird into a pretzel with a rapid series of between-the-legs and behind-the-back dribbles before calmly drilling a jump shot.

That game was symbolic of Jordan's early years not only because he produced one highlight after another but also because the Bulls lost, 135-131 in double overtime, and were eventually swept in the best-of-five series. More than any other single event, that game symbolized the reputation Jordan would live with for his first several years in the league: that of a highly entertaining loser. He might be the greatest high-wire act the league had seen since Erving's prime, but he had turned his team into such a one-man show that he would never win a championship. That criticism stung Jordan deeply, but there was nothing he could say to dispute it. Not yet.

MICHAEL THE VERSATILE

Jordan made a decision in 1989 that signaled a shift in the direction of his career: He chose not to compete in the slam-dunk competition during All-Star weekend. He had won the championship in that event in each of the previous two seasons, unveiling dunks that remain among the most memorable in league history. On one he took off from the free throw line and glided through the air with the ball held aloft for what seemed like an eternity before he jammed it through the basket. On another he approached the hoop from along the baseline, leaped into the air and seemed to be almost parallel to the ground—actually flying—before completing the dunk.

The shots added to his growing legend and probably sold more posters than anyone since Farrah Fawcett posed in a bathing suit, but Jordan seemed to understand that more dunk titles would only give his critics more ammunition. So he bypassed the competition—he would never take part in another one—and concentrated on finding a balance between individual acrobatics and getting more out of his teammates. He had won the first of his nine scoring titles in 1986-87 with 37.1 points per game and repeated as scoring champion the following year with a 35.0 average, which also helped him win the first of his four most valuable player awards. His all-around excellence was beginning to emerge—he was named defensive player of the year in '88 as well as MVP—but it wouldn't become fully apparent until that '88-89 season.