Steve Smith is beaming, looking nothing like a player who has just had his ticket punched to basketball hell. It is Sunday, May 4, and the Atlanta Hawks have just beaten the Detroit Pistons in the deciding game of their first-round NBA playoff series, thereby earning the right to play the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals. This means Smith, the Hawks' shooting guard, has been sentenced to at least a week of hard labor—trying to shackle the best player on the planet, the Bulls' Michael Jordan.
Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Smith donated $2.5 million to his alma mater, Michigan State, in January; he buys 40 tickets to every Hawks home game and passes them out to youth groups and senior citizens; and he gives $50 to the Georgia chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation for every three-pointer he makes. "And for all that, what does he get? Michael Jordan, for a whole series," says his teammate, forward Tyrone Corbin. "That's not fair. The only thing tougher than guarding Jordan all night is guarding Jordan every night."
Playing defense against Jordan for an entire playoff series is like facing Tiger Woods for 72 holes of match play. Guarding Jordan grows more difficult over the course of a series, which is why so many of the teams he faces in the postseason rotate defenders against him. "He can really work you over physically and psychologically during a game," says Atlanta assistant Bill Hanzlik. "But in the regular season you see him for a night, and then you don't have to worry about him again for a few weeks. In a playoff series he gets to work on you over and over again. You have to be so mentally strong not to let the frustration build, not to let up even if it seems like nothing you do against him is working. Guarding him night in and night out is the ultimate challenge."
Smith knows this well; he has been matched up against Jordan more times than he cares to count in his six-year career. At 6'8" he is two inches taller than Jordan, and with his long arms he is well suited to guard him. But he has only once faced Jordan in his most lethal form, the postseason Jordan, and that was in 1992, when Smith was a rookie playing for Miami and Chicago swept the Heat 3-0 in the first round. "I know what's going to happen," Smith says. "I know his eyes are going to get even more intense. His cuts are going to get even sharper, his moves are going to get even quicker." And Smith is going to get a close-up view of it all. He's going to be chained to the all-you-can-eat Jordan buffet. But if Smith is worried, he's doing a superb job of hiding it during this postgame celebration. Someone asks how he will try to contain Jordan. Smith laughs and says, "I don't know. I don't want to think about that until tomorrow."
MONDAY, MAY 5
Video day. The Hawks go over videotape of the Bulls in preparation for Game 1 on Tuesday night. Smith studies the Bulls in general, not Jordan in particular. He believes the best approach to guarding Jordan is to make sure his mind does not become a 24-hour, all-Jordan, all-the-time channel. Some players get so-called individual edits, tapes that have been put together to isolate the player they will be matched up against. This is the last thing Smith wants to prepare for Jordan, even though he has nothing against watching videos; he has every episode of Sanford and Son on tape and rarely goes a day without watching at least one. But he gets far more amusement from Fred and Lamont than from Michael. "If I wanted to watch a tape of strictly Michael Jordan, I'd buy one of his highlight videos," Smith says. "You don't want to study him too much because you can find yourself starting to be in awe a little bit. Besides, it's not like I'm going to find a weakness to take advantage of, because he doesn't have any."
Smith's teammates keep their advice to a minimum. "There's not a lot you can say that he doesn't already know," says reserve guard Jon Barry. "It's more like, 'Hey, Smitty, do your best, and, uh, we're right behind you.' " Atlanta coach Lenny Wilkens tries to offer more concrete help. He would like to get away with having Smith guard Jordan one-on-one as much as possible, but the Hawks will send over one of their big men—usually 6'11" forward-center Christian Laettner but sometimes 7'2" center Dikembe Mutombo—for an occasional double-team. Wilkens wants to send a big man rather than a guard because he knows Jordan's favorite weapon these days is the fadeaway jumper, and Laettner and Mutombo are more likely to disrupt that shot. "He doesn't seem to want to take the ball to the hoop as much," Wilkens says. ' "So if we can force him to do something he doesn't want to do, that's one small victory." Smith expects help from the big men, but he isn't picky. "Anybody who wants to help, Christian, Dikembe, the popcorn guy, the Gatorade kid, I'll take it," he says.
TUESDAY, MAY 6
"You ready?" Smith says to Jordan as they meet at half-court for the tip-off.
"I'm ready. You ready?" Jordan replies, smiling.