SI Vault
Rick Telander
November 17, 1986
Midair is the lofty realm of Chicago's Michael Jordan, and he has lifted the Bulls off to a stratospheric start
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November 17, 1986


Midair is the lofty realm of Chicago's Michael Jordan, and he has lifted the Bulls off to a stratospheric start

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"The name of the game is to force a player to do the one thing he can't do real well," says 7'2" San Antonio center Artis Gilmore, "but as far as I can tell, Jordan doesn't have that one thing."

And when the money's on the line, Jordan becomes a dervish. "You can see him change, see it in his face," says San Antonio guard Alvin Robertson.

Jordan is well mannered, but frisky and playful as a nursery schooler. As he walks around the undersized pool table in the basement of his suburban town house, sinking balls against a very rusty opponent, he says, "Uh huh, the house wins. The house always wins." Much of his carefreeness comes from having parents who never pushed Michael, the second youngest of their five children, but were always there when he needed them.

The town house is neat and clean, Jordan's handiwork. He has a "special" girlfriend in Chicago now, but when he was in high school he wasn't lucky with girls, and he took a home economics class because he figured he would always be a bachelor and would need the skills. Now he can sew and iron and cook and be the perfect domestic. He was upset that the Bulls were out of town on Halloween. "I had McDonald's cards all printed up with my name on them for free Big Macs for trick-or-treaters," he says. "I really wanted to see the kids."

Perhaps the surest sign that Jordan has arrived as a cultural icon can be found in the high demand for his services in the endorsement and publicity marketplace. Nike, for one good example, sank a lot of money into Jordan as a symbol and Air Jordan as a virtual subsidiary of the parent company. It all was stalled on Oct. 29, 1985, when Jordan broke a bone in his left foot during the third game of the season. He sat out for 64 games, and it seemed possible people might forget about him.

Jordan was going crazy. The Bulls, under doctors' orders, would not let him practice until the bone was completely healed. In February, Jordan went back to Chapel Hill, ostensibly to work toward his degree in geography. And, indeed, he did graduate last summer. But the real reason he left Chicago was to play basketball, pickup games with his pals. When Krause found out what Jordan was doing he was furious. In March Jordan returned to Chicago and said he was fit enough to rejoin the team. The doctors said there was still a 10% chance the bone could break again, but Jordan, who felt fine, didn't care. He was dying without his game.

"If you had an investment that was 90 percent sure, wouldn't you take it?" he said. Jordan may have been foolhardy, but his passion was touching, for it revealed the depth of his love for the game.

Finally the Bulls let Jordan suit up, but they limited his playing time at first to seven minutes a half before gradually increasing it. Jordan was out of control in those first games. He averaged 24.7 points in the three games last year before his injury; at the end of the regular season, he had a 22.7 average in 18 games. He tried to pack everything he had missed into each brief appearance. "I was too hyper," he says now. He also was disillusioned with management, telling Krause, "You have to let me be a human being. I'm not a piece of meat."

All Jordan's frustrations were vented in the playoff series against the Celtics, the first games he was allowed to play in without restriction. In the opener he scored 49 points. In the second game he had 63, an NBA playoff record. Afterward Celtics guard Dennis Johnson, an All-Defensive team member for eight consecutive years, said, "As you can see, no one can guard him." And after the playoffs Bird said, in his now-famous appraisal of the player, the kid is "God disguised as Michael Jordan."

It was during the 63-point outburst that basketball fans could see a new philosophy being espoused. Basketball coaches have always told their players to know what they are doing before they leave the ground. And here was Michael Jordan leaping into the air, soaring, without any precise notion at all of what he might do, just waiting to react to "awkward situations." The air had become his ground. "I go up for a normal shot, but after that I don't have any plans," he says. "I never practice those moves. I don't know how I do them. It's amazing."

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