Why do we love Michael Jordan? For the same reasons we love Peter Pan. Because he can fly. Because he is a kid and always will be. "I'm never gonna grow up/Never gonna grow up/Not me!"
Breathes there a human anywhere who can float longer than the 23-year-old, 6'6", 200-pound Jordan? Someday an updraft will catch him in midglide, or Tinker Bell herself will sprinkle him with fairy dust, and he will waft on over the basket and up into the wires and lights of an NBA arena like a raptor soaring into the clouds. And no one will be surprised.
"I've never had my vertical leap measured," says the child-pilot himself, "but sometimes I think about how high I get up." He, too, marvels at his gravity-defying feats, searching for an explanation. "I always spread my legs when I jump high, like on my Rock-a-baby, and it seems like I've opened a parachute, like, that slowly brings me back to the floor. I was really up against New York in our first game. On my last dunk I think I was close to eye level with the rim. Sometimes you just hit your wrists on the rim, but this time it was my elbows and everything. I almost overdunked the whole rim."
In the opener against the Knicks, in which Jordan scored 50 points, setting a Madison Square Garden record for an opposing player, he almost burst into flames in the final period. He scored the Bulls' last 11 points and 21 of their final 31, leading the team to a come-from-behind 108-103 victory. Afterward he tried to explain to his father, James, who was visiting from Wilmington, N.C., how the roaring Knicks fans had juiced him up. "So you were playing on the crowd, not even on the floor?" said Dad.
"I always play on the crowd."
He scored 41 points, including the Bulls' final 8, in a 94-89 win the next night against Cleveland. Two nights later he scored 34 points in the Bulls' 111-104 home-opening victory against San Antonio, including 16 in the final period. His lowest output—33 points—came on Friday night in a 115-109 loss to the Pistons in Detroit, but he followed that up with 39 at home on Saturday in a 101-96 win against Phoenix. The Bulls—picked by most experts to finish well below .500 this season—found themselves with an improbable 4-1 record, and in each game Jordan, averaging 39.4 points a game, had thrilled the viewers with an assortment of flying jams, double-pump bankers and hovering, under-the-basket, off-the-glass reverses.
And what about that tongue hanging out, that pink badge of foolhardiness glistening against the ebony skin? Is there any adult anywhere who does that when he plays? "My father used to have his tongue out when he'd be working, doing mechanical stuff," says Jordan, "and I just picked it up from him. Coach [Dean] Smith wanted me to stop it when I was back at UNC. But it's not a conscious thing. I can't play with it in." He sighs and shakes his head, for he knows that playground kids—who imitate his every nuance and dress habit, who see in him, if not a person whose skills might be attainable, then at least a big buddy—have started hanging their tongues out acourt. "I'm afraid they'll bite them off," Jordan says. He then warns: "For your tongues' sake, kids, don't do it."
For young boys everywhere, we can take a moment to describe Jordan's current, and less risky, basketball couture. The new Air Jordans (see box, page 21) are laced only to the second eyelet from the top ("I've just always done it that way," Jordan says). The single wristband (white at home, red away) is worn midway up the left forearm. The band serves no purpose now; Jordan started wearing one as a sophomore at North Carolina "in memory" of his teammate and roomie Buzz Peterson, who injured his knee that year, and he has been wearing one ever since. On his left knee he wears an elastic brace, reversible red or black. And then there are the gigantic trunks that make Jordan look a little like Larry Holmes stepping into the ring against Michael Spinks. Jordan likes his shorts big so he can grab them as he rests and pull them up when he hunkers down on defense. "Last year they were 36's," he says. "This year they're 34's that are two inches longer than normal." None of which would mean a blessed thing if Jordan weren't the charismatic entertainer he is.
"He's got a lot of Elgin in him, and a lot of Earl," says Bulls vice-president Jerry Krause. "Baylor had that intensity and carriage. And nobody played the crowd like Monroe."
In fact, these days Jordan is in a class of one. With Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar fading, Magic Johnson hobbling and Larry Bird rooted to the earth, Jordan has the realm of midair largely to himself. Only Dominique Wilkins offers serious competition, and he isn't as important to his team as Jordan is to the Bulls. In just 112 career NBA games Jordan has seven of the top 13 Bulls' alltime single-game scoring performances. In five games this season he has taken 31.5% of the Bulls' shots and scored 37.7% of the team's points, and he has a tendency to get hotter as the game progresses. "What I'm trying to convince the guys of," says first-year coach Doug Collins, "is to just stay close-for three quarters, and then we've got something spectacular to use." Jordan was the 1984-85 NBA Rookie of the Year, leading the league in points (2,313) and averaging 28.2 points per game. He also led the Bulls in minutes played, rebounds, assists and steals.