It was almost as if he'd returned to the Olympic city to stage his own private closing ceremony, without Jim McKay. For among all the extraordinary things Michael Jordan has done so far in his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls—packing arenas, waking up his once-moribund franchise and sticking his tongue out at some of the NBA's best players—nothing had been quite like what he did last Friday night in the final moments of the Bulls' 104-100 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.
His first two baskets of the game had been remarkable enough: a show-it-right, show-it-left, shoot-it-right five-foot hanging banker in the lane over 6'11" Bill Walton, followed by a lefthanded, back-to-the-basket job, tossed over his shoulder while being sent sprawling across the baseline by Norm Nixon.
But Jordan, a 6'6" guard who occasionally swings to forward, surpassed both those spectaculars in the last minute and a half of the game. Between sticking an 18-foot baseline jumper to tie the score at 100 and making a steal on the Clippers' last possession to ice the Bulls' victory, he threw in a most improbable scoop layup on a breakaway. Los Angeles guard Derek Smith had caught Jordan in a bear hug from behind, which sent them careening together diagonally through the lane. Yet Jordan somehow kept his arms free and floated the ball upward in a modest parabola. It grazed the glass before it dropped through the net.
By the time Jordan canned the free throw that put Chicago ahead 103-100 with 1:02 left, the L.A. Sports Arena was filled with the sound of fans whose team was down but who weren't really sure that they minded it. "Incredible," Smith said later. "Most people wouldn't have gotten the ball out of their hands."
Consider what we've already tended to forget about Jordan: how as a North Carolina freshman in 1982 he drilled the 16-footer that clinched the NCAA title; how he twice was named College Player of the Year and no doubt would have won a third had he not given up his senior season to turn pro; and how he led the U.S. to Olympic gold.
Maybe he sticks his tongue out at us as a gentle reproach for our forgetfulness. If only the International Olympic Committee had acted on one wag's suggestion to place Jordan and Daley Thompson, who won the decathlon gold medal, in the middle of the Coliseum, give them a ball and a jug of Gatorade and invite them to invent a new game. " Michael Jordan?" said Olympic basketball player Fernando Martin of Spain. "Jump, jump, jump. Very quick. Very fast. Very, very good. Jump, jump, jump."
We forget, of course, because new images are displacing old ones. Free of the slowdowns and zones and controlled coaching of college ball, Jordan has become Pavlov's Bull, salivating at the sight of every loose ball and assaultable basket. From the moment he went 10 for 11 from the field, 12 for 13 from the line and gave new meaning to the term "exhibition game" in his second preseason outing—a 107-100 victory over the Kansas City Kings—Jordan has made Chicago the hottest gate attraction in the NBA.
In Oakland, fans implored Bulls coach Kevin Loughery to put Jordan into a game that the Golden State Warriors were still in jeopardy of losing. Jack Nicholson, a longtime courtside regular at Laker games, did the unthinkable Friday by forgoing a Lakers-Kings game at the Forum to catch Jordan's act. The Clippers, not coincidently, outdrew the Lakers 14,366 to 12,766 that night. "After Michael dunked over Terry Tyler in Detroit," Chicago trainer Mark Pfeil says, "guys in three-piece suits were dealing high fives." Jordan has even been accorded that most hallowed acknowledgment of NBA stardom: The refs are letting him travel.
The grueling, two-week western swing that the Bulls concluded Sunday wasn't exactly a victory tour—Chicago split six games to bring its record to 10-9, a game behind Central Division-leading Milwaukee, after a 7-2 start—but Jordan drew enormous crowds and earned unanimous raves. The fans' reaction isn't lost on Jordan. "It gives me a warm feeling," he says. "It started with the Olympics. Even Duke fans cheered for me then."
And he says the pressure to perform every night isn't getting to him: "At Carolina I was in a controlled system, and a lot of the crowd was pleased with my play. So if I just play my natural game, I won't have any problem keeping the crowd pleased. This is the most relaxed time of my career. The games come so quickly that if you have a bad one, you can put the past behind you and get ready for the present."