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Though he wouldn't admit it—"I don't want to say any basketball player is better than I am," he said early in the series—Barkley knows in his heart that his bald-headed homeboy, the guy he described as "the one player I'll accept losing to if I have to lose," is clearly the best man between the lines.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Jordan is the huge gap in sheer ability between him and his contemporaries. True, Barkley won this year's regular-season MVP award, breaking Jordan's bid at a three-peat in that category, too, but it's doubtful that he would have gotten a single vote had the voting occurred after the playoffs. Jordan's postseason run was nothing short of magnificent, especially considering the off-court distractions with which he had to deal. His buzzer-beating shot in Game 4 of the Bulls' Eastern Conference semifinal against the Cleveland Cavaliers did not just complete a sweep, it also shook up the franchise. Longtime Cav coach Lenny Wilkens resigned seven days after the series ended, and Mike Fratello was hired last week to pick up the pieces of a team psyche that has been shattered time and time again by Michael Miracle. That's power.
Then came the Eastern finals and the New York Knicks, who were plenty tough. Making things tougher for Jordan were the revelations of his late-night foray to an Atlantic City casino before Game 2 and the allegations of his high-stakes gambling in Richard Esquinas's book, which cropped up before Game 6. During that series Jordan stopped talking publicly and then ripped oil 54 points in Game 4 and steady 29- and 25-point performances in Games 5 and 6, respectively. Run silent, run deep.
Finally, against Phoenix, Jordan had to overcome a dizzying array of defenders (Johnson. Majerle and Richard Dumas all guarded him from time to time) as well as the hard reality that his team—dare we use Jordan's favorite description of "supporting cast"?—was disappearing before his very eyes. All you need to know about Jordan's work in the six-game series, during which he averaged 41 points (a Finals record), 8.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists a game, was that he scored his average in Game 5 and the Suns were overjoyed with the defensive job they had done on him. That's because he had bopped them for 55 in Game 4, a 111-105 Chicago win.
"I think Michael would like to have been right there in the thick of it with me and Larry," Magic Johnson said before Game 5 in Chicago. "See, with us, we didn't have to look for motivation all the time. We knew right where it was—in Boston for me, in L.A. for Larry. But Michael doesn't have the benefit of that."
Indeed, there is no foil for Jordan, not even the shining Sun—for all of Barkley's belligerent brilliance, he was still out-scored by Jordan by an average of 14 points per game in the Finals. One can only wonder what at all is left for a man who has won seven straight scoring titles while being named to the all-defensive team six straight years. How much better can he get? Which basketball ghosts is he chasing on his way to the Hall of Fame?
There would seem to be four players with whom realistically to compare Jordan: Magic and Bird, both of whom were three-time regular-season MVPs; Bill Russell, the ultimate winner, who led the Celtics to 11 championships in 13 seasons; and Oscar Robertson, whose versatility, leadership and coldhearted competitiveness during 13 seasons make him closest to Jordan in playing style.
The first two players are picked off by the simple fact that Jordan has guided an average team to three titles, while Magic and Bird made already good teams great. It's indisputable: Jordan never had an Abdul-Jabbar, a Worthy, a Mel laic, a Parish. He had a Pippen, an All-Star, to be sure, and turned him into a Dream Teamer.
Comparisons made across the ages are often unfair, but they are most judiciously made by players from the distant eras who have seen both generations. And Jordan gets overwhelming support from two such men, Willis Reed and Bob Cousy, perceptive observers then and now.
"There's no question in my mind that Jordan is the best," says former Knick star Reed, now general manager of the New Jersey Nets. "Bill Russell won all those championships, so you can't take anything away from him. But if you take all the aspects of the game, you have to say Michael is the best. The guy wins scoring titles, and he's one of the best defensive players of all time. That says it all."