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Jordan never put up rebounding numbers from the backcourt like those of Robertson, who averaged 7.5 per game over 14 seasons. But the Big O played in an era when, at 6'5", he was often among the bigger players on the floor, while Jordan, in the era of the seven-footer, is no worse than the second-best rebounding guard in today's game (behind the Portland Trail Blazers' Clyde Drexler). Jordan and Robertson are similar in a way, dynamic, demanding and fearless leaders who command nothing less than total respect on the floor. But Robertson, though a superb athlete, was subject to the laws of gravity (as Jordan is not) and was never nearly as exciting.
Can Jordan dominate a game in the manner of Chamberlain—he of the 100-point game and the 50.4-point scoring average (in 1961-62)? Not when today's double-teaming and trapping can take the ball out of one man's hands for long stretches of the game. But by dint of nonstop effort, a rage to play that Wilt never possessed, Jordan comes close. "Every single game, Jordan plays every single play like it's his last," says Los Angeles Clippers guard Doc Rivers. Then, too, Wilt never provided the level of anticipation that Jordan does merely by touching the ball. Out comes the tongue, from side to side goes the head, and down goes the ball in a hard dribble. What's going to happen? What will he do now? Julius Erving came close to inspiring that same edge-of-the-seat drama, but the Doctor never had Jordan's offensive repertoire, lacking mainly the pull-up jumper that makes the contemporary Jordan more unstoppable than ever.
It might be hard to fathom because he has been a household name for so long, but Jordan is now at the absolute peak of his career and could be the league's MVP for another three or four years. His contract (as presently structured, anyway) extends to the end of the 1995-96 season, after which he says he'll retire. Maybe. So, barring injury, look for, at a minimum, another 12,000 points, 1,800 rebounds, 1,000 steals, and five million tongue-waggings from the wondrous athletic machine that is Air Jordan.
"Michael—he's the best," says San Antonio Spurs coach Larry Brown. "I grew up with Connie Hawkins. I saw Julius at his peak. No one went through the ACC like David Thompson. I love Magic and Larry. But Michael, as far as what I've seen...." Brown stops and shakes his head. "I'd pay money to see him play. I'd pay money to see him practice."
There are times when his teammates would no doubt pay money so that Jordan would not practice. His almost psychotic competitiveness in even the most casual practice situation has caused some strain over the years, much of which has been chronicled in The Jordan Rules, the best-seller written by the Chicago Tribune's Sam Smith. But, ultimately, what hath it wrought? A much grittier Chicago team, that's certain. The Bulls had won 17 of their last 18 games through Sunday.
Jordan is, as usual, playing superbly. Never mind the scoring, a category in which he has led the NBA for the last five seasons and in which he is leading again, with a 29.5 average, or the shooting percentage (.531, second in the league among guards). He and forwards Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant have become like a Bermuda Triangle-on defense, swallowing up offenses with their court-covering capabilities, and that is why Chicago is clearly the best team in the NBA. Jordan's detractors would theorize that he has now stepped back and given players like Pippen and Grant the chance to breathe and make a name for themselves. But in point of fact, Jordan's own will to succeed, as thorny as it may sometimes be, has inspired his teammates to reach their potential.
"I look forward to playing now, more than ever, " Jordan said recently, relaxing in his hotel suite in Berkeley, Calif., before a game against the Golden State Warriors. "It's the only place I can get relief from what's happening off the court. It's always been that way to a certain extent, but it's even more so now. Basketball is my escape, my refuge. It seems that everything else is so...so busy and complicated."
Busy he's used to. Complicated, maybe not. For perhaps the first time in his life, Jordan is sensing a backlash against his fame, a subtle dissatisfaction with the whole idea of Michael Jordan. He has heard it in all the talk about The Jordan Rules, he has read it in letters to the editor, read it between the lines. "Signs are starting to show that people are tired of hearing about Michael Jordan's positive image and Michael Jordan's positive influence," said Mr. Positive Image and Positive Influence. "Five, six, seven years at the pinnacle of success, and it's got to start turning around. I've always tried to project everything positive. People say you need role models in the world, and people were asking for them, and I never thought a role model should be negative. If you wanted negativity, then you wouldn't have asked for Michael Jordan. You might've asked for Mike Tyson or somebody else.
"In retrospect, maybe I was wrong. Maybe I should've shown some negativity, so people had a sense of me as a human being. I could've been more honest, I guess, about some of the mistakes I made. Like what? Well, I did hit [teammate] Will Perdue in the face. That was a mistake, and I could've talked about it [as Smith did in The Jordan Rules]. I've made some bad endorsements, like Time Jordan [a watch deal Jordan signed with a Canadian company, Excelsior, that never got ticking]. But what do you know when you're 21 and 22 going through all this? You mature as you go through it all, but you're not mature when it starts."
There are not many 28-year-old multimillionaires who are forced into such introspection about their images, and in all likelihood, a more cautious, less childlike Jordan will evolve out of his self-examination. David Burns, president of Burns Sports Service, says he doesn't see any backlash against Jordan: "He's as wildly popular as ever and still worth every dollar any advertiser wants to pay him." But Jordan feels it is better to hear the whistle in the distance than to get run over by the train, and as a remedy for overkill, he's talking about reducing his off-the-court commitments, taking a step back, becoming a more private person.