Who’s the Greatest?—Bird, Magic, or MJ, 1988

[This is a long (but interesting) post, so I’ll keep this intro brief. Street & Smith’s 1988 Pro Basketball Yearbook asked the not-so-simple question: Who is the NBA’s greatest current NBA player? 

To answer this question, the magazine assembled some stellar writers to argue the case for each of the three candidates. The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan starts the fun by advocating on behalf of the Celtics’ Larry Bird. Man, is Ryan good. Next to take the floor is veteran L.A. sports scribe Mitch Chortkoff, who has covered the Lakers since 1965. He makes the case for Magic Johnson and his intangibles, which translate into wins. Last—and anything but least—is the Chicago Tribune’s Bob Sakamoto. He makes a compelling case for Michael Jordan and his incredible body of work after just four seasons.

For me, these “greatest” questions are fun but futile. There are way too many variables, all of which get weighted differently by different people. In other words: The “correct” answer is a matter of personal taste. In this case, however, we can also ask: Which writer makes the best case for his NBA client?

I vote for Bob Sakamoto, followed by Bob Ryan. Nothing against the now-late Mitch Chortkoff. He acquits himself well. It’s just the two Bobs are that good. At leat according to my personal taste. 

Thoughts? Send them our way. But first, let’s get things rolling with Michelangelo, um, Larry Bird.]

Larry Bird: Truly the Best—If You Know What Basketball is All About

How best to describe Larry Bird, and what he means to basketball and the basketball fan?

Try this: To someone who loves the game, Bird’s entrance into his life can only be equated to the concept of a Renaissance art student watching Michelangelo walk into his classroom and hearing him say, “Good morning, I am your new teacher.”

More than anyone who has ever played basketball, Larry Bird is a microcosm of all the components which make the game enjoyable. It is ridiculous to suggest that anyone else in history has been able to influence a basketball game in more different ways than Larry Bird. If the object of the entire enterprise is to win the game, you’d be better off with Bird on your side than any non-center who has come along. Let’s not bog down this discussion with mention of the Russells, Chamberlains, Abdul-Jabbars, and Waltons. We’re not here to haggle about “Most Valuable Player.” There never has been a player who could dominate a sport with just two skills—playing defense and rebounding—the way Bill Russell did. We’re talking about people with diverse skills. This eliminates centers. 

No, no, no. What we’re talking about is purity as a basketball player. Who fulfills the essence of this game better than anyone else is the issue. 

Who are the retired contenders? Oscar Robertson? Jerry West? John Havlicek? Elgin Baylor? Julius Erving? Too small. Period. Every damn one of them is too small to be discussed. Keep in mind that Bird is 6-foot-9. Throw out all the numbers you want about Oscar’s triple-double seasons (in an era when there were about 30 percent more nightly rebounds available than today), and ask yourself: Would Oscar get a rebound Bird wanted? Forget it. None of them could shoot with Bird. None had his range. None could diversify his offense the way Bird can. If he wants to post up, he posts up. If he wants to come off a pick, he comes off the pick. If a three-pointer is needed, well, he happens to be the best three-point shooter who has yet been developed. There are lots of guys who think they are pretty good behind that arc. Only Bird continually throws ‘em in when it’s late and the game is close. 

Passing? Oscar certainly had a boatload of assists. He also had the basketball 99 percent of the time. In no way was he a more-creative passer than Bird. Among the others, only Havlicek was even remotely in the discussion.

So, what it comes down to is whether or not Bird should be considered the superior of either Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan. What is Jordan doing in this discussion, anyway? Michael is a magnificent scorer, a fierce competitor, and the most-entertaining player for the casual fan to ponder. One of Michael’s dunks immediately gets anyone’s attention. A slick Bird pick-and-roll pass to Robert Parish for a basket might not mean much to Joe Average. They both count two points. You don’t get anything extra for style. Or, as one coach put it, “This isn’t gymnastics or diving. You don’t get extra points for degree of difficulty.”

In fact, if anybody has a weapon which does mean something in a stylistic sense, it’s Bird. It’s very doubtful that Jordan’s dunks bother opponents. All it means is that they’ve been scored on, by whatever means. But Bird has totally deflated countless opponents with strategic three-pointers. He’s also won games with them directly (two this past season, in fact), altering the final outcome with masterful threes. Jordan makes an occasional three, but it’s basically out of his range. 

Magic is much more Bird’s spiritual kin than Jordan. The difference between them is pretty much that Magic is a guard whose best asset is pushing the ball up the floor and making fastbreak scoring threats out of anyone who can run with him; whereas Bird is a tremendous scorer who can improve the offensive capability of any teammate in the halfcourt thanks to his marvelous combination of shooting and passing. Magic is the best individual end-to-end player who has ever lived. If Magic had Bird to pass to, he would average 20 assists a game. 

Magic also has a seemingly endless capacity to do whatever needs to be done in order to win a game. Though not really a great outside shooter, he can get hot and win games. He, too, can post up when need be. It seems he can always go to the basket. He remains the best rebounder on that team. Magic is wonderful. He knows how to win. He’s got the rings to prove it. 

Magic vs. Bird is an extremely tough call. But since the final judgement of the game is what team scored the most points, Bird’s obvious superiority as a scorer is a major trump card. Larry is a 30 points a game scorer, a 10-rebound man, a 6 or 7 assist man, and a man whose diversified presence creates numerous opportunities because defenders worry about Bird drifting behind that line for an easy three. Both big men know that when they get to their favorite post-up spots, the ball will not be delivered, but will be done when they’re in the preferred rhythm. And it doesn’t add to Bird’s assist total, because they might have to do more maneuvering before releasing their favorite shots. 

Bird’s hustle is legendary and more befitting that of an overachieving bench player, rather than a superstar. Don Nelson will never forget a play Bird made in a 1986 playoff game, when he went to the floor for a loose ball and fed McHale from a lying-down position for a key basket. Bird’s ambidexterity is unrivaled. He routinely shoots 10 or 12-foot lefty jumpers. Bird is the most-accurate and daring long passer in the game. Bird has been hailed by Chicago coach Doug Collins as the best inbounds passer the game has ever known. A small thing? Sure, but it’s a part of the game Bird has taken the time to master. 

Bird leaves nothing to chance. He has established an unsurpassed rapport with the Boston fans, using the media to impart needed messages, especially at playoff time. Bird gets on some players publicly in order to exhort them. He also strokes others incessantly in order to motivate them. Talk about a coach on the floor. He has been known to call 20-second times out and wave off substitutes (for somebody else, not just himself). If he resembles anybody in modern-day sports, it is Pete Rose. There is nothing about the game of basketball Bird hasn’t figured out. The big difference is that he’s a Pete Rose with power. 

Nobody’s mind works faster—nobody. He anticipates game situations and processes information faster than anyone. Jerry West himself said this as far back as 1981, when he watched Bird come up with 36 points and 21 rebounds against the Lakers. “You know what’s the best thing about him?” West asked. “He’s always thinking two steps ahead of anyone else.”

His dedication truly knows no limits. What other 30-year-old, high-level athlete would go back home and change his body, the way Bird did last summer, making himself both stronger and quicker? Year after year, Bird goes home and adds something to his game. You hear about great players who are said to be incapable of self-satisfaction, who always strive to be better. Larry Bird is the best living example of that quality. 

Public doubt has arisen concerning his greatness following his dismal performance against Detroit in the 1988 Eastern Conference playoffs. Well-guarded by the Pistons, handicapped by his team’s total inability to run (and therefore provide him with rhythm-building open 15-footers and easy layups), burdened by excessive playing time (the product of Boston’s non-existent bench), and stymied, as well, by permissive officiating which allowed the Pistons to play clutch-and-grab defense, Bird shot 35 percent from the floor. Meanwhile, he was the top rebounder in the series, was his usual brilliant self in the passing department, and played exceptional defense. Still, he knows he does not earn $1.8 million a year to rebound, pass, or play defense. He is supposed to do what he did in the fourth quarter of the seventh game in the playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks: shoot nine-for-10 to win the game and the series—and he couldn’t do it. “I let the team down,” he said. 

These things happen. Babe Ruth is the most acclaimed player in baseball history, a clutch player of epic proportions. In the 1922 World Series, in the prime of life, Bambino hit .118. The Babe bounced back, and so will The Bird. Larry was embarrassed by the Detroit series and, during the summer, his response was to rededicate himself to the conditioning program which re-shaped his body the previous summer and to improve his game for the 10th-straight year. When that game is at its best, no one can match it. 

He has refined basketball to a science. He relates to any aspect of the game as it is. Basketball is a five-man game. Five, not four, three, two, or one. Five. There is only so much available floor space and so much freedom of movement. One can’t beat five, not if the five is any good. There are Ones out there who think they can—but they’re wrong. No one has ever more acutely understood the ramifications of the five, as opposed to a subset. 

Michael Jordan would surely beat Larry Bird one-on-one. Given his size and quickness, Magic Johnson probably would, too. Michael would probably beat anybody one-on-one. But the game isn’t one-on-one. It’s five-on-five. Never forget that. 

And if it were 20-on-20, Larry Bird would figure that game out and be the best damn 20-on-20 player anybody could be. 

Magic Johnson: Winning is What He Does Best

It was a privilege to cover the Lakers in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when Elgin Baylor did things tha I had never seen on a basketball court. Oh, the Lakers couldn’t beat the Celtics in those days, but they established pro basketball as a new form of entertainment in Southern California. 

I was pretty sure I’d never cover a better player than Baylor, no matter how long I stayed on the beat. And then, like Magic, this kid from Michigan State came along.

From the beginning, it was obvious he was going to be quite special, too. Eventually, the thought occurred to me he was better than Baylor, better than Larry Bird, better than anyone who’d ever played. It all comes down to winning, to doing the things which make his team better than the other teams. And it all comes down to how ineffective the Lakers are when he can’t play. 

I watch Bird, and I can’t imagine how anyone can be more effective. Then I look at the record—beginning with Michigan State’s victory over Indiana State in the 1979 NCAA Finals and continuing through the NBA years. And I give the edge to Magic Johnson, who dominates the point guard position like nobody in the history of the game. James Worthy won the [1988] MVP award as the Lakers outlasted the Detroit Pistons to post the first back-to-back championships by a club in the NBA in 19 years. But it was Magic, make no doubt about it, who quarterbacked the Lakers and wouldn’t allow them to lose any of the deciding games in the playoffs. 

I go to experts for support, and the quotes flow easily. “For a moment, forget he’s a 6-foot-9, 225-pound point guard with unorthodox skills,” says Laker coach Pat Riley. “That’s academic. It’s the intangibles which separate him from the rest. His ability to motivate his teammates. His ability to take what goes with being a superstar. 

“I mean being able to handle the stardom, the endorsements, the criticism from the coach. I’m always on him, and he has to realize it’s necessary. His ego can’t get in the way. He just has to take it. 

“Well, the first two years, my criticism affected him. Then he figured out what was going on. As his emotional stability caught up to his skills, the ultra-great player developed.”

Imagine a player with a tremendous physical advantage who loves every day of it, every game, every practice, or so it seems. And imagine that same player working harder than almost everyone else. That’s what Earvin Johnson is. That’s the real Magic. 

“His work ethic is incredible,” says Laker GM Jerry West, another all-time great. “He was born with gifts, no doubt about it. But it’s the combination of his natural gifts and his work ethic that makes him so unique.

“Hey, other guys run faster and jump higher,” West continues. “Because Earvin isn’t real quick, you’d think he’d have to play up front. But he plays guard, where his size creates an incredible advantage. He gives you a package that’s just about impossible to match. And, ultimately, you come down to the fact his teams win. 

“I don’t like to compare greatness. Bird is unbelievable, too. And I’ve never seen a player like Michael Jordan. I’m just saying, the winning is special with Earvin.”

Ah, the winning. It does seem to come back to that. And with such a variety of supporting players. Going back to Michigan State, Johnson’s most-prominent teammate was Jay Vincent. He’s gone on to a good NBA career, but, without Johnson, he hasn’t been winning championships. 

Of course, it’s been Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the Lakers. A pretty awesome helper, right? The NBA’s all-time scoring leader. But how many championships did Abdul-Jabbar win without Johnson? Exactly one. 

No evaluation of Johnson would be complete without a discussion of his nickname and the effect it’s had on his career. Because someone who had the nickname of “Magic” happened to end up on a team from Hollywood, it became natural for casual fans to assume his game was all flash. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Paul Westhead lost his job as coach of the Lakers following a well-publicized outburst by Johnson in 1982. However, in the time he coached the team, Westhead came to appreciate the day-in, day-out talents of his star guard. “He carries a lunch pail,” Westhead would say. 

The nickname “Magic” suggested that Johnson would stay out of heavy traffic and do tricks with the ball when it was handed to him. Someone like Bob Cousy was really “Magic.” But this guy, Johnson, was a heavy-duty player who led the team in rebounds, took heavy spills about a dozen times every game, and went nose-to-nose with Maurice Lucas and others when play became rough. Here’s a point guard who also gets more rebounds than the center or power forward, plays forward on defense when the coach employs a three-guard unit and, of course, even played center in the championship game of ‘80. 

That was the night he scored 42 points and took 15 rebounds against the 76ers when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar couldn’t play. Westhead decided to use the psychological ploy of having Johnson jump center to begin the game, and it went from there. Rising to the occasion is a character trait which has surfaced often during Magic’s NBA career. 

From that first season performance, which earned him playoff MVP, to the most-recent example, he’s done what the great ones do—get the job done when the team has its back against the wall. 

In the second round this season, the Lakers fell behind the Utah Jazz, two games to one. Johnson was angry with Riley for sitting him the last five minutes of the first half of Game Three, but he was mostly upset with himself for letting the Lakers fall behind. Whatever effects he was feeling from a midseason groin injury didn’t seem important. He knew he had to find a way to take over. 

In the next game, Johnson got the ball upcourt faster, got the Lakers back into their running game, and got them rolling to a 113-100 victory on the road. Of a more subtle nature, he switched defensive assignments with backcourt partner Byron Scott, becoming the one to pressure Jazz point guard John Stockton. 

Now, this had been Scott’s job all season, to hound the opposing team’s point guard and attempt to slow down their offense. Scott is a fine athlete who can do that, while Johnson prefers to play a helping defense, get into passing lanes, not play straight up on his man. Yet Stockton didn’t have the same effect on the game that he’d had in two previous Jazz wins. 

It wasn’t the kind of job one would expect of “Magic.” It was a job for a team leader, which Earvin Johnson happens to be. “He has an ability you can’t measure which helps his team win basketball games,” says former Laker Mitch Kupchak, now the club’s assistant general manager.

“He has a sixth sense on the court, which is more important than being able to run the fastest or jump the highest. He sees what has to be done and does it.”

Johnson knows he has unique skills for a player of his size and has even had to convince coaches at times. He recalls playing in a high school all-star game in Oakland, where the coach asked him to play forward and let the smaller guards bring the ball up the court. “I can dribble. I can do this,” he recalls informing his mentor. 

He is so unique that even people close to the pro game have made the same mistake of questioning his role as a pure point guard. I’ve often heard TV commentators say Isiah Thomas is the best point guard in the league. Then, when that statement obviously needs clarification, they explain that Johnson isn’t a point guard, he’s an all-round player. 

Well, he is a point guard. That’s the position he plays. The Lakers have a center, small forward, power forward, and prototype good-shooting off-guard in Scott. It just so happens Johnson does so much more than any other point guard who’s ever played, people create new labels for him. 

Think about other point guards. Can you imagine asking Cousy to lead the team in rebounding? Or Walt Frazier to guard 6-foot-9 forwards? Or West? How about if Lucas got rough, and the guy he picked on was John Stockton? How would that look? But he went right up to Johnson this season and put his face into Magic’s face, his way of attempting to intimidate the Lakers. It was two guys about the same size at that. 

There simply has never been a player of this size with this skill at this position. Great as Bird is, there have been many forwards of his size, although not his skill. Great as Jordan is, there have been many guards of his size, although not his skill. 

Only Johnson brings an entire new dimension of a player his size playing point guard and doing things with the position which have never been done before. Johnson sizes up his contributions as bringing an attitude of relentless hard work and pressure to the opposition. 

“Laker basketball in the ‘80s is to know we’re going to win regardless of the score, because we keep at it,” he says. “The times we’ve gotten into trouble, we haven’t done that for some reason. But most of the time we’ve attacked, attacked, worn them down. And it’s my job to push the ball upcourt, keep everyone involved, make sure it’s happening. 

If you want to argue numbers, keep in mind Johnson has compiled his while deferring to Abdul-Jabbar, the all-time leading scorer of the sport. One time, early in his career, Johnson was meeting with several Laker beat writers in a hotel room, and he said: “You won’t see the real Magic Show until Kareem retires.”

As the years passed, he regretted saying that and came to realize the value of a 7-foot-2 scoring machine in a sport which involves an 82-game schedule, followed by two months of playoffs. But it remained true that some of Magic’s point-making ability was kept under wraps for seven years in an offense which would naturally feature a good-scoring center. 

And, of course, when Riley asked Magic to do more scoring in ‘87, he increased his production from 19 to 24 points per game and won his only MVP award. 

So, if Magic is the best player in the game, why isn’t he perceived this way by a larger percentage of the sports public? 

Laker broadcaster Chick Hearn believes it has something to do with geography. “It’s simply a fact Magic plays in the West, Bird in the East, and Jordan in the Midwest,” he says. “And it’s simply a fact there are more large cities and media centers in the East and Midwest.” There’s New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit. More opportunities for the press to influence a greater segment of the population. 

Johnson won’t compare himself to Bird or Jordan, but he does agree with Hearn’s theory about geography. “Ever since I’ve been with the Lakers, we’ve never gotten the respect we deserve from the national press,” he says. “I guess it’s because we are way out in the West or something. But year after year, we’re never favored in the playoffs, never picked to win by many in the media. And we’ve won our share of championships (five so far in the ‘80s).”

There would be no championships without Magic. Not one. I believe Kareem would have retired five years ago had Magic not come along. I believe the Lakers would be little more than a .500 team if Magic could not play. 

It was ugly last season when Johnson was troubled by a groin injury. The Lakers went through 19 games, winning nine and losing 10. They suddenly were just like any other NBA team, losing in Sacramento and Phoenix and frustrating their coach with subpar play. 

Pat Riley surprised them with a three-hour practice the morning after one defeat, saying he wouldn’t understand why they weren’t doing better. To detached observers, the reason was obvious. The Magic was missing.

Michael Jordan: Rates as NBA’s Best Player

So, just who is the best basketball player in the world? We’ll make it easy. As of this moment, right now, there is no doubt. Michael Jordan is No. 1. Taken in a singular context, as an individual player, there is nobody better. 

Got your blood up, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson fans? Such a proclamation might be blasphemous in Boston and make-believe in Hollywood, but, in most parts of this country, Jordan has surpassed both NBA demigods as pro basketball’s top attraction. The Chicago Bulls’ superstar guard has filled up more baskets and more arenas the last two years than anyone else in the game. 

But, let’s try to be fair. Objectively trying to decide the Jordan vs. Bird vs. Magic dispute, even with the use of empirical data, eventually comes down to personal preference. If sound fundamentals and maximizing potential turn you on, then you’re a Bird man. If superb passing and the ability to excel at all five positions excite you, then you believe in Magic. If Baryshnikov-like grace and electrifying moves appeal to you, you’ll take off with Air Jordan. 

This is like settling the Joe DiMaggio vs. Ted Williams controversy. Would you rather have Willie Mays or Hank Aaron? Who was the better quarterback, Johnny Unitas or Bart Starr? Jordan, Bird, and Johnson are to pro basketball what Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Jack Nicklaus were to golf. 

Still, in the end, Michael Jordan is your man. We’re not talking about who WAS the better player. We’re not judging who HAD the better career. We’re not talking in the past tense. We are saying that at this very moment in time, Jordan is better than Bird and Magic. 

Bird will be 32 years old on December 7 and began showing signs of age during the Eastern Conference finals against Detroit. Magic is 29 and yielded to various injuries that sidelined him for 10 games during the regular season and slowed him up in the playoffs. 

Jordan is the young Turk at 25 and has yet to reach his prime. Think about that. His best basketball is still ahead of him, and he has already scored 3,041 points in a season—his third year in the league. Only the legendary Wilt Chamberlain has finished a season with 3,000 points. That’s pretty exclusive company. 

His best ball is still ahead of him, and already Jordan is the only player to ever finish with 200 steals and 100 blocks in the same season. Neither Bird nor Magic can make that claim. Jordan has done it twice. 

He hasn’t reached his prime, and yet, Jordan is the only player to have won the MVP award and Defensive Player of the Year honors in the same season. He is the only player to have back-to-back 50-point performances in the playoffs. 

If we’re looking for the best player at the moment, Jordan is it according to his peers. The Sporting Newspolled the NBA’s players after the 1987-88 season, and they voted Jordan as the Player of the Year. The media voted him MVP. The coaches selected him as the top defender. That doesn’t leave much else. 

Even the Los Angeles Lakers, for whom Magic toils, gave Jordan a nod. The Lakers have a complex, computerized system of statistical analysis that uncovers a player’s strength the way a CAT scan reveals a fracture. Nothing is left to chance. In the Lakers’ own objective observation, Jordan was first, Bird second, and Magic third during the 1987-88 regular season. “He gives me double the trouble of any other player,” Magic says of Jordan. “He’s like a 7-footer, because he can jump so high.” 

Okay, there is the often-invoked stipulation that Bird and Johnson have won championships, and Jordan’s ring finger is bare. But is that a quantitative way of evaluating Jordan vs. Bird vs. Magic? Bird has Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, and Danny Ainge around him. All four have been NBA All-Stars sometime in their careers. Magic has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper, and Mychal Thompson around him. Jordan has had Charles Oakley, Dave Corzine, Brad Sellers, and John Paxson. 

Because Bird and Magic played on title teams, does that make them better than Jordan? Ainge and Scott have been champions. Would you take them ahead of Jordan?

Let’s allow two Central Division coaches who must face Jordan six times during the regular season to voice their opinions. Indiana Pacers coach Jack Ramsay: “I think he is the best offensive player that I’ve seen. Just creatively with the ball, he’s probably the best ever. When he gets going to the basket, he’s tough because he’s in the air. It’s tough to defend a player in the air. You’re not going to block his shot. Very seldom do you see his shot blocked.”

Ramsay was asked if any other player commands the same special defensive attention Jordan gets. “Not like him,” Ramsay said. “Everybody’s different, and everybody has a different game. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson require their special games, but Jordan is in a class by himself in that respect.”

Detroit Pistons coach Chuck Daly: “Michael Jordan is the ultimate go-to guy at the end of the game. He’s superhuman. I don’t know how he does it, where he gets that energy, his intelligence, his instinct for the game. It’s like Philadelphia when Julius Erving was there. I’m telling the people of Chicago: You’re seeing something that only comes around once in a lifetime. So, enjoy it.”

Jordan has only played three full seasons, missing 64 games in his second season with a broken bone in his left foot. Even so, he has already played a game that rewrote NBA history. His greatest shooting performance was the 59-point outburst against Detroit on Easter Sunday last season, when he hit 20 of his first 24 shots. But for grace under pressure, nothing can top the 63 points he poured in against the Boston Celtics in a 135-131 double-overtime Celtic victory at Boston Garden. 

This was against the Bird-McHale-Parish-DJ-Ainge gang that also had a healthy Bill Walton coming off the bench. This was the Green Team that went on to win its 16th championship, that coach K.C. Jones would label the greatest Celtic team in the franchise’s history. Later, Boston writer Bob Ryan would look back and observe that nobody came closer than Jordan & Co. to beating Boston in the Garden. On April 20, 1986, Jordan hit 22 of 41 shots from the floor. That’s 53.7 percent against the best team in basketball throwing a variety of double and triple-team defenses at Jordan. He hit 19 of 21 free throws, including two with time expired to send the game into overtime. He added six assists, five rebounds, three steals, and two blocked shots. Figuring his assists led to a dozen more points, Jordan was personally accountable for 75 points. 

Nobody, not Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, none of the greatest names of the game have ever scored 63 points in an NBA playoff game. 

Celtics coach K.C. Jones said afterwards: “Want to know how great Jordan is? Normally, the guys on the bench are leaning forward, trying to make eye contact with me. When they saw what Jordan was doing, nobody wanted to guard him. I’d look down the bench, and they were ALL leaning back. So, I leaned back too.” 

After that game, Bird uttered perhaps the most memorable quote: “I think he is God disguised as Michael Jordan.” Bird went on to say: “He is the most awesome player in the NBA. Today in Boston Garden, on national TV, in the playoffs, he put on one of the greatest shows of all time.” 

Jordan had scored 49 points in the playoff opener. Those outputs represent the best back-to-back performances ever against the NBA’s premier franchise. “I couldn’t believe anybody could do that against the Boston Celtics,” Bird said. 

What makes Jordan so great is a combination of extraordinary physical skills and the utilizing of such God-given talent to the max. He probably has the quickest first step in basketball. Not only is it a blur, but Jordan gets airborne with that first step faster than anybody in the game. It really is quicker than the eye. In college, Jordan was whistled for traveling until North Carolina coach Dean Smith rectified the situation. 

“Coach Smith actually put together an edited video of me and sent it to the NCAA,” Jordan said. “It was all slow motion, and it proved that I wasn’t traveling. I was just moving faster than referees were used to seeing.”

Along with the phenomenal foot speed and incredible hangtime, Jordan’s hands are the same size as 7-foot-2 Artis Gilmore of the Celtics. That allows him to palm the ball and fake a pass with one hand, thrusting the ball outward and then pulling it back. His latest trick is going up for a rebound with one hand and pulling it down with just those four fingers and a thumb. 

What do his peers think of him?

Michael Cooper, Los Angeles Lakers: “As soon as he touches the ball, an alarm goes off. He electrifies everyone. But nobody ever stops him one-on-one. You need the whole team, and that’s not always even enough.”

Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta Hawks: “There is just no way to stop him. No matter what you do, he’s going to find a way to get the shot.”

Jawann Oldham, Sacramento Kings: “He’s the ultimate human. He has two hearts—one on each side. He’s God’s child. Let God deal with him.”

Ron Harper, Cleveland Cavaliers: “When he gets the ball, you just hope and pray he doesn’t go to the hole. He’s the man. He probably has more moves than the rest of the league combined.”

Danny Vranes, Philadelphia 76ers: “He’s so creative, you can’t anticipate where he’s going. There aren’t enough men on the team to shut down all the holes. Plus, most humans can’t go where he goes.” 

Magic Johnson: “Really, there’s Michael—and then there’s everybody else.”

Bulls assistant coach John Bach puts it in perspective as to why Jordan is so special. “I think he’s an unbelievable person as well as a phenomenal basketball player,” Bach said. “It seems he can handle the demands on his time that fall to a superstar and handle the game on the floor. And what’s amazing is the vitality he brings to practice. He could be snobby about the whole affair, but he seems to love basketball above all. He doesn’t let his money belt weigh him down.”

And Jordan has soared right to the top of his profession. There’s Michael Jordan—and then there’s everybody else.  

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