Michael Jordan: The Real No. 1 Draft Choice, 1984

[So much has been written about Michael Jordan that I try to steer clear of him. But I stumbled onto this article from Mark Heisler, then with the Los Angeles Times, and it’s kind of cool. Heisler writes about Jordan making his NBA debut in New York. It was only a preseason tilt, but Heisler’s sources are first rate. They weigh in on the rookie from the University of North Carolina and whether he’s really worth all the preseason hype. 

Fun to look back on now, nearly 40 years later, and knowing what we know about His Airness. Heisler’s article ran in the Times on October 24, 1984.]

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Like Van Cliburn coming to Carnegie Hall for the first time or Beverly Sills to the Met, Michael Jordan came to Madison Square Garden as a professional. It may have been only an exhibition, but let no one wonder who Exhibit A was.

In this National Basketball Association year of the rookie, this is the rookie, even if two others—Akeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie—went in the draft before him. This has occasioned much second-guessing, even in Houston, where the Rockets made the hometown pick. “The two words the Rocket front office hates most,” says the Houston Chronicle’s Fran Blinebury, “are Michael Jordan.”

Jordan comes from the University of North Carolina, where stars labor under a strict rein and can’t show all that they can do until they turn pro. Everyone had known Jordan was going to be great, from the night he knocked down that 17-footer to beat Georgetown as a freshman in the NCAA finals, but they began to find out how great, indeed, last summer when he became an Olympian.

And now, the tom-toms are beating: Here comes something special.

****

Showtime, minus one day, Jordan is doing interviews before practice with reporters representing half the Eastern Seaboard. Hs coach, Kevin Loughery, says he’s never seen a basketball player get as much press, but Jordan is sailing through it, smiling. He talks for an hour after practice. His Chicago Bulls teammates are long gone by the time he’s through, and a TV crew takes him back to the hotel.

Such cooperation isn’t exactly universal. In Houston, both halves of the Twin Towers have all but stopped talking. When a Houston paper tried to do a question-and-answer story with them, Ralph Sampson answered perfunctorily. And the sunny-dispositioned Akeem Olajuwon added, “The same as Ralph.”

Mostly, Jordan gets asked about taking over. The thinking is that only one man can stop Michael Jordan, and that is Michael Jordan. “Hopefully not,” Jordan says. “If they (his teammates) start looking for me, everyone around the league will say, ‘Hey, the Chicago Bulls are going to look for Michael Jordan . . .’

“I never consider myself as trying to take over a basketball game. I don’t know why, the opportunity to score just appears to me. I just try to take advantage. It just seems to be like a coincidence. I seem to be at the right place at the right time.”

Says Loughery: “This kid has a different mentality than Carolina players have. He’s got a scorer’s mentality.”

“He doesn’t talk that way,” someone says.

“But he plays that way,” says Loughery, laughing. “The first thing his teammates were going to find out was is this kid really that good. We’ve all seen a lot of hypes that hyped out. This kid is that good.

“He does some things spectacularly, but not as consistently, as Dr. J did. Michael’s done some spectacular things, but I coached Dr. J for three years. Doc’s special. Doc’s done it for 13 years.”

****

The next night, there are more than 15,000 people in the Garden, perhaps double what could have been expected. The Bulls, 27-55 last season, come in 4-1 in exhibitions. The stands behind the baskets, normally the preserve of the stockbroker season-ticket-holder class, are full of young kids who go into high-five ecstasy as Jordan rains down dunks in pregame warm-ups. When Jordan talks dunking, that self-effacing persona disappears.

“The Maryland one,” he says, naming his favorite, a windmill fly-by in College Park last season for which Terps coach Lefty Driesell swore revenge. “Orlando (Woolridge) is going to pay me to show him that one. He’s the dunking king on this team, and he can’t do that.”

Game time, at last. Jordan listed at 6-feet-6, seemingly a lot closer to 6-feet-4, starts at big guard. Sometimes he plays small forward, sometimes even point guard.

His first shot, from 20 feet out, goes only 19 and grazes the front of the rim, a near-airball. Are the Knicks and the Big Town going to claim him? He’s not impervious to pressure, after all, he was only 7 for 16 in his first pro exhibition. (In his second, he was 10 for 11 from the floor, 12 for 13 from the foul line).

Then, he squirms inside for a layup. Then he scores on a fastbreak layup. Then he darts through the lane and throws up an acrobatic left-handed layup, misses, and misses trying to rebound it. Then he goes back outside and knocks down a 17-footer, looking smooth as always.

“Isn’t he the truth?” murmurs Bullets assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff at the press table.

“All he’s got to do is live up to expectations, and he’s in the Hall of Fame,” someone says.

“That’s a lock,” says Bickerstaff.

Jordan sits down with 2:17 left in the first period. He has scored eight points, and the Bulls lead, 20-19. He returns with 4:30 left in the half. The crowd cheers when he gets off the bench and reports.

He goes in at small forward, matched against the Knicks’ all-pro, Bernard King. The first time Jordan gets the ball, his eyes light up like pinballs. King falls back, protecting the basket. Jordan makes a 20-footer. The crowd cheers as if he were theirs.

Jordan gets the ball again moments later. This time King comes up, and Jordan drives baseline. King fouls him. They meet once more. King falls back. Jordan hits another 20-footer over him, easy as you please.

“You can’t stop Michael Jordan individually,” King says later. “I don’t think it’s possible. All you can do is what they do with me—get help.”

By halftime, Jordan has 16 points, five rebounds, two assists, and two blocked shots, one of which he swatted into the Knicks bench. The Bulls lead, 53-43.

He finishes the game with 23 points in his 25 minutes, shooting 10 for 15. The Bulls win by 19. After the game, Knicks coach Hubie Brown refers to this “talent-laden” Bulls club. Last season, the Bulls had the same talent, minus Jordan.

“The first thing, he has the ability to make that shot from range, and I mean from long-range,” says Brown of Jordan. “And then, he has the ability to drive. And then, if the defender makes a perfect play, there is the elevation, the jumping ability . . .”

As great as Erving is, coaches breathe a lot easier when their players can persuade him to shoot the ball from even 15 feet. As great as the young David Thompson was, Jordan is better taking the ball inside, and a better ballhandler, defender, and passer.

“He did some things in practice,” says Pete Newell, who helped coach the Olympic team, “where, as coaches, you stand there and say, ‘Did I see right?’ He’s got that extra propulsion like Elgin Baylor. Everyone else gets off at the third, fourth, fifth floor, but he’s still going.”

The Bulls finish the exhibition season, 5-2. Jordan leads them in scoring (22.7 points in 28.9 minutes), shooting percentage (59.2), and steals. He’s second in assists, fourth in blocked shots, and fifth in rebounds.

They open the season against the Bullets at Chicago.

[So how did Jordan in his NBA debut against the Washington Bullets? Let’s turn to the Chicago Tribune’s sports columnist Steve Daley, better known for his later political reporting. Daley’s column ran on October 27, 1984, and again, given what we know about His Airness today, makes for fun reading.]

In every sport, there is an athlete who has the capacity for making everything around him better. One game into his career as a professional basketball player, Michael Jordan has shown, one more time, that he is such an athlete. 

In the wake of the Bulls’ 109-93 victory over the Washington Bullets Friday night in Chicago Stadium, there’s sure to be a measure of loose talk about Jordan’s mediocre shooting performance, though he wound up with 16 points and seven assists in his debut.

Bulls’ coach Kevin Loughery wasn’t charmed by the rookie’s showing, characterizing it as, well, a rookie’s showing. “I didn’t think Michael played very well tonight,” said Loughery, who saw a bunch of bad basketball in his first season with the franchise. “He certainly didn’t play as well as he’s capable of playing. He’s going to have much better nights, particularly with his jump shot.”

By the numbers, Jordan’s offensive work away from the basket was as lame as the boundless parade of hokey promotions trotted out by your “new Chicago Bulls.” Jordan was five of 16 from the field, and the crowd of 13,913 was treated to the specter of small children pulling dollar bills off a cloth mascot. Better days and nights ought to be coming for all concerned.

“I wasn’t nervous,” said Jordan, who logged 40 minutes his first time out. “It was more like being overintense. I wanted to do well, for the team and for myself, so I maybe forced things a little.”

The Stadium ovation when Jordan was introduced wasn’t forced. Basketball fans in Chicago are as happy with the new kid from North Carolina as Hawks’ [hockey] loyalists are with Ed Olcyzk and—dare I say it?—Cub fans are with Ryne Sandberg.

Suddenly, as fast as you can say, “Wait ‘til next year,” the [Chicago] sporting scene is crowded with talented young ballplayers of all descriptions. And don’t be surprised if Jordan’s presence has a salubrious effect on his mates.

Friday night, guard Quintin Dailey was simply inspired coming off the bench, converting 12 of 18 shots for 25 points, 14 of them in the second half. When the Bulls gave every indication that they would just as soon hand the game over to the Bullets and the Chicken in the fourth quarter, it was Dailey, not Jordan, who rallied the offense.

Orlando Woolridge had 28 points and nine rebounds, which is just what the experts say the Bulls will require to stave off extinction. And if there was a moment when it became clear the Bulls would not throw this one away, the moment came from Woolridge, not Jordan.

With the Bulls holding a tenuous 81-74 lead and events headed in the wrong direction, Woolridge soared over a veteran Gus Williams and batted his jumper into the $15 seats. “Michael’s presence has helped the whole club,” Loughery said. “Everybody knows we wouldn’t have this crowd tonight or all this media attention if he weren’t with the club.

“The home crowd is very important in this league, and we all understand who people are coming out to see. That isn’t a reflection on any of the rest of our players. It’s a fact.

“All that can be a tough thing for a young man who ought to be a senior in college, but Michael seems capable of handling it all.”

Whatever is the difference between being nervous and” overintense” on opening night, Jordan didn’t waste a moment in making his presence felt. “I knew I could compete at this level,” he said. “It was about what I expected, I guess. I didn’t think they’d double-team me as much as they did, but if I have to be a decoy, that’s okay.”

Not with the Bulls. When the rookie hit the flooring in the third period on the receiving end of a Jeff Ruland elbow-and-hip maneuver, you could hear the air rush out of the front office. “I didn’t move because I was trying to see if everything was functioning,” Jordan said. “It wasn’t dirty or anything like that. Just shocked me, and I wanted to see if everything was still working.”

Everything was except the outside shot, and Jordan simply didn’t bring that with him. “That’s where Quintin is crucial to this team,” Loughery insisted. “We’re going to be tested by teams to see if we can make the outside shot. That’s what Dailey can do for us as the sixth man.”

In time, you have to figure that Michael Jordan will be the main man. Even in his weakest moments, he swoops about the court, harassing the man with the ball, crowding the passing lanes, tipping the ball away from guards and forwards, and playing the game with great enthusiasm.

“He makes a lot of things happen, doesn’t he?” Loughery wondered aloud, and an answer wasn’t required. Jordan is a force, and he’s a lot more fun than anything the promotion department can heave at us.

If you give him a little time, you might see him move the rest of the franchise in the right direction.

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