Commentary

Play hard, practice harder

Jordan left it on the floor in practices as well as games

Originally Published: September 10, 2009
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

There was a perception of Michael Jordan that he could never survive retirement because there wouldn't be 20,000 fans cheering him at the golf course or gas pump.

But if you believed that, then you never saw him at practice, where all that mattered was the kill.

If you believed that, then you never saw him shooting in an empty Chicago Stadium, where all that mattered was the shot.

Ego is to the great athlete what petroleum is to gasoline. You can't have one without the other. Ego fueled Michael Jordan as much as anything. It made him want to beat his big brother Larry in the backyard and it made him want to embarrass Magic Johnson in the NBA Finals.

Jordan was also an entertainer who understood when the bus pulled into Sacramento or San Antonio, cities where fans would get to see him only once a year, that the flu, no matter how miserable, should not and would not keep him from performing.

And so he trudged out, fever raging more than once, and did not just play the game but nearly always rose above it.

But it was in his quietest moments that he would tell us that when it was gone, when it was really gone, that he would miss it all. The performance, yes. But also the smell of the gym, the b.s. with the guys, the competition that he knew he could find nowhere else.

He would miss the game. And after those precious years when he was at his prime, he would miss playing it on a plane that few would ever know.

"There's something about his induction that bothers me," Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said a few weeks ago about Jordan's entry into the Basketball Hall of Fame. "It bothers me that he should be part of a class. He should go in by himself, not so much as an honor for Michael but for the Hall of Fame."

He could be a pain in the butt.

They all knew that.

[+] EnlargeMichael Jordan
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesMichael Jordan practices rarely involved standing around and smiling.
"We'd run a three-man shooting drill in practice," longtime assistant Johnny Bach recalled. "And Michael always made sure he had the threesome he wanted. Not Trent Tucker, not Johnny Paxson, not Craig Hodges [among the best 3-point shooters in the league].

"He'd say, 'I'm calling my pigeons up to shoot.' They were shooting for some remuneration. He'd force himself to shoot under pressure. He needed a challenge to beat [Scottie] Pippen. He knew Horace [Grant] had a nice shot. He'd also throw some wicked passes to [his shooters]. You're supposed to honor the code to throw a good pass to the shooter, but he had a way of throwing screwballs and sinkers. Not that he would have tolerated that. That was imperial Michael at his best."

"Run it back, run it back," is what Michael yelled when his team lost. It is what he said whenever he had lost.

"Everyone heard of our famous card games," said former Bulls guard B.J. Armstrong. "Why did they last forever? Because Michael never loses. Whatever he's doing, he's going to win because he's going to keep on playing."

Walt Hriniak hated him. Well, maybe not him but the idea of him, waltzing into baseball, into the White Sox training camp and wasting his time in his batting cage. The Sox's batting instructor called Reinsdorf when he heard Jordan was coming to Sox camp.

"Walt started [swearing at] me," said Reinsdorf. "He was convinced it was some kind of publicity thing. He said, 'I'm not working with this guy.' He didn't want to have anything to do with him. But he told Michael to meet him that first day at 7:30 in the morning and Michael came every day until his hands were bleeding. Walter loves Michael. He loved that his hands were bleeding."

And when the challenge was not there, he simply made one up.

When Doug Collins was broadcasting the pre-Olympic games of Jordan's Dream Team in 1992, the U.S. was getting ready to play in Portland, Ore., against yet another team it would surely beat by 80 points. Beginning that morning at dawn, Jordan dragged along U.S. assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo through his customary 54 holes or so.

"Looking for a way to get himself fired up," said Collins, "he said to P.J., 'I'll bet you when I'm in the game tonight, my man doesn't touch the ball.'

"I'm broadcasting the game and watching Michael and he's like a rabid dog chasing a kid. The U.S. is up like 40 points and I'm watching Michael and he is not going to let his man touch the ball. He was walking next to the guy toward the huddle at the timeout and he just pointed at P.J."

The first conversation Phil Jackson ever had with Jordan stemmed from a talk he had with Collins a few years earlier, and it promised to be unpleasant.

"I mentioned to Doug that my coach in New York, Red Holtzman, always said that it's not what a star does for himself in basketball that's important but how much his teammates improve because of his presence," Jackson recalled. "Doug latched on to that and said, 'You have to tell Michael that.' I said, 'Come on.' And he said, 'No, he has to hear that from you.'

"I was impressed with his ability to just accept it and say, 'Thank you.' He accepted coaching. He may have had a certain sense of resisting an offense that was somewhat restrictive. But there was also a certain sense from him that he was going to have to find his way, make others better, which he did."

And he remained the best. Finding John Paxson in L.A. Finding Steve Kerr at the United Center. Jordan was even the best at making sick kids feel just a little better. The Make-A-Wish Foundation Chief Wish Ambassador. That title really does exist and Jordan was king, with more than 175 wishes granted.

[+] EnlargeMichael Jordan
Jason Merritt/WireImageMichael Jordan was pracitcally his own branch of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Once, in March of 2005, Jordan met Ryan Aubert, a 16-year-old boy from Los Angeles with autism who experienced frequent seizures. Jordan was not shy with kids or their parents. He pulled up a chair next to Wayne Aubert and asked about his son's seizures, which were grand mal, the worst a person can have.

"He wanted to learn about it, he seemed like he was really concerned," Wayne recalled. "He came in wearing a suit and tie, without an entourage, and looked us right in the eye. He held Ryan's hand and told us about his kids and commended us as far as the type of parents we were, hanging in there and dealing with it. He especially commended me for being a father hanging in there because a lot of fathers in these circumstances will leave. He spent a lot of time talking to our younger son."

Ryan had a 4-year-old's mental capacity. "But he understood basketball," his father said. "He loved basketball. All he wanted to do was watch the Bulls when Michael was playing. He was just so happy when he talked to Michael."

There was a time, around the midpoint of Jordan's career and the end of Larry Bird's, when Pippen was having his way with the Celtics great after being pounded by Bird earlier in his career.

Watching the tape, Jordan took Bach aside.

"You see what Scottie is doing to Bird," he whispered. "If someone starts doing that to me, would you tell me?"

Bach never did. And some say Jordan left too late. But too late for whom?

Does it matter now when he left or why?

Michael Jordan is 46 years old. That sentence feels weird even to type. His brother Larry says he still competes hard. His buddy Charles Oakley says he can still hit the fadeaway jumper.

They say that's good enough for him.

Even if it's not good enough for us.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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