4.24.2008

God Disguised as Michael Jordan: A Sidebar

''Sixty Threeeeee."

The truth, the beauty and the light only now was being absorbed by the Chicago Bulls' Orlando Woolridge. Thirty minutes after the game, sitting there by his locker, stat sheet finally in hand, Orlando Woolridge could only shake his head slowly from side to side. He was reading the numbers by Michael Jordan's name; numbers in play-off basketball never have said so much, so much said that Woolridge could say little.

"Wow."

Woolridge kept staring at the piece of cheap mimeograph paper with the blue numbers running on and on with the ink. It was as if Woolridge had been with you and me, a fan mesmerized by the sights of Michael Jordan soaring past Elgin Baylor, instead of sharing the basketball court, as a teammate, as a participant. Woolridge stared some more at the stat sheet.

Jordan, Michael -- 53 minutes, 22 of 41 from the field, 19 of 21 from the line, 6 assists, 3 steals, 63 points.

"Incredible."

Every few seconds a new superlative would spill out. Every few seconds the magic of this day would imprint itself on Woolridge. Every time Woolridge looked at the stat sheet, out popped another exclamation. Points, so many of them.

"My God."

Woolridge had been saying earlier that this had been one of the greatest games in which he had ever played or seen. Woolridge had been saying that the game was so much above the threshold of normal NBA basketball that he found himself walking over to Larry Bird after the game to shake Bird's hand "because it was just a thrill for me being out there playing." All that was before the stat sheet.

"Sixty-threeeeeee," Woolridge said softly. "I'm going to have to change my opinion of today. This was one of the most incredible games I . . ."

Again Woolridge stopped for another peek at the stat sheet. Another shake of the head.

"I knew Michael was playing well, but . . . wow . . . sixty-threeeeee . . . wow."

It was when Michael Jordan had stopped so suddenly and so softly arched a 20-footer from the right corner over a flailing Kevin McHale, putting the Bulls up in the third quarter, 65-55, that Jordan raced upcourt, knowing so well he had it on. "All day, baby," Jordan said to himself. "Allllll day."

This was not a boast. This was humbling. This was startling. This was graceful. This was the best team in basketball unable to stop one player, all the Celtic starters at one time or another having a go at Jordan, singly or in a group grope at defense, much of it for naught, Jordan merely going where he pleased. It has never been done better in the history of NBA play-offs.

"As you can see," said Boston's Dennis Johnson, "there's nothing anybody can do to stop him."

It starts with a tease. Jordan dribbling the ball, then suddenly a dribble through his legs and next a tornado of a first step that is so quick and so long that Jordan is gone, so long, long gone. By now, his tongue is out, signaling the move, but what move and what shot? The Fred Astaire glide to the lane? The Sam Jones pullup jumper? The Elgin Baylor double-pump leaner? The elegant Baryshnikov glide to the finale of a slam-bang Dawkins stuff? The Larry Bird stepback jumper? The repertoire of so many fine pieces.

"The points didn't mean that much to me," Jordan kept saying, ever humble to each new crowd to ask. "I'd give all the points back to win the game. I wanted to win the game so badly that the points don't even dignify anything, don't even mean anything to me. It's something maybe when I have kids, 15 years down the line, I can look back then and be happy about it . . . but not now."

Do not misunderstand. This was not Wilt Chamberlain in Hershey against the Knicks purposely going for his 100, this was not George Gervin at the corral in San Antonio, unholstering shot after shot, not caring if his team was shot down with him. This was not a gunner; this was the best the Bulls have played this season and Michael Jordan was leading them. This, as several players and one K.C. Jones said, is a game for the VCR and fond memories.

"Michael was doing so much and so well that I found myself just wanting to stop and watch him . . . and I was playing," said the Bulls' John Paxson. "I'm out there, concentrating on my job, which was making sure I knew where Michael was and getting him the ball and letting him do his thing. Maybe some day I'll get a tape of this game, sit down and just marvel at it."

How good was Jordan?

"I'll say this," said Paxson, Chicago's other guard through much of the heartbreak of this marathon of a basketball game. "I've never seen Michael play better than this. I mean, in a pressure situation such as this play-off game, in a place like this . . . you know, Boston Garden . . . against a team like this, the Celtics. The Celtics won this game but I'm sure there are some heads over there in the Celtics' locker room who can't believe the things he did today."

True.

"I didn't think anyone was capable of doing what Michael has done to us the past two games," said Bird. "Jordan," said the Celtics' Robert Parish, "does anything he wants to do on a basketball court," while Jones described the afternoon panorama as "always seeing this giant Jordan in the foreground while everyone else is sort of in the background."

Jordan tied the game with no time left in regulation after McHale ("There was no foul") was called for a foul on a three-point attempt by Jordan ("The referee called a foul and that's how I'll take it"). With McHale waving his arms to lead the crowd in distracting Jordan, Danny Ainge whispering sweet nothings ("Danny kept saying '17 seconds left' to just rattle my brain because I had joked about 17 seconds left once on a golf course with him"), the Garden in a frenzy, Jordan calmly made both free throws.

Yet, with six seconds left in the first overtime and the game tied at 125, perhaps Jordan's most open shot of his 41, a 15-footer to the left of the foul line, "not quite as long" as his freshman jumper for North Carolina that beat Georgetown and took the NCAAs, did not fall. The shot "felt good," said Jordan, "and I should have made it. I was wide open and I had a lot of time to concentrate on the shot. It just was not meant to be."

So it was meant to be that the Bulls did not win and Jordan could take little solace for his efforts. Yet, when Jordan had knotted his tie and pulled on his suit jacket, saying for one last time the points meant nothing without a victory, he left an empty locker room.

The stat sheet that Orlando Woolridge had marveled at was still at the foot of his locker. In a fit of pique, Woolridge had crumpled it up into a ball and tossed it aside. Too bad, said Woolridge, "that we didn't win. Then . . ."

Then it would have been a wow with a smile.

Jordan had to move out to guard Johnson, had to stay at home. The game opened underneath for the Celts' tall timbers. That was that.

"DJ got hot," Jordan said with the resigned look of a man who was handed his tax statement by his accountant and did not like the numbers. "My job was to go underneath and double the other people. When he got hot, that changed things."

The final statistics showed that Michael Jordan scored 49 points. He was everything he was supposed to be. He was more. Half the people in the Garden left with their tongues sticking out -- something he does -- and heading for the nearest store to buy a pair of his high-wire shoes. He was a definite star-quality package.

The final statistics showed that Dennis Johnson also scored 26 points, 24 of them in the second half. The final statistics also showed that the Celts won by 19.

"I don't care about the numbers," the Celts guard said. "All I care about is the win."

"Still, you have to feel good about coming back to score all those points," someone said.

"Not really," Dennis Johnson said from the fringe of the spotlight. "No. I'm just glad we won."

4 comments:

FLCeltsFan said...

I remember watching that game. It was a classic. I also remember that in spite of Jordan's individual heroics, the Celtics TEAM won the game.

Lex said...

You'll see a lot of similarities this year, first with LeBron and the LeBronettes and then with the Fakers.

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