Skip to main content

In The Driver's Seat

Rookie Michael Jordan has quickly become Chicago's big wheel and the NBA's big deal at the box office

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 10, 1984 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.

It was almost as if he'd returned to the Olympic city to stage his own private closing ceremony, without Jim McKay. For among all the extraordinary things Michael Jordan has done so far in his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls—packing arenas, waking up his once-moribund franchise and sticking his tongue out at some of the NBA's best players—nothing had been quite like what he did last Friday night in the final moments of the Bulls' 104-100 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.

His first two baskets of the game had been remarkable enough: a show-it-right, show-it-left, shoot-it-right five-foot hanging banker in the lane over 6'11" Bill Walton, followed by a lefthanded, back-to-the-basket job, tossed over his shoulder while being sent sprawling across the baseline by Norm Nixon.

But Jordan, a 6'6" guard who occasionally swings to forward, surpassed both those spectaculars in the last minute and a half of the game. Between sticking an 18-foot baseline jumper to tie the score at 100 and making a steal on the Clippers' last possession to ice the Bulls' victory, he threw in a most improbable scoop layup on a breakaway. Los Angeles guard Derek Smith had caught Jordan in a bear hug from behind, which sent them careening together diagonally through the lane. Yet Jordan somehow kept his arms free and floated the ball upward in a modest parabola. It grazed the glass before it dropped through the net.

By the time Jordan canned the free throw that put Chicago ahead 103-100 with 1:02 left, the L.A. Sports Arena was filled with the sound of fans whose team was down but who weren't really sure that they minded it. "Incredible," Smith said later. "Most people wouldn't have gotten the ball out of their hands."

Michael Jordan Rookie Season Chicago Bulls

Consider what we've already tended to forget about Jordan: how as a North Carolina freshman in 1982 he drilled the 16-footer that clinched the NCAA title; how he twice was named College Player of the Year and no doubt would have won a third had he not given up his senior season to turn pro; and how he led the U.S. to Olympic gold.

Maybe he sticks his tongue out at us as a gentle reproach for our forgetfulness. If only the International Olympic Committee had acted on one wag's suggestion to place Jordan and Daley Thompson, who won the decathlon gold medal, in the middle of the Coliseum, give them a ball and a jug of Gatorade and invite them to invent a new game. "Michael Jordan?" said Olympic basketball player Fernando Martin of Spain. "Jump, jump, jump. Very quick. Very fast. Very, very good. Jump, jump, jump."

SI's The Record: Listen—Or Subscribe—Now

We forget, of course, because new images are displacing old ones. Free of the slowdowns and zones and controlled coaching of college ball, Jordan has become Pavlov's Bull, salivating at the sight of every loose ball and assaultable basket. From the moment he went 10 for 11 from the field, 12 for 13 from the line and gave new meaning to the term "exhibition game" in his second preseason outing—a 107-100 victory over the Kansas City Kings—Jordan has made Chicago the hottest gate attraction in the NBA.

In Oakland, fans implored Bulls coach Kevin Loughery to put Jordan into a game that the Golden State Warriors were still in jeopardy of losing. Jack Nicholson, a longtime courtside regular at Laker games, did the unthinkable Friday by forgoing a Lakers-Kings game at the Forum to catch Jordan's act. The Clippers, not coincidently, outdrew the Lakers 14,366 to 12,766 that night. "After Michael dunked over Terry Tyler in Detroit," Chicago trainer Mark Pfeil says, "guys in three-piece suits were dealing high fives." Jordan has even been accorded that most hallowed acknowledgment of NBA stardom: The refs are letting him travel.

The grueling, two-week western swing that the Bulls concluded Sunday wasn't exactly a victory tour—Chicago split six games to bring its record to 10-9, a game behind Central Division-leading Milwaukee, after a 7-2 start—but Jordan drew enormous crowds and earned unanimous raves. The fans' reaction isn't lost on Jordan. "It gives me a warm feeling," he says. "It started with the Olympics. Even Duke fans cheered for me then."

And he says the pressure to perform every night isn't getting to him: "At Carolina I was in a controlled system, and a lot of the crowd was pleased with my play. So if I just play my natural game, I won't have any problem keeping the crowd pleased. This is the most relaxed time of my career. The games come so quickly that if you have a bad one, you can put the past behind you and get ready for the present."

The bad ones, for now, aren't coming, and his wagging tongue has tongues wagging.

Says the Spurs' Johnny Moore, "He's got talent, and he's got the blue light. That's even better than the green light."

Michael Jordan Rookie Season Chicago Bulls

"He'll probably be one of the guys who invents a new position," says the Pistons' Isiah Thomas.

"Playing with him was like going to the circus," says Oklahoma All-America Wayman Tisdale, one of Jordan's Olympic teammates. "You'd come to practice and never know what he'd pull off."

Says fellow Bull Sidney Green, "He's the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

So helped him God, by giving Jordan an array of gifts not found in a single player since Oscar Robertson. Jordan beats most defenders with his surpassing quickness. "I don't know if his first step is legal," says the Pacers' Jim Thomas, "because I've never had time to judge it."

Move with him, and he'll outjump you. "Larry Nance jumps well off one foot and Orlando Woolridge off two," says the Bulls' Rod Higgins. "Michael jumps well off one or two."

Jump with him and he'll outhang you. "He has more hang time than Ray Guy," says Chicago assistant coach Fred Carter.

Hang with him and he'll out-body control you. "He's not human," says Antonio Diaz-Miguel, Spain's Olympic coach. "He's a rubber man."

Michael Jordan Rookie Season Chicago Bulls

If somehow you counter Jordan's contortions, he'll add a dollop of spin so beguiling that it'll seduce the ball into the basket from almost any angle. "The really amazing thing is that when he gets his shot off, it's so soft," says Darrell Walker of the Knicks, who felt like strangers at home when Jordan paid his two visits to Madison Square Garden. For a preseason game on Oct. 18, the Bulls attracted 15,239. On Nov. 8, 19,252 howled in delight as Jordan scored 33 to Bernard King's 34 in a 121-106 Chicago victory.

Numbers tell part of the Jordan story. At week's end he was the NBA's sixth leading scorer with a 25.6 average (his season high, 45, coming against San Antonio on Nov. 13) and ranked fourth in rebounding among guards. Though he plays some small forward, Jordan has so thoroughly blurred the distinction between big and little men that as of Sunday he led the league in steals (2.74 a game) and the Bulls in blocked shots (1.58 a game).

But images are overwhelming the numbers. Jordan has become a TV staple. His adventures in Newtonian revisionism keep the sports producers on late-night news programs awash in videotape. For some reason, WTBS and CBS, who have scheduled 55 and 10 national NBA regular-season telecasts, respectively, are featuring the Bulls and Jordan only once (it was a Nov. 1 WTBS broadcast). CBS made inquiries to the league about switching its traditional Christmas Day game from Philly-Detroit to Philly-Chicago and was rightly rebuffed. Meanwhile, WTBS is trying to comply with NBA commissioner David Stern's request that it somehow shoehorn another Bulls' game into its slate. Here's why: Chicago's WGN, a superstation that will televise 15 Bulls games, reports that it's drawing 30,000 more households in the Chicago area for this year's telecasts than it did last season.

At Chicago Stadium, attendance has more than doubled from what it was last season—6,365 a game to 12,763—and season ticket orders are still coming in. "We were lousy last year and lousy before that," says Bulls ticket manager Joe O'Neil. "Without Jordan, we could have lost 500 season tickets this year."

Michael Jordan Rookie Season Chicago Bulls

What's more, Chicago, which was one of the league's worst road shows last season, has sold out eight of its 13 away dates. The one city where Jordan hasn't been hailed as a conquering hero is Portland; in fact, he's something of a sore point there. The Trail Blazers had the No. 2 pick in last spring's college draft but, after Houston took Akeem Olajuwon, passed on Jordan to choose the best big man available, Kentucky's 7'1" Sam Bowie. Never mind that Bowie played forward, not center, for much of a college career studded with injuries.

The Blazers argue, persuasively, that with guys like Jim Paxson, Clyde Drexler and Kiki Vandeweghe in tow, there was no place to put Jordan. But even Dirk Minniefield, Bowie's close friend and a late Chicago cut, says, "Houston and Portland are both going to be sorry they didn't draft him."

"He [Bowie] fits in better than I would," Jordan says. "They have an overabundance of big guards and small forwards."

Such self-effacement has helped Jordan fit in with the Bulls, who in the recent past have been plagued by jealousies and selfishness to match their abysmal won-lost records: Only once, 1980-81, in the past seven seasons has Chicago made the playoffs; only twice in the past nine has it won more games than it lost. "I am very conscious of not being a prima donna," Jordan says. "I wouldn't want that if I were a veteran, and I try to put myself in our veterans' shoes.

"When I came to Chicago for my physical, Rod [Higgins] and O [Orlando Woolridge] told me about the losing attitude on the team. They said they'd get up 10 or 12 points and then start wondering when the other team would come back."

With an Olympic gold medal and an NCAA championship ring as hard evidence of what a winner he is, Jordan was just the antidote the Bulls needed. "His attitude is like a good cancer," says Woolridge. "It spreads from player to player." Chicago has already won six road games, a total it didn't reach last season until early February.

Jordan voices only one reservation about his new home: the red of the Bulls' uniforms. "Red's a hellish color," he says, his tongue for once in cheek. "Blue's heaven." And thus is Jordan's life outside basketball still very Carolina. He's in regular touch with Buzz Peterson and Adolph Shiver, basketball pals from his Tar Heel days. He enjoys bowling, follows stock-car racing and tools around in a four-wheel-drive Chevy Blazer. If this sounds like a guy who'll someday retire to a trailer park, remember that he'll be getting $4 million from the Bulls over five years. A good portion of that sum has gone toward a townhouse in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook.

At ProServ, the Washington, D.C.-based firm that represents Jordan, he's a hot new growth industry. Executives there are pitching him as someone whose "striking good looks and fashionable wardrobe make him a natural corporate ambassador." A recent ProServ interoffice memo suggested ways to cash in on the tongue angle: "Candy, ice cream, the U.S. Postal Service."

For the moment, Jordan has struck it rich with two equipment endorsements. Both his five-year, estimated $2.5 million shoe contract with Nike and three-year, $200,000 autographed-ball deal with Wilson have royalty clauses that will deliver him a cut on every item sold. Next spring Nike will introduce Air Jordan, a three-quarter rise, $60-to-$65-a-pair basketball shoe made of red, black and white leather with an air-cushioned sole, along with an Air Jordan line of "gym rat" apparel and flight bags. All will sport the Air Jordan logo, a winged basketball.

Michael Jordan Rookie Season Chicago Bulls

The Air Jordan sneakers, however, have already encountered some engine trouble on the tarmac. Jordan wore a pair of the black-background, red-swooshed Nikes during the preseason. But the Bulls, worried about how Jordan would be perceived—both around the NBA and by his teammates—had reservations about the shoes' gaudiness. And the NBA office objected, too, citing rules about "uniformity of uniforms." The league has threatened a $1,000 fine if Jordan wears them again and $5,000 for the next offense after that.

As negotiations between ProServ, Nike and the league continue, Nike vows it will sell the black-and-red shoe even if Jordan isn't permitted to wear it in games. But they hope some compromise can be worked out. Says ProServ's David Falk, "From a marketing point of view, the last thing we'd want is to have him look like everybody else."

With Jordan's on-court performance, that won't be a problem. He got his hand on the ball on four consecutive Warrior possessions last week. In Phoenix two nights later, he showed the dramatic sense of a superstar by answering a Nance power slam with a quickness-and-finesse job of his own. "All I saw were the bottoms of his shoes," said the Suns' Michael Holton. Jordan's 20 points on Sunday helped the Bulls beat the Lakers 113-112.

Some scouts had been skeptical of Jordan's outside shot, but he has been the Bulls' most reliable perimeter player, and he's shooting a respectable 50%. Much of the improvement came during Olympic practices under the scrutiny of Bob Knight. "Coach Knight helped me to concentrate and do things without a lot of lallygagging around," Jordan says.

Another influence was his father, James, who used to stick his tongue out while working on the family car in the Jordan backyard in Wilmington, N. C. A rule of tongue: If it's out, the shot's in.

Jordan will occasionally leave his teammates with their mouths open when they should be retreating to play defense or crashing the offensive boards. "O stares all the time," Jordan says. "For a guy who can dunk the way he can, he sure gets amazed at other people's dunks. He's a dunk freak."

Like his team, which sorely needs a center, Jordan still has a glaring deficiency. "He tends to roam on defense because he played a lot of traps in college," Loughery says. And Jordan, whom the Clippers' Smith burned repeatedly en route to 33 points, knows it. "Defensive consistency is my No. 1 goal right now," he says. "I want to be able to contain the offensive player every night. That's going to take time."

His has still been an astonishing start. How will it all end? "I hope I can say I did my best, achieved a lot and won a couple of world championships."

He has a preposterous afterthought. "I'd like," he says, "to play in at least one All-Star game."