This article originally appeared in the Dec. 23, 1991 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
At the relatively tender age of 28, he stands alone on the mountaintop, unquestionably the most famous athlete on the planet and one of its most famous citizens of any kind. We've heard it so often that it's now a clichè, though nonetheless accurate: He transcends sports. He keeps a championship ring on his dresser at home and will be making room for another if his team (18-3 at week's end) plays the next six months of the season the way it has played the first two. A two-time MVP, he was probably the best player in the world even before Magic Johnson's retirement, but now the subject isn't even worth debating.
He will earn about $25 million in 1992, only $3.8 million of it from his day job—the rest, an astonishing $21.2 million, from a flood of endorsements. His name and his face are on sneakers, sandwiches, soft drinks and cereal boxes, to mention just a few items. He has a lovely and loving wife, two adorable sons and a relationship with his parents that is so good, the sappiest sitcom wouldn't touch it. He is bothered somewhat by tendinitis and a bone spur in his left knee but is otherwise in outstanding health. He has trouble off the tee from time to time, but his handicap is still in single figures and any number of professional tutors are at his beck and call.
And, so, despite a few esthetic drawbacks—near baldness, skinny legs, overly long basketball trunks and the continuing tendency to stick out his tongue—we honor Michael Jeffrey Jordan as our Sportsman of the Year for 1991.
It is a virtual certainty that since the award originated in 1954, no athlete has been as popular on a worldwide scale as Jordan is now and, for that matter, has been for the last several years. He has surpassed every standard by which we gauge the fame of an athlete and, with few exceptions, has handled the adulation with a preternatural grace and ease that have cut across lines of race, age and gender.
"He has a level of popularity and a value as a commercial spokesman that is almost beyond comprehension," says Nova Lanktree, director of the Burns Sports Service in Chicago, an organization that has been lining up athletes for commercials and tracking their popularity for more than two decades. "It is a singular phenomenon. It never happened before and may not ever happen again."
Although it is the singularity of Jordan that is so often celebrated—no one dunks, smiles or sells sneakers the way he does—it is no coincidence that he is being honored by SI only after his team, the Chicago Bulls, won a championship. Jordan's seven-year NBA career has been, curiously, both a rocket to stardom and a struggle for vindication. To many NBA observers, the Bulls had to win it all before Jordan could conclusively prove that he was more than a high-flying sideshow or along, loud ring of the cash register. They did. And so he did.
Superstars should be judged, first and foremost, for their consistency, their ability to produce over the long haul, as Jordan most assuredly has (he has averaged between 22.7 and 37.1 points in each of his eight seasons). But the most unforgettable of the breed also offer a collection of moments, rare and incandescent, and Jordan has given us a wide assortment of those: writhing and twisting his way through the Celtics to score 49 and 63 points at Boston Garden in the 1986 playoffs; exploding for 40 points to win the MVP award at his "home" All-Star game at Chicago Stadium in '88; dribbling the length of the floor, pulling up and hitting a 14-foot jump shot to send Game 3 of last year's Finals, which the Bulls went on to win, into overtime.
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Is Jordan the greatest ever? A definitive answer is impossible, of course, as it has been whenever the question has been applied to Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird or Magic. But a case can certainly be made. Of that distinguished quartet, only Chamberlain could begin to match Jordan's pure athleticism, but put that aside for a moment and consider his basketball skills and the way he plays the game:
Jordan is now a better shooter than Bird, not from long range, certainly, but from 20 feet in. "I don't do much shooting in the summer anymore, so I don't completely understand it myself," says Jordan. "But it's a fact. Everything about it—my mechanics, when to take the shot, the release—feels better and smoother."
He is not a better passer than the Magic of the 1980s, but were the Bulls, like the Lakers, a fast-break team and were Jordan, like Magic, a point guard, he very well might be. And in half-court situations, when called upon to give up the ball under pressure and find the open man at the last conceivable second, he is without peer.
Jordan never put up rebounding numbers from the backcourt like those of Robertson, who averaged 7.5 per game over 14 seasons. But the Big O played in an era when, at 6'5", he was often among the bigger players on the floor, while Jordan, in the era of the seven-footer, is no worse than the second-best rebounding guard in today's game (behind the Portland Trail Blazers' Clyde Drexler). Jordan and Robertson are similar in a way, dynamic, demanding and fearless leaders who command nothing less than total respect on the floor. But Robertson, though a superb athlete, was subject to the laws of gravity (as Jordan is not) and was never nearly as exciting.
Can Jordan dominate a game in the manner of Chamberlain—he of the 100-point game and the 50.4-point scoring average (in 1961-62)? Not when today's double-teaming and trapping can take the ball out of one man's hands for long stretches of the game. But by dint of nonstop effort, a rage to play that Wilt never possessed, Jordan comes close. "Every single game, Jordan plays every single play like it's his last," says Los Angeles Clippers guard Doc Rivers. Then, too, Wilt never provided the level of anticipation that Jordan does merely by touching the ball. Out comes the tongue, from side to side goes the head, and down goes the ball in a hard dribble. What's going to happen? What will he do now? Julius Erving came close to inspiring that same edge-of-the-seat drama, but the Doctor never had Jordan's offensive repertoire, lacking mainly the pull-up jumper that makes the contemporary Jordan more unstoppable than ever.
It might be hard to fathom because he has been a household name for so long, but Jordan is now at the absolute peak of his career and could be the league's MVP for another three or four years. His contract (as presently structured, anyway) extends to the end of the 1995-96 season, after which he says he'll retire. Maybe. So, barring injury, look for, at a minimum, another 12,000 points, 1,800 rebounds, 1,000 steals, and five million tongue-waggings from the wondrous athletic machine that is Air Jordan.
"Michael—he's the best," says San Antonio Spurs coach Larry Brown. "I grew up with Connie Hawkins. I saw Julius at his peak. No one went through the ACC like David Thompson. I love Magic and Larry. But Michael, as far as what I've seen...." Brown stops and shakes his head. "I'd pay money to see him play. I'd pay money to see him practice."
There are times when his teammates would no doubt pay money so that Jordan would not practice. His almost psychotic competitiveness in even the most casual practice situation has caused some strain over the years, much of which has been chronicled in The Jordan Rules, the best-seller written by the Chicago Tribune's Sam Smith. But, ultimately, what hath it wrought? A much grittier Chicago team, that's certain. The Bulls had won 17 of their last 18 games through Sunday.
Jordan is, as usual, playing superbly. Never mind the scoring, a category in which he has led the NBA for the last five seasons and in which he is leading again, with a 29.5 average, or the shooting percentage (.531, second in the league among guards). He and forwards Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant have become like a Bermuda Triangle on defense, swallowing up offenses with their court-covering capabilities, and that is why Chicago is clearly the best team in the NBA. Jordan's detractors would theorize that he has now stepped back and given players like Pippen and Grant the chance to breathe and make a name for themselves. But in point of fact, Jordan's own will to succeed, as thorny as it may sometimes be, has inspired his teammates to reach their potential.
"I look forward to playing now, more than ever, " Jordan said recently, relaxing in his hotel suite in Berkeley, Calif., before a game against the Golden State Warriors. "It's the only place I can get relief from what's happening off the court. It's always been that way to a certain extent, but it's even more so now. Basketball is my escape, my refuge. It seems that everything else is so...so busy and complicated."
Busy he's used to. Complicated, maybe not. For perhaps the first time in his life, Jordan is sensing a backlash against his fame, a subtle dissatisfaction with the whole idea of Michael Jordan. He has heard it in all the talk about The Jordan Rules, he has read it in letters to the editor, read it between the lines. "Signs are starting to show that people are tired of hearing about Michael Jordan's positive image and Michael Jordan's positive influence," said Mr. Positive Image and Positive Influence. "Five, six, seven years at the pinnacle of success, and it's got to start turning around. I've always tried to project everything positive. People say you need role models in the world, and people were asking for them, and I never thought a role model should be negative. If you wanted negativity, then you wouldn't have asked for Michael Jordan. You might've asked for Mike Tyson or somebody else.
"In retrospect, maybe I was wrong. Maybe I should've shown some negativity, so people had a sense of me as a human being. I could've been more honest, I guess, about some of the mistakes I made. Like what? Well, I did hit [teammate] Will Perdue in the face. That was a mistake, and I could've talked about it [as Smith did in The Jordan Rules]. I've made some bad endorsements, like Time Jordan [a watch deal Jordan signed with a Canadian company, Excelsior, that never got ticking]. But what do you know when you're 21 and 22 going through all this? You mature as you go through it all, but you're not mature when it starts."
There are not many 28-year-old multimillionaires who are forced into such introspection about their images, and in all likelihood, a more cautious, less childlike Jordan will evolve out of his self-examination. David Burns, president of Burns Sports Service, says he doesn't see any backlash against Jordan: "He's as wildly popular as ever and still worth every dollar any advertiser wants to pay him." But Jordan feels it is better to hear the whistle in the distance than to get run over by the train, and as a remedy for overkill, he's talking about reducing his off-the-court commitments, taking a step back, becoming a more private person.
"I don't need my name in lights to keep going," says Jordan. "I know people think I do, but I don't. If you told me in college that within a year my face would be all over the world and millions of people would know my name, I'd have said you were crazy. I certainly didn't turn it down when it came my way, but I didn't ask for it, either."
He sure got it, though, and now any conversation about him tends to sound like a global marketing report. Remember the cynical bumper sticker that came along in the Acquisitive Eighties? THE ONE WITH THE MOST TOYS IN THE END WINS. Well, Jordan has the most toys. Game's over. He's won. So, let's just enjoy the world's best basketball player at the height of his powers.
The game, after all, is what made Jordan what he is today, and fortunately, the game is still what he lives and breathes for. Already this season he has talked trash with the Warriors' Tim Hardaway; shot (and made) a free throw with his eyes closed to have some fun with Denver Nugget rookie Dikembe Mutombo; and driven to distraction his hated rivals, the Pistons, with his usual dazzling all-around game. He may talk about stepping out of the spotlight, but it's not going to happen for a while, not so long as there's an acrobatic slam-dunk left in his Air Jordans and a competitive muscle twitching in his body. The view from the mountaintop is breathtaking, and there's no place that Michael Jordan would rather be. Look up and revel in him, for his equal will not soon be along.