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Original Issue

Air Jordan Meets Air Bubka

When Michael Jordan and Sergei Bubka, two Olympic biggies, got together, international goodwill reached new heights

Michael Jordan eyed the 17-foot pole suspiciously, as if it might suddenly spring to life and jab him with an elbow.

"Where do you hold it, Sergei?"

"Almost at the top," said Sergei Bubka. He jumped to his feet, took the pole from Jordan and grasped it at the end. "Like this."

"Man, it's long," said Jordan. "Hey, maybe we could use it for the dunk contest. Give it some spice." He hefted it. "Must be heavy to run with," he said. "You ever break one when you were vaulting?"

"Oh, several times," said Bubka, nodding his head.

"You get hurt?" Jordan asked.

"Well, when you do it well, nothing will go wrong," said Bubka.

Jordan smiled. "I can tell you this, Sergei," he said. "That's not true in basketball."

Bubka the pole vaulter and Jordan the basketball player had this discussion a few months ago when Bubka stopped in Chicago between flights en route from a track meet in California to Berlin, where he now lives part-time. The rendezvous brought together two special athletes, each of whom defies gravity in his own way. It was East and West, amateur (relatively speaking) and professional, 1984 Olympic gold medalist (Jordan) and 1988 Olympic gold medalist (Bubka). A meeting between a U.S. superstar and one from the former Soviet Union seems natural in this, an Olympic year in which political and eligibility barriers have crumbled, especially since both Bubka and Jordan are independent men who defy barriers in more ways than one.

They were tentative around each other at first, which was to be expected if only because of the language barrier (Jordan's Russian is nonexistent and Bubka's English is only fair). But they were curious, too, searching for common ground. One thing they understood clearly about each other was that they share a high-stakes place in the Nike hierarchy. Bubka wore brand-new Air Jordans over a pair of Jordan 23 socks, while Jordan was impressed by the fact that in Europe, Bubka is famous enough to be marketed as a kind of Bo Jackson athletic machine who cycles, lifts weights, runs and uses gymnastics in his training. Bubka and Jordan share a playful nature, too, one that masks deep competitiveness. It would be fascinating, for example, to see them matched in a "friendly" game of tennis, which both play for recreation. Sports has been their life, and they will likely pass that passion on to their sons—Vitaliy and Sergei Bubka are seven and five, respectively; Jeffrey Michael and Marcus Jordan are four and two. Their fathers are also known for parting with a buck to indulge their passions, though Bubka is not a golfer and cannot match Jordan's well-publicized gambling losses on the course. On a recent supermarket sweep through the employee store at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., however, Bubka did spend more than $6,000 on apparel for himself, his wife, Liliyana, and his sons.

Jordan and Bubka play a similarly dichotomous role—half-hero, half-rebel—within their respective athletic universes. Bubka has always been an outsider. Even before most Americans realized that the Soviet Union simmered with nationalist divisiveness, Bubka was emphatic about declaring himself a Ukrainian; he will be competing in Barcelona as a member of the Unified Team of Former Soviet Republics, but, should he win, his thoughts will be with the people of Ukraine and not with Mother Russia.

Then, too, Bubka's practice of accepting bonus money for each new record he sets has drawn the ire of some track and field purists who feel he is money hungry. The same charge has been leveled against Jordan, whose protracted battles over licensing agreements with the NBA and USA Basketball, the organization overseeing Olympic basketball affairs, were bitter. For years Jordan has been the NBA's designated superstar, but he has grown increasingly uncomfortable in the role, and the league has grown increasingly uncomfortable in casting him in it.

But the establishment would never let them stray far, for both are too valuable. Bubka is the pole vault, to at least as great a degree as Carl Lewis was once the long jump. Bubka has set 30 world records (16 indoors, 14 outdoors), surpassing distance runner Paavo Nurmi's achievement of the most world records by a track and field athlete. No one will be surprised if another pole vault record falls in Barcelona, for a computer analysis of one of Bubka's clearances last year suggested he could have cleared 20' 8". (His current world records are 20'1½" indoors, 20'1½" outdoors.) Bubka is clearly in the pantheon of alltime track and field heroes with the likes of Nurmi, Lewis, Jesse Owens, Al Oerter and Peter Snell.

Jordan occupies as lofty a position in his sport. After only a couple of seasons in the NBA he was considered by some to be the game's greatest all-around talent, and after leading the Bulls to back-to-back titles, he has convinced many that he is no less than the greatest player in history. Both superstars have worked long and hard to get where they are, but there is something utterly natural about them too, in the ease with which they have made it to the top. Asked recently why he was so successful, Bubka said, "I have all the things together. It's speed. It's technique. It's coordination. It's psychology. All these things are easy for me." That could have been Jordan talking too. It is not enough to say that athletes like Bubka and Jordan come along only once a decade—they come along about once a century.

Their bodies are ideally suited for what they do. At 6'6", 198 pounds, Jordan has a long, lean musculature; only lately has he begun a serious weightlifting program, which he says has helped him better endure the nightly pounding of the NBA. At 6 feet, 176 pounds, Bubka is powerfully built and muscular yet lithe. Had he been raised in the U.S., he could have been a bruising running back or cornerback. Though Jordan wouldn't agree, the odds would favor Bubka were they to square off in a Superstars decathlon. Bubka has high-jumped about 6'7", long-jumped about 26 feet, and run a hand-timed 10.2 in the 100 meters, and his strength would give him an obvious advantage in the throwing events. Bubka sometimes shoots baskets to warm up before a workout, but he rarely played the sport as a youngster—basketball is not big in Ukraine, as it is in, say, Lithuania.

Which raises the question of the day: Can Sergei Bubka, pole vaulting's prince of midair, dunk a basketball?

The word is explained to him with the help of his manager, Andrzej Kulikowski. "I have never tried," says Bubka. That is a cultural marking, of course; any American schoolboy with Bubka's springs would surely have spent hours slam-dunking. But Bubka doesn't seem particularly interested in the question and he is somewhat bewildered by the fact that others are.

Jordan, for his part, has most assuredly never tried to pole-vault. As he and Bubka chatted, Kulikowski pointed to a partition that was set up in the Multiplex in suburban Deerfield, where he and Jordan met for a photo shoot. "There, that's about 20 feet," he said. "That's how high Sergei is when he starts coming down." Jordan whistled softly. "No way I'd try that," he said. "You won't catch me killing myself." Competitive soul that he is, however, Jordan was unwilling to leave the track and field arena solely to Bubka. He says that while fooling around one day in high school he cleared 6'5" in the high jump, which seems reasonable, and as a ninth-grader did 23'¼" in the long jump, which does not; such a distance would be almost national class. But who is going to argue with a guy whose nickname is Air?

As Bubka toyed playfully with a basketball, there were several telltale signs of his unfamiliarity with the game: the way he held the ball with elbows out (no basketball skill is performed with elbows out except rebounding), the high, hard, two-handed dribble, the awkward release when he aimed at an imaginary basket. But as Jordan said, "I bet it wouldn't take him long to learn." Indeed, one could imagine Bubka as one of those rough-hewn yet instinctively proficient defenders and rebounders on the playground, an ideal teammate for a finesse player. (And don't say this white man can't jump.) Someone asked Bubka if he could spin the ball on his finger, and after it was explained to him, he did not have much success. "So what's the big deal?" said Jordan. "I can't spin a ball, either. Never could." Just then an errant pass thrown by Bubka whistled over Jordan's head. "Damn, Sergei, you want to tear up the place?" said Jordan, smiling. "You should go play for Detroit."

As the session drew to a close, there was an exchange of gifts, and the two promised to get together in Barcelona. Jordan leaves, Bubka lingers. His plane to Berlin (he divides his time among his hometown of Donetsk in Ukraine, various European training centers and an apartment in Berlin) does not depart for several hours, and he plans to do some interval work on the Multiplex track. He is asked if he would mind participating in a dunking experiment on a nearby court. Bubka is still uncertain as to why this holds so much fascination for Americans, but he agrees. He grabs the ball and takes a running start. No dunk. He does it again. No dunk.

"My hands," he says, holding them out for inspection. "Average." Indeed, he can't palm the ball with his normal-sized grip and has to attempt a two-handed dunk, a difficult maneuver for anyone of average height who is not accustomed to fiddling around with a basketball.

So Sergei Bubka can't dunk. And Michael Jordan can't pole-vault. But with the world's eyes upon them when they perform their specialties in Barcelona, chances are both will rise to the occasion. They always have.