There is a lot of conversation about Michael Jordan these days, thanks to The Last Dance, the 10-part documentary chronicling his life, times and career. . . . Because Jordan took a break from his career in basketball to try his hand at baseball, we thought we would share with you two Jim Murray columns — one from 1994 that Jim wrote on the baseball player and one from 1996 when Jordan and the Bulls played and beat the Los Angeles Lakers.
Sunday, April 24, 1994, SPORTS
Copyright 1994/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
Maybe This Guy Is the Greatest There Ever Was
When Michael Jordan, the world’s greatest basketball player, opted out of his sport and elected to play baseball, the sporting community, and particularly the sporting press, was widely divided in its reaction. About 75 per cent were outraged and hoped he would fall on his bald pate. I mean, who did he think he was?
After all, one sport and one sport alone was good enough for Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Henry Aaron and Willie Mays, wasn’t it? What was this guy trying to prove?
Most of the sport itself snickered behind its hand. Relief pitchers allowed as how they had a better chance of playing the pivot for the Chicago Bulls than Michael Jordan had of succeeding in baseball. They couldn’t wait to show him a major league changeup. It was predicted he would throw his back out trying to hit one.
They felt intensely territorial about their sport. Their thrust was, go back to that sport played on wood floors, Michael. You can’t slam dunk a baseball. Besides, it’s too small for a guy used to the dimensions of a basketball. Michael had delusions of grandeur. Major league baseball was not mumbletypeg or one-o’cat in the park.
You had to feel that, secretly, some of them were afraid Jordan would show up them and the game. What if he came in and started hitting three home runs a game? What if he was the world’s greatest athlete?
I have a diametrically opposite viewpoint from my learned colleagues. I hope Michael Jordan succeeds beyond his wildest expectations.
Consider this: If you went into any part of this country where young athletes congregate and you came upon a youngster who gave the indication he could be superbly talented in any sport he chose, what sport do you think he would settle on?
No contest. Slam dunk. It would be basketball. Baseball, I have to think, would be a poor third. Maybe fourth.
It wasn’t always this way in this country. Every red-blooded American boy once hankered to be a bona fide major league baseball star.
It’s no longer true. The sandlot diamond is disappearing. The game is thriving mostly in the Caribbean.
I don’t know what the population of the Dominican Republic is, but every second kid seems to be in a baseball lineup somewhere. If Cubans were allowed to play here, they’d have to call balls and strikes in Spanish.
So, my notion is, Michael Jordan honors baseball — ennobles it, if you will. He’s reversing a trend, is what he’s doing. And he’s not opting for golf, as so many thought he would. Or for football, or for tennis, or for boxing, at which, given his speed and power and peripheral vision, I would guess he would be terrific. No, what Michael is dreaming about is becoming a star in our national pastime. And this is no Walter Mitty. This is one of the great athletic specimens of his time.
You know how kids buy his shoes at his urging, down his soft drink, purchase tank tops with his number? You think they’re not going to pay attention to his choice of sport?
It’s my notion baseball couldn’t buy that kind of endorsement. So, far from running him out of here at the end of a sharp pen, the game should have a light in the window. They should light candles and pray that he succeeds.
It’s a switch that has never been notably successful. The most publicized of failures in antiquity was that of Jim Thorpe. There wasn’t much Jim Thorpe couldn’t do with a football. He could kick it, throw it, run with it or block it with the best who ever lived. There wasn’t much he couldn’t do on a track, either. He could throw the discus and javelin, jump high, run fast. The King of Sweden, no less, once proclaimed him the world’s greatest athlete-and there was no argument.
But that little old major league curveball — what Roy Campanella once proclaimed “Public Enemy No. 1” — proved his undoing. The Baseball Encyclopedia lists Thorpe’s six-year major league career as a frustrating experiment in which he hit .252 (not bad by today’s standards but abysmal by his era’s standards). You find only seven home runs there, 82 runs batted in and a whole lot of strikeouts — 122 in his relatively few at-bats.
Track stars tend to do better in football than baseball. A great base stealer is demoralizing — but first he has to get on base. But there are few basketball players who made it in baseball. Chuck Connors and Gene Conley, neither a big court star, played in the majors. Jordan is the only superstar to switch.
So, Michael opting for the grand old game should be saluted at the highest levels. First of all, he’s putting his sport’s reputation on the line. That is admirable. Great actors don’t tackle ballet. Great musicians don’t play Hamlet.
But Jordan, at the age of 31, is delving into the arts and mysteries of baseball. It’s a game in which the ability to hover in the air and circle the playing field for long periods of time is of minimal usefulness.
Still, he did pick baseball. It reminds me of the oft-repeated observation of the late Fresco Thompson when he was signing rookies for the Dodgers. Whenever a kid would come in the office and say “Mr. Thompson, I think I can make it in one of two sports but I’m torn between pro football and major league baseball.”
“Kid,” Fresco would growl, “what do you want — a career or a limp?”
Michael was not in a sport where the occupational hazard was a limp. But he was in one where the ball was full of air. And was hard to miss-30 inches in circumference vs. a baseball’s nine.
Baseball should be glad it’s got him. I bet hockey wishes he could skate.
Sunday, February 4, 1996, SPORTS
Copyright 1996/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
It’s Basketball Played On a Higher Plane
You go to see Michael Jordan play basketball for the same reason you went to see Astaire dance, Olivier act or the sun set over Canada. It’s art. It should be painted, not photographed.
It’s not a game, it’s a recital. He’s not just a player, he’s a virtuoso. Heifetz with a violin. Horowitz at the piano.
He doesn’t even play the game where everyone else does. He plays it from the air. He comes in for a landing every now and then, usually from above the basket. Then he stays on the runway for a while till the next takeoff. You get the feeling the other players don’t know where he has gone till he cups his mouth and shouts down “Up here!” He should probably be wearing a cape and high boots.
What he’s doing is making a shambles of the game of basketball, laying waste to the landscape. He’s as unstoppable as tomorrow.
Many people were wishing he could hit the curveball. Let pitchers worry about stopping him instead of NBA guards. While he was gone, Hakeem Olajuwon took over. But while Hakeem is a great player, he pretty much plays a ground game. He’s infantry. He slogs to the basket. Jordan is more like a stealth bomber. You can’t see him coming, and you don’t know where he is until you hear the swish of the net.
It’s hard to believe this talent wasn’t the No. 1 pick in his draft year. You wonder how a general manager could justify passing him up. You get a picture of the GM telling his owner, “Aw, he’s just a baseball player. We need somebody to go to the basket — like Sam Bowie. Besides, he’s too short.”
When you see the numbers Jordan puts up, you might, at that, expect to see someone 7-foot-7 or so, with the steroid musculature of a bouncer, a master of the two-foot basket. But Jordan looks more like a ballroom dancer than a bouncer. His muscles ripple, they don’t bulge. He’s only 6-6. Until he’s airborne, that is. Then he becomes 20 feet. He has to watch out for the rafters, not defensive guards.
He doesn’t stand around in the low post waiting for someone to go get him the ball. He goes and gets it himself. He gets more steals than a pickpocket at the Kentucky Derby and let the league in them his last full season.
He came into town Friday night for the most publicized confrontation since the second Dempsey-Tunney. It came out more like the second Louis-Schmeling.
Michael Jordan vs. Magic Johnson was supposed to have all the dramatic impact of the Red Baron vs. Eddie Rickenbacker, or any of the other great matchups of history. But the matchup it resembled at the end was the Titanic against the iceberg. It was as one-sided as a heart attack.
We were supposed to get a clue as to whether Magic could be enrolled in the crusade to save basketball from the ravages of Air Jordan and company.
Not yet, at any rate. Magic didn’t even have time to get the number of the truck that hit him. The Bulls put their resident Goldilocks — otherwise known as Dennis Rodman — on Magic. Meanwhile, Michael acted as resident decoy, drawing traps while he casually passed the ball to an open Scottie Pippen, who plays the game at treetop level himself.
The joy of stopping Michael Jordan and his Bulls now falls on Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal. Anything short of their best, and the league may need an anti-aircraft battery to stop him.
The league may have to resort to drastic Break-Up-Michael-Jordan rules. I mean, here is a team that is 41-3 and hasn’t lost in 18 (count ’em) games.
They may want to consider levelling the court by 1) making it illegal for him to make a basket without one boot (or both) on the ground; 2) making it a two-shot foul and no basket for any player to rise vertically more than eight feet above the floor; 3) ruling that any basket made by a player who is horizontal to the floor at the time shouldn’t count.
Of course, you could make any Michael Jordan basket count only one point and let him go to the free throw line only if he had to get there by stretcher or on life support. Perhaps they could rule Jordan could have the ball only every other team possession.
They should make these rules retroactive. Anything short of that and the season is over. Jordan’s Chicago Bulls are sitting there with a .930 (you heard me) won-lost percentage when the highest winning percentage in the history of the game was .841 by the 1971-72 Lakers.
There are few players of whom it could be said they swallowed the game they played whole. Babe Ruth did it. Bill Tilden. A case could be made for John Unitas, a young Wayne Gretzky.
But the way Michael Jordan is going, there may be nothing left of the game but a loud belch. He and his Bulls are feasting on the league like Henry VIII on a chicken, bones and all.
“Man, they’re scary!” Magic Johnson exclaimed as he escaped Friday night like a guy who had just crawled ashore from a torpedoed ship.
If the Bulls can scare Magic Johnson, they’re in the wrong arena. We should send them to Bosnia. Maybe the league should find out where it goes to surrender.
Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times
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