Basketball's `Prince of Midair' soars to exciting new heights

Anyone watching Michael Jordan for the first time can't help being impressed with his vertical leap, estimated to be somewhere between 40 and 44 inches from a standing position. The next thing you notice about the 6 ft. 6 in. backcourt ace of the Chicago Bulls is his ``hang time'' - the way his upper body appears to hover around the rim of the basket like a human helicopter while his defenders gradually drop away. Even though he's off the floor for only seconds, it often seems as though Michael could remain airborne indefinitely.

Now in his third pro season, Jordan is once again showing National Basketball Association fans the skills that made him College Player of the Year with North Carolina in 1984 and a star of the gold- medal-winning US Olympic team that same year.

Michael demonstrated those abilities right away in the NBA, of course, averaging almost 29 points a game en route to being named Rookie of the Year two seasons ago.

He missed most of the 1985-86 regular season with a foot injury, but returned in time to put on his patented, spectacular show in the playoffs.

And now in this season's early stages he leads the league in scoring, in excitement, and in 40-point games. He also gives so much second effort that you keep wondering how a man can get so much out of himself, eventually reaching the conclusion that his energy is self-winding.

When Jordan was sidelined early last season, the Bulls' management was so concerned he might come back too early that it asked him to delay his return until this fall.

Even though Michael vigorously protested this ruling at the time, after a few days of arguing he seemed to accept the decision as final.

Now what he wanted, he told Chicago officials, was to go back to the University of North Carolina and complete his degree in geography. What possible harm could there be in that?

None, actually, except that Jordan decided to test his injured foot during this same period in a series of pickup basketball games.

When word got back to the Bulls about what Michael was doing, he got called on the carpet, and some think possibly fined behind closed doors.

But Jordan is the sort of irrepressible, persuasive kid with whom no one can stay angry very long. Eventually he talked the Bulls into letting him suit up in March, although they began by limiting his playing time to 14 minutes a game, seven a half.

That lasted only until Jordan began streaking by his rivals, making like Peter Pan again and getting his scoring average up to almost 23 points a game. The climax came for him in the NBA's Eastern Division playoffs when he scored 63 points in one game against the Boston Celtics.

Without Jordan around to paint pictures in the air, the Bulls probably would have been wallpaper again this season. Chicago's two centers (Dave Corzine and Granville Waiters) are both journeymen. The starting forwards (Charles Oakley and Earl Cureton) are rugged, which is a nice way of saying they don't score too much. And the guards who play most of the time alongside Michael (John Paxson and Steve Colter) are not likely to be remembered into the 21st century, either.

Meanwhile, Jordan's patience, modesty, and straight-to-the-point answers make him one of the most rewarding interviews in sports. When Michael says something, you have a tendency to believe it, even if it doesn't always seem to make sense. He could probably sell a cat to a mouse as a pet.

For example, when asked about taking 43 shots in a recent game against the Los Angeles Lakers, he kept a straight face while offering this pat explanation: ``Despite what people say, the Bulls' offense is not designed especially for me, but for everybody on the team. Whenever I score 40 points, it's because I happen to get open. It isn't something you plan ahead.'' And Paris is in Spain, and Monday follows Tuesday.

Asked if he can keep up his league-leading scoring pace through the rest of the schedule, which sometimes calls for five games in six nights, Jordan replied:

``I only know one way of playing and that's all out, and I don't see myself changing. One thing you have to remember is that I have never treated any part of basketball as a pressure situation. To me the game is fun, and after missing so much of last year, I have all the motivation I'll ever need.''

Jordan told me that when he was a freshman at North Carolina, coach Dean Smith gave him a list of four things to work on, things that Smith thought were holding him back. Specifically, they were his ball handling, his straightaway shot, his jump shot, and his passing.

``I also owe Mr. Smith a lot, because he taught me the value of fundamentals,'' Michael added.

Jordan paid his coach back with interest, though, when he hit a jump shot that same season in the waning moments of the NCAA final against Georgetown, lifting North Carolina to the national championship.

Not that Jordan is successful in every phase of the game. He'll make few all-defensive teams, for example. But who is going to quibble about a player who contributes as much to the offense - and sells as many tickets - as Michael does?

Jordan's penetration to the basket, his body strength, and his liftoff are so great that his hoops often become stuff shots on the way down - much to the delight of Windy City fans.

Indeed, even people who never cared a hoot about pro basketball before are crowding into Chicago Stadium these days to see the Prince of Midair. Quotable quotes

Defensive back Lester Hayes of the Los Angeles Raiders on Charlie Joiner, San Diego's veteran wide receiver: ``He deserves all the accolades he hasn't gotten.''

Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers explaining the uncanny way he and teammate James Worthy coordinate their actions on the court: ``It's almost like we have ESPN.''

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