ORLANDO, FLA. — Good thing Michael Jordan decided to hang up his bat and shelve his mitt. Good thing at least for the Chicago Bulls who, with Jordan back in the fold, racked up a record-breaking 72 wins in regular season play and have now clinched a seat in the NBA championship finals after a surprisingly easy sweep past the Orlando Magic.
It's a good thing, too, for the game of basketball. Fans love a comeback story, and Jordan's transition from baseball cleats back to sneakers has been nothing less than Jordannaire.
So, watching the Bulls superstar take charge of the final game against the Magic, scoring 45 points in the process, is a kind of testament to maturity - a reassurance to baby boomers everywhere that experience still sometimes trumps youth.
Basically, the Bulls, a team with the NBA's oldest average player age, showed the generation-X Magic the sport's finer points. In two separate games, including the one here May 27, the Bulls erased sizeable Magic leads to win the best-of-seven series, 4-0.
No small credit goes to Jordan.
"We rode the coattails of Michael Jordan," Chicago coach Phil Jackson said after the game. "Michael Jordan has a penchant for coming up with these kinds of games under duress."
Jordan, perhaps more than any other player in prosports history, has an extraordinary ability to take over a game at will. But returning from his year-and-a-half-long retirement, he has had to tread carefully in this respect, being careful not to step on the toes of fellow Bulls.
"I'm very happy that I could come back and be a part of this team that I had not spent much time with," Jordan said at a post-game press conference. "And I somehow in the course of a year was able to blend in. I had to calm down my personality in terms of competitiveness - just enough to ... get everybody involved."
He's quick to credit the entire team with success, saying teamwork is what the game is all about. It's what Coach Jackson - recently named Coach of the Year for the first time - emphasizes too.
Jordan credits Jackson for the quality of team play, for getting everyone involved and keeping all the players focused on the game.
The series with the Magic, touted as the toughest matchup in postseason play, showed that the Bulls don't have many weak spots. Forward Scottie Pippen has one of the best all-around games in the league. Luc Longley is a powerful center, and Toni Kukoc knocks down three-point shots with as much ease as tennis star Pete Sampras serves up aces. The bench is deep and healthy, and Jackson skillfully uses all his reserves.
The flamboyant Dennis Rodman (the one with unnatural hair colors and multi-hued body tattoos) performed brilliantly in the Bulls-Magic series. He's been known to head-butt a referee for a call he does not like and to skirmish with opponents - occasionally being ejected from a game just when his relentless rebounding is needed most. But aside from a minor tiff with Magic center Shaquille O'Neal May 28, Rodman played the gentleman, extending a hand to help fallen opponents rise from the floor. He even tossed his black high-tops into the Orlando crowd as souvenirs after the series-clinching win.
"I think most of the credit [for capitalizing on Rodman's talents] goes to Phil and [Dennis's] respect for Phil," said Jordan. "But on an individual level, I never tried to crowd Dennis, never tried to change Dennis. And he never tried to crowd me. When we stepped on the basketball court, we had similar interests - to win a basketball championship."
It's definitely Jordan, though, who controls the floor. In the May 28 game, he came out in the second half with the same fire in his eyes that blazed after half-time of Game 2 in Chicago on May 21. In that game, the Bulls trailed the Magic by 18 at the half. In the locker room, the team decided "to make some adjustments," said Jordan, and Orlando's lead was obliterated. The Bulls won 93-88.
So, when Jordan took charge of the second half in the last game, it was clear he wasn't going to let anyone stop him - not the Magic, not the blaring rock 'n' roll music, or the PA announcer who kept a heavy hand on the reverb button. Jordan stifled Magic players, made shots that others only dream of making look easy, and inspired his teammates to play harder.
"They had a No. 23 out there, and we couldn't overcome what No. 23 did today," said Magic coach Brian Hill. "That is the greatness of Michael Jordan."
As Jordan and the Bulls boarded a bus for Chicago to prepare for the finals, fans jostled for a look at the stars. (There was even a Dennis Rodman look-alike.) The Bulls will face the winner of the Western Conference finals, Seattle or Utah.
Coach Hill predicts the Bulls will win. "I don't think Michael's going to be denied," he said. "I think this is all a testament to his will and his excellence as a basketball player."