Michael Jordan: Substance Triumphs Over Style

In grabbing the league title in perhaps his last NBA game, Bulls superstar leads a game for the ages.

Too often in sports, and in life, style seems to count more than substance. If that's not true, then why can far more people can identify weird-haired Dennis Rodman than Nobel Prize-winning chemist Tom Cech?

Too often we celebrate flash and dash, which is why Dolly Parton became a star and your far more influential seventh-grade history teacher didn't. We are typically more sizzle than steak, all hat and no cattle. Sorry, but we go for the cheap thrills.

Not so Sunday night in Salt Lake City when the Michael Jordans found a way to defeat the Malone-Stocktons, 87-86, to win the NBA championship. There are those who say it was the Chicago Bulls that defeated the Utah Jazz, but they didn't see clearly.

It was a game for the ages. It was a brilliant contest of inordinate dimension. It was professional entertainment of the highest order. And, glory be, it was an incredibly rare example of substance triumphing over style.

This was hard-core excellence.

The stars don't always come out at night, but they did Sunday. And every one of the stars revolved around Planet Jordan. For you sports-errant folks who failed to watch the game, here's a snippet of what the greatest player in the history of the game did at the end: The Jordans trail by three points with 42 seconds left. Michael drives for a routine twisting lay-up with 37 seconds to cut the lead to one. Jordan strips Jazzman extraordinaire Karl Malone of the ball just as Malone is getting ready to shoot. Jordan gets down the floor and calmly hits a 17-foot jump shot to win the game.

And what did you do on Sunday during your best 42 seconds?

This is a fraction - yes, only a tiny fraction - of what Jordan did en route to scoring 45 points and single-handedly willing the Bulls to their third straight title, their sixth in the last eight years. The enormity of Jordan's skills produces gasps because words fail. His excessive talents make the game unfair for his competitors.

What lacks in Jordan's game? Nothing, of course. What lacks in Rodman's game? Sorry, we digress. MJ has played in more than 900 NBA games since being drafted in 1984 and hit just over half his shots. This will spin your head but he also plays defense in a league where defense is thought by most players as something put up to keep cattle off the highways.

Yet, the way the game ended was perfectly satisfying. That's because while Jordan sets all agendas on the basketball floor, Utah's Karl Malone and John Stockton unquestionably deserve seats at the head table and the right to participate in the discussion. They are stoic to the max, which is a terrific sight to behold in the way too flamboyant and self-congratulatory NBA.

Just before Jordan's final heroics, it was Stockton who hit a perfect-form three-point jumper in what looked like it might be enough. Stockton - steady, team player, bright, thoughtful. Malone - tough, fair, sportsmanlike. Yes, a duo of unspeakable accomplishment and quality.

But stars can crash too, which is why we have meteors. So it was at the end, when routinely sure-handed Malone was stripped by Jordan, and with a couple of seconds left, Stockton missed - by perhaps one inch - on a jump shot that would have won the game for the Jazz and sent the series to a final seventh game. It was a shot that Stockton would convert about 7 out of10 times. Stoicism in place afterwards, Stockton said softly, "It's not a pleasurable experience."

And so it was that the Jazz succumbed, but how perfect that they went down with their two stars giving it their best efforts. Malone and Stockton were brilliant even in their failures. That's a lesson for all of us: To succeed doesn't necessarily require victory.

Afterward, the Jordan's Scottie Pippen, who played with a sore back, described the outcome as "wonderful, tremendous, unforgettable." Why Pippen was so understated in his appraisal is not clear.

* Douglas S. Looney's email address is looneyd@csps.com

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