Tuesday, January 24, 2012

These Are The Moments... The Chicago Bulls

Though no hard and fast rule was established, prior to setting out on this journey through NBA history’s seminal moments, it was unofficially decided that the entirety of anorganization’s athletic brilliance should not be represented by any one player. A third of the way through, we’ve had a couple of close calls- Blake Griffin with the Clippers, Vince Carter with the Raptors, Dwyane Wade in Miami- with others sure to follow. Thanks to the best efforts of other stars and moments of individual brilliance (often served with a dollop of good fortune), no one man has managed to monopolize the highlight pantheon of a franchise.

Until now.

This is the domain of the greatest player in NBA history. Though flanked by another all-timer (and best perimeter defender ever), one man consistently explored the limits of athletic brilliance, in the process treating the fans of Chicago to a once-in-a-lifetime showcase of basketball at its highest elevation.With all due respect to Scottie Pippen, Bob Love, Jerry Sloan, the late Norm Van Lier and the leader of this generation and reigning league MVP, Derrick Rose, the story of the Chicago Bulls effectively begins and ends with Michael Jeffrey Jordan.

The incredible thing about Jordan’s body of work is not the extent to which any individual play defies belief (though a great many do), but the fact that over 13+ seasons all of this was done by one man:

Now to pick five…

Purity of audacity

Who else in NBA history (aside from Larry Bird and you-know-who) has the stones to try this before hearing a whistle? Before he was a champion, a failed minor leaguer, a veteran ringmaster and ultimately the GoAT, Michael was simply Air Jordan. At this, the peak of his physical powers, Jordan was capable- in ways both glorious and shameful- of pushing the “who are these four guys and why are they dressed like me?” envelope farther than anyone before, and yeah, since.

Accounts of this circus shot are now rooted in the belief (relying on Jordan’s own, unimpeachable recollection of the event) that Mike flipped the ball in the general direction of the rim in anticipation of a foul call. Whether or not you believe that (it’s totally conceivable; I, however, am dubious), this beauty epitomizes the persona of Young Money.

Baseline against the Knicks in 1991

Forget the dunk. As simply a spin into a dribble drive, this move has a place in the “holy shit!” Hall of Fame. In unceremoniously dismissing John Starks and Charles Oakley- a pair of stifling defenders, each in his respective prime- Jordan summons from his unparalleled collections of tricks immaculate (and I mean immaculate) ball and body control, which he combines with balance and footwork on par with any ever displayed in the NBA.

And then there’s the dunk. The most incredible aspect of the finish is not simply the heights to which Jordan ascends.Nor is it his immaculate throwdown on a waiting opponent. Nor is it that this opponent happens to be Patrick Ewing-a future no-brainer Hall of Famer blessed with both considerable size and shot-blocking acumen (2nd, 3rd and 7th in blocks, blocks per game and Block Rate, respectively, that season). NOR is it the way in which Ewing’s perfectly timed effort results in noting more than a futile swat at Mike’s elbow.

Most incredible of all is Jordan’s ability to fold all of the aforementioned elements into three seconds that are simultaneously the most ruthless and flawlessly beautiful in NBA history.

Beating the Bad Boys. I’ve never fully understood why Jordan’s “Shot” in Cleveland in 1989 has been so immortalized as a watershed moment in NBA history. While thrilling- a double-clutch pull-up jumper from ~17 feet, over an excellent defender, while floating sideways, to power the #6 Bulls past the #3 Cavs en route to their first conference finals- “the Shot” neither lifted the Bulls to new heights, nor represents the defining moment on a title march.

This is the real deal.

For three consecutive years, the Bulls worked, putting one foot before the next, inching toward a championship breakthrough that felt both inevitable and unattainable. In those three years, Michael Jordan, still a force of nature, was now an MVP, the consensus best player on earth and seemingly on the cusp of jettisoning the notion that he could not spearhead a champion (sound familiar?).

For three years, however, Jordan and his Bulls saw their title hopes not only dashed by the Detroit Pistons, but their remnants set ablaze and trampled. One nightmarish disappointment after the next. In 1988, the first 50-win squad of the Jordan era was dispatched in five games; the following spring, in their first trip to the conference finals, in six games, with their demons celebrating on their home court; and the year after that, falling short in Detroit, in a decisive seventh game.

With a commanding 3-0 series and victory all but ensured, Jordan pulled out (so sorry, Mr. Albert) the entire repertoire, triggering a fast break with his all-world defense, maintaining his balance just long enough to scoop an outlet to Pippen, almost immediately reestablishing himself in the play and attacking Bill Laimbeer head-on, this time vanquishing the Bulls' biggest tormentor, sending him flailing comedically, off the end of the floor.

This is the moment. This is the moment when no doubt remained that a Jordan-led team could win a championship. This is moment when it became clear that this Jordan-led team would probably be the one to do it. And what an exclamation point.

Leave it to MJ to inject artistry into an exorcism.

Around, under and through the Nets. Allow me to step out of the way. Nothing I can say will enhance this gem.

For my money, this is the greatest individual effort in NBA history.

Holding the pose in Utah. This sequence perfectly encapsulates Michael Jordan’s career.

The best ever, destroyer of the championship aspirations of virtually every legend that took the floor during his prime, protector of an unblemished mark with jewelry on the line. Now, here he was, on the road, in what was presumed to be his last (or next-to-last) appearance in an NBA game, looking, one last time, to deprive this time two of the game’s great of their own elusive championship.

This is, in many ways, the ultimate narrative-driven highlight. It’s more than that, however. This was the ultimate test of Jordan’s unfathomable greatness. I said it to a room full of friends on June 14, 1998, and thinking back to that moment now, it still rings true- this was the sports equivalent of discovering that Santa Claus is real.

It's been a while, but you know the drill. As always, I want to hear from you. Let me know what you think by chiming in on the highlights I’ve put forth, or supplying your own. And c'mon, this is MJ. I'm pretty sure you have a favorite or two of your own.

1 comment:

Mike R. said...

Great post man! It's not easy to poetically write about Jordan when his every move on the court was poetic in itself. However, you did his Airness justice and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Fun fact: I actually saw Michael Jordan play an exhibition game for the White Sox against the Cubs, at Wrigley Field nonetheless, in April of 1994. I probably should be thanking my parents for recognizing the potential history and allowing me to miss school.