Sports Stars

Basketball

Clyde Drexler

Full Name: Clyde Austin Drexler
Born: 6/22/62 in New Orleans
High School: Sterling (Houston)
College: Houston
Drafted by: Portland Trail Blazers (1983)
Transaction: Traded to Houston, 2/14/95
Nickname: Clyde the Glide Height: 6-7; Weight: 222 lbs.
Honors: Elected to Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (2004); NBA champ (1995); All-NBA First Team (1992); All-NBA Second Team (1988, '91); All-NBA Third Team (1990, '95); 10-time All-Star; One of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History (1996); Olympic gold medalist (1992).

One of the game's all-time great guards, Clyde "The Glide" Drexler was known for his high-flying yet seemingly effortless swoops to the basket.

After almost a dozen seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, Drexler left Portland with his name all over the franchise's record books. A perennial All-Star and a member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team, Drexler twice led the Blazers to the NBA Finals. It wasn't until he joined the Houston Rockets midway through his 12th campaign, however, that he finally earned a championship ring.

It was fitting that Drexler achieved the ultimate NBA success while in Houston. A native of the city, he attended the University of Houston and starred on the "Phi Slamma Jamma" teams of the early 1980s. A forward in college, Drexler teamed with Hakeem Olajuwon and Larry Micheaux to form a front line that took the team on two straight trips to the NCAA Final Four. In his junior season Drexler averaged 15.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists while shooting .536 from the floor.

The Blazers selected Drexler with the 14th overall pick in the 1983 NBA Draft. Looking back, it seems a mystery how such a great player slipped so low in the draft, especially in light of the careers of many of the players chosen ahead of him.

But as rookie, Drexler did not have an immediate impact. He did not make the NBA All-Rookie Team and averaged just 7.7 ppg. Some of that could be attributed to the fact that he only averaged a little over 17 minutes per game playing behind veteran guards and forwards like John Paxson, Calvin Natt and the year's prior No. 1 selection, Lafayette Lever.

However, after that inaugural season, Drexler reeled off 10 straight seasons as one of the top scorers in the league. In his second season, Drexler's scoring jumped to 17.2 ppg. And by his third year, 1985-86, he had become an All-Star, averaging 18.5 points and ranking third in the NBA in steals (2.63 per game) and 10th in assists (8.0 apg).

However, during that era, If a player wanted to be considered among the NBA’s elite, there was no mystery about what he had to achieve -- the same things achieved by Los Angeles Lakers' Magic Johnson and Boston Celtics' Larry Bird. Indeed, each was considered to rank among the most complete players of all time. In 1986-87, Drexler began to find himself in that rarefied air. He joined Johnson and Bird as the only players in the league to average more than 21 points (21.7 ppg), 6 rebounds (6.3 rpg), and 6 assists (6.9 apg). He also finished fifth in the NBA with an average of 2.49 steals per game.

In the postseason, Drexler increased his production to 24.0 ppg, but the Blazers lost a four-game first-round series to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets.

His next season was one of his best. In 1987-88, he placed fifth in the balloting for the NBA Most Valuable Player Award, after averaging 27.0 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 2.51 steals. He also claimed a spot on the All-NBA Second Team. In his second NBA All-Star Game, that season, he totaled 12 points and 5 rebounds in 15 minutes.

For the third straight season, however, Portland lost in the first-round of the NBA Playoffs. Drexler shot only .386 from the field during the postseason, averaging 22.0 points as the Blazers were upset by the Utah Jazz in four games. The following season, Drexler averaged 27.2 ppg (career best), 7.9 rpg and 5.8 apg, but for the fourth consecutive season, the Blazers failed to advance past the first-round after dropping a three-game series to the Lakers.

Thus, as a quiet star in a city removed from intense media attention on team that faltered in the postseason, Drexler didn't always receive the acclaim that his stellar statistics should have earned him. But as Portland developed into a contender, however, recognition of Drexler's exploits followed. Behind Drexler, the explosive Blazers went to the NBA Finals in 1990 and 1992 and reached the Western Conference Finals in 1991.

That three-year run began in 1989-90 after a trade in the offseason for veteran power forward Buck Williams, an acquisition that excited Drexler. “I think we have a championship-caliber team, and we’re going to get there,” Drexler predicted before the season.

That season, Drexler averaged 23.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg and 5.9 apg, made a third straight appearance in the NBA All-Star Game and made the All-NBA Third Team. More importantly, he was a vital cog in the Trail Blazers’ run to the NBA Finals, in which they faced the Detroit Pistons. In 21 playoff games that season he averaged 21.4 points and 7.2 rebounds. Drexler scored 33 points in Game 2 of the Finals, including the winning free throws in the final seconds of overtime. However, that was the only game Portland won in the series, as the "Bad Boys" of Detroit led by Isiah Thomas copped its second straight NBA Championship. Drexler averaged 26.4 points and 7.8 rebounds and shot .543 from the floor in the Finals.

In 1990-91 he earned All-NBA Second Team honors on a Blazers team with a record of 63-19 record, setting a franchise record for most wins in a season. But the Blazers were upset in the Western Conference Finals in six games by the Lakers in the last act of "Showtime" as Magic Johnson retired following that season.

The following season was one of Drexler's most memorable. He averaged 25.0 points (fourth in the league), became the second player in Portland history to make the All-NBA First Team, finished second to Michael Jordan in MVP balloting and took the Blazers to the NBA Finals against Jordan and the Bulls.

Unfortunately, Jordan was unbelievably hot in Game 1, scoring 35 points in the first half on an array of shots including deep three-pointers en route to a 122- 89 rout. The Blazers bounced back and seemed ready to force a Game 7, but it lost Game 6 after building a 79-64 lead going into the fourth quarter. Later that summer, Drexler earned a gold medal with the 1992 Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics.

Hampered by injuries, Drexler's production fell in the next two seasons (to 19.9 and 19.2 points per game, respectively) and by 1994-95 he was indicating that he was ready to leave Portland. At midseason, the Blazers obliged by trading him to the Houston Rockets for Otis Thorpe. Drexler left Portland as the team's all-time leader in scoring, games, minutes, field goals, free throws, rebounds and steals.

The Houston trade reunited him with college teammate Olajuwon, and the two powered the Rockets from the sixth seed in the playoffs to the 1995 NBA Championship. In 35 regular season games with the Rockets that first season, Drexler averaged 21.4 ppg on .506 shooting with 7.0 rebounds.

His valued soared in the postseason. In that 22 playoff game run, he was the teams' second leading scorer behind Olajuwon with 20.5 ppg while also grabbing 7.0 rpg and dishing out 5.0 apg. In the Finals sweep over the Orlando Magic, his production even increased to 21.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg and 6.8 apg. In the conference finals, he and Olajuwon became the third set of teammates to score 40 points in a playoff game as Drexler hit for 41 in Game 4 against the Jazz.

In 1995-96, Drexler averaged 19.3 points for the Rockets in a season that was limited to 52 games due to shin and knee injuries. On Nov. 24, 1995, he became the 24th player to register 20,000 career points. And that same season he was honored as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.

1996-97, he missed 19 games due to a stained hamstring (and one because of a suspension), and with the arrival of Charles Barkley his scoring average dipped to 18.0 ppg, his lowest since 1984-85. Midway through the 1997-98 season, Drexler announced plans to retire from the NBA effective at the end of the season so that he could take over the head coaching duties at his alma mater, the University of Houston. He went on to finish the season leading the Rockets in scoring (18.4 ppg) and assists (5.5 apg).

He ended his illustrious NBA career joining Oscar Robertson and John Havlicek as the only players in NBA history to top 20,000 points, 6,000 rebounds and 3,000 assists.



Patrick Ewing

Full Name: Patrick Aloysius Ewing
Born: 8/5/62 in Kingston, Jamaica
High School: Cambridge (Mass.) Rindge & Latin School
College: Georgetown
Drafted by: New York Knicks (1985)
Transactions: Traded to Seattle, 9/20/00; Signed with Orlando, 7/18/01 Height: 7-0
Weight: 255 lbs.
Honors: Rookie of Year (1985); All-NBA First Team (1990); All-NBA Second Team (1988, '89, '91, '92, '93, '97); All-Defensive Second Team (1988, '89, '92); 11-time NBA All-Star; One of 50 Greatest Players in NBA History (1996); Two-time Olympic gold medalist (1984, '92).

Warrior. That is the one-word description often applied to Patrick Ewing. He was indefatigable and relentless in pursuit of an NBA championship despite being denied on an annual basis. Bold predictions did not always materialize and some took them as empty promises, while others as a will to succeed. One of the finest shooting centers to play, he left the game as the New York Knicks' all-time leader in nearly every significant category and the game's 13th all-time scorer with 24,815 points.

He arrived in New York after a ballyhooed college career with the Georgetown Hoyas that included one NCAA title and appearances in two other championship games. The team's fierce in-your-face style of basketball created a phenomenon known as "Hoya Paranoia" and as the key intimidating defensive presence, Ewing was tagged the "Hoya Destroya." A media star since his schoolboy days, his anticipated arrival to the NBA was unprecedented.

Never achieving the Holy Grail of the NBA, Ewing came painfully close. He led the Knicks all the way to the NBA Finals in 1994 but lost to the Hakeem Olajuwon-led Houston Rockets in seven games, which avenged a loss by Olajuwon's Houston Cougars to Georgetown in the 1984 NCAA championship game.

Also, at the tail end of Ewing's career with the Knicks, he was sidelined with a partially torn Achilles tendon when the San Antonio Spurs defeated New York in the 1999 NBA Finals.

Some hold that Ewing's failure to win a ring is the litmus test defining his career. But timing is everything and Ewing just happened to be born within five months of both Olajuwon and Michael Jordan, whose Chicago Bulls defeated Ewing's Knicks in five playoff series. In fact, from 1990 through 1998, the NBA championship went to teams that featured either Jordan or Olajuwon.

Nonetheless, Ewing's career highlights and production are impressive. They include averages of 21 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, 11 All-Star berths, an All-NBA First Team bid and six Second Team selections. He was the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1986, was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History and played on two gold medal-winning Olympic basketball teams, in 1984 and 1992.

The Jamaica-born Ewing arrived in the United States at age 11, and the gangly youth who had reached the height of 6-10 by junior high school was initially awkward on the court when introduced to the game. But by the time he was a senior in high school, the world knew he would be something special.

"He will be the next Bill Russell, only better offensively," high school coach Mike Jarvis said of Ewing while the budding giant played at Cambridge (Mass.) Rindge & Latin School. Many had similar thoughts as he was heavily recruited and was the focal point of media attention throughout his basketball career.

He understood the hoopla that came with his stardom but always reserved his right to just play basketball. Perhaps that is why he chose to attend Georgetown, where he blossomed under the mentor-like guidance of coach John Thompson, a 6-10 former NBA backup center to Bill Russell on the Boston Celtics in the mid-1960s. Ewing's pro career was presaged by four superb years at Georgetown. Besides his team accomplishments, he was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player as a junior and as a senior, and his long list of honors included The Sporting News College Player of the Year Award and the Naismith Award.

Although many of his contemporaries -- including Olajuwon, Jordan and Charles Barkley -- were leaving college early to join the NBA, Ewing stayed all four years and earned a degree in Fine Arts. His patience paid off as the yearning for his services reached almost epic proportions with the first-ever NBA Draft Lottery in 1985. As recounted in Sports Illustrated, Los Angeles Clippers president Alan Rothenberg and GM Carl Scheer joked about enlisting 33 (Ewing's jersey number) Hasidic rabbis to chant Ewing's name in unison to enhance the teams chance of winning his draft rights.

This new lottery system was devised to discourage teams from tanking games to get the chance to pick first in the draft. All non-playoff teams would participate in a lottery to determine the order of selection. However, in its introduction, the side effect was similar to a sideshow. Rather than just two teams with high hopes of winning a coin flip, the additional teams multiplied the hype. This first lottery, more television friendly than a coin toss, was broadcasted from New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Mother's Day.

The Knicks, with the third-worst record of the seven teams involved, won the lottery and the rebirth of a venerable old franchise was delivered.

The Knicks obviously wanted Ewing, a potential franchise center, as much as the other lottery teams. However, the expectations for the Knicks were slightly different. The team played in New York, the media capital of the world and to many the Mecca of basketball. Many fans still remembered the halcyon days when Willis Reed and Walt "Clyde" Frazier led the Knicks' championship teams of 1970 and 1973.

In reality, the team was more than respectable. New York had been a playoff team three of the preceding five years, led by 7-1 center Bill Cartwright and the electrifying Bernard King, although Cartwright missed the entire season and King suffered a serious knee injury the year prior to Ewing's arrival. With Cartwright and King sidelined, the team's progress was short-circuited as the record dropped dramatically, putting the team in a position to draft Ewing.

Ewing was still touted as the franchise’s savior. His burden was even heavier than expected in his rookie season without King, who was still out with that knee injury, and Cartwright, who played just two games. Rebuilding the team took a while, but Ewing was an instant success. He averaged 20 points and nine rebounds per game and became the first Knicks player to capture the NBA Rookie of the Year award since Willis Reed in 1964-65, although Ewing missed 32 games because of a knee injury which also caused him to miss the All-Star Game.

Ewing wasn't known for offensive prowess while in college, where Georgetown coach John Thompson placed emphasis on defense and keeping big men in the pivot. But once in the pro ranks, away from the restraints of college opponents sagging on him, Ewing surprised many with his scoring ability, eventually developing an unstoppable baseline jumper.

King played just six games in Ewing's second year and was playing with the Washington Bullets by the third. Ewing was also playing a variety of power forwards and he sometimes teamed with Cartwright in a two-center lineup. Ewing did, however, turn in strong numbers as the Knicks slowly gathered a credible supporting cast.

In his third year, Ewing finished 20th in the NBA in scoring (20.2 ppg), ninth in field-goal percentage (.555) and third in blocked shots (2.99 per game). Rick Pitino took over as head coach prior to the season guided the Knicks to their first playoff berth in four seasons, where the Boston Celtics defeated New York 3-1 in the first-round. Ewing contributed 18.8 points and 12.8 rebounds per game in the series. Ewing also made his second All-Star Game appearance in 1988 and was named to both the All-Defensive Second Team and the All-NBA Second Team at season’s end.

In 1988-89, with Cartwright having been traded to the Bulls for Ewing's eventual right-hand man for the next decade, power forward Charles Oakley, No. 33 became an All-Star for the third time and he earned his second straight berth on both the All-NBA Second Team and the All-Defensive Second Team. The Knicks won the Atlantic Division with a 52-30 record in Rick Pitino’s second and final season as head coach.

Ewing ranked 12th in the NBA in scoring (22.7 ppg), third in blocked shots (3.51 per game), fourth in field-goal percentage (.567) and 20th in rebounding (9.3 rpg). New York advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals before losing to the Chicago Bulls in six games. Ewing averaged 21.3 points and 10.0 rebounds against the Bulls, dominating Game 5 with 32 points, 11 rebounds and five blocked shots.

Ewing put together a spectacular year in 1989-90, ranking second in the league in blocked shots (3.99 per game), third in scoring (a career-high 28.6 ppg), fifth in rebounding (10.9 rpg) and sixth in field-goal percentage (.551). He made his fourth appearance in the NBA All-Star Game and was voted a starter for the first time. At season’s end he earned his only selection to the All-NBA First Team.

Ewing continued to dominate in the playoffs. Down 0-2 to the Celtics in the first-round, Ewing led the Knicks to a series victory after posting 44 points and 13 rebounds in Game 4 and then 31 points in an emotional Game 5 triumph. However, the Knicks were ousted by the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. He averaged 29.4 points in 10 postseason games, highlighted by a 45-point effort in the Knicks’ Game 3 victory against Detroit.

Prior to the 1991-92 season, Pat Riley took over as head coach of New York. For the next four seasons, Ewing anchored one of the best teams in the league as the Knicks won at least 50 games each year and advanced to the NBA Finals in 1994. He was remarkably consistent during that span, averaging between 23.9 and 24.5 points while pulling down at least 11 rebounds per game each year.

New York ended the 1991-92 regular season tied with Boston atop the Atlantic Division. The Knicks then advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, losing to Chicago in a grueling seven-game series. Ewing averaged 22.7 points and 11.1 rebounds during the postseason.

In 1992-93, Ewing finished fourth in the balloting for the NBA Most Valuable Player award after leading the Knicks to the best record in the Eastern Conference at 60-22. An All-Star for the seventh time, Ewing finished sixth in the NBA in scoring (24.2 ppg) and seventh in rebounding with a career-high 12.1 per game.

Ewing averaged 25.5 points and 10.9 rebounds in the 1993 postseason, but for a third straight year the Knicks could not unseat the Bulls. The Knicks lost the Eastern Conference Finals to Chicago in six games after going up 2-0. Momentum swayed to the Bulls after winning Game 5 at Madison Square Garden when point-blank-range shots by Knicks forward Charles Smith were blocked with seconds left.

Ewing led New York to the 1994 NBA Finals, during Jordan's first retirement hiatus. Ewing posted 24 points and 22 boards in a Game 7 win over the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Finals was a referendum of which of the great centers would be remembered as a champion. A tooth-and-nail battle premised on Riley's physical style of play, no team scored a 100 points in any of the seven games. The Rockets stole Game 6 at the Garden and in the decisive game, Knicks shooting guard John Starks shot 2-for-18 from the field and the Rockets won 90-86.

For Ewing it was a crushing end to another fine season. He led the Knicks in scoring (24.5 ppg) for a seventh consecutive year and participated in his eighth NBA All-Star Game. The Knicks co-captain also averaged 11.2 rebounds and 2.75 blocks while becoming New York’s all-time leading scorer, surpassing Walt Frazier.

For the next four seasons, Ewing averaged no less than 20.8 ppg, but the Knicks endured Eastern Conference Semifinal losses in succession to the Pacers, Bulls, Miami Heat (now coached by Riley) and finally the Pacers again.

The first Pacers series loss is remembered by many for Ewing's failure to sink a finger-roll in the waning moments of Game 7, which would have forced overtime. But many also forget that in Game 5, with the Knicks down 3-1, he scored with less than two seconds left to lift the Knicks to a one-point win and save them from elimination. The Heat defeat is noteworthy for the suspension of several players for leaving the bench during a Game 5 scuffle. Without Ewing in Game 6 and other suspended Knicks in Game 7, the Heat came back to win the series.

Ewing missed much of the 1997-98 season with a lunate dislocation and torn ligaments of the right wrist. During Ewing’s rehab, Knicks forward Larry Johnson said, “I thought I was a hard worker, or claimed to be a hard worker, but I’m in there before practice and he looks like he’s already been there an hour. So if anyone can come back, he will.”

He did, defying the doctors' prognosis that he would not be able to return that season. Although Ewing may have lost some of the snap in his shooting motion for the remainder of his career, he returned and played through any discomfort, only to lose in five games to the Pacers in the Conference Finals.

As the 1998-99 season approached, Ewing was consumed with labor negotiations as the Player's Union representative. The season was delayed until February and shortened to a 50-game schedule. Before the start of the season, the team acquired Latrell Sprewell in a deal that sent Starks to the Golden State Warriors, and Marcus Camby arrived from Toronto in exchange for Oakley.

The team had trouble coming together but jelled during the postseason, becoming the first team to ever reach the NBA Finals from the eighth seed. Ewing averaged 17.3 ppg but suffered an injured Achilles tendon in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers. Without Ewing, San Antonio's Tim Duncan and David Robinson were too much for the Knicks as the Spurs won the championship in five games.

Ewing and the Knicks enjoyed one last hurrah in 1999-2000 by eliminating Riley and the Heat from the playoffs for the third consecutive season. But the Pacers defeated New York in the Conference Finals and Ewing's career as a Knick was over.

Unable to agree on a contract extension with Ewing before the 2000-01 season, the Knicks -- with the veteran center's blessing -- traded him to the Seattle SuperSonics. Knicks fans had mixed emotions about Ewing's departure. Some could never forgive him for not bringing the title back to New York, or for his sense of privacy that limited a personal connection with the fans. Others appreciated his productive work ethic, the excitement he brought to the Garden and his commitment to the franchise.

He played just one season as a Sonic and another as a backup with the Orlando Magic. After announcing his retirement, he was hired as an assistant coach by the Washington Wizards, joining Jordan in his old nemesis' final season as a player.

Ewing's No. 33 was retired before a Madison Square Garden crowd on February 28, 2003. As reported on the Knicks' official Web site, as the moment approached prior to halftime, the Garden was buzzing with a chant of "P-a-a-at-t-tri-i-i-ck E-e-e-wi-i-ing!!! Pa-a-a-tr-i-i-ck E-e-e-wi-i-ingggg!" Louder and louder the chant grew to an almost unreachable crescendo.

The scene was reminiscent of the many spring playoff dates the Garden hosted during Ewing's career. Jordan may have said it best, "He has a heart of a champion. When you thought about New York, you thought of Patrick Ewing. He came and gave life back into the city."



Magic Johnson

Full Name: Earvin Johnson Jr.
Born: 8/14/59 in Lansing, Mich.
Height: 6-9; Weight: 255 lbs.
High School: Everett (Lansing)
College: Michigan State
Drafted by: L.A. Lakers (1979)
Transactions: Retired, 11/7/91; Activated, 1/29/96; Retired, 5/14/96 Nickname: Magic
Honors: Elected to Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (2002); NBA champion (1980, '82, '85, '87, '88); NBA Finals MVP (1980, '82, '87); NBA MVP (1987, '89, '90); Nine-time All-NBA First Team (1983-91); All-NBA Second Team (1982); 12-time All-Star; All-Star MVP (1990, '92); Olympic gold medalist (1992); One of 50 Greatest Players in NBA History (1996).

Few athletes are truly unique, changing the way their sport is played with their singular skills. Earvin "Magic" Johnson was one of them.

Just how great a basketball player was Johnson? So great, perhaps, that future generations of hoop fans may wish they had entered the world years earlier -- just so they could have seen Magic play in person instead of watching him only on highlight reels.

He was what Bob Cousy was to the 1950s, what Oscar Robertson was to the 1960s, what Julius Erving was to the 1970s.

Still, Earvin Johnson was even more than a revolutionary player, who, at 6-9, was the tallest point guard in league history. His sublime talent elicited wonder and admiration from even the most casual basketball fan.

Whether it was a behind-the-back pass to a streaking James Worthy, a half-court swish at the buzzer or a smile that illuminated an arena, everyone who saw Johnson play took with them an indelible memory of what they had witnessed. From the moment he stepped onto the court, people pondered: How could a man so big do so many things with the ball and with his body? It was Magic.

Johnson accomplished virtually everything a player could dream of during his 13-year NBA career, all of which was spent with the Los Angeles Lakers. He was a member of five championship teams. He won the Most Valuable Player Award and the Finals MVP Award three times each. He was a 12-time All-Star and a nine-time member of the All-NBA First Team. He surpassed Robertson's career assists record, a mark he later relinquished to John Stockton. He won a gold medal with the original Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

His all-around play inspired the addition of the term "triple-double" to basketball's lexicon, although history demands that Robertson be recognized as the first man to regularly post double figures in three statistical categories in the same game. Unfortunately for the Big O, nobody had thought of the term triple-double back in the 1960s.

Johnson did all of this while maintaining a childlike enthusiasm born of a pure love of sport and competition. Beyond all the money, success and fame, Johnson was just happy to be playing basketball.

If there was one aspect of Johnson's game that awed people the most, it was his brilliant passing skills. He dazzled fans and dumbfounded opponents with no-look passes off the fastbreak, pinpoint alley-oops from halfcourt, spinning feeds and overhand bullets under the basket through triple teams. When defenders expected him to pass, he shot. When they expected him to shoot, he passed.

Said former Lakers swingman Michael Cooper: "There have been times when he has thrown passes and I wasn't sure where he was going. Then one of our guys catches the ball and scores, and I run back up the floor convinced that he must've thrown it through somebody."

Born on August 14, 1959, Earvin Johnson Jr. grew up in Lansing, Mich., with nine brothers and sisters. His father worked in a General Motors plant; his mother was a school custodian. Young Earvin passed the time by singing on street corners with his buddies and, of course, by playing basketball. "Junior," or "June Bug" as his neighbors called him, was on the court by 7:30 many mornings.

"I practiced all day," Johnson told USA Weekend. "I dribbled to the store with my right hand and back with my left. Then I slept with my basketball."

Johnson was first called "Magic" when he was a star at Everett High School. He was given the nickname by a sports writer who had just seen the 15-year-old prepster notch 36 points, 16 rebounds and 16 assists. (Johnson's mother, a devout Christian, thought the nickname was blasphemous.) As a senior, Johnson led Everett to a 27-1 record and the state title while averaging 28.8 points and 16.8 rebounds.

Johnson wanted to attend college close to home, so he enrolled at Michigan State in East Lansing. He put up impressive numbers as a freshman (17.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 7.4 apg), leading the Spartans to a 25-5 record and the Big Ten Conference title. As an All-America sophomore Johnson directed his team to the national title in 1979, beating Larry Bird's Indiana State squad in perhaps the most anticipated (and most watched) NCAA Championship Game ever played.

Having accomplished all he wanted to on the college level, Johnson passed up his final two seasons and entered the 1979 NBA Draft. The Utah Jazz were supposed to draft in the first position, but the Jazz had conveyed their 1979 first-round pick to the Los Angeles Lakers three years earlier as compensation for the free-agent signing of Gail Goodrich. Thus the Lakers took Johnson with the first overall pick.

The team had just undergone big changes: a new coach in Jack McKinney, a new owner in Dr. Jerry Buss, and seven new faces on the court. With the country's most exciting college player in a Lakers uniform, Buss hoped the normally reserved Forum crowds would get up off their hands and onto their feet. "Showtime" was born.

Fans attending Johnson's first game witnessed the sort of exuberance he would display throughout his entire career. After a buzzer-beating shot by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to defeat the San Diego Clippers on opening night, Johnson went berserk, distributing bone-jarring high-fives and bear hugs. At this rate, most observers thought, the kid would burn out in no time. Even Abdul-Jabbar had to tell the rookie to cool it, because there were 81 more games yet to play -- and that didn't count playoffs.

That season's NBA Rookie of the Year Award went to Bird of the Boston Celtics. But the NBA champion was Los Angeles. The Lakers rolled to the Western Division title with a 60-22 record, the league's second best. (Paul Westhead took over as coach after McKinney was seriously hurt in a bicycle crash 14 games into the season.) In 77 games Johnson's numbers mirrored those of his days at Michigan State (18.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 7.3 apg). He became the first rookie to start in an NBA All-Star Game since Elvin Hayes 11 years earlier.

In the 1980 NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, Johnson's performance in the series-clinching sixth game was the stuff of legend. Abdul-Jabbar was sidelined with a badly sprained ankle sustained during his 40-point effort in Game 5. Up 3-2, the Lakers could wrap things up on the 76ers' home court.

Enter Johnson, the 20-year-old rookie. Assuming Abdul-Jabbar's position at center, Johnson sky-hooked and rebounded the Lakers to victory with 42 points, 15 boards, seven assists and three steals. He even jumped for the opening tap. Johnson became the first rookie ever to win the Finals MVP Award. The stunning effort exemplified his uncanny ability to do whatever the Lakers needed in order to win.

In the Los Angeles Times, Westhead said of his amazing rookie: "We all thought he was a movie-star player, but we found out he wears a hard hat. It's like finding a great orthopedic surgeon who can also operate a bulldozer."

The next year was not nearly as kind to Johnson or to the Lakers. In the first month, 7-2 Tom Burleson of the Atlanta Hawks fell on Johnson's left knee, forcing him to miss 45 games with torn cartilage. He came back in time for the Lakers' best-of-3 playoff series against the Houston Rockets. Johnson had made only 2 of his 13 field-goal attempts when he tossed up an airball as time ran out in Game 3. The Lakers lost the game, 89-86, and the series.

Johnson and the Lakers rebounded in 1981-82, winning their division and defeating the 76ers in another six-game NBA Finals in which Johnson repeated as MVP. The season also had its share of ugliness. Early on, Westhead wanted to restructure the offense in a way that Johnson believed would have reduced his role. In a widely reported incident, Johnson exploded in the lockerroom after a game in Utah. "I can't play here anymore. I want to leave. I want to be traded," he was quoted as saying. Reporters waited for the signal that Johnson was joking. It didn't come.

Westhead was fired the next day and replaced with assistant coach Pat Riley. At Riley's first home game, fans at the Forum booed Johnson during introductions. In Seattle he was jeered whenever he touched the ball. He paid the price in the All-Star balloting and was not selected as a starter for the only time in his career other than his injury season. It took Johnson's stellar playoff performance to silence the hecklers.

On the court, Johnson's play was as splendid as it was consistent. He won his second consecutive steals title that season and for the remainder of his career would never dip below averages of 17.6 points, 5.9 rebounds and 10.5 assists.

The two years following the Westhead flap were great for Johnson individually but tough for Los Angeles. Johnson won the first two of his four league assists titles and continued to improve upon his already brilliant all-around play. In the 1982-83 NBA Finals against rival Philadelphia, however, Lakers Norm Nixon, Worthy and Bob McAdoo were all hampered by injury. The 76ers swept the series.

By the 1984 NBA Finals, Nixon was gone, Abdul-Jabbar was pushing 40 and Johnson had signed a then record 25-year, $25 million contract. The grueling seven-game series against Boston marked a low point in Johnson's career. His playmaking gaffes at the end of Games 2, 4 and 7 contributed to the Lakers' defeat.

With Johnson improving his outside shot and setting assists records, the Lakers won three NBA titles in the next four years. The first of this string came in the 1985 Finals win over their nemesis the Celtics. After being destoyed in Game 1 of the series ,148-114, dubbed the "Memorial Day Massacre" as the game was played on that holiday, the Lakers would rebound to take the series in six games. The decisive victory came on the Garden parquet floor 111-100 and marked the first time the Lakers defeated the Celtics in a Finals after eight previous failures strecthing back to when the Lakers played in Minneapolis.

During the 1986-87 season, with Abdul-Jabbar sidelined briefly with an eye infection, Johnson did something most pro scouts had said he couldn't do: score. He pumped in 38 points against Houston and then a career-high 46 points in the next game against the Sacramento Kings. His 23.9 season average was the highest of his career.

That season, Johnson was named NBA Most Valuable Player. It had taken him eight years, in which time Bird had landed three MVP Awards. Johnson had wanted it badly. Before the winner was announced, Johnson told the Los Angeles Times, "Right now, he's 3 and I'm 0. That bugs me a little." (He would eventually tie Bird in the MVP count, claiming the award again in 1989 and 1990.)

Johnson won his third Finals MVP Award in 1987, following a six-game victory over Boston. It was also the year that Johnson took Abdul-Jabbar's place as leader of the team. In games of H-O-R-S-E during practice, the 40-year-old center taught his protégé how to shoot a sky-hook. Johnson quickly mastered his own version of the shot, which he used to make the game-winning basket in the Game 4 victory at the Garden, 107-106. That win propelled the Lakers to a second Finals' win over the Celtics in three years.

In 1988, the Lakers edged the Detroit Pistons in a bitter seven-game series to become the first team since the 1968-69 Celtics to repeat as champs. The following two seasons Johnson averaged more than 20 points and led the Lakers to two more division titles. In 1988-89, Abdul-Jabbar's final season, Johnson suffered a hamstring injury in the NBA Finals and the Lakers were swept by a well-rounded Pistons team. The next year Los Angeles suffered its earliest departure from the playoffs in nine years, losing to the Phoenix Suns in the Conference Semifinals.

Johnson in the 1990-91 campaign helped the Lakers to a 58-24 record. After upsetting a Clyde Drexler-led Portland TrailBlazers team that won the Pacific Division in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers made another trip to the NBA Finals. The Lakers lost to the Chicago Bulls andMichael Jordan in five games, but it was the ninth time Johnson had reached the Finals in his 12 seasons.

Before the 1991-92 campaign Johnson stunned the world with the announcement that he had tested positive for the HIV virus and was retiring from the NBA. He made a triumphant appearance at the All-Star Game that season, however, earning the game's MVP Award and leading the West to a 153-113 victory. He also began a campaign to promote AIDS awareness, an effort for which he received the league's J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award.

Johnson went on to play for the 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team, write a book about safe sex, run several businesses he had started as a player, work for NBC as a television commentator and explore the possibility of purchasing an NBA franchise. With 16 games left to play in the 1993-94 season, he replaced Randy Pfund as the head coach of the Lakers.

The team was fighting for a playoff berth when Johnson assumed the reins, and Los Angeles immediately won five straight. But after the club lost five of its next six outings, Johnson announced that he would not return as coach the following season.

"I want to go home," he told theAssociated Press. "It's never been my dream to coach. I want to own, to be a businessman. You've got to chase your dreams." Johnson got his wish in June 1994, when he purchased a share of the Lakers and became a part-owner.

In 1995 Johnson got involved in another business venture, opening a chain of movie theaters in minority neighborhoods in the Los Angeles area, an enterprise he later took to other cities.. He also continued to entertain fans around the world when he took his barnstorming basketball team (made up of former college and NBA players) to Asia and Australia.

But he wasn't through with the NBA. After sitting out 4 1/2 seasons he made a comeback late in the 1995-96 campaign, playing the final 32 games of the regular season for the Lakers. By then he had bulked up to 255 pounds and did as much of his playing at power forward as he did at guard. After the Lakers were ousted by Houston in the First Round of the 1996 playoffs, Johnson retired once again.

In his 13 NBA seasons Johnson compiled 17,707 points (19.5 ppg), 6,559 rebounds (7.2 rpg) and 10,141 assists (11.2 apg) in addition to 1,724 steals, good for ninth place on the all-time list. He also holds the top marks for most All-Star Game assists (127) and three-point baskets (10).

In 1996-97, Johnson was selected to the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team. In 2002, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Was he the best player of his day? Another all-time great thinks so.

"Magic is head-and-shoulders above everybody else," Larry Bird once observed in the Chicago Sun-Times. "I've never seen [anybody] as good as him."



Michael Jordan

Full Name: Michael Jeffrey Jordan
Born: 2/17/63 in Brooklyn, NY
Drafted by: Chicago Bulls, 1984
Transactions: Retired, 10/6/93; Activated from retirement, 3/18/95; Retired, 1/13/99; Signed with Washington Wizards, 9/25/01.
High School: Laney (Wilmington, NC)
College: North Carolina
Nickname: Air Jordan Height: 6-6; Weight: 216 lbs.
Honors: Six-time NBA champion (1991-93, 1996-98); NBA MVP (1988, '91, '92, '96, '98); 10-time All-NBA First Team (1987-93, 1996-98); All-NBA Second Team (1985); Defensive Player of the Year (1988); Nine-time All-Defensive First Team (1988-93, 1996-98); Rookie of the Year (1985); 14-time All-Star; All-Star MVP (1988, '96, '98); One of 50 Greatest Players in NBA History (1996); Two-time Olympic gold medalist (1984, '92).

By acclamation, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time. Although, a summary of his basketball career and influence on the game inevitably fails to do it justice, as a phenomenal athlete with a unique combination of grace, speed, power, artistry, improvisational ability and an unquenchable competitive desire, Jordan single-handedly redefined the NBA superstar.

Even contemporaneous superstars recognized the unparalleled position of Jordan. Magic Johnson said, "There's Michael Jordan and then there is the rest of us." Larry Bird, following a playoff game where Jordan dropped 63 points on the Boston Celtics in just his second season, appraisal of the young player was: "God disguised as Michael Jordan.

A brief listing of his top accomplishments would include the following: Rookie of the Year; Five-time NBA MVP; Six-time NBA champion; Six-time NBA Finals MVP; Ten-time All-NBA First Team; Nine time NBA All-Defensive First Team; Defensive Player of the Year; 14-time NBA All-Star; Three-time NBA All-Star MVP; 50th Anniversary All-Time Team; Ten scoring titles -- an NBA record and seven consecutive matching Wilt Chamberlain; Retired with the NBA's highest scoring average of 30.1ppg.

However, his impact is far greater than awards and championships. He burst into the league as a rookie sensation scoring in droves with an unmatchable first step and acrobatic drives and dunks and concluded his career as a cultural icon. Along the way, he became a true champion who spearheaded the globalization of the NBA with his dynamic on court abilities and personal sense of style that was marketed to the masses.

He was an accessible star who managed to maintain an air of mystique. He was visible as "Air Jordan," as part of a sneaker advertising campaign and endorsing other products as well as the star of the movie, Space Jam. However, he would vanish into retirement twice only to return until hanging up the sneakers for the last time after the 2002-03 season.

Although Brooklyn born, Jordan was bred in the more tranquil North Carolina. The son of Delores and James Jordan, he shared a special bond with his father, which included baseball being both of their first love. However, following his older brother, Larry, whom he idolized and was a spectacular athlete in his own right, Jordan began to play basketball.

He attended Laney High school in Wilmington, North Carolina, but as a 5-11 skinny sophomore, he was cut from the varsity basketball team. The summer before his junior year, he grew to 6-3 and began his path to super-stardom.

A Tar Heel at heart, the high school All-American attended the University of North Carolina. As a freshman, he played somewhat in the shadows of upperclassmen James Worthy and Sam Perkins. However, he shone in the spotlight of the NCAA Championship game against Georgetown and another great freshman Patrick Ewing, whom he would foil future NBA championships for as well. Jordan scored 16 points, grabbed nine rebounds and made the winning basket on a 16-foot jumper with 18 seconds in the game for the 63-62 victory.

As a sophomore, he was named College Player of the Year by The Sporting News. As a junior, he received that award again as well as the Naismith and Wooden Awards. After his junior year he was chosen with the third overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls.

The Houston Rockets selected 7-0 center Hakeem Olajuwon form the University of Houston with the No.1 pick, which most expected. The Portland Trail Blazers, however, with the No. 2 pick chose 7-1 center Sam Bowie from Kentucky, which was not as anticipated. Bowie had suffered several injuries while in college but the Blazers bypassed Jordan because just the year before the team selected another exciting shooting guard in Clyde Drexler. Although Drexler went onto to be a star, Bowie was an injury prone player with a journeyman pro career

However, Jordan, coming off a gold medal performance at the 1984 Olympics prospered in the pro game with a fabulous first season, earning the NBA Rookie of the Year Award. He averaged 28.2 ppg, (third behind Bernard King and Bird) 6.5 rpg and 5.9 apg. He also was selected to the All-NBA Second Team. Perhaps more important, the Bulls improved to win 11 more games than in the season prior to his arrival and made it to the playoffs. Jordan averaged 29.3 ppg in the first round series, but the Bulls lost in four games to the Milwaukee Bucks.

In his first season, he did not have outstanding shooting range and was thought to roam to often on defense resulting from playing trapping defenses in college according to his first NBA coach, Kevin Loughery. Yet, his medium game--eight to 15-feet from the basket was impressive as evidence by his .515 field-goal shooting percentage and his steals tended to compensate for his less than stellar straight-up defense. Improvement in both areas would come and he would ultimately be regarded as threat from anywhere on the floor and one of the best ever one-on-one defenders.

Even in the exhibition season before his rookie campaign, players and coaches were sure that the Rockets and Blazers would regret their picks. King, the eventual leading scorer for that upcoming season, seemed sure as well when he spoke to Hoop magazine after a 1984 preseason game.

"All I can say," King says, "is that the people in Chicago are in for a real treat."

He was right. Jordan's greatness and likeabilty was apparent in just his first season. Home attendance at the venerable Chicago Stadium and on the road rose dramatically. Fans of opposing teams were seemingly content to see their team lose if in return Jordan put on show.

Jordan's personal style was equally authentic and unique as his basketball skills. Nike signed him to a major shoe deal because of his anticipated appeal, but he surpassed even the loftiest of expectations. One version of the sneakers he wore in his first preseason was an unseen before blend of his team's red and black colors that the NBA initially considered in violation of the "uniformity of uniform rule." Subject to fines if he continued to wear them, he occasionally did and the demand for that version and others in the Air Jordan line was unprecedented.

He also had a clause in his contract that allowed him, unlike most other NBA players, to play basketball anytime in the off-season -- known as the "love-of-the-game clause."

He dangled his tongue out of his mouth -- picked up from observing his dad working on mechanical devices -- as he levitated toward the basket and it became one of his first trademarks in personal style. He continued to wear the shorts of his beloved North Carolina basketball uniform under his Bulls uniform. This may have led him to wear longer game shorts although he has said that the extra length allowed him to bend at the waist and tug at the hem for a good resting position. Either way, the trend toward the baggy shorts was started and the entire league and sport would follow.

The rookie's mesmerizing effect was even suggested to have extended to referees as it was said that he was getting veteran preferential treatment allowing him to take that additional step on route to the basket rather than being whistle for a travelling violation. Many assessed that he eluded defenders so easily that he had to be travelling. However, video break down established that his first step was just so quick and that he was not in violation of the rulebook.

Despite all the attention, Jordan retained a sense of humility. He did not ridicule the Blazers for not taking him. Early on in his first season, he told Sports Illustrated, "He [Bowie] fits in better than I would. They have an overabundance of big guards and small forwards." His self-effacement was more apparent when in that same article he said, "I'd like to play in at least one All-Star game."

That goal was quickly accomplished as later that season he was voted a starter to the 1985 All-Star East squad. There, he probably faced one of his first professional obstacles. The media ran with the idea that Eastern All-Star teammate Detroit Pistons' Isiah Thomas, had led a "freeze-out" of the golden rookie limiting his opportunities to score by not passing him the ball.

Jordan scored seven points in 22 minutes and was left to face questions concerning the alleged conspiracy. The affair grew a life of its own over the years, but Thomas refuted such accusations. The whole ordeal would come full circle when Thomas, as the coach of the 2003 East All-Star squad, persuaded Toronto Raptors' Vince Carter to relinquish his starting role to Jordan in his last midseason classic.

Three games into his second season, he broke a bone in his left foot. He was voted to the All-Star team but could not play as he was sidelined for 64 games. However, he came back late in the year to score a NBA playoff-record 63 points in a first-round game against the Celtics. The Bulls lost that game 132-131 in double-overtime and the series in a sweep, but Jordan averaged 43.7 ppg in the series. If there were any doubters to that point about Jordan's ability, surely there were no more.

Starting with the 1986-87 season he began a career-long onslaught on the NBA record book. That year saw him average 37.1 points in the first of seven consecutive seasons in which he led the league in scoring and topped 30 points per contest. Jordan scored 40 or more points in nine consecutive games and 23 straight in one game to set an NBA record. At the All-Star Weekend, he won the first of two consecutive Slam Dunk com petitions. However, again, the Celtics swept the Bulls in the first-round of the playoffs

That off-season, the Bulls began assembling a championship caliber team by drafting power forward Horace Grant and acquiring the versatile small forward Scottie Pippen from tiny Central Arkansas in a draft day trade with the Seattle SuperSonics for former University of Virgina center Olden Polyinice. In 1987-88, Jordan won every major award including MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and All-Star MVP. With the help of his teammates, Jordan led the Bulls to a first-round playoff win over the Cleveland Cavaliers before falling to the Pistons in five games in the conference semifinals.

The Pistons known as the "Bad Boys" for its aggressive style of play would defeat Jordan and the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals in the next two seasons as well. Utilizing a defensive scheme developed by Head Coach Chuck Daly and his staff, known as the "Jordan Rules", the Pistons dared Jordan to single-handily win games with constant double and triple teaming. The Bulls, however, were nudging to a championship as each successive season the team would get closer.

In the 1988-89 season, perhaps Jordan's best statistical campaign, he led the league with 32.5 ppg, was tenth in assists with a career high 8.0 apg and had a career high 8.0 rpg. He also ranked third in steals with 2.89 per game. Jordan propelled the Bulls past the Cavs in the first round of the playoffs as in the decisive Game 5; he scored the memorable buzzer beater-floating jumper over Craig Ehlo for a 101-100 victory.

Prior to the beginning of the 1989-90 season, Sports Illustrated published an article on Jordan's emerging golf game and his thoughts about joining the PGA tour after his NBA career was over. Chicago management, however, was making other moves.

That off-season, the Bulls let go Head Coach Doug Collins and hired Phil Jackson. Under Jackson's leadership, the Bulls instituted the triangle offense --a fluid passing and cutting system that created opportunities for all five players on the floor to score, but when the play broke down and the shot clock waned, Jordan had free reign to create his own shot.

The Bulls went 55-27 that season, the franchise's best record since 1971-72. Jordan set his career game-high in points with 69 against the Cavs in a 117-113 overtime win. He also emerged as a three-point threat, posting a .376 percentage -- 100 percentage points above his previous best. However, the Pistons defeated the Bulls in a tough seven game series in the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals.

That third consecutive playoff defeat to the Pistons prompted many to think out-loud that a scoring champion like Jordan could not lead his team to a title.

Were they ever wrong. The next year, Jordan led the Bulls as the team waltzed through the postseason losing only twice en route to the franchise's first NBA title. The redemptive blow was the sweep of the Pistons in the conference finals. And after losing the first game at home to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, the Bulls stormed back to win four straight to end the last remnants of the "Showtime" Lakers as Magic Johnson would retire before the beginning of the next season. Jordan averaged 31.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 8.4 apg earning the first of six NBA Finals MVP awards.

Jordan, who by now shaved his head completely bald triggering another trend and making him recognizable by just the dark rounded silhouette of his head, was now known as a champion. He was also known to be ultra-demanding of his teammates, ruffling more than a few feathers with his critiques. But winning was the soothing elixir. The Bulls would go on to successfully defend its title for two consecutive seasons, defeating both Drexler and the Blazers and the Charles Barkley-led Phoenix Suns in six games.

By the end of that three-year run, Jordan had eclipsed stardom and approached folk hero status. Early into his career, he drew Peter Pan like admiration for his gravity defying leaps and belief that he would remain youthful forever. However, during the three-peat, players and teams seemed to concede that the title was Jordan. He garnered a legion of fans young and old alike but in particular to kids he was a Pied Piper figure who were asked to follow him with his sports drink "Be Like Mike" advertising campaign.

In the 1992 Finals, Jordan opened up Game 1 with a record setting 35-point first-half performance to lead the Bulls to a 122-89 rout. Jordan seemed unstoppable as he drained several three-pointers over Blazer defenders and after one made three he shrugged his shoulders as if to say, I don't even know what's going on here. The Blazers bounced back and seemed poised to force a Game 7 as it took a 79-64 lead into the fourth quarter of Game 6. However, the Bulls roared back for a 97-93 series clinching win.

In 1993, Jordan led the Bulls past the Patrick Ewing-led Knicks for the fourth time in five postseasons -- this time in the Eastern Conference Finals in six games with out the home court advantage. Jordan scored 54 points in a 105-95 Game 4 win. And in the series' turning point that was Game 5, Jordan recorded a triple double (29 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists). But the crucial play was Pippen's successive blocks of putback attempts by the Knicks' Charles Smith in the final seconds that allowed the Bulls to escape the Garden with a 97-94 win. The Bulls sealed the series with a 96-88 victory in Game 6.

In the Finals, Jordan set a Finals record as he posted a 41.0 ppg average in the six game series victory over the Suns. In the decisive Game Six, the Bulls again stormed back to overcome a fourth quarter deficit. This time, Jordan scored nine straight points down the stretch leading to John Paxson's game winning three-pointer with 3.9 seconds on the clock for a 98-97 victory.

That summer, Jordan was the key figure in forming the Dream Team that competed in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. The 12-member roster, full of the era's best players were respected as basketball royalty by its opponents whom they outclassed on the way to the gold medal and idolized like pop icons by the world's fans.

But trouble was brewing. Jordan was under scrutiny for what was thought to be poor decisions with respect to his gambling endeavors. But that paled in comparison to the loss of his father who was murdered during an armed robbery. His father was Jordan's main confidant whom could be seen with his son on a regular basis as he climbed the ladder of success.

Emotionally drained and seeking new challenges, just one day before the start of training camp, Jordan stunned the basketball world by announcing his retirement.

After much speculation about his plans, Jordan returned to the spotlight in a baseball uniform. Attempting to fulfill a dream inspired by his father, the younger Jordan set his sights on Major League Baseball. He spent the 1994 baseball season playing for the Birmingham Barons, an affiliate of the Chicago White Sox in the Class AA Southern League.

He was a competent if unspectacular performer. But Jordan's hope of reaching the big leagues seemed dim, and with Major League Baseball embroiled in a labor dispute as the 1995 season neared, he focused his competitive fire back on the NBA. Late in the 1994-95 NBA season, he came out of retirement with the succinct statement of "I'm Back."

He was back, albeit with the unorthodox No. 45 as he wanted to leave No. 23 behind, and attempted to carry the Bulls to another title. Jordan averaged 26.9 points in 17 regular-season games, which the Bulls played to a record of 13-4.

The most memorable game of the initial comeback occurred six games in when he scored 55 points against the Knicks in the Garden. That game, dubbed "Double Nickel," was extraordinary in that a new Jordan emerged. Robbed of his youthful bounce at age 32, he turned primarily to fade-away jump shots and spinning layups. And in the waning moments of a tie game, he drew attention as he dribbled around the perimeter then passed to a wide-open Bill Wennington under the basket for the winning points in a 113-111 victory.

His coach, Jackson, in the aftermath said, "It's rare that players can live quite up to New York. I've seen a lot of them fall flat on their faces because of the pressure to perform there. But he had the whole evening in the palm of his hand. Sometimes the game just seems to gravitate into his grasp."

In the playoffs, he poured in 31.5 ppg. But despite Jordan's presence in the lineup, the Bulls didn't have quite enough to get past the Orlando Magic in the conference semifinals. Chicago lost to the Shaquille O'Neal-led Magic in six games.

Jordan's championship quest was fulfilled the following season with almost a whole new band of players than in his first title runs. He began the season with his old No. 23 uniform but only his sidekick Pippen remaining from the first three championship teams. The Bulls added Dennis Rodman, an enigmatic player but a rebounding and defensive phenom.

The team enjoyed one of the most remarkable years ever posted by any club. Jordan led the NBA with 30.4 ppg as the Bulls charged to a record 72 victories during the regular season, then stormed through the playoffs with a 15-3 record ending in a six game series win over the Sonics.

Poignantly, Jordan recaptured the title on Father's Day and cradled the ball after the decisive game in a heap on the floor of the United Center, which replaced Chicago Stadium during his retirement, unabashedly crying. The emotional impact of the moment was overwhelming.

Along the way, Jordan captured the MVP awards for the regular season, All-Star Game and Finals, joining Willis Reed (1970) as the only men to win all three honors in the same season.

Although he had relinquished the MVP award to Karl Malone in 1996-97, Jordan was awarded MVP in 1997-98 and again led the Bulls to the NBA Championship with a satisfying six-game victory over Malone's Utah Jazz. Despite a horrible case of stomach flu in a critical Game Five, he would not let his team lose. He scored 38 points and the Bulls won the game and then the title at home in Game Six. He was also named the NBA Finals MVP for the fifth time.

The Bulls duplicated the three-peat in 1998-99 with another six game series win over the Jazz. Jordan with his team down three points at the close of Game Six, scored on driving move to the basket. And on the next Jazz possession, he stole the ball from Malone in the post to set-up his game winning jump shot. The shot over Bryon Russell with 6.6 seconds left on the clock is etched in many fans mind and photographic history.

After labor negotiations were resolved leaving a shortened season in 1999; Jordan left the game saying, "Right now I don't have the mental challenges that I have had in the past to proceed as a basketball player." Despite not playing for three seasons during his second retirement, Jordan was still probably the most recognizable athlete in the world.

However, after assuming an ownership and team executive role with the Washington Wizards in 2000, he returned to play the game he loves, after being visibly frustrated in the owners' box with the team's performance. On Sept. 25, 2001, he signed a two-year contract with the Wizards for the veteran's minimum.

Jordan brought in his old Bulls' coach Doug Collins and tried mightily to revive a once accomplished franchise that had sunken to moribund levels. But the Wizards, although an attendance draw around the league, failed to make the playoffs in Jordan's two years. However, moments of the great Jordan were apparent such as scoring 40 points a few days after his 40th birthday in the 2002-03 season.

He left as a player to return to an ownership and executive role with the belief that with the cluster of young stars, the NBA was in fine shape. Above all, Jordan recognized his place in the game. In his book, For The Love of The Game: My Story, Jordan wrote: "There is no such thing as a perfect basketball player, and I don't believe there is only one greatest player either. Everyone plays in different eras. I built my talents on the shoulders of someone else's talent. I believe greatness is an evolutionary process that changes and evolves era to era. Without Julius Erving, David Thompson, Walter Davis, and Elgin Baylor there would never have been a Michael Jordan. I evolved from them."

At the turn of the 21st century, ESPN, the preeminent all-sports network, conducted an expansive survey of media members, athletes and others associated with the sports world to rank the 20th century's greatest athletes. Jordan topped the list above Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali -- substantiating his link to those earlier cultural icons.


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