W.C. Heinz, one of the greatest sportswriters who ever lived, once wrote this of Sugar Ray Robinson:
"When the young assault me with their atomic miracles and reject my Crosby records and find comical the movies that once moved me, I shall entice them into talking about fighters. Robinson will be a form of social security for me, because they will have seen nothing like him, and I am convinced they never will."
So Robinson, called the best pound-for-pound fighter who ever lived, praised this way by a writer like Bill Heinz, was Bill's social security. Michael Jordan is mine.
Michael received a Presidential Medal of Freedom on Tuesday, along with Vin Scully and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Robert Redford and Tom Hanks and Ellen DeGeneres and Lorne Michaels and others who have led fine and distinguished American lives. So this was fine company for Michael. But he was fine company for all of the others, as big a star as any of them, as big as American sports has ever produced.
Anybody who follows sports, who loves sports and considers sports high art, has the one they consider to be The One. Michael Jordan was that for me, absolutely. I know that Bill Russell won more championships with the old Celtics than Michael did with the Bulls, even though I will always believe that Michael would have added two more to his six if he hadn't gone off to play Minor League baseball in the middle of his basketball prime. So those numbers are what they are. But in my own years covering sports and loving sports myself and considering sports high art, Michael Jordan was the greatest team athlete I ever saw. He was the main event, even more than Ali.
I was in the Superdome in New Orleans the night he won the NCAA championship for North Carolina, a left-side jumper to beat Patrick Ewing and Georgetown. I've told this story before, but years later, a friend of mine was sitting in a bar one night with the late Dean Smith one night after a coaches' convention, and asked him what the play was that night.
"The play was for Michael to get the ball," Dean told my friend.
My friend, a big basketball fan, said that, no, Dean had misunderstood the question: He wanted to know what that play was called.
And Dean Smith smiled at him and said, "The play was for Michael to get the ball."
When we were at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, there was no drama, because the U.S. team that year, coached by Bob Knight, was that good. One day in the press seats, I suggested that we should be really scoring Michael's performance the way the judges scored gymnastics, and hold up a score of 9 or 10 every time he did something that nobody else in the game could do. Because he was that good.
We will always remember Michael and Magic and Larry and the rest of them being the Dream Team in Barcelona eight years later. But in LA in '84, there were all these times when Michael looked like a Dream Team all by himself.
And we will always remember everything he did in the NBA Finals, remember the shot against Bryon Russell and the Jazz that we thought at the time was the final basket of his career, the night the Bulls were winning their sixth title. There was the night against Magic Johnson and the Lakers, in old Chicago Stadium, in the Finals of '91, right in front of where the baseline press seats were that night, when Michael drove down the lane, tongue hanging out, ball in his right hand, looking as if he were going to dunk the ball again.
But then he pulled it down and somehow found air space -- or maybe Air space- - to his left and got to the left side of the basket and laid the ball in with his left hand. In real time that night, from about 30 feet away from him, Michael seemed to have been in the air for about 30 seconds.
Even at the end of his career, when he was 40 and with the Wizards, he ended up averaging exactly 20 points per game for the season: 20.0. He scored 15 points in his last game against the 76ers and you can be dead certain that he knew just how many points he needed to average 20 for the season. And so you know? He played 82 games that season. He averaged 37 minutes a game. There's a reason why he still thought he could have gone out and scored 20 when he was 50.
Once in sports, in another time, the highest praise for a gifted athlete, a star athlete, was that he had some Willie Mays in him. For me, once I saw Jordan, game after game and season after season, the standard was Michael Jordan.
Six NBA titles. Two Olympic gold medals. One NCAA championship. A record of 6-0 in the NBA Finals. And with all that, with all the winning he did, the best memory for me, came at Madison Square Garden in March of 1995.
Michael had left Minor League baseball and returned to the Bulls with this statement: I'm back. Just over a week later, and in just his fifth game since returning to the NBA, he came into the Garden and had 20 that night after the first quarter and 35 at halftime and 49 after three. And then on the play that won the game for the Bulls, already sitting on 55 -- "Double nickel," as Spike Lee called it -- Michael had a different ending than the one the place expected from him. He didn't take the last shot. He looked like he was going to, but then he threw the ball under the basket to Bill Wennington and Wennington's basket made it 113-111 for the Bulls.
"I knew I could still do it," Jordan said. "But when? I couldn't say it would be in New York."
Maybe it had to be in New York and had to be the Garden, after everything that he had done to the Knicks in the playoffs over the years, when he had made shots from everywhere and made dunks you had to see to believe. Later he would even make a free throw with his eyes closed in an NBA All-Star Game. Why? Because he could.
Still: It was the double nickel that was as theatrical as anything I had ever seen from him and anything I had ever seen in the Garden, and I had seen plenty from him and plenty there. He hadn't gone straight from the Birmingham Barons and a night like that. It just seemed that way. He had told the world "I'm back," and we had all gotten to Indianapolis that weekend to watch his first comeback game against the Pacers. Then came a handful of other games. They were like part of some out-of-town tryout for a show that he finally decided he was ready to bring to New York.
This is what his coach at the time, Phil Jackson, now the man running the New York Knicks, said after that game to Alexander Wolff of Sports Illustrated:
"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."
That was it. That was it, exactly. Phil had it exactly right. The game gravitated into his grasp, from North Carolina until that last game with the Wizards. Michael finished his career in Washington. He was back there on Tuesday, in the White House, to receive such a high honor from the president, Barack Obama, who loves basketball more than any president we have ever had. Somehow, Michael Jordan, the best I ever saw, my social security, The One I'll always put up against all comers, was finally and fittingly in rarefied Air like that.