Tuesday, July 20, 2010
The one game Michael Jordan didn't get any calls
People regularly call Michael Jordan the best basketball player to ever live, and if they don't say that they at least call him one of the two or three best. But those adjectives weren't always used with his name.
In 1985, Jordan won the Rookie of the Year award. He had a fabulous season, averaging 28 points per game on a bad Bulls team that won 38 games. He electrified the league with his tongue and his dunks. He became the best-selling shoe salesman in the greater Chicago area.
In February of that year, the Bulls hosted the Lakers, the defending Western Conference champions who were seeking redemption from the previous season's Finals humiliation, which ended with thousands of Boston hooligans - many of them shirtless - storming the court at the Game 7 buzzer. But the playoffs were still three months away. This was just another winter game in a cold city against a below-average team. But any game involving Magic, Kareem, and Michael will never be just another game.
Jordan guards Magic from the outset. The Lakers enjoyed some mismatches - like, say, Kareem against Dave Corzine. Jordan's actually sporting fairly short shorts in this one, he hadn't yet started wearing the baggy pants he'd help make famous and standard. Jordan starts off hot, but Magic and the Lakers slowly take over - Magic, not Michael, actually dunks first. Jordan then picks up a pair of fouls. There are a couple of Magic no-look passes, plays he made look routine but the types of passes you almost never saw from anyone else then and rarely see today. One goes to Kareem, then a superb fastbreak at the 3:20 mark.
Then, history at the 3:55 mark. Jordan gets called for a reach-in touch foul on a 20-foot jumper by Michael Cooper. It's his third foul of the half and he sits after scoring 14. Jordan played 14 more seasons. I'd almost guarantee that after this season he never again got called for this type of foul. He barks at the ref, which he'd expertly do the rest of his career. And he probably even said, "You can't make that call against me." This might have been the last time a ref disagreed with that assertion.
The Lakers lead by an absurd 73-63 score at the half. Jordan struggles throughout the second half, missing layups when not being denied the ball by Byron Scott. Bob McAdoo rejects him at one point. Jordan's teammates - immortals like Corzine, Wes Matthews and Rod Higgins - fail to pick up the slack. At the 6:45 mark, Jordan gets called for another ridiculous foul, his fifth, the type of call refs might make on Jeffrey Jordan, but never Michael. It's bizarre watching a game where Michael Jordan does not get the calls. Not even that. He's actually being screwed by the refs, as if he was Rasheed Wallace with better hair. It's jolting, but enjoyable. The Lakers pick apart the Bulls, with Kareem's hooks, Magic's drives and passes and a goggles-less James Worthy's swooping layups.
How bad was Jordan? After scoring 14 points in the first half, he scores his first point - on a free throw - with 42 seconds remaining in the game. The announcers talk about the youngster trying to maintain his poise. They talk about how he's a great player but he just didn't have it tonight. Michael Jordan. World's greatest, but just another frustrated, lost rookie on this night. He might have been the best ever, but that wasn't always so.
The game was also a tribute to the Lakers defense. They were one of the best offensive teams in basketball history, but they could also play some defense when it mattered. Jordan didn't have any help in this game, but he didn't have any help all season and he still averaged 28 a game. The Lakers didn't just take his teammates out of the game, they took him out of it.
And that's the way this 1985 regular season game ended. The Lakers cruising to a 127-117 victory. Magic starred, Jordan suffered. Byron Scott played outstanding defense. God, I wish I could write those words about the 1991 Finals instead.