Bull grabs the horns again

Close-up; Michael Jordan; One of America's greatest sporting heroes has proved he still has the edge. Ian Whittell charts a journey of rediscovery
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The Independent Online
Twelve months ago Michael Jeffrey Jordan - multi-millionaire basketball player, failed minor league baseball player, cultural icon and one of the most recognisable individuals on the planet - made a startling discovery. He was confronted by the thought that he may, after all, be mortal.

The legendary Chicago Bull, who had returned to basketball two months earlier following a self- imposed retirement lasting almost two seasons, had been powerless as his team were knocked out of the NBA play-offs by the upstarts Orlando. Jordan's play, by his own exacting standards, was unacceptably mediocre. "I second-guessed myself after that, which is something new for me," Jordan confessed early in the season that should end this week in a Bulls championship success, their fourth in six years. "There was a little doubt that creeped in. But I'm ready now. I'm very confident in my skills and I think I'll be able to quieten any critics.

The 6ft 6in native of North Carolina simply decided he would not accept second-best again. He worked on the one aspect approximating a weakness in his repertoire - his outside shooting - and returned at the start of the new campaign with a mental resolve that stunned even his team-mates.

The result saw Chicago compile a best-ever 72-10 regular season record, take a commanding three games to two lead in the current best-of-seven finals series with Seattle, and generate the hysteria and gossip column inches that Europeans would only expect of Royals or film stars. Steve Kerr, one of Jordan's very able supporting cast, observed last week: "There is no doubt Michael took our play-off defeat personally last year. I think losing the way we did focused him even more. Michael's not used to being in the position of talking about why we didn't win, and I'm sure he didn't like that. He came back this fall with a point he wanted to prove.

"People tend to forget how good he was at times after his comeback last season. Everyone wants to focus on game one of the play-offs when he lost the ball late in the game and we lost to Orlando. But it is true that last year he just didn't have the conditioning, his shooting was a little off, he was kind of up and down. The main difference now is his consistency."

Kerr believes he is now the force he was before the lay-off. "He's probably not quite as athletic, which is scary because he is still the most athletic player in the league. But he doesn't make as many spectacular plays and drives to the basket. Yet fundamentally he is even sounder than he was before and he seems to have an even bigger mental edge - and that is really scary."

Example one: Earlier this season Philadelphia's first-year player Jerry Stackhouse commented that the NBA was proving easier than he had anticipated. Unfortunately for Stackhouse, his boast coincided with a meeting against Jordan, a man who believes that rookies should pay their dues, respect the game and their elders, before making such pronouncements.In the game, Jordan humiliated his young marker, scoring 48 points on the way to an embarrassingly easy Chicago victory.

Example two: In the second game of the Bulls' recent finals triumph, Seattle's Gary Payton performed a "slam dunk" - the ultimate statement of basketball machismo - and celebrated by hurling insults at Jordan in an effort to gain a mental edge for the remainder of the series. Two nights later, in the first half of game three in Seattle, Jordan outscored Payton 27-8 (the final count was 36-19) to put the game beyond doubt. In one mesmerising spell, lasting a little over three minutes late in the first half, Jordan scored 15 consecutive points.

The impression that he is constantly toying with the opposition and even the sport itself is the indelible mark left by this new improved Jordan. Never one to trumpet his own ethereal talents, Jordan was asked during the season whether or not he felt he would end the year with the prestigious scoring title. "Will I lead the league in scoring?" Jordan asked, rhetorically. "I don't know. Can I lead the league in scoring? If I want to."

The result was as predictable as his encounters with Stackhouse and Payton. Jordan ended the season averaging over 30 points a game, the eighth time he has won the scoring title in his nine full years of pro basketball. Perhaps the new phase of Jordan's career is the result of the adjustment made by all great sportsmen, as the legs grow weary and the intellect takes control in the autumn of their careers.

Jordan concedes: "I'm certainly a better overall player than I was, say 10 years ago. Three or four years ago? I think I'm still a better player now. At least in the mental game." With that maturity has come a realisation that not everyone can play the game at the level he can. The pre-retirement Jordan was portrayed as an unforgiving team-mate, constantly critical - and often downright vicious - towards team-mates and management who could not meet his incomparable standards.

That demanding edge remains. In one celebrated incident, his 7ft 2in Australian team-mate Luc Longley constantly mishandled missile-launcher Jordan passes in practice. "Catch it," shouted Jordan without a trace of humour. "Or I'll take your head off." Since that early season incident Longley became one of the most improved players in the game and played a key part in the Bulls' success.

Such outbursts, however, are now more isolated and the ghosts that forced him away from the game - a very public gambling problem and the random slaying of his father by robbers - and into a mediocre dalliance with minor league baseball are exorcised. The lay-off, the physical and mental break from being the most famous active sportsman on earth, has also added seasons to his career. The question is what does a man who has won four titles in his last four full seasons do for an encore?

First on the agenda is a new contract. Although Jordan has made an estimated $200m in his career, only a small portion of that comes from his Chicago salary. A $2.5m a year contract is now over. Jordan's asking price of $16m a year is, claim industry insiders, wholly reasonable.

Meanwhile, the competitive fires burn as fiercely as ever. "I'm trying to enjoy every moment out there because I realise I'm getting towards the end of my career," Jordan said last week. "I'm still passionate about the game. There's enough young talent to keep it challenging. But once I step away, I'm done. I'm not going to be like Magic Johnson and keep coming back."

Jordan's supporting cast

Scottie Pippen Considered by some to be the second best player in the world. Superb defender, athletic in his moves to the basket.

Dennis Rodman A phenomenon. Better known for his dyed hair, tattoos and nail varnish (he wore black against Seattle) than his prodigious rebounding and defensive play. A former boyfriend of Madonna, considered a loose cannon and a distraction at his former teams but has been a vital part of the Chicago side, and the US chat show circuit.

Luc Longley 7ft 2in Australian with a sporting background in rugby league and wicketkeeping. One of premier centres.

Toni Kukoc Arguably Europe's best ever player and originally signed as Jordan's eventual successor. Croat wept when his arrival coincided with Jordan's retirement, but has proved able foil since his return.

Ron Harper Signed by the Bulls when Jordan retired three years ago and thought superfluous by some after he returned. Excellent ball handling and defence has kept him in the starting line-up.

Steve Kerr Deadly outside-shooter who comes off the bench to provide instant offence and give the starters breaks.

Bill Wennington Third foreign member of the Bulls. A Canadian who backs up Longley at the centre position.

Phil Jackson Cerebral coach who balances diverse personalities, superstar egos and sublime talent that make Bulls one of greatest teams in history. Draws inspiration from Zen philosophy and Far Eastern and native American spiritualism.