GOLD METTLE SEASON Jordan rises above distractions to retain No. 1 status

THE BALTIMORE SUN

All signs pointed to a letdown this season for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. A stressful summer for the NBA's three-time Most Valuable Player had the potential of leading to a long, cold winter for the league's two-time and defending champions.

Controversy seemed to follow Jordan wherever he went. There was the admission of his gambling debts on the golf course during a money-laundering trial of a convicted cocaine dealer in North Carolina. There was the flap over not wanting to wear the warm-ups of a rival sponsor at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, then the criticism that followed when he wrapped himself in an American flag at the gold-medal ceremony.

And there was the hint, from Jordan himself, of impending burnout from playing nearly non-stop for more than a year.

"I didn't think I'd be playing until December," Jordan recalled recently. "Mentally, I wasn't into basketball."

It is now December, and Jordan has been playing for more than three months. The controversies, which seemed to tarnish his near-perfect image, have quieted. The burnout never came, helped by some needed time off during training camp from Bulls coach Phil Jackson. And Michael Jeffrey Jordan is back to where he left off last June: as the best basketball player in the world.

The Bulls, though, are not back to normal. Going into tonight's game at the Capital Centre, Chicago is 14-6 and leading the Central Division, but is well off the pace of last season's 67 regular-season victories. Inconsistent offensively, lacking some fire defensively, and bickering a bit among themselves, the Bulls are having difficulty trying to become the first team since the 1966 Boston Celtics to win three straight titles.

"We are off to a very slow start," said Jordan, who isn't, averaging a league-high 32.4 points a game. "There was one period where we played very well, but now we're struggling. We're just a step slow. And mentally, we're not concentrating."

The focus, as usual, is on Jordan, perhaps more than at any other time in his NBA career. With the retirements this year of Dream Teammates and fellow legends Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Jordan stands alone as the league's reigning superstar. Rookie sensation Shaquille O'Neal is starting to move into this high-profile neighborhood, but Jordan is, for now, by himself.

And he admits that it's lonely -- not to mention a tad uncomfortable -- at the top.

"I don't want to be the ambassador of the league, like Magic was," said Jordan. "That's too much of a responsibility for someone to handle. I should not be in a position that whenever something happens, people ask me what I think. I won't ever put myself in that position."

Whether he wants to be or not, Jordan finds himself in that position. For a player of his stature, Jordan is incredibly accessible to the media before and after games. Though he has been criticized for being more interested in marketing himself into a $36 million-a-year conglomerate than for publicly supporting issues important to the black community, Jordan is unperturbed.

"To be in this position, you have to be almost perfect," he said. "But people get tired of hearing about that, and they want to hear some mud. You can't be pure for the rest of your life. You're going to hear something negative about you, then you have to deal with it. It's a lesson you learn."

The negative publicity first hit last year, after a golf pro Jordan knew in Gastonia, N.C., was found in possession of a $65,000 check from Jordan. Slim Bouler first said it was money Jordan had lent him for a driving range. Jordan later admitted it was money he had lost in golf bets. Bouler was acquitted of laundering money, but Jordan's reputation was a bit tainted.

"I don't think he wanted them to, but the controversy proved a point, and it's that Michael is human and is capable of making mistakes," said Jordan's longtime agent, David Falk of Washington-based ProServ Basketball & Football. "The controversies did that. Hopefully, he'll be a stronger person for it."

Having spent most of his adult life in the spotlight, Jordan, 29, is used to it. Before he went to the University of North Carolina, some folks back home in Wilmington, N.C., thought he was foolish to think he could play for the Tar Heels. "They thought I should be going to a smaller school," Jordan said during his sophomore year in Chapel Hill. "But once I hit The Shot, the same people told me that they knew all the time I belonged there."

The Shot -- a 17-footer to beat Georgetown in the 1982 NCAA final at the Louisiana Superdome -- propelled Jordan, then a freshman, into the national consciousness. But his eight-plus seasons with the Bulls have made Jordan larger than life. Though he is not complaining about his status as the world's richest athlete, a part of him wishes he was looked upon more as a player than a celebrity.

As normal as he tries to make life for his wife and three children -- after having two sons, the Jordans had a girl earlier this month -- it can't be. Jordan said the last time he was free to walk the streets nearly unrecognized was two years ago -- while he was in Paris for an event sponsored by Nike. He hopes that things will change once he retires, but he can't even be sure of that.

"You don't know how difficult it is to be Michael Jordan sometimes," he said. "I don't want people to feel sorry for me because the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. You've got to be able to deal with a lot of things. It gets old. It gets stale. But that's part of the whole package.

"You miss doing the things most people can do -- like walking around a mall or going to a movie. I would love for that to happen. I'd rather be able to give something back and be normal again."

But as long as he puts on a uniform with his No. 23 on the back, as long as he laces up the sneakers bearing his name for which he is paid royally, as long as he continues to be perhaps the best all-around player in NBA history, there is no reason to think that normalcy will return any time soon. And, make no mistake: A part of Jordan craves the attention, and the respect of being the best.

Above all, Jordan is still a competitor.

"My love for the game, for the competition, is still very much there," said Jordan, who will turn 30 in February. "Being on top, being on the best team in the league, being challenged every night is what it's all about."

Despite missing part of training camp after playing in the Olympics, Jordan doesn't show signs of wearing down. Even a frightening foot injury against the Knicks in New York last month has not prevented the 6-foot-6 guard from taking dead aim at matching Wilt Chamberlain's seven straight scoring titles.

Not that anyone who knows Jordan is surprised. This is a player who has not only been first-team All-NBA for all but his rookie season, and first-team All-Defense for the past five years, but also has been first-team All-Practice for much of his career with the Bulls.

Some, most notably Horace Grant, have questioned a double standard between the way management has treated Jordan and the way it deals with the rest of the team. Jordan's work ethic isn't unusual -- Johnson and Bird were the same way -- and it hasn't gone unnoticed.

"He's the best practice player in the league," said Bulls general manager Jerry Krause. "That transcends to your team. Whenever your best player is your best practice player, that makes a big difference. The things people don't see -- going so hard in practice, getting upset if the first team doesn't beat the second team -- is what makes Michael so great."

How long will Jordan stay at this level?

"When someone challenges me and surpasses me, it'll be time to quit," he said.

1992's highest-paid athletes

Athlete .. .. .. .. .. Sport .. .. .. .. Money

Michael Jordan . .. .. basketball ... .. $35.9 million

Evander Holyfield . .. boxing . .. .. ... 28

Ayrton Senna ... .. .. auto racing .. ... 22

Nigel Mansell .. .. .. auto racing .. ... 14.5

Arnold Palmer .. .. .. golf ... .. .. ... 11.1

Andre Agassi ... .. .. tennis . .. .. ... 11

Joe Montana . .. .. .. football .. .. .. . 9.5

Jack Nicklaus .. .. .. golf ... .. .. .. . 9.2

Jim Courier . .. .. .. tennis . .. .. .. . 9

Monica Seles ... .. .. tennis . .. .. .. . 8.5

Larry Holmes ... .. .. boxing . .. .. .. . 8.2

Gerhard Berger . .. .. auto racing .. .. . 8

Michael Chang .. .. .. tennis . .. .. .. . 8

Steffi Graf . .. .. .. tennis . .. .. .. . 7.8

Wayne Gretzky .. .. .. hockey . .. .. .. . 7.5

Riccardo Patrese .. .. auto racing .. .. . 7.5

Stefan Edberg .. .. .. tennis . .. .. .. . 7.3

Greg Norman . .. .. .. golf ... .. .. .. . 7.2

George Foreman . .. .. boxing . .. .. .. . 7

Julio Caesar Chavez .. boxing . .. .. .. . 7

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