CHICAGO -- In his fighting prime, Muhammad Ali made a habit of referring to himself as "The Greatest of all time!"
But Michael Jordan needs no self-promotion. Everyone else says it for him. Then he goes out and promises more.
Having just put his Chicago Bulls on the brink of a third straight NBA title with a 55-point performance in a 111-105 victory over Phoenix on Wednesday night, Jordan cautioned the Suns and assembled media: "I've yet to see my best game. I always play my best in the last game of the Finals."
Jordan has left everyone awestruck -- Suns coaches and players, even his teammates, who simply turned Game 4 over to their leader.
"Playing against him all these years, I always thought he was a great player," said former Washington Bullets guard Darrell Walker, who joined the Bulls this season. "But now practicing against Michael and watching him play all the time, he's even better than I thought. Believe all the hype. It's like [New Jersey Nets coach] Chuck Daly says, "Michael is embarrassing the rest of the league."
Perhaps the most meaningful tribute came yesterday from Magic Johnson.
"Before Mike arrived, it was always me and Larry [Bird] at the top of the heap," Johnson said. "I thought the two of us got the most out of our basketball abilities. We're all winners, but Michael is the best ever, no doubt.
"I was playing a card game called 'Bid-Whist' with Mike the other night," Johnson said. "I was kidding him that I had five championship rings and Bird had [three]. And I could see the fire in his eyes. He said, 'Yeah, but I'll win three in a row, something you guys never did.' "
Jordan has made it a personal crusade to complete the Bulls' threepeat mission against the Suns, who will try to stay alive in Game 5 here tonight.
Wednesday night, before a crowd of 18,676, he scored the Bulls' first 16 points in the second quarter. By halftime, he had converted 14 of 20 shots in scoring 33 points -- more than half his team's 61 points. And, of course, he made the crucial three-point play with 13 seconds left that put the game out of reach.
"I just fell into it," Jordan said. "I really didn't sense myself taking the game over. I was penetrating early in the game, trying to get easier baskets and I felt myself capitalizing on their defense.
"One thing led to another, and the next thing you know, I was more or less in rhythm. I was really nervous about doing it because I didn't want my teammates to get to the point where they start standing around. But my role on this team is to do whatever it takes. I just decided to carry the load."
Johnson, who observed the spectacular one-man show as an analyst for NBC, said: "Mike had to take over.
His teammates were struggling, reluctant to shoot the ball. When you've got something this big on the line, you can't stop to worry about egos or team chemistry. You're trying to win a championship."
Suns coach Paul Westphal said he has just about exhausted ways to keep Jordan from single-handedly eliminating his feisty Suns.
At different times in this series, Westphal has assigned point guard Kevin Johnson, swing man Dan Majerle and rookie forward Richard Dumas to shadow Jordan.
"We never said we had to stop him," Westphal said. "You can't stop him. Nobody can. He's the best offensive player, the best defensive player in the league. The best ever. Period."
Murmurings over Jordan's overwhelming presence on and off the floor have been heard on occasion in the Bulls' locker room, but, in the end, the players he once innocently referred to as his "supporting cast," learned to accept their roles.
As veteran guard John Paxson said: "Sometimes it's a problem when we get into a situation where it's a close game and Michael takes over. But that's his competitive nature, and that's his greatness trying to step forward and take charge. So it's really not a negative.
Paxson said viewing the Bulls as a team of unequal parts will always be the case as long as Jordan wears a Chicago uniform.
"How do you know what this team will be like when he's not around?" he said. "I've played with Michael eight years, and truthfully don't know how to answer that. All I know is that you're always going to be in a great player's shadow, no matter what. Look at how great [Bulls forward] Scottie Pippen is, and he is still trying to create his own identity."
As soon as Jordan arrived in Chicago in 1984, nothing would ever be the same. At the time, the franchise was valued at $16 million. It is now reportedly worth $120 million.
Still, it took Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, a traditionalist 00 whose ties with the league date back to the early '60s, a long time before he could put his own superstar at the head of the class.
"I've seen all the great ones in the last 30 years -- Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Bob Pettit, Dr. J [Julius Erving], Magic and Bird," said Krause. For the longest time, Baylor was my No. 1 guy. But now it's definitely Michael. I told him one day he was a combination of Baylor and Earl Monroe. Earl had all the shots, but Michael is making them three feet higher."
Jordan will keep trying to fly higher, believing a third straight championship will put him on the same plateau as Magic, Bird, and perhaps even Bill Russell, who was the heart of the Boston Celtics dynasty that captured eight straight titles from 1959 to 1966.
Jordan has made it clear that no one will deter him from the quest.
After Wednesday night's game, the Suns' Charles Barkley waited in the Chicago Stadium parking lot for his friend and Olympic teammate to emerge from the underground garage in his black Mercedes.
Jordan zoomed up the ramp, stopping just short of Barkley.
"Hit me. I'll be a rich dude," Barkley shouted gleefully.
Jordan smiled and roared off into the night.
BULLS VS. SUNS
(Chicago leads series, 3-1)
Game 1.. .. .. ..Bulls,.. .. .. ..100-92
Game 2 .. .. .. .Bulls,.. .. .. ..111-108
Game 3 .. .. .. .Suns,.. .. .. .. 129-121 (3 OT)
Game 4 .. .. .. .Bulls .. .. .. ..111-105
Tonight .. .. .. at Chicago 9
Sunday .. .. .. at Phoenix 7 p.m.
Wed.*.. .. .. .. at Phoenix 9 p.m.
TV: Chs. 2, 4
JUST ANOTHER DAY
AT THE OFFICE
Michael Jordan scored a personal championship series high of 55 points in Chicago's 111-105 victory over Phoenix in Game 4 Wednesday night. But the Bulls' star has equaled or surpassed that number 11 times in his NBA career:
Pts. .. .. .. .. ..Opponent.. .. .. .. .. .. Date
69 .. .. .. .. .. .Cleveland .. .. .. .. .. 4/28/90
64 .. .. .. .. .. .Orlando .. .. .. .. .. ..1/16/93
63 .. .. .. .. .. Boston .. .. .. .. .. .. 4/20/86*
61 .. .. .. .. .. Detroit .. .. .. .. .. ..3/4/87
61 .. .. .. .. .. Atlanta .. .. .. .. .. ..4/16/87
59 .. .. .. .. .. Detroit.. .. .. .. .. .. 4/3/88
58 .. .. .. .. .. New Jersey.. .. .. .. .. 2/26/87
57 .. .. .. .. .. Washington.. .. .. .. .. 12/23/92
56 .. .. .. .. .. Philadelphia .. .. .. .. 3/24/87
56 .. .. .. .. .. Miami.. .. .. .. .. .. .. 4/29/92*
55 .. .. .. .. .. Cleveland .. .. .. .. .. 5/1/88*