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MCGRATH: Michael Jordan’s greatness was evident early on

FILE--Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan holds up six fingers for six NBA Championships Bulls have wafter Chicago defeated 87-86 Salt

FILE--Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan holds up six fingers for the six NBA Championships the Bulls have won after Chicago defeated 87-86 in Salt Lake City, June 14, 1998. Jordan, regarded as the greatest player and greatest draw in NBA history, will announce his retirement from the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 1999, The Associated Press has learned.(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

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Updated: March 25, 2013 6:17AM



With so much pomp surrounding Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday celebration, the party figured to last at least a week, so I didn’t fret when my invitation was delayed in the mail. I’d planned to show up fashionably late anyway, do the requisite hobnobbing, pass along some personnel tips to Mike on reviving his Bobcats and slip back into real life.

Well, no. No invitation, no party, no hobnobbing. Quite an affront to the guy who invented Michael Jordan.

Well, sort of.

Late December, 1981. Top-ranked North Carolina beat Kentucky on national TV on a Saturday in the Meadowlands, then spent Sunday flying to San Francisco for the Cable Car Classic. The four-team event at Santa Clara’s 5,000-seat Toso Pavilion wouldn’t do much for the Tar Heels’ national standing, but it would get Dean Smith a round of golf at Pebble Beach and serve as a nice buffer between that raucous Kentucky game and the rigors of Atlantic Coast Conference play, which would begin in about a week.

Penn State, coached by Dick Harter, was North Carolina’s first-round opponent. Harter was a tough-minded U.S. Marine whose Corps sensibilities informed his defensive philosophy. Thuggish Frank Brickowski, the future
Bulls tormentor, was a prototypical recruit.

The Nittany Lions had been eyeing this game as a possible breakthrough and seemed to have a shot when a twisted ankle sent James Worthy to the Tar Heels’ bench for a seat alongside foul-plagued Sam Perkins.

But from duress came opportunity for North Carolina’s No. 23, a skinny freshman listed in the program as Mike Jordan. ‘‘Refuse to lose’’ is one of those amorphous, overworked sports terms that defies easy definition. But whatever its true meaning, Jordan embodied it on this night. A bucket here, a block there, a rebound, a steal and a breakaway slam. Whatever the Tar Heels needed, Jordan provided — with electrifying flair.

Smith low-keyed it all after an overtime victory, saying it was nice to see some of the things ‘‘Michael’’ had shown in practice translate to a game. But he couldn’t suppress a Cheshire-cat grin as he spoke. He knew what he had.

Worthy and Perkins were back the next night, and Jordan was back to being third banana in a title-game cruise past Santa Clara. But the 5,000 of us who had watched him the night before were convinced we had seen something very special.

Not that you ever really know. I had a similar impression of Gene Banks after his star turn as a Duke freshman in the 1978 Final Four. Banks would go on to play six seasons as a quintessential NBA journeyman, more the next ordinary thing than the next big one.

I was so smitten with young Tom O’Malley’s .275 half-season for the Giants in 1982 that I declared the team set at third base for the next decade. Young Tom was back in Triple-A in 1984, and he never got more than 200 at-bats in a season with five teams in the next seven years.

Corey Patterson as the next
Lou Brock? Me again. So thanks
to MJ for helping me get it right for a change.

As spectacular as Jordan was that night, I don’t think any witnesses envisioned him becoming the colossus he became: Muhammad Ali’s successor as the major player on the world stage.

He’s too cool, too elegant and too removed to supplant craggy Mike Ditka as the face of Chicago sports. There’s something about Ditka’s in-your-face obstinance that gets to how Chicagoans like to think of themselves.

Six titles aside, MJ trumps
Ditka and all of our other sports icons by being the absolute, undisputed best at his craft. Whoever joins Jordan on your Chicago Mount Rushmore — Walter Payton, Bobby Hull, Ernie Banks, Dick Butkus, Tony Campana — it would be a stretch to call him the best ever. There’s an argument for Payton, but he loses it to Jim Brown.

Now we hear talk of LeBron James approaching MJ’s stature as a basketball deity, and it is remarkable to see MJ’s skill set in Karl Malone’s body.

But let’s see the killer competitor, the indomitable will to win, the indefinable ‘‘refuse to lose.’’ That’s what set Jordan apart. And it’s why we love him still.



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