Air Jordan reaches new heights with place in Hall
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — From the coach who cut him to the players who disrespected him, Michael Jordan never forgot a slight.
Not even on the night he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Jordan’s thank you list went well beyond friends and family, including any doubters who provided him the inspiration to become a better player — perhaps the greatest one ever.
“You guys, I must say thank you very much for giving me that motivation that I definitely needed,” Jordan said.
Jordan recalled all of it last Friday night, when he joined David Robinson and John Stockton, a pair of his 1992 Olympic “Dream Team” teammates, and coaches Jerry Sloan and C. Vivian Stringer in a distinguished class.
Jordan insisted during a press conference that the weekend wasn’t just about him, but he was clearly the star, speaking before a crowd that included former teammates Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman.
“He makes one big shot and everybody thinks he’s kind of cool,” Stockton joked. “I don’t get it.”
Jordan cried before beginning his acceptance speech, then entertained the crowd with memories of any slights that sent him on his way to basketball’s birthplace:
• The coach who cut him from the varsity as a North Carolina schoolboy.
“I wanted to make sure you understood: You made a mistake, dude,” he said.
• Isiah Thomas, who allegedly orchestrated a “freeze-out” of Jordan in his first All-Star Game.
“I wanted to prove to you, Magic [Johnson], Larry [Bird], George [Gervin], everybody that I deserved [to be there] just as much as anybody else, and I hope over the period of my career I’ve done that without a doubt.”
• Former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy — Jordan called him Pat Riley’s “little guy” — who accused Jordan of “conning” players by acting friendly toward them, then attacking them in games.
“I just so happen to be a friendly guy. I get along with everybody, but at the same time, when the light comes on, I’m as competitive as anybody you know.”
• The media who said Jordan, though a great player, would never win like Bird or Johnson.
“I had to listen to all that, and that put so much wood on that fire that it kept me each and every day trying to get better as a basketball player.”
• Lastly, Utah’s Bryon Russell. Jordan recalled meeting Russell while he was retired and playing minor league baseball in 1994 — and with Sloan looking on in horror — told of how Russell insisted he could have covered him if Jordan was still playing. Russell later got two cracks at Jordan in the NBA Finals, and he was the defender when Jordan hit the clinching shot to win the 1998 title.
“From this day forward, if I ever see him in shorts, I’m coming at him,” Jordan said.
The enshrinement ceremony took place at Springfield’s Symphony Hall, because Jordan was too big for the Hall of Fame. The move to the other building allowed for a crowd of about 2,600, more than double what the Hall can accommodate.
Robinson was enshrined first before a large San Antonio contingent last Friday that included former teammates Tim Duncan and Avery Johnson, and coaches Larry Brown and Gregg Popovich.
Stockton told the Spurs that his running mate, Karl Malone, was the best power forward in the game’s history, not Duncan.
Stringer, the first coach to lead three different teams to the NCAA Women’s Final Four, still couldn’t believe a coal miner’s daughter had made it, calling it the “most unusual, unexpected thing in the world.”
She thanked her players — “basketball daughters” — and praised her 2007 Rutgers team for the class and dignity it showed after the racially insensitive comments made by Don Imus.
“I know that I stand here on the shoulders of so many,” Stringer said.
Sloan also thanked his players, his former coaches from high school to the NBA, and late Utah owner Larry Miller for sticking with him even during the team’s bad years.
“Loyalty is the No. 1 reason I’m still coaching the Jazz,” Sloan said.
Most of the attention was on Jordan, the five-time NBA MVP, but the others in the class are also some of the most accomplished in the sport. Stockton is the league’s career leader in assists and steals, Robinson won an MVP trophy and two titles in San Antonio, and Sloan is the only coach to win 1,000 games with one team.
“Unique, unique competitors,” Stockton said during the morning press conference.
Fiery ones, too. Sloan, Stockton’s longtime coach, told two different tales of fights he was in as a hard-nosed player for Chicago.
Jordan remembered scoring around 20 points in a row late in a game to pull out a win, which was followed by a conversation with Bulls assistant Tex Winter.
“Tex reminded me that there’s no ‘I’ in team,” Jordan said. “And I looked back at Tex, I said, ‘There’s ‘I’ in win.’ So whichever way you want it.”
Jordan and Robinson were All-American college players who entered the NBA with high expectations. Sloan acknowledged he wasn’t so sure about Stockton at first — and as it turns out, neither was Stockton.
“I thought they’d figure me out pretty quickly. I thought the Jazz would figure out that they’d made a mistake, so first paycheck I saved every cent,” Stockton said. “I was pretty sure I was a one-year-and-out guy.”
Not Jordan — who said he still might not be done.
“One day you might look up and see me playing a game at 50,” he said. “Don’t laugh. Never say never, because limits, like fears, are often just an illusion.”