THE JORDAN PHENOMENON
June 15, 1998
Last night the Bulls won their sixth Championship in eight years. The winning shot was, once again, scored by Michael Jordan. What makes Jordan such a dominant player, both on the court and in the marketplace? After this background report, Phil Ponce leads a discussion on Jordan's enduring greatness.
PHIL PONCE: For more we're joined by Bill Russell, who won 11 championships as the center for the Boston Celtics. He became the first African-American head coach in the NBA when he took over as player/coach of the Celtics in the late 60's. He's been voted one of the top 50 players of all time. And Jack McCallum, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, who has covered Jordan and the NBA beat. Gentlemen, welcome.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
June 15, 1998
A background report on Michael Jordan's dominance on and off the court.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the sports.
Official site of the NBA.
Official site of the Chicago Bulls.
The Jordan Archives from the Chicago Tribune.
Bill Russell, you have played against other great players. You have watched other great players. What, in your opinion, makes Michael Jordan a great player?
Jordan's unique qualities.
BILL RUSSELL, Hall of Fame Player/Coach: Well, he, first, is a very physically talented young man, extremely bright, and has complete knowledge of the game and what it takes to win.
PHIL PONCE: There are other players who have those attributes. Does he bring something extra, speaking as a player from one player observing another player?
BILL RUSSELL: Well, then he has this-it's like a computer in his head that he knows all of his multiple skills, which ones he uses, and when to use them, to win the game, because you see the thing is what makes him a great player is his sense of priority, what is important.
PHIL PONCE: And how about the attitude that he brings to the game, Mr. Russell?
BILL RUSSELL: Well, that is what makes him great is his attitude. I think that after I've watched him play I guess hundreds of times since he was a kid, and the enthusiasm and the will to win has been there all the time, and what I like about him is that even today in the regular season games he shows up to play just like he played when he was in high school or in college, just as hard, with just as much dedication, and with just as much intensity.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. McCallum, how do you see it? How do you define what makes Michael Jordan distinct from the other great players that-other great players like Mr. Russell and people he's played with?
JACK McCALLUM, Sports Illustrated: Well, one of the things about Michael that Bill didn't have was that Michael has the ability as a guard to control the whole game. He can put the ball in his own hands when he wants to. Furthermore, the team has a total belief in what-in him and what they have to do. For the last 12 years in any clutch situation there was never a debate on the Chicago Bulls bench about whether we're going to throw it into the center or whether or not we're going to let Scotty Pippin shoot, we're going to give Michael Jordan clear out, let him have the shot, let him have the opportunity. More times than not Michael has been able to complete that opportunity, and that ability to seize the moment and the opportunity to seize the moment, I think, has set him apart.
One of the century's greatest sports figures?
PHIL PONCE: Mr. McCallum, some people speak of Michael Jordan in the same company as Babe Ruth and Mohammed Ali, as the century's great sports figures. Do you think those comparisons-do you agree with those comparisons?
JACK McCALLUM: Well, I'm sitting here with a man on camera who would be one of the ones challenged as the greatest basketball player of the century. My own opinion is Michael Jordan is the best basketball player I ever saw. I don't know whether we're going to have his equal, but part of it, as I said, is his ability to be able to put himself into the center of the game. Bill Russell was actually mentioned as one of the first guys ever to completely change a game and dominate from a defensive standpoint. He certainly did that. Michael Jordan has been given the opportunity to dominate it from an offensive standpoint. He's a great defensive player also. In my opinion he stands above every player as a versatile, all-around player, anybody that's ever stepped on the court, but I'd be willing to bow if Bill has another nomination there.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Russell, how would you respond to that, sir?
BILL RUSSELL: Well, I think that everything he said then was absolutely true. But I have, in looking and watching the great players, like last year they had the NBA 50 and they picked the 50 top players-I was fortunate to have seen every one of the players play. And at-some time some of them were late in their careers, but I had a chance to see them all play. And there are some guys-Oscar Robinson, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird-Michael Jordan-Elgin Baylor---and Bob Pettit-these guys-I always called them the ties. There's no one can play any better than these guys. But these guys are as good as anyone. And so I think that Michael, what he has done from the game that he was introduced to as a kid and learned to play and what was decided what was valuable and what made a player good, he has taken that and has gone as far as you can, and he cannot-I don't think anyone can play this game any better than he plays.
An appeal beyond sports, into the marketplace and across race lines.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. McCallum, Michael Jordan's appeal goes beyond sports, well beyond sports. How do you explain that?
JACK McCALLUM: Oh, I explain it a couple of ways. I think he came along at a time-he essentially created some of the market opportunities for himself, obviously, but he came along at a time in an economy when we were ready, we were ready to make athletes big name endorsers. The great thing about Jordan was he was always better than his hype, no matter how much you said-no matter how much you hyped him he always did better than that on the court, therefore, there was a sense of credibility about him that there weren't with other athletes. His hype was not created for him; he earned it. And finally, Michael also realized somewhere along the way that in order to be a big money endorser you had to adapt a certain persona. He always looks nice. He always presents himself nice. He does not say anything overtly controversial, which has gotten-that fact has gotten him in trouble with some people but, nevertheless, it is part of his appeal, and you can't-you can't remove that from him.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Russell, how do you explain his appeal cross culturally, appeals to all races, why is that?
BILL RUSSELL: Well, first of all, Michael comes from a very strong family. His hero was his father. And also Michael appeals to all segments of the community. There are a lot of cases where you have a guy that's very popular with one segment, would be unpopular with the other one. Michael is popular because all the kids love him-black, white, Asian-Chicano, whatever. They all like him, because they can see one thing in him. He's a good person, a great athlete, but he's a good person, and that comes through, and kids understand and relate to that.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. McCallum, his appeal internationally, why do you think it transcends the borders of this country?
JACK McCALLUM: Well, once again, it was a-once again it was a sense of timing. Bill knows better than anyone when-actually the Boston Celtics that he played for were one of the few teams that anybody knew over these shores, but really there was not the international claim for this game that there was during Michael's era. And I think Michael came along at the perfect time. The Dream Team in 1992 will still stand as a moment in cross-cultural marketing athletic synergy that will never be seen before. I mean, the acclaim for that team and the marketing opportunities it created overseas, we will never see that again, and when you saw everybody together on that court, in my opinion-I covered that team-Michael was "the" dominant player on that team. At that time Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were a little bit at the end of their careers. And you had "the" dominant team in sports, "the" all star team of all time. Michael Jordan emerged as "the" all star among all stars. And from that moment on internationally it would be hard to get anymore popular than he is outside of these shores.
Will Jordan call it quits?
PHIL PONCE: Bill Russell, there's talk that this could very well be Michael Jordan's last year. When does a great player know that it's time to call it quits?
BILL RUSSELL: It's like in females we say they have a biological clock, and the great athletes have this clock inside, I think, and they come to a decision, I think, that all the things it takes them to go out and perform at that level, there are too many of them that have deteriorated, and so they feel they would cheat themselves, their teammates, and the paying public if they go back out there, because they're not able or not willing to make the enormous sacrifice it takes. And so-and with each athlete it is different, and we're like-someone asked me if I would advise Michael. No, I would not, because I don't have-first of all, I don't have enough information, and he's the only one that knows all the questions.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Russell, I thank you for answering my questions. And Mr. McCallum, thank you.