CHICAGO -- Outside the art deco-inspired and quickly-aging United Center is a statue of Michael Jordan, eternally suspended in flight above a roiling sea of overmatched defenders. Underneath, an inscription: "The Best There Ever Was, The Best There Ever Will Be." On the grey afternoon of Sunday, March 21, before Virginia Commonwealth University of the CAA played Big Ten team Purdue in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32, spectators lined up to take snapshots with His Bronzed Airness. Some were children too young to have ever seen him play in person; their fathers had passed along the stories and legends.
As years go by, I become more and more convinced of what his true legacy is. That plaque, to me, reads less like a tribute and more of a curse -- one much more real than the billygoat story they tell uptown. He served as a logical end-point in a sport whose history didn't suddenly end when he retired. Michael Jordan transformed the sport, but more importantly he changed the perception of the game, how we observe and measure it. He single-handedly ruined the way we watch basketball.
Jordan didn't ruin the game itself; it wasn't his fault he was better than everybody else at it. Over time, he lost control of his own impeccable-hero narrative -- the Washington Wizards, divorce (this game will hurt you), and a divisive Hall of Fame acceptance speech, for example -- and he turned out to be just as human as the rest of us. But the superhero template he left behind remains intact. The idea that one player, one Jumpman, can supersede the efforts of nine, remains just as potent now as it did in the Jordan Years, and David Stern and ESPN maintain its constant use deep into the new century.
As a televised spectator sport, basketball is not a natural draw. It was a game made to be played, not watched. Baseball is a pastime, and its relevance in our culture is related to its ability to make us stop and ponder. American football's barriers to entry keep it from being anything other than a spectacle. But at its base level, basketball is supposed to be boring to watch: one starfish against a starfish of a different color. Internal logic dictates that teams win championships, that a cohesive five is able to defeat a greater one, two, or three. Our Game has built-in gravitational pull that keeps returning it to that truth.
In that way, basketball is the most socialist, left-wing Democrat, Blue State, pinko-commie sport we have, at least until soccer takes over. There are no real trailblazing mavericks, no quarterbacks or four-hole sluggers, to serve as central points of focus. Even Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, once they graduated from the 1979 NCAA title game, joined great pantheons and always made their teammates better. Jordan, at his peak, could win with anybody. And that was the problem.
America demands Lone Rangers, and will resist the idea of individual sacrifice for a greater good, quite possibly to the death. So that's why I view Michael Jordan as an important yet divisive political figure. Like Ronald Reagan.
In the years A.J., we have been conditioned to look for Jordans in a sport with far more Pippens, Cartwrights and Buechlers. There have been a series of failed and fraud-ridden attempts to present a string of new Jumpmen, and we've been brainwashed into thinking that a game without superstars is somehow inferior. Team-first champions like the San Antonio Spurs are dismissed, swept under the rug. The college game is "down" because it hasn't produced a Jordan, and those who received Jordan-level hype have not lived up to media and fan expectations.
That anybody has any problem understanding a team like VCU shows exactly how much things have changed.
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The players' feet hardly ever left the court. On the day before their First Four No. 11 seed playoff, the Trojans shuffled listlessly through a series of layup and free throw drills during their open practice.
Then, head coach Kevin O'Neill clapped for attention and gathered the team on one end. O'Neill had just returned from a suspension following a bizarre hotel lobby altercation during the Pac-10 tourney, and he had some lost time to make up. So he started installing some plays.
The idea of an open practice, free to the public, doesn't necessarily mean opening your playbook. As the Trojans wanly worked through spacing and positioning, their opposition was standing right there on the baseline. The VCU Rams had finished their own practice an hour earlier, full of clapping and laughing and dunks. Now, they had their backpacks and headphones, watching plays take shape that were designed to beat them.
The next night, I watched closely to see if USC tried what they had practiced -- there was one that involved the two forwards cutting down through the lane, then one sneaking back up to set a high screen for a guard. I'm not sure they ran anything. It was five inward-facing individuals within an expensive and broken basketball contraption, up against a superior machine exerting its will with punishing defense. It's all there in the name: where they're from, and what they are. But that night, I wasn't the only one who thought the U stood for "unit."
"VCU is taking this team to the ICU," a newspaper man near me said out loud.
"No, man," I replied. "What USC needs is a sports psychologist."
I didn't catch up with VCU again until Chicago and the Round of 32. Friday, I was in Cleveland watching George Mason take out Villanova in the East Region 8/9 game, the Rams dispatched Southwest No. 6 seed Georgetown. The second half was padded with stoppages and fouls, which I was glad to fast-forward later with March Madness on Demand, but the pattern was the same as in Dayton. No matter what the seeds said, a one had beaten a five.
Sitting behind the VCU bench before the game on that Sunday afternoon, I fidgeted nervously. So did Colonial Athletic Association deputy commissioner for basketball Ron Bertovich, as we watched on a 20-inch monitor as top overall seed Ohio State mercilessly pounded the other remaining team from the conference, George Mason. Only VCU was left to carry the league's flag in its unprecedented three-bid season, its only hope for the second weekend.
But when VCU emerged from the locker room, they were exceedingly calm, their eyes set with laser beam focus, their mouths straight and level. Head coach Shaka Smart, who somewhat resembles a guru and maintains the quotebook of same (a chosen nugget of wisdom appears on the front of each set of game notes), he'd inspired the Rams to reach some sort of unbearable transcendental lightness. The serenity spilled over behind the bench, and as VCU pulled away early, we all regained our ability to breathe deeply.
"In their minds, they've already won this game," I said to nobody in particular during the first half.
Purdue never stood a chance. With the statue of the greatest individual basketball player of all time out in front of the building, it was probably one of the most anti-Jordan performances the United Center has ever seen. A team nobody had heard of, with players nobody had heard of, beat a team the national media heralded all year.
In San Antonio, the Rams' spell was broken late in the second half of the Sweet Sixteen game against Florida State. Up by three with two minutes left in regulation, VCU ran into the basketball version of mechanical failure: the 35-second violation. The team turnover allowed the Seminoles to force overtime, and for the first time in the NCAA Tournament, a program that once used a symbolic chain looked snapped. They escaped that one, advanced to the Elite Eight, but next was the best remaining team in the Big Dance, ten seed lines away on the bracket.
Kansas never expected the furious urgency that the Rams displayed in the first half on Sunday. None of us who had followed them for two weeks did either. But the VCU players adjusted their approach, an they did this as a unit. The intensity boiled over as the Jayhawks used a 12-2 run to slice down a 41-27 VCU halftime lead down to size. A VCU bench technical on an argued foul enabled KU to pare the lead from seven to four.
Later, Smart recalled what he'd said to his team in the huddle after the technical. "Forget the refs, forget Kansas, this is all about us."
And that's why they're in the Final Four.
On Saturday, VCU will play in one of the least-watched Final Four games of the cable TV era. If they beat Butler, Monday's game will be one of the lowest-rated National Championship games ever. Without any McDonald's All Americans or future NBA All-Stars, many basketball fans will not consider VCU as a worthwhile use of their time, and will choose something else instead. Three decades of highlight-reel superstars have changed general perception of what great basketball is, and many simply won't have the patience or attention for this. VCU doesn't make for good mainstream television, because the grind of the team-first game doesn't translate well to an audience raised on the Michael Jordan template.
But this is how basketball was designed, and it's how it's supposed to be played. It will always gravitate towards the superior squad, and away from the dominant player: the 1970 Knicks, the 1972 Lakers, the Los Angeles and Boston teams of the 1980s, every great college dynasty that lasted more than four years. Our Game is not the problem; assumptions of what greatness is need to change.