A couple of years ago, on one of those middle-of-the-night bus rides so common in professional sports, Pat Williams sidled up to B.J Armstrong, who was playing his final days as an NBA point guard.
Williams, senior vice president of the Orlando Magic, was working on a book about Michael Jordan, and the longtime teammate of His Airness in Chicago seemed like a good source for information. Williams recalled their conversation after B.J. had read the manuscript.
"He told me I had forgotten the most important thing, the thing that makes Michael Michael," Williams said. "It's his focus, his ability to block out all distractions and concentrate, his ability to zero in on what has to be done right now. He is in the moment. He can seal off the past and not worry about the future. During the second quarter, he's not in the fourth quarter and he's not in last night's game.
"He has developed the ability to focus, concentrate and max out right now. The only thing we can control is right now and he drains it dry - right now. He does it day after day and he lets tomorrow take care of itself."
So that's where to start for an explanation of Jordan, to find out just what makes this basketball player so remarkable, to learn what brought him back at 38 to, of all teams, the Washington Wizards.
There is, of course, his love of the game.
"He is a gym rat," Williams said. "He didn't find the golf course fulfilling. The front office didn't scratch that itch."
Williams believes Jordan knew exactly what he was doing.
"Michael's mind-set is different," he said. "He's got this franchise. This is his team. Forget the Bulls. That's ancient history. He knows he's got a lot of long winter nights ahead of him. But he believes he can help this team accelerate.
"He sees himself as a mentor, an instructor, a teacher, an encourager. If this team wins 30 games, it will be Michael's greatest accomplishment in his professional career, greater than anything he did in Chicago. Forget playing .500 or making the playoffs. Just win 30, 11 more than last year. Of all his challenges, this is by far the greatest. And he is consumed by challenges.
"Michael is there to prop this thing up. He brought his coach (Doug Collins) in. He's there for the long pull, fully committed to the franchise. He has cast his lot with the Washington Wizards."
So far, so good. After an awful start, the Wizards took an eight-game winning streak into Saturday night's game with Jordan glowing over the success.
"I think we're surprising ourselves - in terms of how everybody's fit into a role," he said. "We're starting to excel. It's a big growth for us."
But then, of course, Jordan is always glowing.
In his book, Williams tells the story of how, during Jordan's baseball detour, he was on his way to the ballpark in Birmingham, Ala., one day when he saw a kid shooting hoops in his back yard. Jordan stopped his car, asked if he could join in and shot around for a while before leaving.
A backboard, a basket, a ball and a kid. How could MJ resist?
Williams has assembled a recipe of how to go about emulating Jordan.
"First," he said, "you'd better be excited and enthusiastic and have some passion for it. The passion comes from loving what you do. You can't fake passion.
"Then you've got to work as hard as Mike, but if it's your passion, it's not work."
Williams asked ex-teammate Luc Longley about Jordan. The Australian summed up Jordan succinctly.
"He told me, 'Mate, MJ is always up."'
When Jim Les came into the league with Utah, he found himself on the floor one night, playing against Jordan's Bulls. There was a sequence when Les broke away for an uncontested layup, only to have No. 23 overtake him from behind and block the shot. A photographer caught the moment and gave Les a photo of the play. The next time they met, Les had Jordan sign the picture.
Years later, Les found himself playing for Sacramento. In a game against the Bulls, there was another breakaway. As he raced toward the basket, intent on the layup, he was overtaken again by a somewhat older No. 23. It was his personal Michael Moment, remarkably repeated.
With the play over, Jordan casually walked over to Les and said matter-of-factly, "I'll sign that one, too."
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