The Gamer

The stadium scene.
March 1 1997 3:30 AM

The Gamer

Michael Jordan's reign.

The USAir Arena sits on the edge of the Beltway, old and dim, not much more than a big gymnasium. The Washington Bullets play here, often quite badly. They haven't made the playoffs in eight years. They were supposed to be better this year but have found ways to enforce the tradition of mediocrity. The arena is usually sold out--technically--but with plenty of empty seats, the signature of a town full of lawyers and big shots who aren't sure they want to be sports fans.

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But on Friday, Feb. 21, everything was different. A strange and powerful gravitational force surrounded that stale and unloved arena that night. People swarmed the access road outside, begging for tickets. The mayor of Washington showed up, and the coach of the Redskins, and then, to snarl traffic once and for all, the president of the United States came rolling up in his motorcade.

Clinton took his seat with little fanfare. No one played "Hail to the Chief." The crowd applauded politely. The real action was over in the corner, outside the locker room of the Chicago Bulls. Fans were straining at the railings of the stands. Eyes were riveted on the locker room's exit. No one dared look away. The great one was about to emerge. When he finally appeared, people did not clap--they shouted, screamed, as guards told them to back off.

"Michael! Michael!"

Michael Jordan didn't look up. His head was bowed as he jogged toward the court. Everywhere he goes, people shout his name. He has mastered the art of not noticing them.

Jordan is smoother than everyone else--his movements, his skin, the top of his shaved head. He looks polished. Next to Jordan, the other Bulls are big slabs of meat with protruding limbs. Luc Longley: a human ham hock. Dennis Rodman: all knuckles and knees and elbows and tattoos and nose rings and yellow hair. For Rodman, every night's a full moon.

On the radio the other day, sportswriter Frank Deford called Jordan "our Lindbergh." (Was Lindbergh really that good? What was his percentage from three-point range?) This night at the USAir Arena, the sportswriters kept looking at Jordan and saying, "He's Babe Ruth." Like Ruth, Jordan so exceeds the norm as to be an anomaly. Ruth didn't just hit more home runs than anyone else. He hit a lot more home runs than anyone else. How did he do it? OK, he was strong, he used a big, heavy bat, and he had an elegant uppercut swing. But the formula for "greatest-ever" is always mysterious. You can't reduce it to any obvious variables. You just say a god walked among us.

Jordan is 34 years old, borderline geriatric, and he still leads the league in scoring, racking up nearly 31 points a game, while the next-highest scorer averages only about 26. How does Jordan do it? He's got that Babe Ruth stuff. The god force. We just have to watch and wonder.

For the national anthem Jordan rocked from one leg to the other, still staring at the floor in front of him, while nearby the president lustily sang--or at least moved his mouth dramatically so that even fans across the arena could see him singing.

Seconds after tipoff, Jordan launched a turnaround jumper, his new signature shot, hitting nothing but net. That proved to be the anomaly for the next three quarters of the game. Jordan missed a shot, and then he missed four more shots, and he threw the ball out of bounds, and he got slapped with two fouls, and by the end of the first quarter he had stunk up the joint. He had five measly points while his sidekick, Scottie Pippen, had scorched the Bullets for 17.

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