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COMMENTARY : For Jordan, Real Problem Was Starks


PHOENIX, Ariz. — When Michael Jordan showed up a day late for this season's All-Star festivities -- an insignificant act of defiance that would result in the NBA overreacting and fining him $10,000 -- he had a mischievous little grin on his face.

It was pointed out that Charles Barkley, one of Jordan's best friends, had conformed to NBA demands to be at a news conference two days before the All-Star Game while Jordan was spending time in Las Vegas playing golf. (Please keep this a secret, but there is reason to believe he also placed a few bets at the legal gaming tables.)

Barkley is supposed to be the bad boy while Jordan -- until the last year or so -- had an image of goodness.

Jordan grinned. "I've told you before," he said. "We're like twins. That's why I like Charles so much. The difference is that I've always been a little more controlled."

A little more controlled, and a little more private. Unlike Barkley, who loves to party in public, Jordan rarely leaves his hotel room on road trips because he would be mobbed. He feels blessed to have had the megabuck opportunities that he has had, but he also feels imprisoned by his popularity.

Once, during a conversation, I asked Jordan for the most outrageous place he had been asked for an autograph. He thought for a long time before revealing that he once had been asked to sign a piece of paper while he was standing at a urinal.

Any Jordan sighting generates publicity, and certainly he had no doubt his trip to Atlantic City between Games 1 and 2 of the Bulls-Knicks series would be reported. So he obviously believed that he was doing nothing wrong.

He was right, and even the NBA agrees. "What he does on his own time is his business," said Brian McIntyre, NBA vice president of public relations. "We do not intrude on players' private lives."

People who have spent little time around Jordan, however, will criticize him for being in Atlantic City at 2:30 a.m Tuesday. About the earliest he could have been in bed was 5 a.m. This, the critics either have or will point out, was irresponsible because it undoubtedly caused Jordan to be more fatigued during Game 2 Tuesday night.

Barkley, for one, disagrees. "Michael Jordan is a grown man and he can do what he wants to do," Barkley said. "What's the difference between (having sex) all night or going to Atlantic City. Some players stay in their rooms and (have sex) all night. What's the difference?"

Besides, it's unbelievably arrogant for anyone to dictate a training regimen to Jordan. He is arguably the best player in the history of basketball. He knows his body better than anyone, and he knows what he can and cannot do. During the Bulls-Cavaliers series, Jordan could not shoot the ball without pain because of a right wrist injury. That limited him so much that he only averaged 31.5 points in the two games the injury. If an injury can't stop Jordan, can lack of sleep?

Stamina? The Dream Team had 12 days off after the Tournament of the Americas in July before leaving for the Barcelona Olympics. Jordan was asked what he did during that time. Nothing," he said. Asked to elaborate, he said he went to Chicago for a couple of days to play golf, then flew to Philadelphia to tape a couple of commercials, then went back to Chicago to do another commercial and play more golf, then went to Reno to compete in a celebrity golf tournament, then went back to Chicago for more golf.

That's Jordan's idea of nothing. And then he said the time off had really refreshed him.

The point is that while some may pontificate on what Jordan should or should not do with his body, Jordan is, in fact, The Expert.

Which is not to say that the story of Jordan in Atlantic City should not have been reported. Jordan is a public figure and makes his megabucks off the public. Like it or not, whenever he does something, it's news. And the Atlantic City story was a delicious little piece of gossip in the classic tradition of New York tabloid journalism. That type of sensationalism is why gossip has become such a big business. It was interesting stuff, and fun to read.

But there is one implication of the story that is tremendously insulting to the Knicks: that Jordan was subpar in Game 2 because of the trip to Atlantic City. Jordan's problem in the Knicks series hasn't been a lack of sleep. It's been John Starks.

And Pat Riley, Knicks players and the entire Knicks organization should be offended by the insinuation that if Jordan had stayed in his Manhattan hotel room Monday, the outcome of Game 2 might have been different. It would not have been. The Knicks still would have won and still would have a 2-0 lead in the series.

Was the story interesting? Yes. Did it deserve to be printed? Yes. Is it embarrassing for Jordan? Perhaps.

But what effect has it had on the Eastern Conference finals?


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