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Michael Jordan’s ‘Victims List’: Barkley, Magic, Malone, Ewing, Drexler and more

Forget ‘The Last Dance’ subplots, MJ’s legacy is about basketball

God knows the subplots alone could draw you into Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and hold you there, riveted indefinitely. You could care not a whit about basketball and become seduced by the off-court dramas: Jerry Krause vs. Phil Jackson; Krause vs. Scottie Pippen; Jordan vs. Isiah Thomas; Jordan the taskmaster; Jordan’s gambling; Jordan’s politics; Jordan’s retirements; Jordan’s comebacks.

But the thread that held it all together was the most entertaining basketball — I’m with the folks who make the case for the greatest sustained basketball — ever played.

From 1990 through “The Last Dance” season, we’re reminded all these years later that Jordan’s Victims List is an extraordinary trip through an era of tremendous basketball that pushed the NBA to global popularity previously unimagined. Jordan never got Larry Bird, lost to him and the Boston Celtics twice in three-game sweeps before Krause put together a championship-caliber team in Chicago. Never got Hakeem Olajuwon, never even faced him or the Houston Rockets in the playoffs. Same with David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs. Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson were too new to the proceedings, drafted as they were in ’95 and ’96.

Seemingly, everybody else of note had at least one shot. Jordan’s North Carolina teammate Sam Perkins had three chances in the playoffs with three teams (Los Angeles Lakers, Seattle SuperSonics, Indiana Pacers) to take down Jordan, and lost them all.

In the NBA Finals alone, Jordan took down Magic Johnson and James Worthy, Clyde Drexler and Danny Ainge, Charles Barkley, Tom Chambers, Kevin Johnson and Ainge again, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, John Stockton and Karl Malone twice.

Jordan had a special thing for proud, contentious Georgetown centers. He took down Patrick Ewing (four times), Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo.

Looking for young guns (at the time) on the way up? Jordan got Chris Webber and Jalen Rose.

You want prolific scoring Hall of Famers? Jordan swept Dominique Wilkins in the first round in 1993, and swept Shaquille O’Neal in the Eastern Conference finals in ’96 (though O’Neal did get Jordan when he unretired and wore No. 45 in 1995).

The Cleveland Cavaliers had every reason to believe the forecasts that they’d be the team of the 1990s, except Jordan rubbed out Ron Harper, Brad Daugherty and Mark Price twice. (Jordan did to the Cavs what LeBron James has since done to the Bulls.)

Jordan got Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson, Chris Mullin (and Bird as head coach) on the ’98 Pacers in perhaps the toughest series the championship Bulls teams ever had. It went seven.

You want to review what he did to fellow Dream Team members? Jordan got Magic, Barkley, Ewing, Stockton, Malone, Drexler, Mullin. The three he didn’t get were Bird, Robinson and Christian Laettner. And those have to be considered the biggest skins on the wall since almost all the Dream Teamers on record, including Jordan, Barkley and Magic, say that the fiercest competition they ever played in was a certain scrimmage in Monte Carlo, Monaco, between the members of the greatest team ever assembled. Oh, and they’re all in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Of course, the whole championship thing only got rolling because the Bulls finally, on the fourth try, got through Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman.

OK, Magic was in his 12th season, so a smidge past his physical prime, but most of the others were smack in the midst of their best basketball. Magic was only one season removed from his third MVP. Barkley was MVP the season, 1993, his Phoenix Suns lost to the Bulls in the Finals. Malone was MVP the season, 1997, his Utah Jazz lost to the Bulls in the Finals.

This is the reason I have to take exception with Thomas’ recent observation that James and Kevin Durant, given a presumed athletic evolution in the last 40 years, would “dominate” the 1980s and 1990s. There were too many great players in the ’80s and ’90s to simply succumb to anybody. If James and Durant were destined to dominate, each wouldn’t have had to leave his original team, having won nothing, to link up with other already-crowned superstars who could help them finally win. James and Durant are indeed great to the point they likely would have won a series or maybe two. But “dominate” is what boxer Mike Tyson did to Michael Spinks. Magic’s Lakers, Bird’s Celtics, Thomas’ Pistons, Jordan’s Bulls wouldn’t have been dominated by anybody, even if they’d played together.

One of the arresting moments in Sunday night’s The Last Dance episode was Barkley, whose Suns were vanquished by the Bulls in six games, realizing that this was the first time in his life that he thought to himself: There is a better basketball player on the planet than me. It was something of a revelation, the kind Bird had even in victory, when Jordan put on such a show at the end of his second season that Bird went so far as to call him “God disguised as Michael Jordan.” As confident a man as Bryant was, it was a wonderful moment of candor to see him say he wouldn’t have his five Lakers championships without Jordan having shown the way.

No matter what went on in the Bulls’ executive suite, no matter how magical the style and cultural revolution that saw Jordan’s appeal make the world crazy over something as previously incidental as sneakers, what kept Jordan more relevant than any athlete since Muhammad Ali was winning, dominating, going into Madison Square Garden and beating the New York Knicks in Game 5 in 1993, going to Utah and beating Stockton and Malone in Game 6 in ’98, playing 82 games nine times in 14 seasons, turning up his nose at what we now call “load management,” because in Jordan’s mind, a ticket to see him and the Bulls play had the cachet of holding a ticket to Hamilton.

And that, more than captivating minidramas, is why so many people care so deeply 29 years after Jordan’s first championship, 22 years after “The Last Dance.”

Michael Wilbon is one of the nation’s most respected sports journalists and an industry pioneer as one of the first sportswriters to broaden his career beyond newspapers to include television, radio and new media. He is a co-host of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption.