HE JOGGED the three steps up to the podium, a spring in his step and a song on his lips. OK, no song, but you get the idea. Michael Jordan was looking, and feeling, good. Even in a Blackhawks T-shirt with the sleeves cut off he was looking like he always does, which is to say a million bucks.
Make that $40 million.The line of questioning on Thursday was just as one might expect: The breakup of the Bulls, the possibility of another run at the title next year and, of course, how to wrap things up at home tonight. Jordan was polite, measured and supremely confident.
"When you're trying to finish off things, sometimes it's hard," he said. "You've got a lot of thoughts; things can creep in. You start making plans to do other things, and you forget about the real focus, which is the game. I've been through that many times before, and it's easy for that to happen. You get a celebration starting well before the game starts, and that's the dangers you have to deal with. That makes the last game, your last win, the hardest."
Jordan was careful not to declare the NBA Finals over, but you could see it in his smile. More important, you could hear it in his voice. I'm going to Disneyland. It's time to smoke the big cigar. And: Where did I put those old Grant Park speeches?
When a series gets to this, you have to read between the lines. You have to not only hear what they say but pay attention to what
they're saying. For example, when Jordan expressed the need to be wary of the situation, in the same sentence he used the phrase "finish off things," and added, "your last win is the hardest."
Did the possibility of losing on Friday even enter his mind? You must be kidding.
Although Jordan was saying they have to be careful, what he really was saying was that they are going to use the Jazz for target practice. He was saying the Jazz are as dead as Paleolithic Man. And when he expounded on whether this was coach Phil Jackson's toughest year, Jordan said, "With all the different adversities we've had to deal with this year, and still to be where we are, it's a major accomplishment." What he really was saying was: "Will someone take my ring size?"
When he said, "I know they're not going to die and just roll over," he didn't mean the Jazz were capable of winning Game 5 tonight. What he actually meant to say was, "Those guys are as old as dirt." And when he said, "I still see belief in their eyes," he was actually saying, "I know I'm inside their heads; I've got them talking to themselves."
So it went throughout the interview session. Someone would ask a question and Jordan would answer, in more ways than one. When someone reminded him that in his last game in New York, he wore his old Air Jordans, and asked if he'd do something similar tonight, he replied, "No, I'm not going to put my feet through those blisters any more. I'm just going to come out and be ready to play."
What he was actually saying was, "I could end this thing tonight if I played in fishing waders."
Then there was the question of this being his last NBA game tonight, and Jordan said, "At this moment I've got to treat it as though we're trying to finish off the year, and if it so happens to be my last game, that has to be something I think about later down the road."
But what he really was saying was, "Hit the lights on the gym when you leave, will ya, guys?"
And when Scottie Pippen added, "We have to look at tomorrow's game as if it's the last game for us," what he meant to say was, "By this time on Saturday I will be eating mangoes in the Bahamas."
The spin game can work both ways, of course. For example, on the Jazz side, the mood was predictably different: somber, businesslike, grim. When Karl Malone was asked if they feel they can still come back, he said, " . . . You have to believe you can win one game and come back and take it one game at a time."
What he meant to say was, "I'm going fishing."
And when Malone said there will be "a little empty spot" if he doesn't win a championship and added, "but we're not conceding anything," what he actually was saying was, "Have the bellman bring my bags around."
So it goes. They're down to the last part of the NBA Finals, and it's as suspenseful as a television game show. While both teams have their spin, the simple fact is this: The Bulls aren't going to lose three straight games. All you need to do is listen.