SLAM: How did your retirement change you as a player after you came back? As a person?
MJ: I became more methodical in the methods that I carried out each and every time I stepped on the court. It wasn’t physical as much; it was more the mental challenges that I dealt with. And the advantages that I had over the young players. And that was where the challenges lay. How I could overcome the physical disadvantages against maybe Penny Hardaway or Shaquille O’Neal, or some of the other things. But, mentally, being far more advanced, and being successful.
SLAM: What are the challenges for you now?
MJ: Still in the mental—of being able to stay on top and not letting someone gain ground, or take something that you took 12 years to obtain. You know, that’s the challenge.
SLAM: What do you feel you still want to accomplish on the basketball court? What’s left?
MJ: I still think you can continue to improve as a player. Not physically, maybe not, but mentally. The challenges that you deal with every single day, the expectations of people that know you or people that may feel that you can’t do the same things or be as successful as you once were. Those are the challenges that I deal with right now. It’s not what I can’t do, because I think people seen what I can do; what’s now is, can you do it consistently? Can you live up to the expectations? Sure, those are the challenges.
SLAM: Does that make it harder? I mean, expectations are ridiculous. People expect the Bulls to win every game, you to score 40…
MJ: Sure. I have an understanding of what expectations I can meet…I have my own expectations. By no means, can you live up to the fans’ expectations of what you’re supposed to achieve.
SLAM: Do you think that you are more feared or respected by your opponents? Or is it both?
SLAM: And what would you rather—from the young guys…
MJ: Feared. Because along with fear comes respect.
SLAM: And can you tell the difference, on the court?
MJ: Sure. You can tell just by the way they play and the way they approach the game. A lot of times, I can see it in their eyes.
SLAM: What’s the most unbelievable thing a rookie ever said to you on the court? You know, the one thing that some rookie just said to you, and you were like, “Man.”
MJ: I think that the thing that happened with [Allen] Iverson last year was probably the worst that’s happened, where he feels like he doesn’t have to respect us [veterans]. I think, in actuality, he meant to say that he’s not scared…he’s not scared of us, and he said it in terms of, he doesn’t have to respect. Which prompted to me to say, “You’re gonna have to respect us if you plan on being the champions. Or beating us.” If you don’t respect us, then you don’t have a chance.
SLAM: Do you think the whole thing was blown out of proportion?
SLAM: I mean, he’s still getting killed for it.
MJ: I know…I think he meant that he’s not afraid of us, which he shouldn’t be. But, I think he had to have some respect.
SLAM: What was it like when you finally beat the Pistons, and they just walked off the court without shaking hands?
MJ: Typical. We figured the “Bad Boys,” their whole image. You know, we just felt…well, they didn’t have to shake my hand to know we just whipped they ass. Oh, it didn’t bother me, because it didn’t surprise us at all, because of the camaraderie and the rivalry that we had against each other.
SLAM: Will it be different when you get knocked down?
MJ: I’ll shake their hands. I shook [Detroit’s] hands when they beat us. I hated to do it, but out of sportsmanship, you have to pay your respects. And if someone beats us, I’ll do the same.
SLAM: Who has been your toughest opponent over the years?
MJ: New York has always been the toughest, ’cause they’re so hungry to beat us.
SLAM: Were you disappointed at all that you didn’t get to face them in this year’s Playoffs?
MJ: Oh, I wanted to play them.
SLAM: After Patrick guaranteed a Championship.
MJ: Sure. I wanted to play them. I still don’t think they can beat us.
SLAM: Allegedly, he guaranteed a Championship again.
MJ: Sure. Be my guest. He can say a lot of things. I mean, so what? He guaranteed…it don’t mean anything. The worst he can do is lose.
SLAM: How sick were you in Game 5…I mean, how sick would you have to have been to miss a game?
MJ: Let’s just say, if I had to go through it again, I’d miss it. That’s how sick I was. And I jeopardized my health, more so than I should have. And true, we won a Championship—I think that was the deciding game. But hindsight tells me I must have been a fool, and I don’t think I’d do it again if I had to.
SLAM: You eat any pizza?
SLAM: They swear it was the pizza.
MJ: All I know is, it was sickening, whatever I ate.
SLAM: You think that was the best game you’ve had?
MJ: In terms of the way I felt, yes. And at the time that it all happened, yes.
SLAM: What do you think was your best game? Do you have a single game that stands out?
MJ: I think the game I had against Cleveland, when I had 69, that was strictly off of anger and disappointment. Earlier in the first quarter, when I think I got a hard foul from Hot Rod and I—you know, I fell the wrong way, and I was really in pain. And the whole crowd cheered! And that right there pissed me off, because they was more in tune to winning than someone’s health. And that kind of got me fired up. That’s when I went crazy.
SLAM: Still talk to Craig Ehlo at all?
MJ: Sure. Yeah, we talk. We take pictures with his kids. We’re pretty good friends, but we’re fierce competitors. I like Craig. I always have. But on the court, there’s no friendship; I’m still trying to win.
SLAM: He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time…
MJ: [Smiles] Probably.
SLAM: How up are you on free-agent signings and trades?
MJ: I’m not. If they ask me, well…
SLAM: I mean, when they call you up, do they ask you, “Well, we’re thinking about him…”
MJ: Well, no. They may ask me, “How do you like this guy, Brian Williams?” or whatever. And I tell them, “Hey, you know, I don’t have a problem with Brian.” Or “I don’t have a problem with that player.” And then that’s all, as far as it goes. You know, I don’t understand contracts. I don’t understand obligations or the trades or who we have to get rid of—they never ask me that. I don’t expect them to.
SLAM: Have they ever asked you, “Well, what do you think of this guy?” And you’ve said, “Oh, he’s terrible,” and they’ve signed the guy anyway?
SLAM: Really? Man.
MJ: Sure. There’ve been quite a few times [laughs]. But nobody knows that, though. Nobody knows who they are…
SLAM: And nobody will know…
MJ: …but I was right. I was right! Let’s just say that.
SLAM: Have you ever been wrong?
MJ: Sure. I was wrong with the Oakley-Bill Cartwright trade. I loved Charles Oakley—he was like a brother to me, and I felt we were giving away too many years by trading a young rebounder for an old guy who hadn’t played a full season. But in terms of what we were trying to get, he was the best…it was the best trade at the time. I still love Charles Oakley, and I loved having him on our team, but in terms of what Bill Cartwright brought to the team, he made a difference.
SLAM: How do you handle the stress of having to be “the man” every game?
MJ: It’s challenging; it’s part of the expectations. You know.
SLAM: Don’t you ever have a bad stomach? You get any insomnia? How do you handle it?
MJ: Nope. I go to sleep, and I sleep well at night. And, well, yeah, I think about what my responsibilities are, but I never shy away from them. I accept them and then go out and do the best I can. That’s all I can ever do.
SLAM: That last shot in ’82 [the NCAA championship game] made a difference.
MJ: Sure, it gave me the confidence in game-winning situations, how to deal with the expectations and maintain your poise so that you can be successful. I mean, I don’t get rattled at close games or at the end of the game, because I’ve had so many successful opportunities that I can think about. That I’m willing to live with it—the negative of missing the shot.
SLAM: Do you want the last shot?
MJ: Always. If I wanted…I don’t have to take the last shot, but if I can have an input in the deciding of the game, I think that’s fine.
SLAM: How happy are you for Steve Kerr?
MJ: I’m happy for Steve. Steve had an opportunity to win in Game 4. In the corner. And he missed it, and he beat himself up for it. It was great for him to get himself redeemed. I think it can really help him going into this year.
SLAM: Most people don’t realize that you went back to college to get a degree in Geography.
MJ: Yeah. Cultural geography.
SLAM: Was it a promise you made to yourself or your parents?
MJ: Both. I went to college to get an education, but my mother… when I decided to leave school early, I vowed that I would go back and get it done.
SLAM: If you had to live in a foreign country, which one would it be?
SLAM: What do you like about it?
MJ: Cleanness. Cigars. And I like the mountains. I mean, it’s a beautiful country.
SLAM: Who’s the fiercest competitor in the NBA, besides you?
SLAM: Who do you think hates to lose the most?
MJ: I think Pippen hates to lose. I think Olajuwon hates to lose. I think Barkley. And Ewing—totally hates to lose. I mean, he has a very positive attitude…even though he’s been losing against me.
SLAM: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve ever gotten from someone?
MJ: From my father: “Enjoy life—every single day. You never know when it’s going to be taken away from you.”
SLAM: Who did you look up to when you were a kid?
MJ: My parents. Easy. I was from the country, so I really wasn’t in tune to athletes or superstars at the time, so I really didn’t look up to them.
SLAM: Did you follow the ABA at all when you were a kid?
SLAM: Weren’t the Cougars around then?
MJ: Yeah, they were, but I can’t remember [seeing them].
SLAM: You said David Thompson was…
MJ: David Thompson was playing for the Denver Nuggets when I realized…well, N.C. State too. So I didn’t know him when he was in the ABA.
SLAM: But you knew of guys in college? Were those the main athletes you knew about?
MJ: Sure, regional…I mean like Duke, [NC] State, North Carolina. ACC. I didn’t know anything outside of there. The NBA—I mean, I’d heard of Dr. J, but I didn’t really see him play. A lot of the NBA players I never got a chance to see play, because we didn’t have it on TV then.
SLAM: So by the time you entered the Dunk Contest in ’85, you’d seen at least Doc’s…
MJ: Sure, I’d seen Doc. Darnell Hillman. Uh, somebody like Darrell Griffith. And some of the smaller dunkers, Dave Thompson. And I did see the take-off from the free throw line. I remember seeing that.
SLAM: When was the first time you dunked from the free throw line?
MJ: That time.
SLAM: That was the first?
MJ: First time. And it was different, a little bit different than Doc’s. You don’t know how different it was, do you? You don’t remember?
SLAM: I think you pulled the legs up. That was—
MJ: Nope. You don’t remember, do you? You don’t know how it differed?
[One of MJ’s boys, who’d obviously heard this question before, answers that Doc ran.]
MJ: Doc ran, that’s right. And I dribbled the whole time.
SLAM: You always did that in the dunk contests.
MJ: You can insert that into the game, you know. When do you ever take off running in a basketball game? Never. You always had to do it with a dribble.
SLAM: What’s happened to the dunk contest, Mike? It used to be the most popular—everyone used to love the dunk contest, and now it’s just…
MJ: I think a lot of it has to do with all the dunks done without the ball. It’s all the bouncing; it’s not the art form with the ball. You know, back in the day when a dunk contest was a dunk contest—with myself, Dominique, you know, all those—everything was all in our hands. You know, either rocking the baby, backward, lean, take off from the free throw line. It’s not throwing it off the backboard or throwing it up and…Spud did that. Spud started all that.
SLAM: He almost had to.
MJ: Yeah, but he had to because he’s 5-7. Now everybody’s bouncing it and jumping over chairs, crazy shit. Closing your eyes, doing other [laughs]… I mean, you know damn well [laughs] that Ceballos had to see where he was going [in ’92]. [Laughs] Ain’t no damn way he could run down, straight down, jump up and dunk a basketball. He had to see…he had to see where he was going. If not, he was stupid for trying it.
SLAM: What’s the greatest dunk you’ve ever done in a game?
MJ: Seattle. When I didn’t know what I was doing, and I did the lean. From the side? And now everybody does it. That was just like, “Well, let’s go up, and something’s gonna happen.” And that’s what happened.
SLAM: Is there a facial that you administered to somebody that was particularly special? Like in this past Playoffs, against Mutombo?
MJ: No. Patrick [Ewing]—on the baseline. Because I remember when…I started back out to the middle, and then I spun back, came baseline…
SLAM: Oh yeah.
MJ: Or the one against Tree Rollins.
SLAM: Oh, when he fell down…was that the one when he fell down?
MJ: That’s when Cliff [Levingston] fell, ’cause I went for the fake. And then I dunked it on him. Those were young days.
SLAM: It that what you tried to do on every play—get somebody?
MJ: Back in the young days, I did. Now, shhh, I better be by myself, ’cause everybody’s jumping at it.
SLAM: You still watch those once in a while?
MJ: Yeah, I see them quite a bit [laughs].
SLAM: What was your reaction to meeting Dean Smith for the first time?
MJ: Scared. Intimidated. I mean, his reputation preceded him. I was pretty nervous about it, but he was easy to talk to. Very knowledgeable. Very caring coach.
SLAM: Does anything humble you at this point? I mean, do you ever see something, and it’s, “God. Look at that.”
MJ: A lot of the moves I do now…you still try to find ways of how it happens, or what’s going on in your mind, in the midst of creating or changing. But that’s just something that I’ve never really been able to explain. It’s just all been a part of the creativity. And I couldn’t practice a dunk by myself or in a gym by myself; it’s just something that’s always been innovated as I was playing.
SLAM: What do you think of some of these new guys like Kobe, guys who are coming in and saw you play when they were kids? Now they’re trying…
MJ: Sure, it’s a challenge. And you can see so many similarities in terms of their games, in terms of what you used to do. But I think one thing that they haven’t gathered yet is the mental maturity that comes along with it. And I was the same way. When I first came into the game, I was all physical, but now I think I know more about my skill level, you know, from a mental aspect.