Wednesday, January 13, 2010

No Comparison

In the 1970s, any singer-songwriter that could string together a couple of verses with witty wordplay was immediately hailed as “the next Bob Dylan.” If you were a hyper-athletic shooting guard in the 1990s, you ran the risk of getting tagged “the next Michael Jordan.”

Kobe Bryant was able to shake that label and forge his own legacy, just as Bruce Springsteen got away from the Dylan trap. Harold Miner was billed as a “next Jordan” just because he had a bald dome and could dunk, then he sank under the weight of that comparison.

But the player who had the toughest time playing under Jordan’s shadow was Jerry Stackhouse. The Kinston, N.C., native had heard the “next Jordan” talk since he was a teenager. It only increased when Stackhouse chose to attend the University of North Carolina, where he had two high-flying seasons. Never mind that their games were fundamentally different, with Stackhouse being more of a short-range player, it was just easier to stamp on the “next Jordan” label.

Stackhouse reached the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1995-’96 season and, after averaging 19.3 points per game in his first 32 games, remarked how easy it was for him to score against professional defenders. He probably should have stopped talking there, but the rookie went on to say that not even Jordan could stop him and that, in pickup games at UNC, Stackhouse held his own against the best player in the world.

Jordan is famous for using any perceived slight to fuel his competitiveness, and he seized on Stackhouse’s words in advance of their first pro meeting on Jan. 13, 1996, when the Bulls visited Philadelphia. Stackhouse tried to back away from the statements, but he had already sowed the seeds of destruction. The rookie’s mercurial teammate Vernon “Mad Max” Maxwell also didn’t do Stackhouse any favors by telling the Philadelphia Inquirer, “To hell with Michael. To hell with (Scottie) Pippen. Those guys haven’t done nothing for me. And you can print that.”

People tuned into Wayne Larrivee and Johnny “Red” Kerr on WGN expecting a slaughter, and Jordan was out for blood from the jump. His first points were on a long jumper that came on an isolated post-up against Stackhouse. Two minutes later, Stackhouse got his chance to go one-on-one against Jordan, but got ahead of himself and was called for traveling while trying to bully his way to the basket.

MJ scored seven of the Bulls’ first 11 points before Maxwell checked in for Stackhouse. Jordan kept rolling, finishing the opening quarter with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting. He also played cheek-by-jowl defense on Maxwell, who was visibly frustrated after missing his first five shots.

The second quarter was more of the same. Jordan toyed with Stackhouse on several possessions, shaking the rookie with a wide array of shot-fakes and jab-steps. The Bulls went into halftime with a 54-47 lead, with Jordan notching 28 points.

Chicago came into the game with a 29-3 mark, well on its way to a record 72-10 season and laying claim to being one of the NBA’s best teams ever. In the third quarter, the Bulls were in full flight. They scored 44 points in the period, with Jordan and Pippen taking obvious delight in abusing Stackhouse. Maxwell took himself out of the game and headed to the locker room early, complaining about stomach pains. It was probably sickening for 76ers fans to watch as Jordan reached 45 points after only three quarters.

Jordan took a seat for good with nine minutes remaining. His final line: 48 points in 34 minutes, 18 of 28 from the field, including 5 of 7 on three-pointers.

Stackhouse was a non-factor, scoring 13 points on 4-of-11 shooting, definitely not “next Jordan” material. Stackhouse went on to become a better-than-average pro, making two all-star appearances with Detroit, but his pro career always felt like a disappointment because of an early comparison that was impossible to fulfill.

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