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Peers say No. 23 is No. 1

Thursday's practice ended, so the Bulls opened Chicago Stadium gates to the daily NBA Finals blitz of reporters, cameras and microphones.

Earvin Johnson, now one of us media folks, was a full court away from Michael Jordan. Magic, firing up the world's best grin, stood as an NBC-TV observer while an inquisitive frenzy encircled basketball's highness.

Magic knows the feeling.

"I once thought I was probably the best," said the extraordinary 6-foot-9 ex-Los Angeles Lakers point guard, "or, if not me, it was Larry Bird. My mind has been changed. It's now apparent that Michael is the greatest and most exciting player ever."

Big men, big egos.

"It's a driving force for me to accomplish things beyond what two such great players _ Magic and Bird _ were able to do," Jordan was telling the news hawks. "One more win over Phoenix will be huge, locking up our third straight NBA championship."

Hours before, the 30-year-old Jordan scored 55 points to give Chicago a 3-to-1 death grip on the Suns. "I don't think I've had my best game yet," said Jordan, averaging 43 points against Phoenix. "Maybe Friday night."

He's feeling frisky.

"Magic's Lakers won five championships overall but never three in a row," Jordan said. "Bird's Celtics were great, too, but Boston never went back-to-back-to-back with Larry."

Whoa, Michael!

Magic called you "the greatest," but don't try selling Earvin Johnson on the premise that your 1991-92-93 Bulls are superior to either his finest L.A. teams, or the cream of the Celtics during Bird's time.

"No question in my mind," Johnson said, standing in Jordan's sizable Thursday shadow, "our championship Lakers or Boston's best could've definitely handled Michael and these Bulls.

"If you'd taken me away from the Lakers, or removed Larry from the Celtics, they still would've had good enough personnel to win NBA titles. Boston and the Lakers had four or five guys capable of carrying the load any night. Chicago only has Jordan, and maybe Scottie Pippen.

"If you take Michael away, you're left with a lot of pretty average Bulls players. Pippen is real good, but who knows how awesome Scottie would've been if Michael had not been playing at his side all these years, soaking up so much of the enemy's defensive attention."

That, of course, is subjective jock banter. Like arguing whether baseball's 1975 Cincinnati Reds could've beaten the 1927 New York Yankees. But there's one thing Magic, Bird, you and I should be able to agree upon _ that Jordan is the Babe Ruth of basketball. Biggest talent, and best entertainer.

"History means a lot to me," Jordan said. "It's nice when the public or media say I'm pretty good, but it means a lot more when it's a peer and a rival who's doing the talking, like Magic.

"I know it'll make history when we put away the Suns, becoming the NBA's first three-peater in 27 years. Who knows, with parity now developing in pro basketball, maybe no team will ever do it again.

"You never totally appreciate history until some time passes. When I'm a grandfather, and maybe playing the Senior PGA (golf) tour, then what's happening in 1993 will mean the ultimate."

Babe Ruth can reflect.

"I've warned my teammates," Jordan said. "I told them if we don't beat the Suns in Game 5 and the series goes back to Phoenix, they'll have to make the trip without me. I'm not going. If we can't get the job finished Friday night, I'm through."

Just kidding.

Right, Michael?

We've heard from Magic. You've heard my nickel's worth. Jordan has given self-assessments. But before signing off, let's seek one more voice on No. 23. Someone rich in pro basketball experience. Someone seemingly unbiased.

What about it, Jack Ramsay?

"Jordan is not only the finest offensive player of all time," said Ramsay, the third-winningest coach in NBA history, behind Boston's long-retired Red Auerbach and Lenny Wilkens, now of the Atlanta Hawks, "he's also the best defensive player ever.

"God only made one Michael Jordan. There's never before been a player as good as him, and I don't anticipate there'll be anybody in the future to equal Michael.

"I doubt that Magic, Bird or any player in history could've done what Jordan is about to do, winning three straight championships with this Bulls supporting cast."

Ice the champagne.