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February 16, 2013

HURT: Jordan tops list of UA opponents

The weeklong celebration that has accompanied Michael Jordan's birthday - not undeserved, but also not unrelated to the absence of football on the all-sports network - has promoted many best-of lists. The best Jordan games. The best Jordan plays. Inevitably, lists of the greatest NBA players, with Jordan perched on top.

But does Jordan make another all-time list - the greatest University of Alabama opponents of all time.

Jordan played on the North Carolina team that eliminated a very good Crimson Tide from the 1982 NCAA Tournament. If you based an All-Opponent team solely on productivity against UA, Jordan wouldn't make it. The freshman scored 11 points in that game, but all five Tar Heel starters were in double figures, and the one who looked really daunting that day was forward James Worthy.

If you picked an All-Opponent team based solely on what they went on to become, Jordan would, of course, top the list. So would Worthy, for that matter. Here are the rest of the names that would make the list on that basis, in addition to the two Tar Heels: Charles Barkley from Auburn, Karl Malone of Louisiana Tech, Bernard King of Tennessee, Patrick Ewing of Georgetown (who did not have a good outing against Alabama), Dominique Wilkins of Georgia and a trio of LSU players - Bob Pettit, Pete Maravich and Shaquille O'Neal.

That is just a list of the future NBA superstars. A great many players who didn't necessarily go on to pro greatness also played well against Alabama, ranging from SEC players like John Stroud at Ole Miss or Chuck Person at Auburn (and many more), to Billy Donovan, who bombed away at Alabama as a Providence guard long before he became the Florida head coach, or Ben Gordon at UConn (who scored 36 against UA in an Elite Eight game) to a long list of Kentucky and Arkansas greats.

Perhaps looking at that list of players is one way to grasp just how much of a cultural icon Michael Jordan has become. Sadly, Pete Maravich passed away before his 50th birthday, but it would not have sparked celebrations. Shaq's birthday won't get this much attention, either, or Kobe's, or LeBron's, when it arrives.

Jordan is different. He is the one that is mentioned, often, in Nick Saban's press conferences as the supreme competitor, the individual who symbolizes winning more than any other. It is hard to argue the point.

But before this column ends, one more player deserves mention. One who never scored a single point in the NBA. One who would also have been having a 50th birthday this year, on Nov. 18. One who was as good as any player I ever saw take the floor against Alabama.

Len Bias was fabulous as a forward at Maryland, dominating games against Alabama in College Park and Birmingham. Could he have been another Jordan? That isn't fair because Jordan was one of a kind. Could he have been an NBA great? Definitely. Instead, he died of a drug overdose shortly after being drafted in the first round by the Boston Celtics.

Not every young person can grow up to be Michael Jordan, but life is precious no matter what path you pursue, especially if you compete your hardest. Think of that as Jordan turns 50 - and again, later this year, when Bias' birthday passes unmarked by all but a few.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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