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Toughest Task For Michael? Topping 1996

October 5, 1996

DEERFIELD, Ill. (AP) _ Even Michael Jordan will have a tough time topping what has been _ and continues to be _ an incredible year.

First, his Chicago Bulls finished with the best record in NBA history, 72-10. In his first full season after coming out of retirement, he won an unprecedented eighth league scoring title and his fourth MVP award.

Then, he took the Bulls to their fourth championship in six years, and was selected MVP of the NBA Finals for the fourth time.

After the season, he signed the richest one-year contract in team sports history ($30 million), put the finishing touches on his first movie (``Space Jam,″ due in theaters next month), and unveiled his own cologne (simply called ``Michael Jordan,″ on store shelves soon).

``Not only do people want to be like Mike,″ Bulls center Bill Wennington said, ``they want to smell like Mike, too.″

Unlike teammate Dennis Rodman, who has said that this season would be his last because he no longer needs or enjoys basketball, Jordan said he might play beyond 1996-97.

``For me,″ he said, ``it’s still fun.″

It shows, his coach said.

``Michael attacked practice and went right to work,″ Phil Jackson said Friday after the team’s first workout of the season. ``And the playfulness is still there. That’s really what carries the energy we need to have as a team.″

Jordan insists he’ll have plenty of energy once the season starts, too.

Although he’s 33 years old, he doesn’t want to be treated differently by Jackson or anyone else.

``I don’t want to change anything that’s been working,″ Jordan said. ``I want to play a similar game to what I’ve always played, I want to play the same minutes, and I want to be productive.″

Productivity has never been a problem.

Last season, Jordan averaged 30.4 points. That actually was down from his career 32.0 mark _ the highest in NBA history. He was the only Chicago player to start all 82 games, and he averaged a team-high 38 minutes.

Jordan was in the best shape of his career last season. He had been so embarrassed by his playoff showing against Orlando in 1995, just two months after coming out of retirement, that he spent the following summer punishing himself with brutal workouts.

That wasn’t the case this past offseason, when he scaled down his regimen.

``Last year, I really had to push extra because I was out for 18 months,″ he said. ``I gave myself some time off this year, so I’m not in the same shape I was last year. But I’ll use training camp to get ready and do it all over again.″

Although Jordan is universally admired, he motivates himself by his never-ending desire to prove critics wrong _ whomever those critics might be.

``I know that people are going to be watching the way I play,″ he said, ``to see if I’ve lost a step or lost some of my skills.″

Asked if he thought he’d average at least 30 points for the ninth time, Jordan smiled and said: ``I don’t know, that’s the fun part. Nobody knows. But I feel good that if I need to, I will.″

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