On Sunday, February 17, 2013, Michael Jeffrey Jordan turns 50 years old. It’s hard to believe, especially with recent comeback rumors and reports that he’s been playing in practice with the Charlotte Bobcats. On top of MJ turning 50, I’m also turning 30 this year – and despite what Jay-Z says, I don’t believe for a minute that “30 is the new 20.” For the first time in my adult life, I feel a chink in my armor of invincibility as the last waves of my twenties lap against the shores of mortality. As I look forward, I also look back introspectively on the first 30 years of my life and the tremendous impact that the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael “Air” Jordan had on my life. I’m not going to give you a Wikipedia-scraped list of Jordan’s career statistics, milestones and moments – instead I’m going to describe the moments that have lingered with me throughout the years, the vignettes and pictures that still vividly replay from time-to-time in my mind to this day.
Sports have been a major part of my life since I was very young. Soccer was my first love, and I would go on to play in leagues for more than a decade – but it wasn’t long after first kicking that checkered ball before I picked up a basketball, and from then on that orange orb remained forever affixed to my hand. My mother used to take us to the local Salvation Army where I would graze through the aisles looking for sports tees. I can remember my first one: a Los Angeles Lakers shirt about 3 sizes too big for me that I would swim in for a few years. I was a huge fan of Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers from the outset; I loved the way they ran up and down the court deftly delivering no-look passes. This was the mid-to-late 80s, when the Boston Celtics and the Lakers were the toast of the town. But soon a new star entered my orbit, young Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
The shot on Bird
My grandparents were big Boston Celtics fans, and I can still remember the green and gold-trimmed Celtics baseball cap that proudly sat on top of their living room cabinet. And this brings me to the first clip I ever saw of Jordan: His between-the-legs-thrice lightning-quick dribble followed by a pull-up jumper in the face of Larry Bird in a playoff series in which he had a 63-point playoff explosion in one game. Of course, the mighty Celts still swept young Jordan and the Bulls out of the playoffs, but that move still plays in my head like an old movie reel. I’ve attempted to emulate it many times on the court with varying degrees of success – one of the greatest moves of all-time.
The classic Jordan movies
Growing up in the nineties, I devoured every book I could find on Jordan, and even wrote my first biographical essay in elementary school on the legend. But while books are amazing, you had to see this man in action. So, I would travel to the local video rental store (remember those?) called Video Galaxy and rent every movie I could find on Jordan – from “Michael Jordan’s Playground” to “Come Fly with me” and more. I would watch the amazing aerial displays and attempt them later on in my driveway.
Jordan could have used some acting lessons, but I recall one fact from his early life that he talked about in the movies. He used to hang from the monkey bars on the playground in an attempt to stretch himself out and become taller. It worked for him – he went from 5’11 as a sophomore to eventually settle at 6’6. I attempted it as well, but I sadly still remain well-under 6 feet.
The dunk contest showdown with the Human Highlight Reel
I had Jordan posters galore in my room, even a life-sized cardboard cutout that I still have to this day. There was also a hoop in my room, and we would attempt some of the dunks from the epic battle between Jordan and Dominique Wilkins from All-Star Weekend in 1988. We couldn’t even match those dunks on a hoop hanging from my closet in my bedroom, that’s how ridiculous that dunk contest was.
Jordan crushing Sir Charles
In 1993 Jordan faced off against Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals. My grandfather, sitting in his rocking chair and consuming copious amounts of cheap beer, was vehemently opposed to Jordan and liked Barkley. He was determined to bet me that Barkley and the Suns would win – and tried goading me into it after I declined. Now, I was an industrious 10-year-old but wasn’t holding down a full-time job at the time, so to this day I’m unsure where he thought I was going to get $50 to bet him. Of course, the Bulls won, and I remember Jordan dropping 55 points in a triple-overtime thriller (which the Bulls lost unfortunately). I should’ve taken the bet.
The (first) Comeback
After securing a three-peat against Barkley, Jordan took off to play baseball. Watching the Bulls that next season, it was strange to see Scottie Pippen trying to carry the load by himself and the Bulls made a quick exit from the playoffs that year. Midway through the 1995 season, I had been reading about the rumblings of a possible MJ return when one morning I saw a note my step-father had scrawled on a notecard sitting on the kitchen table. It read “Michael Jordan will return to the air on March 19.” You have no idea how elated that news made me, a 12-year-old kid who lived for basketball - it was like your best friend moving away and then returning mid-year the next school year.
That Pacers game on March 19 was a little rusty, but a few nights later Jordan dropped 55 on the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden. It was sealed: Jordan was truly back. A friend of mine taped the game in its entirety on a VHS tape. I must have watched the game like 10 times over the next few weeks.
Jordan’s final shot as a Bull
Jordan’s final shot with the Bulls was amazing. Well, I guess he hit a lot of these in his career, but this was the crowning jewel. The Craig Ehlo one was awesome as well, but I saw this live. The last of his six championships, he won it with a shot over a falling Byron Russell to beat the Jazz in game six. I yelled throughout my house, celebrating the career of a true legend, one who went out with a bang on top of his sport. You couldn’t have scripted it better. Of course, he returned again to ruin that ending, but I can forgive him that. A picture of that shot hangs in my pool room in the basement.
Jordan was inspired and motivated by his older brother beating him on the court in their backyard as a child, by not making the varsity team as a freshman in high school, by the actions of players like Isiah Thomas "freezing him out" as a rookie, and by a certain player named Byron Russell telling Jordan he could stop him. His Hall of Fame induction ceremony speech encapsulates this motivation. Michael used every ounce of disappointment and slight, whether real or perceived, and channeled it into working harder, training, and pushing himself to be the best. This is why he is the greatest ever - the ultimate competitor. I've tried to emulate this in my life as well, whether on a court or a field, or in any arena in this competition called life. Thank you for inspiring me Michael, and congratulations on turning 50.
Postscript: LeBron is better than Jordan? Are you people at ESPN serious?
I’ve heard some mutterings recently about LeBron James being better than Jordan – let’s not get crazy. Jordan was the ultimate competitor. It took him years to get past the Detroit Pistons before he won his first ring in 1990. He would NEVER have teamed up with, say Hakeem Olajuwon on the Rockets or Clyde Drexler on the Trailblazers, or any other superstar in order to get an easier path to a ring. He tasted bitter defeat before he tasted success. And then he went out and did it five more times.
And the competition in the NBA was on a different level during the 1990’s than it is today. Look who Jordan beat in the finals – players like Magic Johnson and the Lakers, Clyde Drexler and Portland, Barkley and the Suns, on and on. There were centers like Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson…the NBA doesn’t even have dominant centers anymore!
Oh, and he would NEVER shy away from the dunk contest like a coward. I implored LeBron last year to enter the dunk contest. He obviously has no intentions of ever doing that. You can have all the statistical comparisons you want – “Ooh, LeBron averages more rebounds” (he’s 6’8 and bigger than Jordan); “Ooh, he has more assists” (he has Wade and Bosh to pass to).
LeBron, I knew Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan was a hero of mine. LeBron, you’re no Michael Jordan.