Michael Jordan turns 50 on Sunday, a milestone that marks a half-century of the greatest player ever to play the game. He’s been out of basketball for nearly a decade, but his legend remains whether on sneakers, memories or game tape. Dime explores the greatest aspects of the GOAT’s career for his birthday. Today: Watching MJ drop 44 in person.
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For a certain age of NBA fans, Michael Jordan was the only reason to tune in to a game. Since he’s exactly 20 years and 10 days older than I am, I’ve just turned 30, and he’s on the precipice of his 50th birthday, coincidentally happening during this Sunday’s NBA All Star game in Houston. Even though those of us stuck in the maw between Generation X and Generation Y’s narcissistic, millennial hyperkinesis, grew up watching MJ at his apex with those incredible Bulls teams for the entirety of our rapidly disintegrating adolescence, I didn’t get a chance to see him in person. That is, until he decided to suit up for the underachieving Washington Wizards. I was in college, in Washington DC, far from home and my feckless teenage years spent grinning in his glimmering image from my parents anachronistic television set they’d inherited from my grandparents. MJ was the reason I fell in love with the NBA, and now I was getting a chance to watch to see him right in front of me.
The first NBA game I ever remember seeing as a sentient person, was Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls. The Bulls would lose, and Magic Johnson was a marvel that my old man nodded in appreciation while watching. My old man used to preach the gospel according to Bird and Russell, so it made sense to him that Magic would get the better of this young upstart from Chicago, by way of UNC. Then MJ shredded the Lakers as Scottie switched onto Magic, and my old man’s oasis of understanding faltered. There was, as Jordan himself has said, “a new sheriff in town.”
All of us of a certain age have Jordan stories: tales of that impossible-to-defend turnaround; his soaring dunks in transition as the progenitor of first Kobe, then Vince, now Blake; the time Scottie threw the ball 3 feet above the rim from a sideline out-of-bounds play, only to see MJ’s enormous palm grab it one-handed for a dunk; his legendary trash talking where any perceived slight from an opponent (either real or imaginary) became a reason to drop 40 in the most incredible fashion. MJ was a narrowing of my generation’s basketball purview, as we all relented to his genius on the court while simultaneously pretending there was no one else who could do what he did, and there never will be.
Those of us were, and are, progeny of MJ’s brilliance, and any basketball blogger over 30 that claims otherwise, needs to explain how he could have arrived at any other conclusion. Because Jordan was our guy like my old man had Russell and Bird and Hollywood had Magic and an introverted Kareem. We had MJ, and Jordan was better than all those predecessors, at least that’s what we all thought (and continue to think even as he’s approaching 50 and there are guys named Kobe and a LeBron we’re constantly holding up as comparisons). But there is still just MJ: the Greatest OF ALL TIME; the GOAT that is like Fitzgerald’s flickering green light at the end of the dock, forever pushing us to find someone that could even be mentioned in the same sentence as him. And still, there is only one MJ, and there will never be another, even if we all live to be 100.
With MJ and my age, I never really saw him lose. He beat Magic, then Clyde, then won a Gold medal on the (only) Dream Team, only to come right back the next year and end his friend Chuck’s only real chance at NBA glory at the top of the NBA mountain. Then he left us prematurely while reeling from his father’s murder. He was still perfect in our eyes, and I’d get into long arguments with my silly classmates about his place as GOAT in my elementary school cafeteria.
Yes I watched, along with everyone else, when Orlando’s Nick Anderson swiped the ball from behind in those 1994 playoffs, but Jordan acolytes had a â€” legitimate â€” excuse that Michael was still rusty from his time spent riding the Birmingham bus he’d bought for his minor league baseball team. Then, after the meltdown against the Magic, that summer saw “Space Jam” open. He’d mastered a turnaround jumper on a court he requested be added to his contract before agreeing to take part in a film with an anthropomorphism of cartoon characters as basketball teammates. After that long summer, it was 70 wins, another title, this time against Seattle’s athletic Kemp and Payton duo, then another MVP, and finally two straight years asserting his dominance over Stockton, Malone and my poor Knicks. He was perfect; he could do no wrong; he was as close to Nirvana as we’d ever seen. Then, for a second time, he went off into the sunset; still unblemished, still flawless and faultless. All this happened within the span of the decade where my peers went through puberty, graduated high school, and embarked on a life as adults.
Except that, early in my freshman year of college, in the bizarre weeks after the Twin Towers fell, MJ decided he couldn’t quit the league that had made him the most famous person on the planet. His excellence was untarnished at that point, but he was willing to put it back on the line by playing in a foreign uniform in my newly-adopted city. I somehow found a way to get tickets, which wasn’t easy as a poor college student, but how often was I going to get this opportunity again?
People forget how much of a paragon of superiority MJ still was in that autumn of 2001. Yes, the recently re-named Wizards were terrible and had been for some time, but he was Michael freaking Jordan, and so everything was going to be alright. We all collectively thought the Wizards would win a title because he’s Michael Jordan. Little did we know that to Air was actually human, and MJ couldn’t actually leap buildings in a single bound, which is what it would have taken to make that iteration of the Wizards a championship contender.
But that was on the horizon, and in my contemporary vista, I was finally getting to see The One. “Excitement” isn’t a strong enough noun to explain how I felt. “Overjoyed” still sullies what was going through my body as I downed whiskey after whiskey before the game in someone’s dorm room. I was having a transcendent moment; I was gonna watch Michael Jordan play basketball … in person. It was Nov. 16, 2001, and I was a couple months from my 19th birthday. I’d spent the past decade of my life building Jordan up to the status of a God; I was finally getting an audience past Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, and into heaven’s light where MJ’s bald dome sat on a throne of Larry O’Brien trophies wielding a scepter adorned on top with a leather basketball.
There was no real “Internet” then, at least as we think about it today, so athlete’s misdeeds rehashed, debated and reported anonymously on Twitter and in web logs, and which is the common media microscope for all superstar athletes of our present age, bounced off the mythology of Michael Jordan like two positively charged magnets. MJ’s omnipotence went unquestioned by my still innocent mind and by most of the world at large. I was getting to see not just the best basketball player in the world, but the greatest basketball player of all time, and the greatest athlete of all time (just ask ESPN).
As I boozily passed through the turnstiles at the MCI Center, I couldn’t believe I had gotten this opportunity. Our seats were in the nosebleeds, mere rows from the roof, but my eye immediately found MJ’s glistening head and casual nonchalance as he launched mid-range jumpers during warmups. I was transfixed just laying eyes on him for the first time without the buffer of my television screen. Then I started to pay attention to his shooting. He missed his first one, then a second one, then a third. All told, I never saw him sink a single shot during warmups. Not one. I turned to my friend, and said: “I think he’s gonna have a tough night.”
The Wizards were playing MJ’s old nemesis, the Utah Jazz, and Karl Malone and John Stockton were still chasing their first title; having been robbed of that opportunity in MJ’s last two season’s in the Windy City. I did not like his chances that night, especially when you consider the Wizards had lost five in a row leading up to the game, MJ was 38 and seemed to always be wearing bags of ice on his knees. This, of course, didn’t temper my enthusiasm for this game, but it did impart a soupÃ§on of doubt about his ability to play on that night. That tinge of doubt blossomed as I watched him miss shot after shot in warmups.
Then the game started, and after Malone missed a 14-footer, MJ came down and drained a 18-footer with that line-drive jumper of his. “Phew,” I thought, not realizing how anxious I’d been for him to succeed after so many years knowing he’d succeed. Then he missed, and I was crestfallen; my interest in the game was dependent solely on Michael Jordan succeeding, not on the actual outcome of the game or the interesting ebbs and flows of the two teams, the defensive rotations, passing out of double teams, spacing and offensive sets that dominate my thoughts these days as I ingest basketball on a nightly basis with League Pass.
No, on this night, in our nation’s capital, I was locked on MJ. After that first quarter, Jordan was 4-for-8 from the field, for eight points. The Wizards were losing 27-23 after one, but I didn’t care because I wasn’t a Wizards fan, I was a Jordan fan, and he’d come to do what he did best: score. The second quarter would be the apogee of that talent, even at 38 years old, the guy could still drop buckets.
The second started with MJ hitting two-straight shots in succession before even a minute had elapsed. Then he missed, but got his own rebound. A couple minutes later he drained another jumper, and then a couple possessions after that he hit a 3-pointer, something that was never really a part of his game, but still something he could pull off once in a while. He hit a few more jumpers and a couple free throws to finish the quarter with 16 points, including a basket plus a foul just before half, giving him 24 points at the midway point. I was ecstatic. My friend who came with me to the game, wasn’t a huge basketball fan, and he thought I was smiling so much because of all the whiskey I’d inhaled before the game and the beers throughout the first half, but I couldn’t stop smiling because I was watching Michael Jordan drop buckets on the Utah Jazz. It was perfect.
During warmups before the second half, I’d snuck down a section to be closer to the action. As Jordan again casually warmed up it was a direct reversal of his warmups before the game: he couldn’t miss. To say I was excited for the second half would again be an understatement. The level of discomfort I felt in that second half had as much to do with my bladder as it did with what I was watching. I didn’t want to miss a thing, so I kept all that beer stored up as I watched the GOAT try and beat a team he’d always beaten when it mattered.
Jordan took the first shot of the second half, a leaning 15-footer that missed. Like his diametric warmups to begin the game, it seemed if Jordan was connecting during warmups, the game would be a different story, and vice versa. A couple minutes later, and Jordan hit an 18-footer only to follow that up with another clanged shot from just inside the 3-point arc. If we’d had the Industrial Basketball Analytics Complex we do now, bloggers and columnists would be castigating MJ for taking the least efficient shot in basketball: the long 2, but that was his game, and getting to the hoop was out of the question since his knees were pathetic stand-ins for the uber-athletic one’s God gifted him with earlier in his career.
Jordan continued to shoot throughout the third quarter, and he continued to make more than he missed, but there was a moment that could be called a watershed in my love affair with the GOAT, if I wasn’t so inebriated from the whiskey and the beer. There was less than half of the third period left, and the Wiz were down 6. Jordan got the ball in close, and when he rose up, so did Karl Malone, who blocked him. Karl Malone blocked Michael Jordan. I fell back in my seat, stunned and blinking back moisture from my eyes.
It’s not that Jordan had never been blocked before, or that Malone wasn’t a solid defender, it was just that my still-maturing brain couldn’t fathom watching Malone block the GOAT. Karl Malone! The same guy that got so frazzled when Scottie Pippen adroitly said “Just remember Karl, the Mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays,” that he missed two potential winning free throws during the closing seconds of a tied game in the 1997 NBA Finals. Jordan obviously went on to win the game for the Bulls at the end, but now here was that same Malone blocking Jordan?! I was aghast, but still convinced Jordan would have the last laugh, since he always had the last laugh.
Jordan continued to shoot like he was Kobe playing with Smush Parker, but it just didn’t feel as amazing since that Malone block. Right before the end of the 3rd quarter, Jordan attempted another 3, from 26 feet, that missed. The Jazz were ahead by 10, and His Airness’ vulnerabilities were showing.
Jordan re-entered the game in the fourth with under 10 minutes to play and the Wizards down by only 7. He fed Hubert Davis for a 3-pointer, and then hit a shot while being fouled by Malone. All was right with the world again; all was as it should be: Jordan was a winner and Malone was a loser. With a little over half of the fourth quarter remaining, Jordan hit a another shot after getting fouled by Malone, and proceeded to again sink the free throw, cutting the Jazz lead to just 4 with 6:47 left to play. With 5:50 to go, Jordan hit another mid-range jumper to even the score at 88 a-piece. I was rocking and rolling in my nosebleeds as were most of the fans around me. The kids near me were screaming out “MICHAEL!! MICHAEL!!” like he’d hear them and give them a wink, even though were the farthest fans from him in the stadium. It was pandemonium and I was as happy as you could be as an 18-year-old college freshman.
But then Stockton scored with an assist from Malone to take the lead; Kwame Brown (remember him?) hit one of two free throws, and Jordan missed two shots, one of which was blocked by a very young Andrei Kirilenko. Jordan scored again with a little over 2 minutes remaining to cut the Jazz lead to 96-91, and he followed that up by drawing a foul and hitting 1-of-2 free throws to cut the lead to 96-92. But Malone came back and overpowered Kwame for a bucket and a foul, and Richard Hamilton turned the ball over. This was not what anyone was expecting, least of all me, a not-quite-a-man who thought Jordan was a God, or at least a loose approximation of one. After the Rip turnover, Jordan did steal the ball back from Stockton on the ensuing possession, but Rip would miss a 3-pointer, and after Kirkilenko scored on the other end with Stockton recording his 17th assist on the game, Jordan’s last shot at the hoop inside 5 feet bounced off with Malone securing the rebound and the win.
Even though I saw it coming, I still couldn’t believe how much the Jazz had taken over down the stretch. That’s always Jordan’s time, but not on this night, and really never again while he was in that uniform. Most readers know what happened over the next year and a half. He played one more year in Washington, and then left, off to play golf and forget about the abomination in Washington. He’s never again suited up in an NBA uniform.
But as a college freshman, in a city I didn’t really know or understand, I got to watch him score 44 points on 17-for-33 shooting against a very good Jazz team. And he did this after he’d taken two years off from the game (again) and about to turn 39 years old.
Now, mor than 12 years have passed since that day, and I’m again thinking about Michael. He’s still the GOAT, of that there should be no question, but like my own innocence, Jordan’s legacy has been tarnished a tad by his ineptitude in the front office, first in Washington and now in Charlotte, where his Bobcats finished with the worst record in NBA history last season. Jordan’s also gotten a very public divorce combined with allegations of rampant cheating on the road during his career. He looks a little bloated now, while he continues a sartorial fashion sense that’s more 1992, than 2013 (and I’m not even sure “jorts” were cool in 1992, but I can’t remember). Jordan’s no longer invincible, but he never really was; he’s a man, and like all of us he makes mistakes and he doesn’t always win. His Hall of Fame acceptance speech is pointed at and mocked as evidence that all is not right in the head of MJ, but for those of us who grew up idolizing him and then, after his (last) retirement, figured out it was his pathological need to win that set him apart from the other superstars of his age, the speech wasn’t surprising at all. It was MJ uncut, something we’d rarely been afforded an opportunity to see first hand behind the buffer of his Nike handlers and his place as the greatest diplomat the game of basketball has ever seen.
I still hold the deified MJ dear to my heart because it’s what led to my love of basketball. But I’m much older now, like Jordan, and wiser. I still recount fondly the chance I got to see him do what he does in person, even though it was in an unknown uniform surrounded by inferior teammates. The rest of the MJ accolades, the constant comparisons to the best in the current game, and amateur psychological fluff about what made him tick as a player, is in my periphery as we come up on MJ’s 50th birthday. I still just think about the MJ I grew up with; the guy who taught me to love the game of basketball; the guy who found a way to put on a show after he’d past the point where he was physically capable of putting on a show every night. I only got to watch Michael Jordan play once: but he made it count, and for that, I’ll forever be grateful.
Happy Birthday Michael.
What do you remember most about watching Jordan?
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