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 — legitimate — 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?