Sunday, February 17, 2013
Michael Jordan Turns 50
The other night I was watching the LA Lakers game, and the announcers were talking about Kobe Bryant calling out Dwight Howard in the media for not playing through injury. I texted my friend, “I think Kobe did the right thing calling out that overpaid wimp,” and my friend replied, “Dwight sucks. Jordan would’ve punched him,” to which I wrote, “LOL. But Jordan wouldn’ve actually punched him,” and my friend responded, “Brian, the guy announcing this game (Steve Kerr, former Jordan teammate). . . Jordan punched him,” and I ended with, “Oh yeah, he did.”
This weekend Michael Jordan turns 50. For anyone who grew up watching #23, this is one of those times where you lift your head out of the 9-to-5 sand, and say, “Wow.” I was in middle school when he played the ‘flu game,’ high school when he beat the Jazz in six games to win his sixth title. There are no words that can possibly describe what Michael Jordan was, how big he was, how important, how culturally EVERYWHERE.
Michael Jordan simply refused to lose on the basketball court. He wasn't getting beat by the Phoenix Suns, or the Utah Jazz, or anybody. You knew it, I knew it, the Suns and the Jazz knew it. So many great players went ringless in the 90s because of MJ. If he didn't do baseball (only God knows why he did that), the Bulls would've won 9 straight. But he was so much more than on the court. Everything he did was ICONIC. His wall posters are legendary. His TV commercials are time capsules. His red #23 replica jersey was required clothing. He was simply larger than life. A God that we actually got to ‘see’ at the height of his powers, not just hear about in fairy tales, like Babe Ruth, who’s so long ago he might as well be a fairy tale. I watched MJ’s entire career. I witnessed what he was. I even saw SPACE JAM. And now he’s 50. He’s more old man than superman, or space man. I’m reflecting on my own life over MJ’s birthday weekend. In a strange way, we’re all turning 50 today, because MJ is turning 50.
Is Michael Jordan the greatest basketball player ever? No doubt about it. Could he drive the lane or dribble a ball better than LeBron James? Probably not. Could he shoot a better jumper than Kobe Bryant? I don’t think so. But Kobe's a puppy dog compared to MJ. Lebron? My mother doesn’t even know who LeBron James is. Michael was household. He wasn’t just sports. He was life. Any kid who ever touched a basketball, from every corner of the country, boy or girl, wanted to be MJ. We walked like him, wore baggy shorts like him, mimicked his on-court moves. Air Jordan is more recognizable than Barack Obama. As I'm writing this, I am watching an old KING OF QUEENS. There was just an MJ reference in this episode, "Can you hand me my Michael Jordan cologne?" There won't be LBJ references on TV ten years after he retires.
All of us who idolized him and dreamed of one day being ‘Like Mike’ are not alone with the ghost. By all accounts, Michael Jordan lives in a self-imposed prison, haunted by what he was and will never be again. I imagine his dreams are filled with the sounds of crowd noise, constant crowd noise. I doubt quiet time is an easy thing for our hero. I’m sure reflection is an emotional torture chamber. Michael Jordan is haunted by the ghost of Michael Jordan. And what does it say about life and the American Dream when Michael Freaking Jordan, the man I just described as more recognizable than Barack Obama, is himself a tragic figure? The man is worth billions, his face known the world around, but none of that matters. He’d trade it all back to be 30 years old again and be able to play the game on the greatest stage. But he can’t. Final Score: Father Time: 1, Jordan: 0.
It’s not about money. It’s about time. Nothing is more important than time. I look at my family and my life the way it is right now and no matter what, this will pass. Soon these people and this place will be gone. Soon I’ll be gone. Can’t stop it. Can’t pay it not to happen. Can’t beat it with a quick first step. Michael Jordan’s life is a sad one on many levels. Why? His ‘time’ is no more, at least his time at the top. He could find the cure for Cancer tomorrow, but he’ll never be #23 again. It’s sad. Michael Jordan's 50. More old man than superman, or miracle man.
When I was in seventh grade, I went to the Sam Perkins-Lou Cioffi Basketball Camp at the Jewish Community Center in Albany. My parents paid three hundred bucks to send me. On the final day of the five-day camp, Michael Jordan was going to be there. I was going to meet Michael Jordan. I walked like Michael that week, drank my Gatorade, kept my Air Jordans squeaky clean. On Thursday I qualified for the camp’s foul-shooting championship on Friday. I was going to win a foul-shooting trophy in front of #23. The next day I did my Michael Jordan walk into that camp at 8AM, chewing my gum like MJ, wearing a black sleeve on my leg like Jordan, ready to meet His Airness. Bad news: Michael would NOT be coming to the camp. The night before, his grandfather fell ill in North Carolina and Michael suddenly couldn’t make it. That's how it is with our heroes, isn't it? Instead of winning that trophy in front of MJ, I won it in front of Sam Perkins.
Last week I saw the man who ran that same camp, Ed Pierce, and we got to talking about that long-ago summer week at the JCC. Before I could even mention my own frustrations from missing MJ, Ed said, “The damn grandfather,” and I saw the same pain in his eyes, all these years later, I saw the pain. Ed Pierce, just like me, had come oh-so close to meeting the greatest athlete in American history, being able to tell his grandkids he pressed flesh with a God. And didn't Coach Pierce himself wear a black sleeve on his leg that week like the rest of us?
Happy 50th, Michael.
Please read this article about MJ. It is one of the finest pieces of journalism (sports or otherwise) you will ever come across: http://espn.go.com/espn/story/_/page/Michael-Jordan/michael-jordan-not-left-building