by Brandon Halsey @gettinafterit
"We just don't recognize life's most significant moments while they're happening." - Moonlight Graham
Michael Jordan was THE guy I watched every night as a kid, not cartoons. I wasn't playing outside and making friends that I knew wouldn't last for more than a season. My childhood nights were spent watching Bulls games on WGN. I wondered as a child if it was normal to understand the difference between great, good and mediocre. Because the first memory, even at 8 years old, was this guy Jordan is great. And I remembered thinking of other great players like Bird, Magic and Isiah Thomas, but none of them registered like MJ did. Where does this understanding come from? Back then it felt harder to appreciate something like it does now. There was one sports network, ESPN. Magazines and newspapers were still profitable. You could only watch a handful of games per week. And when there was a game on you had to find it in the TV Guide first, and then you had to hope there was an available TV in the house.
On a nightly basis I was glued to the television set because I knew there was something palpable happening. I was fortunate to have a TV in my room at a very young age. Before the TV was put in my room, the basement TV was never "off limits" and I wasn't scared to watch it alone. The basement can be a terrifying place for a kid. It's dark and cold and the sounds are trepidatiously different. I was also pretty swift with the channel-changer. What I didn't know, HBO programming after 11PM was laying the foundation for what would later become immeasurable sexual frustration, desperation and shame. It was in the basement where it all started; historical perspective, appreciation for the present and J. Alfred Prufrock-ish indignation. Every night I stood in disbelief as I watched number 23 fly through the air with a certain beauty and grace, I knew it was magical. I knew I was watching something great but I didn't realize the magnitude of it. However, I fully understood one thing; Jordan was just better than everyone else.
In that same basement I watched Joe Montana connect with Jerry Rice for touchdown after touchdown as San Francisco blew out the Denver Broncos 55-10. That was my first memory of the Super Bowl. Then, in a bowling alley a year later, I sneaked away from my parents just in time to see Scott Norwood miss a 47-yard field goal. The Bills lost Super Bowl XXV because of a missed kick. As a kid that seemed like the worst thing I've ever seen. Wasn't a field goal the easiest thing to do? I couldn't believe that guy missed a simple field goal. It wasn't until years later when I finally understood the importance of that miss. The difference between the average chip shot extra-point and a 47-yard field goal, with a Super Bowl victory on the line and millions of eyes watching was beyond 'night and day,' the difference was astronomical. I remember running back to my Dad to tell him what happened, he didn’t seem to care too much. I still shake my head not only when I think about the miss but that my Dad chose bowling on a league night over the goddamn Super Bowl. Shame on that entire degenerate league. I will always feel bad for Norwood and the entire city of Buffalo. That goddamn miss was the catalyst for four consecutive Super Bowl losses. Norwood’s house was egged, obnoxious fans staked ‘for sale’ signs in his lawn and he was eventually ran out of town. Poor guy. What fans didn't understand back then they still don't today - not a big shocker; if your team was so great, then don't put yourself in the position of a last-second field-goal.
A few months later I was standing in my friends parents room watching as Jordan switched the ball between his hands mid-air during a layup. The TV was so small and shitty you couldn't even give it away at the time, and that was twenty years ago (bunny ears, static, jammed volume button). Jordan took flight via Cliff Levingston's delivery and somewhere between the moment when he took off and before he reached the basket, Jordan decided the play needed legendary connotations attached with it. Levingston had no way of knowing his pass to Jordan would turn out to be one of the great happenstance, borderline convenient assists in basketball history. Magic had Levingston covered and A.C. Green was coming in for help ... because Levingston was such an offensive threat (career 7.1ppg). Imagine if Cliff would've taken the contested shot? Maybe he would've forced a foul with an 'And-1' opportunity, or it could've just been a clean defensive play by Magic and Green. Either way, the 'Switch Hands' play never happens if Levingston doesn't record the assist. I’m not trying to dog Levington, he was actually a decent player. And that assist will go down as his career apex moment.
So instead of taking the easy right-hand layup or dunk (every time I watch it I become even more convinced that Jordan didn't take the simple lay in/dunk because his inner megalomaniac tendencies wanted to escalate the play into jaw-dropping 'Holy Shit' status) he switched the ball to his left hand mid-flight and made the layup and almost gave Marv Albert a heart attack. That was it for me. Montana was no longer my hero. It was now Jordan. Sorry Joe! Every day after school I tried to emulate that play. The football was replaced by the basketball. Even with a workout trampoline I couldn't figure it out. Everyday after school I grew to understand and appreciate just how amazing Michael Jordan was, how great the game of basketball is, and that I was never going to be remotely good at anything but watching it all from a distance.
Jordan's popularity was at an all-time high. This was pre-Twitter, before the 4,108,195 and counting different TV stations, sports talk shows, radio and blogs with non-stop 24/7 coverage. Jordan's fame was on another level. Arguably, a level LeBron can't seem to reach with today's resources (Another aspect to the argument is Nike's genius marketing campaign that LeBron doesn't seem to have.) But it wasn't about his popularity as much as it was about the love for Jordan. Everyone and their grandmother knew about MJ, and everyone absolutely adored MJ. He was just cool. Of course there were the typical haters. The haters never go away despite the era. But Jordan's haters weren't driven by the same motives of today. With Jordan there was a coating of likability. The same people who hated Jordan watched his every move and smiled in disbelief and said things like "sonofabitch" as Jordan drained a game-winner or posterized the oppositions' star player. [Not to forget, Jordan could be seen every night on WGN. This is a very important point and measurement of ‘Next Level Validation.’ Not that LeBron needs to be validated any further – except maybe a few more rings? – but LBJ’s overall status might be even greater if he could be seen every single night, for free, on basic ass cable … without the commitment to NBA League Pass. LeBron receives more primetime games than anyone else in the current NBA landscape but there’s still that DirecTV restriction. A casual sports fan can’t just flip through the channels and say, “Oh sweet, the LeBron game is on,” without paying extra for the package. They can find out information with up-to-the-minute box scores online, Twitter, NBATV, ESPN’s live coverage and post-game highlights, but post-game highlights don’t provide the same feeling of seeing it live, following the game-flow and being in the moment. People hated Jordan not because they legitimately hated Jordan, but because somewhere deep down they just knew he would be responsible for beating their favorite team(s) for years to come. LeBron James gets the same treatment to a certain degree but not like Jordan. It's close because of present convenience but it's really far away, in comparison. It's in the same universe but in different galaxies on opposite ends of the universe, if that makes any sense.
There's never been an athlete who's possessed the same 'killer instinct' as Michael Jordan. In recent basketball memory the next closest guy was Kobe Bryant, who unquestionably shaped his game after MJ and coincidentally tried to model himself as the complete post-Jordan package. Kobe (who I miss dearly and God rest his soul) seemingly forced himself to 'Be Like Mike' on a daily basis but there was a slight problem - no one else read that memo and no one else got the joke, except for Kobe Bryant. Kobe was never like Mike because he was never as well liked as Mike. Kobe was vaulted in the Jordan conversation because you simply can’t dismiss greatness when you see it. But Kobe’s problem was also that no one could dismiss his poor demeanor, as well. Jordan had just left (before he regrettably returned with Washington) and the generational gap widened immensely, seemingly overnight. Even if Kobe would've been a spitting image of MJ, on and off the court - he was never going to received the same way, especially out of LA. Kobe air-balled potential game winning shots and was labeled as a 'ball hogging bastard' but when Jordan did the same things some fifteen years before it was accepted because the surrounding talent of his roster was dreadful. When Kobe trash talked his opponents he was an arrogant asshole who didn't respect the game but when Jordan ran his mouth he was a "competitor." The ‘killer instinct’ paradigm is difficult when compared to other team sports. I can't think of anyone in football because of its increasing reliance on team and scheme instead of one-on-one matchups. Outside of Sandy Koufax's '62-66 run of dominance I can't think of anything in baseball. A 'killer instinct' in baseball is difficult to identify from the batting standpoint because he's facing a different pitcher every night, plus the juicing era has supposedly "ended."
This is a heavily scrutinized and maybe unanswerable notion but it's also becoming increasingly more accepted as actuality than theory. Of the thousands and thousands of athletes who have ever played their respective sport at its highest level maybe someone actually owned the same 'killer instinct' but it just wasn't as openly publicized and received – Tiger Woods! Tiger Woods pumped his fist in victory and was hated (more so after Tiger cheated on his wife but that’s another story) because Tiger’s presence brought a markedly apparent change to a game that was apprehensive toward change and stuck in its own white country club ways. When Jordan pumped his fist he was graciously and almost ritually celebrated (MJ cheated on his wife all the time but the media hid it - big difference in era of media coverage and time, in general). There's a two- part dichotomy with Jordan that constantly works inward; no one else was, is and could ever be as good as Jordan and more importantly, no one was as well liked and protected as Jordan. He was routinely described in the same categorical 'matter-of-factness' as a serial killer or a predatory animal seeking blood and for MJ it was perfectly fine. No one ever batted an eye. Jordan could get away with murder ... and he did. Jordan would blow a million dollars at a Vegas casino in a six-hour stretch with Charles Barkley and it never found the papers. Major media never said a word ... because we liked and we wanted to be like Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan, just like Tiger, didn’t waste hours signing a bunch of autographs. MJ, just like Tiger, didn’t schedule many interviews and promote an air of accessibility to the general public. But people today, in many ways, resent Tiger and they never did with Jordan. People expect more from Tiger, for whatever reason(s), as if fifteen majors and a myriad of incredible golf moments wasn’t/isn’t enough. I think we sort of took Jordan for granted. That he was just always going to be great and any thought of a Jordan fall from grace on-or-off the court was sacrilegious. And because Woods did fall from grace – directly behind the tipping point of the social media explosion – everything he accomplished beforehand was almost relegated into categorical afterthought. If Woods had been married when first entering the PGA Tour and cheated on his wife in January ’97 before winning the Masters in April, the sheer breakthrough of winning the Masters (permitting he wins in the same fashion following a nasty breakup) would’ve helped to mitigate Woods’ previous behavior. Let’s further assume Woods’ career path follows the same sequence we currently know; Woods wins the ’99 PGA, a bunch of other tournaments and completes the ‘Tiger-Slam’ through the ’00 Open Championship and the divorce and Woods’ as a misogynistic cheater is a forgotten paradigm in comparison to the once-in-a-lifetime greatness now on display. As Woods continues to win week-after-week his image becomes cleaner, not that’s it’s actually cleaner – he’s probably still a hardcore cheater who should never again get married – but the general public comes around because you can’t dismiss greatness, winning cures everything and the people are entertained.
Jordan was protected by a league unsure of its future direction and swept countless allegations under the rug with bribe money. With Bird and Magic the NBA was becoming a global enterprise. In fact, Bird and Magic kind of saved the NBA. But, Jordan was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The NBA was smart. The NBA knew the game of basketball would never achieve massive American consumption if its most marketable star and face of the game had skeletons in the closet. Jordan’s stardom had the luxury of coming before this current age of overblown information. When Jordan cheated there wasn’t an email or text message he forgot to delete and not every Tom, Dick and Harry on the street had a smartphone with a camera ready to snap a picture at the scandal. And when any allegations crept through an executive’s ear it was handled in the form of a healthy check with a lot of zeros following the first number. And Jordan’s problematic tendencies were nothing more than a two-paragraph rumor on the back page of the papers.
Moreover, Jordan was married early, before the championships and before the ‘Holy Shit Era’ of Jordan really took off. Once the championships came he moved from one of the best in the game to THE best and MOST invincible athlete in pro sports. And arguably, his wife (now ex-wife) Juanita could have took some sort of acceptance in the person Jordan was because at least she could call the most powerful man in sports her husband. Jordan would become a global icon and Juanita didn’t exactly like or welcome the idea of Michael cheating but she was also probably just as naïve as January Jones’ ‘Betty Francis’ from Mad Men. Maybe she viewed it as one of those necessary evils that just came with the job and the lifestyle. As Betty sought attainment of the American Dream with a successful husband in Don Draper; nice house, two cars in the driveway, the kids and everything that falls under the white picket fence paradigm, Juanita might have felt the same with Michael, except on a much grander scale, with a lot more to lose. If Tiger’s ex-wife, Elin Nordegren, doesn’t experience personal success before marrying Tiger maybe she doesn’t react in the same fashion … with a 9-iron through Tiger’s car window. But also, Elin didn’t know Tiger before his mega-stardom. She experienced success with Tiger but Woods was already too far-gone. Tiger’s talents and achievements propelled him to God-like heights and not one person, except his father, was ever going to keep him grounded. And when Tiger’s dad passed away it all started to fly off the rails. Woods had already experienced years of success, logged in a million travel miles and had a scheduling system well set in place. Woods found love with Elin, enough for marriage and children, but they were just two different people and Woods was never going to revert back to the person he was pre-Elin, just because of Elin. Michael and Juanita were high-school sweethearts; Juanita was with him when he was a regular guy, through all the ups-and-down and long distances. So in some ways, MJ is a bigger asshole than Tiger. They both gave a giant middle finger to the sanctity of marriage but Jordan’s actions are almost more repulsive because of the longstanding history between his wife and he. Lastly, Tiger was found out and Jordan never truly was. Juanita, just like NBA executives, swept any whisperings under the rug, then burned the rug. There are two morals to the story: (1) Don’t cheat and (2) If you do cheat, make sure your name is Michael Jordan and make sure your wife isn’t a Swedish supermodel.
Jordan had a shield of impenetrability conceived via the single greatest and shrewdest marketing campaign in the history of sports. It would be absurd to say Nike "made" Michael Jordan because they didn't. But they did create an advertising monster. Nike and Jordan knew that if something is marketed right, people would buy it. When the cameras were rolling Jordan did and said all the right things. He rarely compromised himself. His character flaws were hidden for just his teammates, who were never going to consciously destroy him because you can't undercut the franchise guy and upcoming best player in the game. If Player A leaked something decidedly inappropriate about Jordan, Player A's contract was then on the line and more importantly, he was no longer in Jordan's good graces. During what was supposed to be a normal practice in '90 Scottie Pippen figured he'd "challenge" Michael to one-on-one. Jordan didn't bat an eye and he quickly took Pippen's challenge and scored on him at will. Eventually Scottie would say, "Slow up, man," and Jordan continued to wear him out for two hours without a break – and Pippen was clearly the second best guy on the team and one of the NBA’s best ten. Jordan once lost in a simple game of ping-pong to teammate Rod Higgins. That didn't go over so well. The next day Jordan bought a ping-pong table and practiced until he became the best ping-pong player on the team. He hired the best existing ping-pong player in the world to train him during the summer after Higgins beat him. Jordan would bribe airport attendants with big money for his luggage to come out first and then bet his teammates that his bag would hit the conveyor belt before theirs did. It was just money changing hands but for Jordan it was exercising his competitive drive, and his power. Really it was a competitive disorder. Jordan HAD to win at anything and everything.
Jordan's shrewd advertising campaign vaulted him into the hearts and minds of everyone in America. It was literally impossible for Jordan to be an asshole because even if he legitimately was, no one wanted to believe it. His smile on TV, the commercials, the way he carried himself was always enough to keep casual sports fans and people who didn't even care about sports happy. People who didn't even have TV access talked about Jordan with an affection as if they knew him for years, grew up with him and heard embarrassing stories about Jordan's adolescence while having dinner with his parents. When people talked about Jordan they smiled uncontrollably and when people watched Jordan in person they always knew something magical could happen.
Imagine an American President that everyone actually liked; the phantom president's approval rating isn't competing for all-time lows and he isn't viewed as a secret handshaking agenda-driven "dictator" who manipulates the general public by covering up the important issues with an intensified focus on the arbitrary. It's an outlandish, almost completely rare, maybe Utopian concept, especially in this age of universal American ignorance. However, we have seen it in the modern era (last 55-65 years) with Eisenhower and JFK despite it's rare nature; Eisenhower and JFK's approval ratings were 65% and 70% respectively. Without question, the last truly adored president was John F. Kennedy although his term was obviously cut short. Maybe his untimely death is/was one of the main contributing factors for his posthumous affection? We don't know how his perception would've changed if he had another few years to possibly screw everything up just like every president who followed (<--purely subjective dialogue I'm not actually considering to be accurate. It's only use is for the sake of the debate, not to hash out fruitless political banter). I'll circle back to Kennedy ...
What if Elvis didn't die at 42 years of age? We might've come to hate Elvis Presley as the obnoxious 'has been' who spent the evening of his career as Hugh Hefner's right-hand man at the Playboy Mansion battling alcohol and drug addictions with the occasional rehab stints assuredly scrutinized on TMZ. Elvis would've been the pop-icon heavyweight champion of the world, unanimously celebrated in the public eye and still thirsty for more attention. American Idol would approach him for special guest spots, all the other phony talent shows would quickly follow suit, his own reality show would be a ratings machine for one of the major networks and Elvis t-shirts would be Wal-Mart's highest grossing clothing product. While the majority of the public continues to love Elvis (the same majority who decided The Bachelor and Kardashians are interesting), there would be a developing shift of Elvis fatigue. Eventually after years of appearances, interviews, tours and awards Elvis finally fizzles away as his health deteriorates. Network executives notice a .0000029182% decrease in the reality show ratings so they pull the plug. He's no longer on tour and he's won every lifetime achievement award possible. The public has come to the conclusion that it's time to move on and Elvis dies as an old man who didn't know when to quit.
We would've undoubtedly hated Kurt Cobain as the 'grunge' movement ambassador constantly making snide remarks about Eddie Vedder not reaching his full potential because Pearl Jam "sold out" and how Dave Grohl leaving Nirvana for a Foo Fighters side-project was the most cowardice, back-stabbing move ever made. Cobain and Courtney Love's tumultuous relationship would've been an ongoing tabloid nightmare eventually leaving a sour taste forever implanted in the collective mouths of the general public. Cobain's struggle with heroin addiction and depression would've forced Love to file for divorce and Cobain's addiction would only strengthen and he would die a few years later from an overdose anyway. Cobain, like Elvis - while tragic - are better in death because what will forever live on is the unknown - the ‘what could have been’ if they didn't die so young. However, knowing their track record, I tend to believe they both would've just infinitely got on our nerves and universal exhaustion would've set in.
On the other end of the spectrum there's a guy like Axl Rose. Think about how adored Axl Rose might be now if he just went ahead and died back in '91 right after ‘Use Your Illusion 2’ was released? Rose was at the apex of his career. Guns N' Roses was the most popular band on the planet. They were selling out 60,000 seat stadiums in half an hour. More importantly, Guns N' Roses acknowledged and owned a rare narrative no other band has ever been willing to recognize within itself - a blatant negligence of 'staying power.' The theme of staying power in relation to popularity is a difficult one to define. It's 'catch-22' in its most confusing regard. You can walk into any restaurant in its first week of opening and within ten minutes you'll know if it's going to last for more than six years. Six years is the threshold number in determining a restaurants staying power. If it surpasses six years the future is usually safe. Most of the time it doesn't. That's why opening a restaurant is one of the biggest financial gambles anyone can make, the numbers are never on their side. Guns N' Roses didn't even try to pretend they would stand the test of time. Maybe that was part of the charm? With GNR there was always a palpable sense of the unknown. Anything could happen at any time. In an instant it could all go south. Yet, their popularity continued to rise because they provided music fans with a great product. Guns N' Roses was an escape from the recycled popular hair metal scene of the 80's. They provided critical acclaim to their genre as a sub-genre of something lost from years before. They were seen as regular guys with no agenda except loud music, sex and drugs and not giving a shit. In hindsight, it's actually impressive they stayed together for as long as they did. How did Aerosmith and The Rolling Stones stand the test of time and Guns N' Roses didn't? That can only be attributed to one person, Axl Rose. Rose was the proverbial 'monkey in the wrench,’ yet, he was a controlling and egomaniacal perfectionist. His flair for the dramatic was fantastically perfect. Rose wasn't meant to stay alive and watch his career burn from a distance. It’s very strange they’re touring again, and have not killed each other. Maybe, weirdly, sobriety works.
Maybe Andrew Dice Clay's comedic routine stands the test of time and actually stays relatively funny if he passed away as soon as he reached the pinnacle of his celebrity in the late-80's and early 90's? Instead of being in the conversation of most annoying pop culture 'has beens,' ADC's repetitive and hackey routine of nursery rhymes, unnecessary vulgarity and bizarre cigarette smoking motions is appreciated and celebrated. It's interesting how someone's legacy is immediately exaggerated after death - unless they were major dickbags or serial killers, of course. Instead of going down as one of the best frontmen and comedians of all-time, their descriptions were relegated to 'polarizing.' If Axl Rose and ADC would've died young they would've fell into the category of instant legend. But on the other hand, if a legendary comedian like George Carlin or Richard Pryor had died young the world would’ve truly lost something great. This is the juxtaposition with JFK. We don’t know what JFK’s lasting impact could’ve been. In a cynical sense it’s easy to think he could’ve screwed it all up but there has to be a positive possibility, as well. If JFK’s continued existence only means the entire Kennedy family wouldn’t be cursed throughout history then solace is given. But maybe there’s something undeniably bigger, that only JFK was aware? Maybe he was just two days out from presenting a groundbreaking domestic agenda that would transform America into a completely different reality than what we’re accustomed to. It would be the bedrock of the dream that was once America and the default punchline of the nightmare we’re currently living would be nothing more than an archaic notion.
New Rule: JFK was not only the 35th President of the United States of America, he's also the post-death President of the 'What If They Didn't Die So Young Club' Before I reveal the members of this pseudo-prestigious club, I must differentiate the former between the 'The Pinnacle Was Already Reached Club.' In the latter club Ernest Hemingway is the ring leader. Hemingway wasn't going to publish anything better than For Whom the Bell Tolls or The Sun Also Rises. As J.D. Salinger and Ralph Ellison were publishing groundbreaking literature of an entirely different narrative in '51 and '52, Hemingway just won a Nobel Prize for The Old Man and the Sea in '54. The Old Man and the Sea wasn't as good as his previous works, yet, when people think about Hemingway they immediately acknowledge The Old Man and the Sea as his literary achievement. If anything, his quality in comparison to previous efforts was diminishing. It took Hemingway ten years to follow For Whom the Bell Tolls with Across the River and Into the Trees which drew negative reviews from the critics and the general public's reaction was something like "You gotta be F----N kidding me!" His fans expected so much more after a ten-year hiatus when nothing else was published and what was written during that gap was an unreadable atrocity and an 800-page mess only to be published posthumously. Hemingway was simply enjoying the same successes as every great troubled writer; depression, drinking, unhappy marriage, contemplating suicide and affairs. That's why when Hemingway published The Old Man and the Sea after a decade of disappointment he said "the best I can write ever for all of my life." The Nobel Prize was essentially awarded to validate the already celebrated career of Hemingway. A Nobel Prize wasn't going to J.D. Salinger for a book about teenage angst and innocence lost. The Nobel Prize wouldn't be awarded to a novel about existentialism in its most finite form. The older Hemingway became, the more his artistry deteriorated.
'What If They Didn't Die So Young Club'
Philip Seymour Hoffman
After JFK's 70.1, the average approval rating dropped to 55.1% for Lyndon B. Johnson, then 49% for Nixon, 47.2% for Ford and it reached an all-time low (until the 2nd Bush came along post post-911 - 49.4%) for Jimmy Carter at 45.5%. The first decent president to take office since JFK was Ronald Reagan. Reagan's approval rating ignited an upward shift until George WP. Bush took office. After Reagan's steady 52.8 approval rating, George Bush Sr. hovered around 60.9 then Bill Clinton averaged 55.1. After Kennedy the approvals took a continuous nosedive. It took America almost three decades to recover. The same generations who were in love with Kennedy couldn't trust the next guy, or the guy after the next guy. Those generations had to die along with the memory of Kennedy, or just stop caring about politics, in general. Kennedy's death left a twenty-six year void in how we viewed our president. And no one was as good as he was for a long time afterward. Was his everlasting fame contributed to his untimely death? I don't know. But I do know everyone in the aforementioned 'What If They Didn't Die So Young Club' has lived on in an unbridled reverence, and they always will.
Without dying, Jordan didn't know when to quit. Jordan's already unarguably the greatest to ever play. But just imagine if he truly retired after getting away with the 'Worst Non-Call Offensive Foul' in the history of sports and drained the game-winner on Byron Russell. It will always be called 'Jordan's Last Shot' but it wasn't. [Just imagine if he didn't leave for baseball.] He should've left well enough alone and never put on a Wizards jersey. Jordan's competitive streak, his unwillingness to step out of the spotlight and away from the game went on for just a little too long. It still pisses me off that Jordan wore a Wizards jersey. There was never anything right about it. Most of the time I intentionally block it from my memory. I try to pretend it never happened. I like to think Jordan does as well. But still, he wasn’t bad. During those two Washington seasons he averaged 21.2ppg with a 43% shooting percentage, well below his career average. However, as a 38-39 year old playing 36-minutes and scoring over twenty points a night, we watched short-lived moments of classic MJ and scattered trappings of the spectacle he always was. But everything reverts back to the original thought; just give it up, just fade into the sunset as the greatest player the game will ever see. Every athlete dreams of that final moment; John Elway had it, Ray Lewis went out on top, I guess you could include Peyton Manning? People in the tennis world will always wonder how much more Bjorn Borg would've won. But for every Sandy Koufax and Bobby Jones there's a Rickey Henderson, Brett Favre and Muhammad Ali who fought one too many fights and held on for just a little longer than the universe cared.
The problem with Jordan's entire career is he never had an equal. Maybe it would've never mattered but imagine if Lenny Bias doesn’t take that first fateful line of cocaine? Then, imagine Bias and Jordan as two of the NBA’s elite players essentially growing up together. Magic broke into the NBA in '79, the same year as his rival Larry Bird. Both Bird and Magic made their NBA debuts on the same night, October 12, 1979. And immediately Bird and Magic changed the complexion of the league. Jordan never had an all-time great rival, or maybe superior is the better word to use in this context. During MJ's run in the 90's no other player was even close. The next best player NOT a center was arguably Scottie Pippen, his own goddamn teammate! The NBA was dominated by centers and big men during the 90's; Olajuwon, Ewing, Robinson, Shaq, Mutombo, Malone, maybe Alonzo Mourning - all top 10-15 players, except Mourning and maybe Mutombo from a scoring perspective. You could make the case for Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, Penny Hardaway (cautiously, injury-riddled and short-lived career), Clyde Drexler or the Stockton/Malone duo as Jordan's rival or superior but only under the circumstance of them having an extraordinary night when Jordan had the flu - maybe one of those guys would outplay him in the setting of a single game. But you can't constitute a rivalry between a center and a guard. John Elway's rival or superior was never Jerry Rice or Mark Duper, it was always Joe Montana and/or Dan Marino.
If there ever was anything close to a rival or superior, it had to be Charles Barkley who’s one of the most under-appreciated players of all-time. Barkley carried the Suns to 62-wins in the '92-93 season, won the league MVP and single-handedly gave MJ and Chicago all they could handle in the '93 Finals. The series ended Chicago 4 - Phoenix 2 but it was much closer. The Bulls' combined margin of victory was 18-points, technically six possessions. It was a really close series. Go back and rewatch it, Youtube is pretty cool. Suns fans continue to blame it on Dan Majerle, and for good reason, no one disappeared in bigger moments. Oh wait, I forgot about Danny Ainge. Save for Game Two he was quite bad as well. Just completely past his prime by four to six years and seemingly confused as to why he was still employed to play basketball. Barkley was sensational. He was a 6'6 small-forward, really closer to 6'5 or 6'4, who could shoot inside and out minus the three and body-up any big man down low. His game was sophisticated, reliable and tenacious. He didn't disappear in big spots, he wanted the action. And he wanted to guard the opposition's best player. Go back and watch the '93 Finals. It's not just about his stat lines, which are incredible, it's about his awareness, knowing when to pick his spots and he was a problem for everyone defensively, except Jordan. But, that's also attributed to the fact that Phoenix just wasn't a good defensive team to begin with. And Suns coach Paul Westphal didn't believe in the idea of Barkley guarding MJ. When you watch the '93 Finals you'll see there's little Jordan/Barkley H2H moments. Which ultimately, waters down any possibility of Jordan having an equal, or someone in the same vicinity. Even in the biggest moments of the biggest games, none more important than the Finals, when Barkley was the NBA's MVP, we just didn't get the chance to see Jordan and Barkley facing off from open to close. And that's very disappointing, because Barkley was the only guy. Unlike Clyde (who MJ broke mentally), unlike Reggie, an aging Magic and Bird, Grant Hill, Dominique, Shawn Kemp, Mitch Richmond, it felt like Barkley could have really taken it to Jordan. But when given that chance, it just didn't happen.
Jordan never had that guy who could match him shot-for-shot, that fans wanted to see equally as much, that not only elevated his team but elevated the entire game with a combination supercharged competitive disorder, the highest of standards and expectations, a tenacity never before seen, the clutch factor, the intimidation factors, add in a natural and infectious smile - who everyone including your 82 year old grandmother adored - and you had the perfect rockstar athlete. And there was never that guy who experts predicted would beat him ... NEVER! Like, legitimately beat him; outrun, outplay, outsmart, out-hustle, intimidate and light up the arena like Jordan did. It just didn't happen. After Chicago won its first championship, Jordan and the Bulls were never underdogs against the spread. When Jordan wanted to beat his opposition, he did. It took some time to get there; the Celtics and Pistons were in his way throughout the 80's. But after that first championship it was practically over for the rest of the league. When Jordan decided to take a rare night off or play at 75% and let his teammates prove to they can shine when he's not at his best, the Bulls were still very hard to beat. His work ethic and will to win permeated through the locker room. And if someone wasn't fully on-board and didn't buy into Phil and MJ's standards of excellence, they were as good as gone.
And throughout it all his game was constantly evolving. When he returned from baseball his game already had new elements of “Oh wait, he wasn’t doing that two years ago.” As age was starting to catch up, his jump-shot became just a little more efficient. When becoming a pure shooter wasn't enough, he got stronger and learned how to become a better low-post player. When that got boring, he mastered the art of the fade-away - the most indefensible shot of his era. Arguably, the most indefensible shot of all-time, except for Kareem’s sky-hook. As Jordan got older not only did he get reliably better but he became more dangerous as a total two-way player with a renewed sense of resiliency and intensity. No part of his game worsened. He became a smarter defender and a better teammate. He could still take over a game by understanding not only his place on the floor, but his teammates and the strengths and weaknesses of his opposition. His relentless film study gave him an advantage over every player in the NBA. He never stopped caring. He was never content. That's what makes Jordan the greatest. To cross that threshold of knowing greatness has been achieved can be dangerous; it can stunt growth, cause content and create God-like ego trips. That didn't happen for Jordan. He played a full 82-game season nine times (LeBron once), including three consecutive in the second three-peat, in his 30's and still logging 38-minutes per game. He didn't have to do that from a sweat equity standpoint- pre-load management. But he HAD to do it from a competitive standpoint, it was personal. He had already played 30K minutes in nine seasons, which included an injury in his second year and the baseball sabbatical equated to 147 missed games. If he could have played 44-minutes a game he would have.
The Jordan documentary will be a study of affirmation. The footage has been quarantined for twenty years, pardon the pun. ESPN has been holding onto gold. All the world needed was the right moment. Jordan himself needed the right moment. As the years have passed and the memory of his legacy has slightly diminished, lightning is about to strike. But for the hardcore Jordan people like myself, this footage is going to be a welcomed, never-before-seen look into the story of a man and team I have already studied, read and wrote a million words about and spent a thousand hours watching and rewatching and appreciating. But for the haters, for the LeBron defenders, for the camp of all who think Jordan is just a little overrated and way-too-celebrated, this documentary will be an affirmation into their lifelong narrative for all the reasons why they don't like Mike. I hope you enjoy it. And I encourage you to watch it with Pro Basketball Reference as a guide. Grab a copy of a Jordan book. Deep dive into old articles online. Most of all, I hope you can find some sort of appreciation. There will never be another.
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