Sunday, February 17, 2013

Celebrating Genius in Gym Shorts, as Michael Jordan Turns 50

I was born in 1968, so I never saw the Beatles perform live--in person or on TV.

The same can be said for Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and (at least per memory) the Clash.

I don't think I ever saw Muhammad Ali box in the present tense (certainly not in his prime) nor did I see Sandy Koufax pitch, Ted Williams hit or Jim Brown run.

I also didn't see Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell on the basketball court, nor Pele on a soccer pitch.

Obviously, I didn't have an opportunity to see Mozart, Beethoven or Gershwin play the piano nor Houdini perform magic.

Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling nearly half a millennium before I existed and I wasn't there when Moses parted the Red Sea.

But as amazing any or all of the above would have been to witness, there is none for which I would trade the privilege of having seen Michael Jordan play basketball.

And excepting such mundane tasks as seeing a co-worker walk to his desk or watching my mom make dinner, I think I saw MJ play basketball--though less than 10 times in person--more than I've seen anyone else do anything.

He played 930 regular season games with the Bulls and 179 playoff games. I likely saw at least 75% of the former and 95% of the latter (I lived in LA during the 90-92 runs). Plus some North Carolina college games and a handful with the Washington Wizards. So maybe 875 games.

In having seen all 180 episodes of Seinfeld--still the best TV show of my lifetime--even including reruns Michael easily tops Jerry and his gang.

And though I've seen Bruce Springsteen--the only other "performer" who has meant as much to my life as Michael--in concert 42 times, even if you add television appearances and the many times I've watched the Boss' videos and DVDs, MJ still wins.

And if you haven't heard, today is Michael Jordan's 50th birthday.

So it should be pretty easy to find numerous well-written remembrances of him and how great he was on the court--the greatest ever IMHO. Thus, this article won't go into too much detail about his supernatural skills. (This Deadspin piece about Craig Ehlo's recollections is terrific.)

If you saw him play, you know. And if you didn't, find some videos.

The Ultimate Jordan DVD collection I own--which now costs $135 more on Amazon than I paid in 2004--includes five of Michael's greatest games in full. Last night, I opted to watch the "Flu Game," the 5th of the 1997 Finals against Utah.

That was the game Jordan played after suffering from flu-like symptoms the previous night and up through game time. (The latest SI cover story on MJ@50 includes intimations by Jalen Rose that Jordan's illness may have been a hangover; OK, even if so, he was still sick as a dog. And this seems like a good place to state that I do not consider Michael Jordan a saint, nor even likely someone I'd enjoy having a beer or playing poker with. I've heard some less than savory stories and his Hall of Fame speech was brutishly ugly. But whatever his temperament, faults and transgressions, until his sins reach the level of Lance Armstrong, Ray Lewis, Joe Paterno and (allegedly) Oscar Pistorius, Michael remains heroic in my eyes, simply and solely for his athletic brilliance.)

To remind, the Bulls had lost games 3 & 4 of the '97 Finals to the Jazz in Utah, blowing a late lead in Game 4 to wind up tied 2-2 in the series. Game 5 was also at Utah's Delta Center, where NBC kept showing that the decibels from crowd noise reached up to 109 dB. The Jazz dominated early, going up 21-8 early and ending the first quarter with a 29-16 lead.

In watching the game again last night, which I knew they had won, I was still thinking, "How in the hell are they going to win this game?"

Two words: Michael Jordan.

After scoring only 4 points in the 1st quarter, he dropped in 17 in the second en route to 38 total. He also made a few incredible passes for assists, had some steals and great defensive stops and, after playing 44 of 48 minutes, in near complete exhaustion he sank a 3-pointer with :25 left to essentially seal the win.

So after a decade of not seeing MJ play--and the Wizards years hardly count--I watched a single game, one preceded by him puking his guts out, and was reminded altogether anew just how transcendentally awesome Michael Jordan was.

And what a joy he was to watch.

It's not just the 6 championships and unmatched "will to win" that separates him from LeBron, Kobe, etc., but I'd almost forgotten just how amazingly fluid and graceful Michael was on the court. I'll let others argue if he truly was the greatest player ever, but I'm pretty certain I'll never see another I prefer watching.

My bedroom, circa 1989
But as I was getting to, nine paragraphs ago, this tribute isn't so much about Michael Jordan's amazing abilities and accomplishments.

This is about what Michael meant to me, through some personal recollections.

Although, to be truthful, just watching him drop 44 points in some random game all by my lonesome was essentially just as gratifying as anything more overtly nostalgic.

But some of my memories of Michael are all the more special due to having been shared with a variety of friends, a few who remain in my life but several others I lost touch with years ago.

I certainly remember MJ dropping in the winning shot to win the 1982 NCAA Championship for North Carolina, and how happy I was the Bulls got him with the 3rd pick in the 1984 NBA draft, after the Houston Rockets took Hakeem Olajuwon and the Portland Trailblazers--to their eternal chagrin--took Sam Bowie, whose career was destroyed by a foot injury (a sad foreshadowing of Portland's pick of Greg Oden over Kevin Durant 23 years later).

On March 9, 1985, I saw Michael Jordan play in person for the first time, when he scored 28 points in a loss to the Utah Jazz at Chicago Stadium. I still have the $6.50, bought-at-the-door ticket stub--read about my obsession with such here--but can't quite remember which combination of high school pals (Fred, Mike, Billy, perhaps) I went with. I thought Jordan, who's been my best friend since Kindergarten, was there, but I just asked him and he had no recollection of it.

But I know that sometime in 1985, Jordan got a pair of Air Jordans when they first came out--he got the Black/Red ones--and sometime soon after, I got the kind shown at left. Regretfully, I don't have them anymore, but the Air Jordan socks are sitting just a few feet away as I type this.

I remember ruing Michael's foot injury that kept him out much of the 1985-86 season, but during that time saw him at the Chicago Auto Show, where he signed the photo shown below. (It's hard to see, but it says, "To Seth").

In the Spring of 1986, I was in my second year of being a Pepsi and peanuts vendor at Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park, along with high school friends Mark, Larry and others. I was pretty much the worst vendor in history anyhow, but April 20, 1986 was particularly slow for commissions as I spent much of the Cubs game camped at a concession stand atop the grandstand watching Michael score 63 against the Celtics in an overtime playoff loss. That was the game that prompted Larry Bird to call him, "God disguised as Michael Jordan."

In August 1986, I entered college at Northern Illinois University. My freshman year on the 6th floor of the Stevenson South dorm was a pretty fun one overall, but I most recall watching every game of the Bulls' season in the room of a sophomore named Tom Anselmo--if you see this, get in touch--accompanied by Tony, Greg and others. That was the year MJ averaged 37.1 points per game.

I remember buying a pair of Bulls playoff tickets--in those days you had to call Ticketron; the  upper deck tix were just $12 each--and Tom drove us to the Stadium to see the Bulls lose Game 3, and thus another opening round series, to the Celtics on April 28, 1987. Michael scored 30.

In February 1988, I again saw Michael at the Auto Show (at right), this time with a private dorm suitemate named Chris, who I never saw again after that semester.

On May 7, 1989, just days from my NIU graduation (yes, I finished in 3 years), my roommate Mike and I were watching the Bulls play the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the first round playoffs. MJ hit "The Shot" and we almost hit the ceiling.

From February 1990 through the end of 1992, I lived in Los Angeles (specifically Encino in the San Fernando Valley). I remember going to watch some Bulls games at a bowling alley in Tarzana, and being amongst the minority population when the Bulls met the Lakers in their first Finals.

I recall not just going nuts when the Bulls won the title, but calling my Aunt Renee, who lives near Clark & Division, for live sound of the celebration on the streets of Chicago. (And did so again in 1992.)

And on November 26, 1991, my friend Steve (from an advertising agency I worked at in L.A.) and I went to see the Bulls play the Clippers at the L.A. Sports Arena. MJ scored 23 in a 116-79 Bulls blowout.

I was back at my parents house in Skokie for the 1993 Championship, still recall being stunned by Michael's first retirement announcement and--though he doesn't remember this either--being with Jordan at a bar near his Urbana home (it was likely the Esquire in Champaign) when MJ announced his return to the Bulls after his ill-fated baseball career. Needless to say, we went crazy.

I went to a few games during the '95-'96 through '97-'98  seasons, including one in Milwaukee with my still-friend Mark from high school (the black jersey photo above was taken there) and the first game of the 1998 playoffs, a win over the Nets in which MJ scored 39. I took the photo at left from a prime box seat.

I likely watched every game of those last 3 championship seasons, many at the apartment of a colleague (at an Oakbrook ad agency) named Jack, who I literally have not heard from or about since the Bulls won their 6th and final ring.

I also went to 2 or 3 of the championship celebrations in Grant Park.

Eerily, especially since I've rarely ever watched the Today show, I recall that on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I saw Bob Costas talking to Katie Couric about Michael Jordan's plans to come back with the Washington Wizards.

That was before I left the house; by the time I got to work, MJ's comeback was the most tragically overshadowed news story in history.

Speaking of overshadowing--though not nearly on such a grim level--remember when Michael showed up at that White Sox playoff game in 1993 and became a much bigger story than the game itself? That just popped into my head.

Anyway, winding this down, I did see Michael play the Bulls in a Wizards uniform twice, but three other Wizards games I had tickets for didn't work out so well.

Michael sat out one in Chicago and another in Milwaukee, and when I was in New York on March 9, 2003, I bought a scalper's ticket for Michael's last appearance at Madison Square Garden.

Sadly, the ticket (shown at right) turned out to be a counterfeit and I never got in. (So I went to see Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune with Rosie Perez and Joe Pantoliano.)

Of course, over the years I've owned myriad Michael Jordan mementos; posters and t-shirts galore, some signed photos beyond the Auto Show one, several books, stuff from his old restaurant, even a bottle of Michael Jordan Cologne I still have but have never worn.

I sure hope my classic Michael Jordan McDonald's folder--a gift from Mark, who also memorably gave my first-born nephew an infant "23"  jersey--still resides somewhere in my mom's crawlspace, but nowadays, only the photo at the very top and the matryoshka dolls (Jordan, Pippen, Rodman (with orange hair), Kukoc, Kerr) are on display in my condo.

But more than anything else pertaining to Michael Jordan, I cherish the memories. Not just of him, but because of him.

I'm sure there's much I've already forgotten, and respectable reasons others may not like Mike (or want to be like him), but other than family, friends and perhaps the music of Bruce Springsteen and the Beatles, being able to see Michael Jordan play basketball--for my hometown team--for as long and often as I did, will forever stand atop the foremost pleasures and treasures of my life.

And for that I say, "Thanks, Michael."

Happy Birthday #50 to the man who will forever be 23 (though for a brief time, 45).


Anonymous said...

Why did you use the word 'genius' in your title? Simply being a great (to numb down his achievement) athlete doesn't make him a genius. You wouldn't call Mike Tyson a genius despite him being at the top of his sport for a long time, would you?

Otherwise, it was nice to reminisce about MJ. Watching him, I thought that someone should capture his nature -defying moves that he accomplished every single game...but it's too voluminous to compile.

Anonymous said...


Seth Arkin said...

@Todd: To me, genius is at the heart of virtuosity in any realm. Clapton is a genius even if he doesn't understand quantum physics.

But even in terms of genius as exceptional intellect, I think MJ's on-the-court knowledge--together with his phenomenal physical abilities--is what set him apart from everyone else. In his field, he was not just a superstar, but a genius.

John said...

The greatest basketball player of all time, no contest with anyone else being as good. I am proud to say I was a MJ fan when he was playing!