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A Farewell to Michael Jordan
An Appreciation of a player I had the chance to cover
By Julian Rubinstein
In the mid-70′s, when I was in elementary school, we used to play football at recess, quickly choosing sides and picking aliases from the superstars of the era: Staubach, Fouts, Swann, Payton. By the time I entered college in the late 80′s, it was basketball we played every afternoon, and we had outgrown the idea of pretending to be our heroes—at least in public. But in rare private moments on the court, or occasionally with a trusted friend, we would become him and only him. Just to see. The flying, spreadeagled, one-handed dunk. The cradled ball float from the left to right baseline finishing with a layup. Yep, impossible.
More impossible, it seemed, was that as sensational as he was as a player, Jordan was equally graced as a person: handsome, charismatic, rich, famous. No one so utterly enviable had ever been as cool. We envisioned him as perfect, though it was his pursuit of perfection that defined him. while Magic Johnson and Larry Bird measured box scores against one another in the papers every morning, Michael Jordan had no peer.
Yet he managed to live up to the hyperbole and continually redefine the superlatives by using a creativity that extended beyond his physical gifts. One night in Chicago, after a low profile Washington Bullets player named LaBradford Smith scored 37 points on him, Jordan told people Smith had taunted him after the game. When the Bulls played next in Washington, Jordan publicly vowed to give Smith his comeuppance by scoring all 37 of those points back by halftime. Sure enough, at the break, Jordan had 36 in a Bulls blowout. Years later, Jordan admitted that Smith hadn’t in fact said anything to him that night in Chicago.
Despite his eminence, and sometimes because of it, there were criticisms: he didn’t use his stature to further African American causes; he gambled; he didn’t speak out against Nike’s reportedly exploitative factories in Indonesia. But he also didn’t get busted for drugs, guns or violence like so many of his fellow stars. He didn’t get involved in politics just as he didn’t attend the Oscars or other high society functions that would have rolled out the red carpet for him. Those things, those few things, were out of his bounds. He played basketball—and only so beautifully, the entire world gasped.
Though it was corporate marketing that made Jordan the most universally recognizable person on the planet (just ahead of Jesus, according to one poll), he was the guy with that winning smile in the commercials, on the billboards and magazine pages. Unlike so many famous people who are, in real life, nothing like their public image, the two times I met Jordan he oozed charisma, and glowed with a confidence that was so affecting, it made me sit up straighter, speak more clearly, and even smile more easily.
I never believed the argument that he may not have been as good a team player as Magic or Oscar Robertson. Just being in Jordan’s presence made players play better.
In the last six full seasons he played, Jordan led the Bulls to the NBA title and was MVP in each of those championship series. The times he wasn’t the Jordan we expected—and for the 13 years he played, ho many of us lived in a subconscious state of anticipation of the next highlight?—were equally significant because it reminded us that we were witnessing greatness being charted.
It’s all there now to be studied, reviewed and admired, like lightning in a bottle. We saw what he can do. We can only imagine what it feels like.
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