Michael Jordan turned 60 two days ago.
While I’ve slowly come around to the acknowledgement that LeBron James is likely the greatest basketball player of all time, my commitment to MJ as the greatest still holds some sway in my head. The man was incredible, and watching him play when he was just himself was exciting enough. But when he turned it on and played not just as one of the NBA’s best but as MJ, the single best of all time, it was just something to behold. He did things that defied explanation, and then you would watch a slow-mo replay of the astonishing thing he’d just done, and it would somehow become even more astonishing.
There was no need at all for slow-mo in Game One of the 1992 NBA Finals, however. That series pitted Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, who were the defending champs, against the Portland Trailblazers, who featured my personal favorite basketball player ever, Clyde Drexler. As we had lived in Portland several times in earlier years, I rooted for the Blazers in that series…but it became quickly apparent that Jordan wasn’t losing. He took over that first game, and it wasn’t his usual ballet-like progress to the hoop that did it; he just rained in shots from beyond the 3-point line. His dominance became so thorough and inexplicable that at one point he turned to the sideline and shrugged as if to say, “I don’t get this, either.” I don’t think LeBron at the height of his powers could have beaten Michael Jordan that night.
Anyway, MJ is now 60. He only retired 20 seasons ago, in 2003–that was his second and final retirement, having retired previously in 1993 after winning three consecutive NBA titles and wanting to go play baseball. Which he did, spending two years being a big draw in the minors as a Chicago White Sox prospect. In his absence from the NBA the Houston Rockets won back-to-back NBA championships, led by their superstar player at the time, Hakeem Olajuwon, who had been the first pick overall in the 1984 NBA Draft. The third pick that year? Michael Jordan, to the Bulls. (The number two pick, Sam Bowie, might have been great had injuries not affected his career.) After two seasons of baseball, MJ decided that enough of that was enough, and he returned to the NBA and the Bulls, where he picked up right where he left off and won three more consecutive championships.
I’ve always had a bit of trouble with basketball as a spectator, owing to my constant feeling of having missed something amazing and then having this be borne out when I watch the replays. Basketball is a game that looks better in slow-motion to me, which keeps it generally at arm’s length. (Also, I am terrible at playing it, because an eye doctor once informed me that my depth perception isn’t the best, which is not what you want when you’re shooting baskets.) MJ, however, was always worth watching.