Our sports heroes never stay great forever. In the constant heavyweight bout between The Athlete and Father Time, Father Time has maintained a flawless record, unblemished in any way. No matter who the said competitor is or their previous triumphs, the game must end. The minutes reduce as the numbers that wowed fans across the league shrink to a fraction of their most impressive highs. Arenas that once rained jeers like a mid-summer tempest on the player give their thundering applause, the crowd exclaiming with their approval, we loathe you and the uniform you wore, but we’ll be damned if we don’t respect you. The sneakers and jerseys give way to Italian leather loafers and Armani suits. The story of our hero’s career closes shut, and the credits start to roll.
But, what if our idol didn’t have to fade away? If the last moments of the athlete were not a reminder of the mortality of man, that the same men on the court are human like us?
That’s what we have with Micheal Jordan. In the late spring of 1998, His Airness got not only the perfect game in Game Six of the NBA Finals, but the perfect final moment, the one last kiss in his game winning shot over the Jazz’ Byron Russell.
Now, you and I both know that Jordan played another game. In fact, he played another 142. Why do we know this? Because when MJ decided to come back to the game that allowed him to transcend into a hardwood deity for a second time, he returned as a member of our Washington Wizards. After giving being an owner and front office man a try, Jordan apparently decided that he couldn’t leave the game of basketball without lacing up his signature shoes and go out there for one more attempt.
Now, for Michael Jordan, the Wizards years were mostly a failure. There were sometimes glimmers of the old MJ, most notably the 51 points he hung on the Hornets and hitting another game-winning shot against the Cavaliers. But it was clear that much like this was a new decade, this was a new Jordan. An older Jordan that averaged 21.5 ppg and 4.5 apg, but not the Micheal Jordan the NBA knew before. The Wizards, reeling after the Webber-Richmond trade, were a trendy pick for the playoffs in Jordan’s two years with the team, yet could only muster a pair of 37 win seasons. Kwame Brown, the first high schooler to ever be the top pick in the NBA Draft, never lived up to his placement, the trade for another 6’6 guard from UNC in Jerry Stackhouse gave away Richard Hamilton, who would be a key piece for the Pistons, and even the signing of two old foes in Charles Oakley and Byron Russell failed to give the team a boost. MJ the player had been foiled by MJ the GM.
Now, I’d like to take you on a little trip to April 14th, 2003. MCI Center. The last home game Michael Jordan would ever play.
I remember walking to the vicinity of the arena, noticing how massive the amount of people were in comparison to the weekend night tilts I had been to before. Clad in my North Carolina jersey and holding a handmade sign that displayed the multiple uniforms Jordan had worn, I knew that I would be in rare air. My belief was further confirmed when my father, two brothers, and I got into the arena and saw that there was not a seat in sight.
As much as I had hoped, begged, prayed and pleaded for a Wizards victory, there was none to be had that night. Yet, for a late season game between two teams with no playoff or lottery hopes, there will be three moments I shall cherish for the rest of my days. The first being the halftime ceremony. Before the game, I would’ve bet every dollar of birthday money I had ever received that the Wizards were going to retire Jordan’s number. The Miami Heat retired his number not even a week before, and he never played a single minute for him. So when Abe Pollin took the mic at halftime to announce what the team was giving to Michael, it was going to be raising his jersey to the rafters, right? Right?
18 schools got 15 computers each in Jordan’s name. Sure, giving schools computers was a nice gesture, I thought, but did Abe realize what MJ did to the team? The points? The fans? The Washington Wizards having the second highest attendance in the entire NBA? I just kept waiting for that 23 in slate blue, bronze, and black to ascend to its rightful place, yet it never came.
The second moment was right at 2:02 left in the game. The play itself was forgettable; Basketball-Reference says it was a Kwame Brown shooting foul. But the moment afterwards when Bobby Simmons checked in and Michael went to the bench unleashed a torrent of applause that I have never seen rivaled. A standing ovation with every man, woman, and child on their feet clapping for minutes, realizing that they just saw the greatest NBA player to ever play for the last time.
Yet, it didn’t truly hit me until the third moment, the presentation after the game. That’s when it hit me. Michael Jordan is going away and never coming back. I had seen the equivalent of Hendrix’s last show, or watching da Vinci paint his last work of art. As Coldplay’s “Clocks” played, I felt a sadness that one of the greatest era’s in basketball had ended.
Every time I hear someone say, “Let’s forget Jordan ever played for the Wizards”, or “It would’ve been so much better if MJ retired as a Bull after ’98”, I realize that the Michael of old was their idol. That MJ in his bold red jersey, with “BULLS” covering his chest not unlike Superman’s S, was a part of their childhood or adolescence that they hold close to their hearts. I’m fine with that. But to me and countless other millennials that grew up in the turbulent time of post 9/11 Washington, D.C., some of our finest childhood memories were Jordan’s Wizard campaign. Just because the color of the jersey was slate blue, or the teammates weren’t nearly as spectacular, or even if MJ wasn’t the player we all knew, shouldn’t discount the memories that me and others have and hold fondly.
Memories that will never be forgotten.