Michael Jordan turns 60 on Friday.
It’s a jarring sentence to type. Typically, it seems, the verb of choice for a similarly constructed sentence would be “scored.” As in: Michael Jordan scored 60 points on Friday.
Not that celebrating a 60th birthday makes someone old. But for those of us privileged enough to cover His Airness, he forever will be suspended in flight or game-winning follow-through or some other similarly spectacular sight.
Even when Jordan showed something akin to aging or slowing, such as his legendary performance following food poisoning---or stomach flu, depending on who’s telling the tale---in the 1997 NBA Finals, he still emerged triumphant.
So, to consider a 60th birthday makes one ponder the sobering reality of mortality. His statue inside the United Center atrium will live forevermore.
Not to get all morbid. Jordan celebrated the occasion by donating $10 million to the Make-A-Wish America. And one smiles at the thought of him still likely lighting somebody up in some pick-up game somewhere.
But he’s now close to 25 years removed from holding that follow-through in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals in Salt Lake City, placing an exclamation point on the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty that produced six championships in eight seasons. This generation of NBA players has grown up idolizing LeBron James or Kobe Bryant as much as, if not more so, than Jordan.
It’s a reminder that Father Time remains undefeated. James passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer is more proof.
Jordan changed the game and sports marketing. He remains a global icon and one of the world’s most famous athletes. At his peak, perhaps only Muhammad Ali and Pele rivaled his impact.
“He gave so many generations something to chase after,” current Bulls All-Star DeMar DeRozan said. “I remember sticking out the tongue, doing the Jordan dunk, wanting to buy Jordans. Just everything about him culturally, the sport revolved around him, especially over the last 30 years.”
Covering Jordan in person placed a premium on self-awareness. You recognized the opportunity to cover sports history. Like any all-time great from any sport, you can say you were there.
“I remember going back and watching all his highlights. ‘Come Fly With Me.’ ‘Michael Jordan Playground.’ Obviously, every kid watched ‘Space Jam.’ He was the idol of all idols,” Bulls All-Star Zach LaVine said. “I don’t think anybody can touch his legacy or his greatness.
“For me in my books, I always have MJ as the best player ever because without him, there’s nobody coming after him. He inspired us.
“I’ve said a couple times, he’s almost like a mythological creature. He almost didn’t exist. Some of his stats, you go back and look at his highlights, it’s like, ‘I don’t know if this guy was real.’”
He was, even if DeRozan called him “that ghostly-like figure” even as he plies his trade in the same United Center that Jordan did. In fact, Jordan was as real as an ice-cold glare or a dagger-like jumper.
His competitiveness is what always stood out. He bristled at failure. He treated losing with disdain and defiance. He just kept competing, always and at all times.
Off the court, particularly as the dynasty neared its end and the hysteria and fan frenzy around it intensified, Jordan had an aura. He’d always meet reporters immaculately dressed, making eye contact with each questioner. He enjoyed the give-and-take and took answering good questions seriously.
Did Jordan have fun? Sure. But winning is what drove him. And he’d be as serious as he needed to be to achieve it.
When Jordan would check out of games late in which the Bulls held a substantial lead, he’d apply ice packs to his knees, the modern-day version of Red Auerbach’s victory cigar. Jordan favored those, too, lighting them up at every opportunity.
So light up 60 candles. Celebrate his greatness yet again. The more it moves into the past, the more the memories seem to float into the ether, much like Jordan seemed to float on air as he authored yet another gravity-defying and adjective-exhausting move to the basket.