By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Happy birthday Michael, here is wishing you were still 30 and in the prime of your career.
Oh, how the NBA — and professional basketball fans — miss you so much. No wonder ESPN is doing its best to promote LeBron James as the next Michael Jordan, but there will never be another M.J.
It is NBA All-Star Weekend and ESPN and Sports Illustrated and the NBA and seemingly every other media outlet is recalling the playing career of Jordan, who turns 50 years old today.
Whether or not you believe Michael Jordan to be the greatest basketball player ever — as most media seem to believe — or just the most-hyped — since Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West all played before the advent of cable television and ESPN — there is no denying what ‘Air Jordan’ brought to the game.
Jordan had a certain flair, but also had the drive to be great. He was cut from his high school basketball team, but wound making the winning shot for North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament and would win six NBA championships with the Bulls, all with his own unique style.
No matter whether it was the shoes or the tongue or his apparent ability to fly, Jordan just made it seem to so easy. His play in crunch time and his dunks were legendary, but so were his gravity-defying reverse layups, something that was first made famous in the old ABA by Dr. J himself, Julius Erving.
Jordan was almost too good, too iconic, with so much drive that he got bored enough to leave the game and try baseball. Even Jordan couldn’t hit a curveball, which has driven many a seasoned player from the diamond.
His post-playing career is often subject to criticism. As great as he was a player, he has struggled as an executive with the Wizards, including a regrettable comeback as a player — he just didn’t look right in blue or in No. 45 — and now as an owner of the Charlotte Bobcats.
His greatest problem has simply been trying to find his kind of greatness, and Kwame Brown wasn’t it. Unfortunately, Jordan can’t just suit up and play again, although Antwan Jamison recently said that Jordan could play today — even at 50 — and average double figures in limited minutes.
In his final season, at the age of 40, Jordan averaged 20.0 points in 37 minutes a game with the Wizards. That was just 10 years ago.
Wouldn’t it be fun to turn back the clock and bring back Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Today’s NBA just isn’t the same. It started to change when Jordan left and the NBA need something to rekindle its dwindling popularity so it went from basketball to entertainment, with an emphasis on the hip-hop culture, the hyping of players and not teams, and a sudden need to cover bodies with lots of tattoos.
Jordan was able to do what he did without covering his body in ink.
Yes, as an executive, Jordan hasn’t been West, Bird or even Magic Johnson, but as a player, few were better or more fun to watch.
One of the regrets of my life that can never be changed is never seeing Jordan in person.
I used to attend lots of NBA games. Fresh out of college in 1987, I lived about an hour from Atlanta and would make the trip to the Omni to see the Hawks play, and tickets were always available, unless Jordan was in town.
My first NBA game, which was 25 years ago last Wednesday — where does time go — I purchased a ticket and wound up sitting two rows behind the Hawks bench. Atlanta won 105-103 — thank goodness for basketballreference.com — against the Washington Bullets, led by Dominique Wilkins’ 45 points and a Doc Rivers’ 3 at the buzzer.
There was never a chance to see Jordan, he didn’t come to Atlanta the rest of the season. I continued to attend games at the Omni with its multi-colored seats, including a classic playoff game with Wilkins vs. Bird and the Celtics.
My tenure there ended after a year and I moved to places like Banner Elk, Mars Hill and Cary in North Carolina before moving to Roanoke. I soon realized Charlotte wasn’t that far away and began traveling to Hornets games, sometimes leaving right after work and getting there just in time for the opening tip.
I was there the first time that Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning faced one another, watched Charles Barkley help incite a bench-clearing brawl and I still have a photo of 5-foot-3 Muggsy Bogues during warm-ups looking straight up at the skyscraper that was 7-7 Manute Bol.
That was so much fun, lots of late nights driving back home, but I was young, had no financial worries and the desire for adventure.
Except when Jordan came to town.
Much like Atlanta, where good tickets could be had for just about any game, when Jordan arrived, the folks with more money than me would show up and I would be left out in the cold.
There were scalpers, but not at those prices. I have never been smart with my money, but I am not crazy enough to pay that much to get into any game. I have for Alabama football games, but not much else.
I had the Jordan posters, shoes and even an autograph, with a story of its own. I wanted to get an autograph of every member of the original Dream Team — all the rest are just dreaming — and I got a few, but not near enough. Jordan’s never did come either so I gave up on it.
Nearly two — not one — but two years later I went to the mailbox on a snowy day and there was an envelope with Nike on the cover and a Jordan autographed photo inside. True, it may have been a stamp or signed by someone else, but that will always be a special memory.
Autographs are no longer a passion of mine. Once I got into this business, I realized that sports figures aren’t idols, they’re just like you and me, they just happen to be better at a sport. I sold that autograph not that long ago for a small price, but that stage in my life is over.
Unfortunately, so is the era of Jordan.
There are great players in the NBA today. James — who is more over-hyped than Jordan, if that is possible — may eventually be the greatest player ever not named Jordan or Chamberlain. There is also Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan and a few others, but there is no Jordan.
Bryant might be the closest, just because of his style of play and his ability to play big in the clutch. James has long struggled with the game on the line and didn’t make any friends with ‘The Decision’ when he left Cleveland for Miami and then won a title.
James is a great player, so is Bryant and Duncan, who is the anti-James, a dominating big man who wants and gets very little mention in the press. Isn’t that refreshing?
Yet, while the NBA and ESPN and Sports Illustrated all try to find the ‘next’ M.J., the truth is there isn’t another Michael Jordan out there.
There was one Michael and he has come and gone. We are all, indeed, like dust in the wind. We are busy living life and then we look back and try to figure out where the time has gone.
Jordan is 50? That just doesn’t seem possible. Yet, it is. Jordan was that rare person, the type of athlete like Chamberlain, Pete Maravich, Pele’, Muhammad Ali, Wayne Gretzky, Jim Brown, Hank Aaron and Jack Nicklaus who reached iconic status in sports, but then had to move on in life.
What happens next in our sports culture is we try to find the ‘next’ one and try to prove that he’s even better than what has been left behind.
Enjoy the exploits of today’s athletes while you can. It won’t be long before they’re 50 too, and we’re a lot older ourselves, looking back at the old times and listening to Bruce Springsteen sing ‘Glory Days.’
—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He can be contacted at email@example.com