If you ask any basketball fan who was in or past his formative years in the late 1990s about their lasting memory of Michael Jordan, it will most likely involve MJ crossing over Bryon Russell, pushing off on Russell’s leg, and rising up for an absolutely perfect jump shot—nothing but net as he holds his follow through in the air for an extra moment.
This shot was memorable for so many reasons—it was his last shot as a professional basketball player, it won the championship for his team—really, what better way for an all-time great to retire?
To watch that shot again (trust me, Youtube has been a godsend; I must have watched that shot hundreds of times in the last two years) is to see a maestro execute arguably his finest stroke on the last offensive play of his career, in the most pressure-packed, important moment of a basketball game, to win an NBA title.
There are few people in our lives who seem to be shadows, wisps, ghosts, even while they live. I remember having a conversation with my brother right after my grandfather’s funeral about how both of us had always imagined what his funeral would be like and what people would say in their eulogies. He was that kind of a man—legendary, saintly, larger than life. The morbidity of imagining his funeral while he still lived and breathed was overshadowed by the pure reverence for a person who seemed to be of humanity and some other group and the same time.
Jordan was one of those rare ones, the one that you savored while he still played, the one whose present was not overlooked in place of fastforwarding to his past. Many of us (most of us?) understood the grace, the elegance, the power, the dominance, the intensity, the rarity of this man named Michael James Jordan.
This shot over Russell, as beautiful as it was, would never have mattered if it were not for the savage steal Jordan made on the play before, karate-chopping the ball out of the Popeye-muscled Karl Malone’s hands. Prior to the steal, he had abused Bryon Russell (poor guy; does he have an “Owned by MJ” tag on his body somewhere?) for a quick bucket with about 37 seconds left. I cannot even imagine the nausea that welled up in every Jazz fan as Jordan, Michael Jordan, had the ball in his hands, with the shotclock off and fifteen seconds to go in the game. It was like David with no pebbles left in his slingshot trying to fight off a charging Goliath.
It was, as my more serious gamers know, like that uneasiness that comes in the last minute of any sports video game in which you are beating the computer at its own game. Especially if you are playing the computer at a high skill level, your imminent loss is pretty much like death and taxes. Despite what my brain would see as a seemingly insurmountable lead, a fumble on a light hit from the computer’s team in "Tecmo Bowl" or a missed layup in "Bulls vs. Lakers" always seemed to lead to a game-winning Hail Mary pass or fadeaway three-pointer for the computer, so much so that I learned to expect failure.
Michael Jordan was the Computer. He was the one who was never out of game, dragging his teammates along out of the sheer force of his resolve. In this way, then, we mortals feel for Karl Malone, as we know that he was just a vessel through which Michael Jordan would cement his greatness.
I ask you, dear reader, to return to Youtube: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJmNrGSXpgA).
When you watch Jordan’s poster-perfect jumper fall through the hoop with 5.4 seconds to go in the game and you feel those familiar chills, don’t forget about the approximately eight seconds where he had the ball on the left side of the court, pounding the ball into the ground, waiting for an opening, sending the Jazz fans’ hearts into their throats.
Sometimes the wait is harder than the fall.
Good advice to remember for a pessimistic wanna-be dunker...
*It is your prerogative to count his Wizards comeback as part of his career--I just choose not to, thanks.