Michael Jordan turned 59 years old last week, hasn’t played professional basketball since 2003, hit that game-winning shot against the Utah Jazz nearly 25 years ago, and the NBA still belongs to him.
In this COVID world of the 2020s, the NBA’s 75th anniversary celebration — and can we please stop having these milestone celebrations in Cleveland — was not going to be as grand of an event as the league had hoped for when the city by Lake Erie was awarded the game in 2018.
On top of the pandemic, it was the week after the Super Bowl returned to Los Angeles and, with the addition of the 18th week to the regular season, the Big Game was pushed to one week before the NBA All Star Game. With the media and the rest of America still coming down from that event, and many of the living members of the NBA’s named to the 75 greatest players of all time team not in attendance – along with arguably the worst slam dunk contest of all time — the weekend felt like winter.
Then Ja Morant’s reverse alley oop brought some life into Rocket Mortgage arena, and finally there was the halftime ceremony to honor the 75 greatest. It was a much longer ceremony than the 50 greatest team in 1997 with there being 25 extra players, some augmented reality diamonds overhead, and celebrities speaking before each position was announced.
One of the beauties of the NBA is that many of the luminaries are still alive. During the league’s 50th anniversary, the only player who had died was Pete Maravich. We got to see Bill Russell help George Mikan onto the stand as the last player introduced. None of us currently living have even seen a Honus Wagner in-game highlight.
The ceremony was a bit sadder this time around, with more of the players from the early days no longer living such as Mikan and Wilt Chamberlain, along with more contemporary players like Moses Malone and Kobe Bryant. Also, far more players didn’t show for this ceremony than the NBA at 50 one, but we still got to see players like Oscar Robertson take the stage with Allen Iverson and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Then at the end of the ceremony, “By gawd that’s Michael Jordan’s music.”
Jordan was in Florida for Team 23XI’s second Daytona 500. Therefore he wasn’t in Cleveland for the pre-game mingling and pictures with the members of the 75 greatest team before the start of the all-star game. However, he showed up for the halftime ceremony, and when he did, the crowd gave Jordan the complete opposite response they had given Steph Curry during lineup introductions, even though he, like Curry, spent a good portion of his career ending Cleveland’s postseasons runs.
As great as the game was, with social media in 2022, it turned into the Michael Jordan show. He was surprising Luka Dončić with a bear hug, being goofy with Dennis Rodman, challenging Magic to one-on-one games, and spending some time with LeBron James who, even though he believes he the the NBA’s GOAT, reacted with the same deference as all of the other current players when talking about spending some time in conversation with Jordan.
Part of Jordan stealing the show was him being so pleasant. He was clearly enjoying himself and being in the company of his NBA brethren on this milestone occasion. But it was also clear that wherever an NBA logo is present is Jordan’s house. With all of the social media videos, we got to see that even in an arena full of the best, past and present, he commands all of the attention. He entered the league just before it’s 40th season and surprised Jerry West with the same embrace that he did Dončić because to this day there is still no one like Mike.
For every flaw that has been hyper examined about Jordan going all the way back to the Harvey Gantt and Jesse Helms senate race in 1990, as he stares closer to 60-years-old than he ever will again a 60-point game, when Jordan enters a room it belongs to him. It is the biggest difference between him and James.
I will personally always believe that Jordan is a better player. Jordan has a better variety of offensive moves, more effective jump shot, empirically a vastly better free throw shooter, a more technically sounder defensive player, and also a great playmaker when he decided to be. However, for those that argue James is the greatest athletic specimen in the history of the NBA with court vision like a submarine radar that Jordan would not be able to handle on a court, I can’t prove you wrong. The difference between the on-court greatness of the two is razor thin.
But the magnitude of Jordan, it was obvious when James talked to the press about their discussion.
“We’re not in the same building a lot,” James said to the media. “Haven’t been in the same building a lot in my career and it meant something to me.”
There’s a reason arguably the best player in NBA history wore No. 23 for most of his career. James feels it just like everybody else – Jordan’s force of presence. It’s like Michael Jackson standing on stage and the crowd going crazy the second he moves his head. Some people just have it, and we saw it on Sunday, with Jordan among the greatest players of today and yesterday.
In the youngest of the major American sports leagues, that was built as much off personality as dunks and 3-pointers, Jordan stood above them all just by walking down that carpet to center court. That, far more than his play, is how he took the league and why it will forever belong to him.