By now, if you’re a basketball fan – or a sports fan in general – you’ve already read a dozen tributes to Michael Jordan. And if you’re not a basketball fan, you’ve still been unable to escape retrospectives and video packages, though you may not know why.
Today is the day Michael Jordan enters the Basketball Hall of Fame. He enters for an NBA career that still elicits memories, despite nearly a decade since his peak years. He enters as the best player in basketball history, and possibly the most dominant player professional sports have ever seen.
For each of us, the legend means something different. Some are native Chicagoans who rooted for Jordan every game of his career. Others are bandwagon jumpers who discovered the game through his wide-reaching footprint. More often than not, there’s a jealousy of his legacy, a begrudging respect for the man that served as an insurmountable foil. For fans of Indiana, Utah, Phoenix, New York, Portland, Seattle – really, the entire league – Jordan was a necessary evil.
For me, the legend began on February 11, 1990.
The NBA was in the midst of a resurgence it would ride through the next ten years. Gone were the days of no-named lineups and ABA mergers and fights and drugs. Instead, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had built trust in the NBA, and the league was quickly filled with some of the best players ever to play the game.
Rivalries were reborn as the Celtics and Lakers battled year after year for the title. And as age caught up with Bird and Magic, a new rivalry sprouted up – the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons, high-flying dominance versus gritty, tough team play.
This was the NBA I was brought into. Basketball was no stranger to my life, but I hadn’t yet caught on to the significance of the game. My father, a lifelong Celtics fan, nurtured my desire to play on our school’s Gra-Y team. And it was this nurturing that led me to the home of my father’s co-worker on an early afternoon in February, to watch the 1989-1990 NBA All Star Game.
Looking back, it’s weird that anyone would stop everything to watch what has become a no-defense exhibition game. But in the 80s and early 90s, the All Star Game wasn’t just an excuse to party – it was a matter of pride for every NBA player involved. This was the season after the Pistons had won their first title, a feat they’d conquer again the subsequent summer. This was the season when Jordan’s skills as a team leader were questioned the Bulls failed – once again – to make it past their hated rivals.
The Eastern Conference team featured eight players from three distinct dynasties. Boston’s aging stars – Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale – played alongside Chicago’s future – Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Both teams served as teammates for the champion Pistons, as Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman played for Eastern Conference (and Detroit) coach Chuck Daly.
Eight players. Three dynasties. One team of stars, struggling to make a showing as a superior Western Conference team took over the game. One team, featuring three sets of players that would represent every Eastern Conference team to win an NBA title across the 80s and 90s.
It was the moment I understood what rivalries were made of. My father’s co-worker was a Detroit Pistons fan. I had taken on the mantle of Chicago Bulls follower, and my father worked through the demise of his Celtics. The three of us, watching a meaningless game in February, represented the Eastern Conference’s tendencies. The past. The present. The future.
The Bulls would falter again in the playoffs. For the first time, I understood defeat. The next season, they would finally win it all, and for the first time I understood what it mean to follow a winner. I rabidly began following the NBA, subscribing to Beckett Basketball Monthly and collecting cards as if each Harvey Grant pull was the next Honus Wagner.
All because of one player. But not because of anything he had done on the court.
My favorite memory might be Jordan’s shapeshifting lay-up during the 1991 NBA Finals; from dunk to scoop, it still seems impossible to replicate to this day. The lasting image might be Jordan clinging to the O’Brien Trophy as if it was a long lost child, crying for years of challenge, for overcoming his doubters, for finally bringing a championship to a Bulls franchise that had gone without for so long.
But my first memory is still that afternoon in February. Jordan was there, but he wasn’t king. Instead, he was just another player, on one of the biggest stages in sports, standing alongside his rivals – both past and present – playing as a team, despite the rivalries and hatred that existed between each player.
It’s not just the moment I realized I was a Jordan fan, or a Bulls fan.
It was the moment I realized I was a basketball fan.