An open letter to Mike




Being born in the early 1980s in the suburbs of Chicago, naturally, I had no choice as to whether Michael Jordan would have an impact on my life.

I look at pictures from when I was two and three years old and I was in MJ shoes and t-shirts. Obviously I could have been wearing anything, as I was still at the age where my parents dressed me, but I was exposed to him and basketball before I could choose to be nonetheless.

I’ll leave it a psychoanalyst to decide whether I was drawn to hoops because of that imprint or because I liked the sport but, regardless, basketball was my first love as a sport starting around the age of four.  By the time I was in kindergarten and elementary school, my room was decorated with MJ posters. I envisioned myself as him dunking on the Fisher Price hoop set up in my basement.

But when I was in second or third grade (‘91 or ‘92) something major happened.

I got the VHS of NBA Superstars 2, as a present, and became infatuated with Karl Malone after watching his segment of the highlight video. As a nine-year old, he reminded me of the Incredible Hulk playing and dominating the NBA. His obscenely powerful dunks and quirky behavior in the highlight video was enough to convert me to a full-fledged Utah Jazz fan even though I still idolized MJ.

This was well before the days of digital cable/satellite TV and NBA League Pass, and with the Jazz being a small-market team, I usually only got to see them play when they played the Bulls or the one or two times they were on national television. The first thing I’d do every morning before school was go down stairs to check the sports section for box scores to see if the Jazz won and how Malone did.  Since they played a lot of West Coast teams the game finished after the deadline and wasn’t even listed which used to really start my day on a sour note.

Regardless of my allegiance to the Jazz, I still rooted and celebrated when the Bulls won their first three titles and took MJ’s first retirement harder than a sane child should.  However, by the time seventh grade rolled around MJ would indirectly change my life.

That year was the first time the Jazz and Bulls met in the finals, and by the time I was 13 and starting to become a lot more self-dependent in terms of decision-making I had decided to roll with the Jazz full force. Of course, I talked a monumental amount of shit to my friends at recess and in class leading up to the Finals.

I was fortunate enough that my pops landed tickets to game one, and like the 13-year-old asshole I was, I wore my Malone jersey to the UC for the game.

In case you need a reminder, Malone was given the MVP that season over MJ.

Game one was on a Sunday night and Malone missed two free-throws real late with the game tied at 82, and MJ buried the Jazz with a walk-off jumper from the elbow as time expired to set off pandemonium in the UC.

I honestly can’t remember what went through my head, or the emotions I felt at that time. I blacked out.

But what I do remember is walking out of the stadium with my Dad, and some hammered guy coming up to me. He was towering over me, grabbed both my shoulders and started shaking me back and forth. “MVP CHOKING AT THE LINE!!!!!! HAHAHAHAHA!!!”

I can still hear his voice in my head yelling those exact words in my face. I also remember looking over at my Dad who was straight up laughing and almost cheering the guy on.  After a few seconds, my Dad gave him the look as if to say ‘okay buddy, enough is enough.’

The car ride back to my house sucked the fat one because on top of the sting from seeing my beloved Jazz get their hearts broken in game one of their first ever Finals appearance, I was anticipating school the next day.

When I arrived at school, one of my friends – much bigger, and tougher, than me – wasted no time in coming over to me to give me some medicine (as I would have had the Jazz won). He tackled me onto the cement, in fun, and talking shit. I tried to play it off like I was having fun too. In my first class of the day (Spanish), which he was in coincidentally, he came by my desk and made some remark about Malone being a huge choker. Unable to control my emotions, I took my zip-up trapper keeper which was overstuffed with folders and papers (barely able to be zipped up) and whipped it at him. It hit him over the eye and he started gushing blood, and he still has a scar over his eye by his eyebrow to this day.

My teacher wanted to have me suspended, but since the school year was ending that week, the principal said it wasn’t necessary. My friend Andy also was in the office with me imploring the principal to show me mercy which helped. But the teacher was hell-bent on punishing me, and wrote a letter to my parents which was nasty and forever changed my outlook on educators the rest of my academic career.

Fast forward to my eighth grade year the same time of the school year.

Jazz won game one, and my shit talking went into turbo drive. I was legitimately sure this time. My Dad scored tickets to game three, and this time we had floor seats in the first row behind one of the baskets. The Bulls won by 42, and humiliated the Jazz. It was pathetic. There was one play on the baseline where MJ drove and Greg fucking Ostertag tried to tackle him in midair but Jordan converted a reverse-layup and-one with real ease.  It was then, I felt truly defeated and hopeless.

Malone put on one of the greatest performances in finals history with the Jazz down 3-1 in Chicago to force a game 6 back in Utah. A glimmer of hope reappeared after that.

Game 6 was on a Sunday, and one of my friend’s parents threw an eighth grade graduation party for all of us. I got in a shouting match with my parents earlier that day, refusing to go because I wanted to watch the game alone in my room (the Jazz always won when I watched them alone in my room). I lost that battle and was forced to go to the party.

Midway through the first quarter, I had enough and pleaded with my parents to drive me back home. They said the only way I could leave was if I walked. So I walked. I got home just as the second half was starting, and watched the remainder of the game in my room. My parents came back in the fourth quarter, and my Dad knew not to disturb me in my room.

As MJ proved his legend once again with the game-winner, our house phone (remember there were no cell phones back then, only car phones) rang off the hook for an hour straight. Literally. Then again periodically the rest of the night.

Again, I must have been blacked out, because I don’t remember my thoughts or emotions. All I remember is the incessant ringing. I don’t have a land line at my apartment, and haven’t had one since I lived at home (10 years ago), but when I’m at my parents house now and their phone rings my stomach still drops for an instant.

So, happy 50th, Michael.

Besides the countless accomplishments and accolades you have to show for your career, my buddy Andy has a scar over his right eye and I have a warped sense of paranoia with authority, and occasional flashbacks triggered by a phone ringing. You also disproved my superstition about the result of Jazz games depending on where I watched them, and subsequently forced me to embrace reality over fantasy as well as acknowledge the stupidity of superstition in sport.

Over the years, I’ve become eternally grateful for the chance I had to see you live in the Finals even though at the time appreciation and perspective weren’t in my vocabulary.

You personify words I didn’t think applied to humans just by your ability on a basketball court. Whether kids around my age who grew up in or around Chicago fell in love with sport because of you, or embraced the gothic label and out-casted themselves from mainstream things because of how enamored their peers were with you, you impacted every child’s life in one way or another. I can’t think of another person who wasn’t a political figure who can say the same.

When I covered the IHSA state basketball tournament that Marcus played in, I watched as hundreds of people formed a pack 50 feet away from you just so they can snap a picture of you watching the game with their cell phones throughout the entire game. It was well after your playing days were over, but the response your mere presence elicited further cemented your legend.

Although I feebly tried, your dominance and legend is indescribable. Above all, you helped me stop being a die-hard sports fan. After the heartache of ’97 and ’98 I learned having a personally vested interest is just not worth it because when you retired there was no longer a sure thing in sports.

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