It was June 14, 1998 on a quiet street in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, when screams of apprehension came from a family home. These were screams of a young girl, only fourteen years old. Upon entering the family room one would see a husband and wife, the stepfather and mother of this child trying to watch the television. We now see the source of the screams. The girl has her nose literally inches from the TV. Why?
Game 6 of the NBA Finals, 5.2 seconds left on the clock: the score Utah Jazz 86 – Chicago Bulls 85. And then it happens: what they’ve all been waiting for — the field goal that won the series. After a post season where people said he was done, six games after Reggie Miller and his Pacers took “him” and his Bulls to seven games, there he is… Buzzer beater God, frozen in time, in the face of John Stockton. The Bulls win the championship, and at 35 years of age, that old Southern man, named Michael Jordan was still an untouchable closer.
I grew up in the age of Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson. Jordan began his NBA career the year after I was born, and while Atlanta had its moment with Dominique Wilkins, I hadn’t been around for it. To me, Dominique would always be that guy Michael beat in his second NBA dunk contest, but lost to in his first.
It must have been hard for any NBA team to compete with Michael for the hearts of the basketball youth of America. Growing up as an Atlanta native, where our only team that consistently sold enough tickets to be on television whenever they played was the baseball team, it was an even harder sell for the Hawks. The sports fandom of my youth was spread most evenly between the Chicago Bulls and the Atlanta Braves. Four men were the dominant figures of those franchises: Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson, John Smoltz and Bobby Cox. Admittedly, these days I am a Los Angeles Lakers fan, the team that Phil Jackson now calls his, yet I am still an Atlanta Braves fan.
I know that when I’m older I will tell stories of watching Jordan play. I’ll talk about Smoltz being the only Brave to stick around for all 14 consecutive division titles. I’ll reminisce about my sign from the Atlanta Journal Constitution Sunday edition that read “Smoke Em Smoltz” which I always took to games with my father. I’ll tell the story about how my stepfather said. he “can’t see through mud,” when he too wanted to see Jordan rip the hearts out of the Jazz one last time.
Rather, what we see today is an aging Jordan on the sidelines of the Kentucky Derby, one of the South’s greatest traditions, and John Smoltz in a Red Sox uniform (certainly not a Southern tradition).
Jordan has always struck me as the man who doesn’t know what to do if he’s not playing basketball. It seems he’s lost without the game. He has three courts in his house and on the compound on which it sits. While the Southern man hasn’t exactly come home to roost, his investments have returned to his home state of North Carolina. He’s part owner of the Charlotte Bobcats and owns restaurants in Chapel Hill, where, as a freshman, he was the hero of their 1983 Championship.
The Michael Jordan name is a brand: Brand Jordan (does that make his name a noun, or a verb? I guess it depends upon what the meaning of “brand” is). I worked for his company one summer in Atlanta, hanging new nets, and photographing them on the basketball courts in underprivileged neighborhoods. Brand Jordan donated the nets to five cities in the country.
It’s been six years since MJ graced us with his presence on the court, yet his mark on the game is undeniable. Today we talk about chasing the dream of the world’s greatest, but it is my opinion that no one will ever touch him. I’m an LA resident, a pig-headed, proud Laker fan with my love of the team permanently emblazoned on the back of my neck. I call it my Laker loving heart. I think that Kobe Bryant is the best player in the game today, and while I respect Lebron James, I think he should get his own damn number. One of the advantages that Kobe has aside from his natural talent, his finesse, his absurdly high basketball IQ, his work ethic, his need to win, his undeniable closing dominance, his three championships, his MVP award, his Olympic Gold Medal, and 81-point game is the best coach in the history of the game: Phil Jackson.
The 1990s were a decade of dominance by His Royal Airness, but when he retired for a second time, Phil made the journey out West, and rang in the newest decade with his 7th championship title as head coach, this time with the Los Angeles Lakers. Always being a fan of his use of the triangle offense and with respect for Tex Winter’s genius, I followed. Figuratively as well as literally.
I made my first move to LA in the summer of 2003. The Lakers have clinched the Western Conference title this year and now move on to the NBA Finals for the second year in a row, after a heart-breaking loss to their bitter rivals, the Boston Celtics (are we sensing a theme here? In the last 365 days, this Northern city really likes to rip out my sports-loving heart, but I’ll come back to that). While everyone wanted Kobe vs. Lebron, we Laker-lovin’ types, now face the so-called, Southern team, the Orlando Magic, but what I want is for the man who has managed – with talent and grace unlike any other — to get what I feel is rightfully his.
Phil Jackson is already the winningest coach in NBA history; he has the best post season record of any coach, nine championship titles as a head coach, one championship title as a player coach, one championship as a player, and (when in his charge) if a team wins game one of a post season series, they have ALWAYS taken that series. Only three men in professional sports have nine championship rings: Phil, Celtics legend Red Auerbach, and a hockey coach somewhere (c’mon I’m from the South, all our ice is fake). If the Lakers win this title there will be numerous reasons to celebrate, but for me it’ll be mostly for Phil. He’ll be the undeniable best coach in the history of the game. I’d really like to see that happen, and for it to follow after him losing a series to a Beantown coach, whom I consider nowhere near on par with him.
Speaking of Beantown … that’s where John Smoltz calls home during the regular baseball season these days. This, to me, is entirely the fault of the Atlanta Braves front office. It is poor payback to a man who has not only devoted most of his career to this franchise, but also large amounts of his time and money to bettering the city of Atlanta. He is a hero in my hometown, even though he’s from Detroit. He’s still well worth the half salary he offered to take from Atlanta, despite being a dinosaur in baseball years. Yet, the repayment is to low-ball him to the point of having to go to another team. A team that is in a city where the only good thing to come from it was the New Kids on the Block (yeah I said it), and that was, ironically, the original home of the Braves. Other than that I have nothing but sports contempt for the city. And yet, that’s where — as my friends from Boston who have now lost their NBA bragging rights — feel the need to remind me that “he’s doing famously on the mound in Boston.”
The Braves’ decision also bugs me on the Bobby Cox front, (or as he told me I could call him the first time I met him, “Bobby”). I’ve always been a fan of his. I love watching him waddle out on to the field when something has upset him and he wants to defend his team, only to find himself with the most ejections of any manager in the game of baseball. Regardless, he holds another record as manager: more consecutive division titles than any other manager in the history of the game. Given that baseball is America’s favorite pastime, I’d say that’s quite an accomplishment. Still I can’t say that I wasn’t disappointed in him for whatever role he played, or didn’t play, related to Smoltz. I don’t know what went on where, but I do know Smoltzie’s playin in cooler weather these days. And I know that something very similar happened to the savior of the 1995 World Series as well. I can’t help but wonder about Bobby’s stake in these decisions. That said, I’m grateful that he’s still ours and he’s still around.
When I look back on the era of sports I have grown up in, I can honestly say that the four men who made it most amazing to me, are definitely heroes in my eyes. I’ll tell my (currently, and happily) non-existent children and grandchildren about a time in the games of baseball and basketball where these four men led many others in a charge for greatness and never accepted less than above their best and demanding it of others. I’ll also tell them how one hero started as a lanky kid from South Dakota, one made a near permanent move from Detroit to Atlanta, one became the symbol of a franchise that built baseball greats, and that the best of them all was a small town Southern great with big dreams from North Carolina, where the state motto is: “To be, rather than to seem,” otherwise known as, “Esse Quam Videri.” Jordan lives up to the motto.