by Lang Whitaker

A few years ago, our friends at Jordan Brand called and invited me to a special screening of the Air Jordan XX here in New York City. That night after work, Russ Bengtson and I walked to Soho House, a private club downtown, where we joined a collection of writers and editors in a movie theater. We sat through a presentation about Jordan Brand — their goals, plans, etcetera. And then Michael Jordan came walking out on stage. He answered questions about the shoe, smiled and waved, then walked back out the stage door.

To many people, this was a big deal. To me, not so much. I was never really a Michael Jordan fan growing up, mostly because he used to beat my Hawks single-handedly every time we played the Bulls. Plus, I’d been around him in NBA locker rooms during his run with the Wizards. So to me, having the chance to see Michael Jordan in person from a distance of about 30 feet for half an hour wasn’t quite the life-changing event.

This year, Jordan Brand informed the same collective of writers and editors that we were needed in Chicago to see the Jordan XX3 (whoops — can’t talk about that yet)…to see the lovely city of Chicago. We all arrived late on a Tuesday night, and Russ and I spent the evening grabbing dinner with some friends, then stopping by the famed Billy Goat Tavern, where a round of four beers set me back about $10.

The next morning we were all up bright and early, headed for parts unknown. Rumors were flying — that we were all going to play a pick-up game with Michael Jordan, that we were going to go through a work-out with Tim Grover. I was pretty convinced that Michael Jordan wasn’t even going to be at this event, because he wasn’t at either of the two previous events for the XX1 or the XX2, and those were before he was running the Charlotte BETcats. Now he’s got, like, stuff to do, probably better stuff than hang out with a bunch of ink-stained writer-types.

We boarded a bus and snaked through Chicago, eventually pulling up at the player entrance of the United Center. We were walked through the bowels of the arena until we reached a locker room, where we each found a locker with our name on the name plate. In each locker was a Jordan Brand jersey, shorts and a pair of the red/black J’s from the One Love pack, with MJ’s signature lasered onto them. After Jordan guru Gentry Humphrey ran us through a brief Jordan history, we were encouraged to don the provided uniforms. I put on the jersey but stuck with my jeans, like most of the other people there. And I happened to be wearing the red/black Jordans that day, so I left the lasered ones there in my locker, untouched.

We were lined up in a specific order and led out to the edge of the court. The lights cut off and the arena went dark. This started playing. Spotlights randomly traced paths through the empty seats.

And then a voice cried out over the PA system: “Annnnd noooow, from Antenna Magazine, Tony Gervino!” Tony jogged out onto the floor, slapping high fives along the way. Each person was introduced, and we each ran onto the floor, trying to temper the cool feelings it stirred up by remembering that this was the closest any of us would ever get to playing in the NBA. I’ve wondered before how it would feel to be introduced and run onto a court before an arena full of screaming fans, and I still don’t know the answer to that question. I now know, however, what it feels like to be introduced to an arena full of nonexistent fans.

I was one of the last to be announced, and I dutifully ran out, slapped all the hands and found my place at the end of the line. As Ben and I stood there waiting for everyone else, we were making jokes about Russ because he writes for so many outlets (from SLAM to King to Mass Appeal) that we decided the PA announcer is probably still at the United Center today trying to finish reading Russ’s resume. (“From king-mag.com…and SLAM…and his SLAMonline blog…and his MySpace page…from Facebook…”)

After the last editor was announced, there was a pause as we all stood there along the baseline, then a video clip kicked in on the scoreboard, featuring highlights of MJ’s playing career and interview footage. The clip ended, and I was ready for the lights to come back up.

But they didn’t. Instead, the PA announcer leaned into the mic and bellowed, “From North…Carolina…at guard…6-6…Michael…Jordan!”

The spotlights panned over to the same entrance we’d come running out, and lo and behold…there was Michael Jordan. He was wearing a blue suede blazer, a black turtleneck jeans and black Magli loafers. He did a little half-hearted run from the tunnel and went down the row of editors, slapping us each a high five. Our line, once orderly and respectful, quickly devolved into a squiggle, as each of us couldn’t wait to give MJ some dap.

I said before that I was never really an MJ fan. What I didn’t say was that I always respected MJ because I was an NBA fan. My Dad, though, was a huge MJ fan, to the point that when my Dad sends me letters even now he still signs them with “#23.” And in that instant, with the greatest basketball player to ever play the game running down the line toward me to give me a pound, I felt overwhelmed, I felt lucky, I felt grateful. Sorry if I compromised my objectivity, but damn was that a cool sensation.

OK, GAP HERE OF THINGS I CAN’T TALK ABOUT THAT HAPPENED THE REST OF THE TIME AT THE ARENA. PLEASE READ SLAM 115 FOR THE REST.

Later that afternoon, the spa at our hotel was opened for us. Scoop apparently got a pedicure. I passed — I wouldn’t wish my dogs on anyone — and stayed in my room and got some work done. Ben and Russ had no such reservations about their feet.

Russ and I eventually went for a walk around downtown Chicago before dinner, because I’d never really been to the city. As we strolled around, checking the buildings and fighting the wind, we talked about how funny it was that a group of adults who are all successful at what we do, who all work hard for a living and who have all met various mega-celebrities could still be transformed into giddy kids by the mere presence of Michael Jordan.

As darkness fell, we loaded up the buses again and drove to One SixtyBlue, MJ’s latest restaurant in Chicago. I was at a table with Russ, Tony, Datwon from King, Ming Wong from Inside Stuff and my homey Dinusha, the Jordan PR guru. We were nearing the end of the meal and we were all kind of kicked back, full of great food, wine and that amazing memory from earlier. I was chatting with Dinusha when, over her shoulder, I saw Michael Jordan walk into the room.

“Um, hey,” I told her, “MJ just walked in here.”

“What?” she cried.

“Was he supposed to be here?” I asked, but she was up and gone to attend to MJ before she could give me an answer, which I thought was pretty much an answer in itself. MJ stood there for a second, then started walking over toward our table, to Dinusha’s now-empty seat between me and Russ.

As he approached us, Russ and I stood up and I stuck out my hand.

“Mike,” I stammered as he pumped my fist, “Lang Whitaker from SLAM magazine. Just wanted to say thanks for having us all out here.”

“Words,” Michael Jordan said. “Words words words words words words words words words. Words words words words words words words.”

I don’t know what he said, because it was such a shock to find myself standing there talking to Michael Jordan. Then there was silence. I looked at Russ but he was even more shaken than I was. Someone had to keep the talk going.

“So,” Jordan asked, “how was the food?”

“It was great,” I said.

“What did you have to eat?”

“I had the steak…it was great.”

Mike smiled and reached over and started patting my stomach. “OK then,” he joked, “watch out now!”

Um…better change the topic.

“So Mike,” I asked, “is this the only restaurant you own in Chicago now?”

He answered but I honestly don’t remember what he said. I was just thinking that I couldn’t wait to call my Dad and tell him about the entire day.

A few minutes later, a waiter approached MJ and handed him a drink. MJ raised his glass and toasted everyone in the room, telling us we’d always be welcome in Chicago. We toasted back. He started making his way out of our private dining room, and I went out a different exit to call my Dad.

“Dad,” I said when he answered, “you’re not going to believe what I did today.”

Just then, Jordan came out the door and paused right where I was standing.

“Um, Dad? I’m standing next to Michael Jordan right now.”

“What?” my Dad said. “Well, tell him hello.”

I turned to MJ. “Mike, my Dad says hello.”

Jordan held out his fist, expecting a pound. I reciprocated, and as he walked away he looked back and said, “Tell your Dad I send my best.”

Believe me, Mike, I did.