The (Real) Last Shot
The part of MJ’s career most would like to forget… but shouldn’t.
June 14, 1998
Its Game 6 of the 1998, NBA Finals. The Chicago Bulls are down one point to the Utah Jazz; the score is 86-85. Its Utah’s possession and Karl Malone is facing off with Dennis Rodman (they have been physical all series long). Michael Jordan catches an opening and swats the ball away, this time the mailman failed to deliver.
The Greatest Player of All-Time takes the ball up court for what might be one of the greatest plays of all-time. Jordan has less than 10 seconds to claim victory — this is almost cinematic. He takes the ball to his right against poster-child Byron Russell, he crosses over, Byron stumbles to the ground, Jordan finds his spot, plants his feet, cocks, aims and POPS! Nothing but net and rich NBA history.
These are the moment’s basketball fans fiend for. Michael Jordan wins the 1998 NBA Championship for his Chicago Bulls with the last shot he will take before he retires from the game. The commentators were right: This is fitting.
September 25, 2001 | Three years, three months, 11 days later.
Michael Jordan announces his second comeback to the National Basketball Association. He joins the Washington Wizards. It turns out June 14 wouldn’t be the day of his last shot after all. This storybook career was about to add one more chapter.
The hype was out of this world. The Greatest Player of All-Time was back. The Babe Ruth of his time, like Muhammad Ali in the ’70s. Basketball purists and casual fans alike could not contain their excitement. This was it. Newspapers, television networks and radio stations couldn’t cover this story enough. This was Jordan’s moment. Suddenly the Kobe Bryants, Allen Iversons, Vince Carters and Latrell Sprewells had to take a back seat. The most talked about, watched, photographed basketball player of all-time was about to have all the talk, eyes and lenses focused back his way. It felt like ’95 all over again. The good, old days.
Then, like the morning after, reality set in. It wasn’t just the jersey that MJ wore that felt unfamiliar. The game changed even if the name remained the same. An uninspiring debut, turmoil within his team, failed playoff runs and bad press. The once unstoppable Jordan was now being schooled by the same players who hung his posters on their walls when they were watching him growing up. Air Jordan was no longer throwing down facials on the regular, ‘his floorness’ was blowing open opportunities. Fans wanted new posters and new hops to imitate. They wanted a guy coming out of retirement and not missing a step. They didn’t want ‘Kingdom Come’; they wanted ‘American Gangster.’
Today, Michael Jordan enters the Hall of Fame for all the amazing things he did and all his classic moments with the Bulls. With all these great moments in Michael’s basketball library, there was no need for his two years in Washington. In fact they shouldn’t even be mentioned anymore… right?
Someone who’s given the world of basketball so much should be given a break. The man was pushing his 40s and victim of many niggling injuries. Michael Jordan may not have being breaking records, ankles and opponent’s hearts but one thing is for sure: He could still play. Basketball was his dance and he could still get down. It may be best that Jordan sticks to challenging the likes of Bill Murray and Justin Timberlake in golf these days but there was nothing wrong with his last comeback.
Understand if you don’t already know, Mike really is the most competitive basketball player ever. He refused to lose… period. All the losses he accumulated, which he never truly experienced this way before and all the times he showed rust or limitation he was humiliated. For Michael Jordan giving his best didn’t matter, anything short of being the best was shameful to him. Despite suddenly adopting a negative tag which he couldn’t cut off MJ endured the criticism and the humiliation and soldiered on. He carried on because he was that competitive; he always wanted to prove his worth and prove he could play.
By some modern standards you’re only as good as your last game, shot or possession. Michael knew this and set this as his yardstick. Anybody who puts that much unattainable pressure on themselves deserves credit. This drive, this passion and this hunger (even after everything he already achieved) were the makeup of Michael Jordan. The characteristics still made him a potent threat as a player, even in his final two, struggle-filled seasons and may have made him a legend. His drive made him work from 7 a.m. in the morning ’til 11 p.m. at night; it’s this work that made him The Best of All-Time.
Michael still averaged around 20 ppg in his two years in the nation’s capital. He still put fans in seats and wowed them sometimes too. Jordan gave the players who idolized him the chance to play with or against him and all the fans that championed his legend the chance to see him play again. Michael’s return was necessary to scratch a basketball addict’s itch, but it was also a very selfless run. He risked his credibility and his legacy but also to gave the world a chance to see him one last time. This was MJ’s goodbye. To anyone who looks at this man’s comeback with cynicism, they should remember Michael donated all his salary to the relief fund for the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. All his salary. It doesn’t matter how rich he already is. How many professional sportsmen would really do that?
Forget about the groundwork ‘Floor Jordan’ put in, because even with the air knocked out of him, he still had nice hops. Forget about him being crossed over by the likes of Allen Iverson again, because sometimes when the floor general rallied his troops together they could beat the likes of the Lakers. Forget about Dikeme Mutombo’s laughter at MJ’s blown, open dunk at the All-Star Game. Instead remember his sick, two-handed block. Forget the numerous times he couldn’t hit 10 points and remember the time where he recorded 51 points at 38 years of age. Forget about the drama with Kwame Brown and remember the influence he has had on generations of players. Forget about not getting voted on as an All-Star starter and the unnecessary pressure everyone else put on Vince Carter. Instead reminisce Mike’s fade away, buzzer-beater in the 4th quarter (Come on now Kobe).
Nobody’s perfect and even superstars and superheroes have weak spots. Superman has kryptonite and Michael Jordan had fluid in his knees. Rock stars die and movie stars get old. The things you cherished in childhood in time belong only to nostalgia. Time catches up with everyone eventually and sometimes it takes the best of them.
Michael’s Wizards days may not have a patch on the rich tapestry of his time with the Bulls but his tenure in DC was still an important and noteworthy part of his basketball legacy. Despite his exposed weaknesses and the bad press he still gave new memories to old and new fans alike. The slam dunking, three-peat, tongue out, and fade away days may have past but MJ still had something to give. He still showed how on some nights he could recapture the magic of the ‘90s. Jordan found new ways to score the basketball and win games when his body and his age wouldn’t allow him to do it the way he used to. Michael showed even when his back was against the wall and everyone was against him he could still hold his own.
April 16, 2003
The final curtain is about to be drawn for the finest basketball player to ever grace this stage. The Washington Wizards are playing the Philadelphia 76ers but their playoff hopes have already disappeared in the rear-view. It just didn’t feel right to see a legend in his farewell, riding the pine in the 3rd quarter with just 13 points. Chants from the home fans of Philadelphia overshadow the game itself.
The veteran, shooting guard’s number is called. ‘Into the game Number 23, Michael Jordan’. With less than two minutes to go MJ is fouled intentionally, let’s end this right. To the charity stripe he goes, sinking the first free throw. The home fans aren’t distracting the opposing teams player this time. All 21,257 eyes rest on Mike. He bounces the ball once, twice, follows the same, old routine, spinning the ball threw his fingers. Mike sets it up, aims and follows through, it’s all twine. He backpedals down the court, with a smile one last time.
There is a break in play and he walks to the bench to a three-minute standing ovation. MJ hugs his coaches and his teammates, he acknowledges the crowd and sits down. He drinks it all in because this is his moment. He nods repeatedly with satisfaction, turns around, stands up and acknowledges the crowd one last time. Now he’s saying thank you.
… and that was the last shot.