Originally published in SLAM 53
The 6th Man: Let me preface all of this by saying I am one of the biggest Michael Jordan fans you’ll ever meet (I won’t say I’m the biggest, because I don’t want to open the 10,000 letters from people all over the world claiming that no, they’re the biggest, and they have the game-worn Laney High sweatsocks to prove it). Suffice it to say I saw Space Jam in the theater, listened raptly to my parents’ car radio as the Brad Sellers-era Bulls repeatedly lost to the Knicks, and even blew $800 on a UDA signed game jersey (trust me Mom, it’s a better investment than my 401k).
I love Charles Barkley, too. When I went to Houston to do a Scottie Pippen story, he kept me amused while Pippen took every opportunity to blow me off and make me feel like a jerk. I’ve virtually worn out Chuck’s section of NBA Superstars, where a short-haired, short-shortsed mid-’80s Round Mound of Rebound romper-stomps all over the NBA to the tune of Scandal’s “Warrior.”
All that said, I don’t really want to see this whole comeback happen. Seriously. Don’t get me wrong—I’ll watch the games, vote for them on the All-Star ballot, buy the No. 23 Wizards jersey (50+4, right MJ?). But I can’t shake two images from Jordan’s last comeback. No, not the double-nickel on the Knicks, or win number 70. What I can’t forget is this: Nick Anderson stripping a suddenly mortal MJ in the ’95 playoffs, sending the Bulls home. And AI, a raw rookie, crossing him up once, then twice, and dropping the jumper in his eye. I know MJ came back stronger than ever—and his dedication and will are still stronger than anyone’s—but at 39, what if he can’t do it again?
Just look at what’s gone on in the playoffs—AI dropped 54, Vince 50, Kobe 48. Two-guards are bigger, stronger, faster. Who is MJ gonna check? I appreciate the sentimentality regarding His return—in fact, there’s a tear welling up in my eye right now—but will a 39-year-old Air be able to stop a 22-year-old Heir? What happens when his determination meets equal determination, but in a generation-younger package? Does anyone really want to see MJ on the wrong side of the Slamadamonth?
And Charles—besides his MVP status on TNT, when did he ever rehab that knee injury? His last couple of years with Houston were played in slow motion, what will happen with the next one? Can I write a sentence that doesn’t end in a question mark?
Anyway, things might all work out—MJ and Chuck, leading the Wizards to the promised land. But what if they don’t?