I know where I was. What the room smelled like. What my Facebook friends today who shared the experience looked like minus the additional weight.
Twenty-five years ago today, on the campus of Howard University and in the community room of the George Washington Carver men’s dormitory, I sat glued in front of a television (with rabbit ears) watching Michael Jordan do what only he could.
On that afternoon in 1986, Jordan went for a still-standing playoff record 63 points in a double-overtime loss to the Boston Celtics. There he was, yo-yoing the ball between his legs three times in front of a helpless Larry Bird before knocking down a 15-footer. Or rendering defensive stopper Dennis Johnson clueless as to how to deny Jordan the baseline or, for that matter, anywhere else he wanted to go on to find his shot.
While the Celtics would sweep the Bulls in three games on the way to their 16th world championship, Jordan had etched indelible images in the minds of all who witnessed him tack on five assists, three steals and a pair of blocks for good measure. Bird, one of five Hall-of-Famers on a Boston team that went an NBA-record 40-1 at home that season, was on the verge of being named league MVP for the third year in a row and at the peak of his powers. So good was Jordan on this day that nobody seems to remember that he went for 49 points in the previous game, or that he sat out 64 games that season with a broken left foot.
Said Bird, famously, of what he witnessed in the venerable Boston Garden: “That was God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
To this day, it is the game that most observers say heralded the inevitable changing of the guard from Bird and Magic Johnson to Jordan.
Today, Jordan is a suit, having taken over ownership in Charlotte, and the league, in the embryonic stages of its playoffs, is experiencing another metamorphosis. It has searched for years for and failed to find the “next MJ,” the likes of Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, and Vince Carter all coming up short.
Kobe Bryant, trying to lead his defending champion Los Angeles Lakers to a sixth world title — and in the process matching Jordan in that statistic — is the best player of the post-Jordan generation. But the 14-year veteran has amassed incredible mileage on his body, already having played in more regular-season (1,103 to 1,072) and postseason (199 to 179) games than Jordan.
As great as Jordan was, when he retired for the second time in 1998 the league was left to great caretakers. Along with Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Allen Iverson, to name a few, bridged the NBA to where it is today. And despite the looming lockout, that’s really not that bad of a place.
The NBA’s three national TV partners all had their most viewers ever this season, topped by a 42 percent increase for TNT. ABC was up 38 percent and ESPN had a 28 percent jump. Turner Sports reported is highest rating in 27 years of league coverage and reported that it televised three of the five most-watched NBA regular season games on cable this past season.
Arena capacity was 90.3 percent, marking the seventh straight year of 90 or better, and the 17,306 average was up 1 percent from last year.
The biggest surprise, however, is that LeBron James’ jersey sales led the way in a 20 percent jump in merchandise sales. Vilified for “The Decision,” his ill-advised, televised proclamation last summer that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to play for Miami, James recaptured the top spot in jersey sales for the first time since 2004, a sign perhaps that fans of the game are ready to forgive him for that mistake.
James is seven years into his career and turned 26 last December, so he’s about to enter his prime. And he has already authored a singular moment in playoff history. While playing for the Cavs in 2007, James scored 29 of the Cavs’ final 30 points — including 25 in a row — to lead Cleveland to a double-overtime victory at Detroit in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. The Cavs would win the series and advance to the Finals for the first time only to be swept in four games by Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs. NBA analyst Marv Albert correctly called James’ performance “one of the greatest moments in postseason history,” while former Jordan teammate Steve Kerr labeled it “Jordan-esque.”
James was tabbed by many while still a high schooler to be the firmly entrenched as the king of the league right now, and he is arguably its best player, having won the last two Most Valuable Player awards.
But if you have been paying attention, you know that James does not have the dance floor all to himself. In Chicago, Derrick Rose put a banged up Bulls team on his back all season long, led them to the best record in the East, and will almost certainly be named, at 22, the youngest MVP in league history. Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant is teaming up with Russell Westbrook to form perhaps the best one-two punch in the league this side of James and Dwyane Wade, and in Los Angeles, if Bryant stays around too long and the Clippers finally do the right thing (which would be a miracle in itself) and sign rookie sensation Blake Griffin to a long-term deal, Bryant could soon find himself the second fiddle in the city of angels. Rose, Durant and Westbrook are all under 23.
So sit back and enjoy these playoffs. I’m not going to tell you that you’ll see someone do what Magic Johnson did in 1980, when, as a 20-year old rookie, he stepped in at center for an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and went for 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists to close out Philadelphia in the Finals, on the road. Or that you’ll see someone score a Final’s record 25 points in one quarter — the fourth — on a bum ankle, which Isiah Thomas did for Detroit in Game 6 of the 1988 Finals against Magic, James Worthy and Abdul-Jabbar.
But you better stay tuned. Otherwise you’re going to miss something special.