Six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan turns 50 on Sunday, Feb. 17. (Walter Iooss Jr./SI)
By Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney
Michael Jordan, who won six NBA championships, five MVPs, 10 scoring titles and two Olympic gold medals, turns 50 on Sunday. Here are 50 reasons -- from Air Jordans to the commercials to The Shot to The Shrug -- why we'll never forget His Airness.
1. Missing The Cut
In November 1978, a 15-year-old "Mike" Jordan tried out for the varsity team at Laney High in Wilmington, N.C. A 5-foot-10 sophomore, Jordan was just one of many competing for 15 spots on varsity and 15 more on junior varsity. Jordan didn't make varsity, famously using the snub as fuel for his competitive fire.
But his coach tells a different story. "They criticized me for cutting Michael Jordan," Clifton (Pop) Herring told Thomas Lake in the Jan. 16, 2012, issue of Sports Illustrated. "[But] he was placed on the junior varsity level. He wasn't cut away from the game that made him." Jordan made varsity his junior and senior year, eventually earning a scholarship to North Carolina.
Michael Jordan was a first-team All-America as a sophomore and junior at North Carolina. (Lane Stewart/SI)
2. 1982 National Championship Game
Jordan's late jumper -- which propelled North Carolina past Georgetown in the NCAA tournament final -- served as the inception of his highlight-reel dominance. But in the confines of this clip, he barely resembles his future self.
Jordan, then a freshman, was an afterthought, empowered only by a slight hitch in the execution of the Hoyas' Patrick Ewing-anchored zone defense. Even on the catch, Jordan doesn't hang in the air, fade away or break his man down off the dribble in signature fashion. He simply rises and fires, operating with a shooting form that seems completely unfamiliar. All of this is to be expected from the formative Jordan, but the contrast in his play and role are part of what make this sequence so memorable.
Click here for a photo gallery of Jordan in college.
3. The Covers
Jordan appeared on his first Sports Illustrated cover in November 1983 as a 20-year-old junior at North Carolina. He appeared on 49 more covers under headlines such as "A Star Is Born" and "Bag It, Michael!" Find every cover here.
4. Blazers Pass On Jordan, Take Bowie
The Rockets and Trail Blazers flipped a coin for the right to select first in the 1984 draft and yet neither team had plans to use the pick on Jordan. Even more incredibly, the Blazers never considered Jordan at No. 2 once they lost the toss. Hakeem Olajuwon went first, Sam Bowie went second and Jordan was left for the Bulls at No. 3, setting up Bowie for a lifetime of punchlines and giving Jordan a major market from which to turn a league that valued big men over everything else on its head.
5. Air Jordan I
Jordan's supremacy in shoe stores has rivaled his influence on the court. Forbes reported this week that Jordan Brand sneakers represented 58 percent of the basketball shoe market, even though it's been nearly a decade since Jordan's last NBA game. The company's annual signature releases are highly anticipated, and the release of popular retro versions of the sneakers has prompted extreme acts of violence in recent years. Jordan's signature shoes made waves from the beginning: The first iteration was banned by the NBA, which fined Jordan for wearing them. Can you imagine a better selling point to teenagers?
For photos of every Air Jordan model, click here.
Michael Jordan's 63 points were not enough against a balanced Celtics
team. (Via YouTube)
6. ‘God Disguised As Michael Jordan’
One month after returning from a broken right foot that limited him to 18 regular-season games in his second year, Jordan dropped a playoff-record 63 points on the Celtics in Game 2 of a 1986 first-round series. "I didn't think anyone was capable of doing what Michael has done to us," Larry Bird said. "I think it's just God disguised as Michael Jordan." But as spectacular as the performance was, the Bulls still fell to the Celtics 135-131 in double overtime en route to being swept 3-0.
"Looking back, Jordan had to be a loser that day in Boston a quarter-century ago," SI's Alex Wolff wrote two years ago in assessing the significance of that playoff loss. "Indeed, as the best team of all time, those Celtics had to be the winners, in the face of the greatest individual playoff performance of all time, to further the young Michael's education in that most essential of hoop truths: that, in the end, a full team will beat any single player, no matter how good."
No single statistical measure captures a player's entire value, but the default measuring tool of choice is Player Efficiency Rating (PER). The metric, designed by former writer and current Grizzlies vice president John Hollinger, weighs usage, possession efficiency and box-score contributions to reach one point of reference. Since the NBA started tracking individual turnovers in 1973-74, no player has posted a PER higher than Jordan's 31.89 mark in 1987-88, when he averaged 35 points (on 54 percent shooting), 5.9 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 3.2 steals. (Jordan won the first of his five MVP awards that season, his fourth in the league.)
And, as we well know, Jordan's superiority hardly stops there. MJ's ensuing three seasons all take spots in the top five in single-season PER, a stretch of dominance that may never be topped.
8. 1988 Dunk Contest
The greatest dunk contest of all time offered Jordan the opportunity to avenge his loss to Dominique Wilkins in 1985. More prepared, more focused and performing in front of his home crowd, Jordan pulled off the win thanks to an iconic free-throw-line dunk on his last attempt, pumping the ball behind his ear and kicking out his legs to help sell the majestic aerial feat. With his second title in a row, he rode off into the dunk-contest sunset.
Michael Jordan's gravity-defying buzzer-beater over Craig Ehlo ousted the favored Cavs in 1989. (Manny Millan/SI)
9. 'The Shot'
Sam Smith, a longtime NBA writer who used to cover the Bulls for the Chicago Tribune, relayed this anecdote in an NBA.com story about the decisive Game 5 of the 1989 first-round playoff series between Jordan's Bulls and the favored Cavaliers:
Although it’s difficult to believe now, the Bulls still weren’t a major story in Chicago because few considered them championship contenders. So there was limited media traveling. The only regulars were myself, Lacy Banks from the Sun-Times and Kent McDill from the Daily Herald. We’d all picked against the Bulls before the series, Lacy in three and Kent in four. I thought Jordan could win two games, but not three. So I had Cavs in five. The game was about to start and Jordan was pacing in front of the Bulls bench and scorer’s table, where we were sitting. Jordan’s mood was buoyant, as if he knew. So he stops and first points to Lacy and says, “We took care of you,” meaning Lacy’s prediction. Then he moves over to Kent and points and says, “And we took care of you.” Then he stops in front of me and points and says with a seemingly knowing smile, “And today we take care of you.”
In dramatic fashion, no less. Chicago trailed by a point when Jordan's gravity-defying buzzer-beater over Craig Ehlo eliminated the 57-win Cavaliers, who had gone 6-0 against the Bulls during the regular season and finished 10 games ahead of their Central Division rivals. Jordan's pure jubilation at making "The Shot" was noteworthy, too. Long before the mythos of Jordan as a cold-blooded assassin had come to prominence, MJ was a fiery, exciting player unlike anything the NBA had ever seen. This play captures that perfectly, as MJ completes a move that few others could make and seals the occasion with a leaping display of unrestrained passion.
10. Jordan Rules
As crazy as it sounds, there once was a time when Jordan was written off as an all-hype, all-stats star incapable of carrying his team to postseason glory. The biggest impediment to his success were the Bad Boys Pistons and coach Chuck Daley's "Jordan Rules" approach, which stressed extra defensive attention and an ultra-physical handling of the game's best scorer. The Bulls were eliminated by the Pistons in 1988, 1989 and 1990 before finally sweeping Detroit in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals on their way to Jordan's first title. The Pistons, soundly defeated, left the court without congratulating Jordan and the Bulls; it was the end of Detroit's era and both teams knew it.
11. Mars Blackmon
Is it the shoes? So asked Mars Blackmon, Spike Lee's fictional character, who became a mainstay alongside Jordan in a series of Nike Air Jordan commercials in the 1980s and '90s. Though the ads were meant to focus on Jordan and his shoe, Blackmon often stole the show with his distinctive black, thick-framed glasses, upturned cap and thirst for knowledge.
12. ‘Republicans Buy Shoes, Too’
NBA players don't have any responsibility to be spokesmen for sociopolitical issues, but Jordan should forever be remembered for his incredible avoidance of subjects bigger than basketball. It's part of the great marketing genius behind Jordan that the game's greatest player was turned into a blank slate. Jordan famously declined to endorse a black candidate, Democrat Harvey Gantt, in a 1990 North Carolina Senate race against Jesse Helms. "Republicans buy shoes, too," Jordan told a friend, according to Sam Smith's 1995 book, Second Coming. He was a competitor, a champion and a leader, but by refusing to take any kind of stance, Jordan was also whatever you wanted him to be.
13. The Layup
This is a fantastic display of coordination and a play that doubles as an interesting discussion point. Jordan has said he switched hands mid-air on this layup during Game 2 of the 1991 Finals to avoid a challenge by the Lakers' Sam Perkins, and his maneuver could indeed be a preemptive measure made in the presence of a looming shot-blocker. But another read on the play is that of flair for flair's sake. Perhaps this is assuming too much in a moment of instant reaction, but Jordan seems to rise up, recognize the grounded defense and convert an incredible finish in place of an impressive -- but likely forgettable -- dunk. Maybe he took an opportunity to coax a bit of immortality out of it, and really, isn't that what Jordan's brilliance is all about?
14. White House snub
On Oct. 1, 1991, the Bulls went to the White House to celebrate the franchise's first title. Jordan, however, was a no-show for the session with George H.W. Bush, prompting teammate Horace Grant -- who reportedly had a paid speaking appearance on the day of the White House visit canceled -- to rail against a "double standard" and say, "I'm not going to let him destroy the team."
Jordan wasn't the first or last player to snub the president. Larry Bird skipped the Celtics' White House trip seven years earlier. Several athletes (including the Bruins' Tim Thomas, the Steelers' James Harrison and the Red Sox's Manny Ramirez) followed suit in the years to come.
15. The Shrug
The Blazers entered the 1992 Finals intent on proving that they weren't getting the credit they deserved as the media fawned over Jordan and the Bulls. It took Jordan all of 24 minutes to remind Portland why the headlines tended to begin and end with him.
Though he had led the league in scoring for a sixth straight season, Jordan was not known for his range. He shot only 27 percent (27-of-100) on three-pointers in 1991-92, averaging barely more than one attempt per game. Those numbers went out the window in the first half against the Blazers, as he sank an NBA-record six threes. The sharpshooting even surprised Jordan, who flashed the now-iconic shrug after hitting the sixth triple. His 35 points at halftime represented a Finals record, and he finished with 39 points and 11 assists in a 122-89 victory. Chicago took the series in six games for its second title in a row.
Don't let this scene fool you: Michael Jordan and Magic
Johnson were fierce competitors at the 1992 Olympics.(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)
16. Greatest Game Nobody Ever Saw
Team USA's utter dominance at the 1992 Olympics is well-chronicled, but its intrasquad scrimmages outside of the limelight may have been just as interesting. "The written record of that team during the summer of '92 is not particularly large," Jack McCallum wrote in his 2012 book, Dream Team. "Much of the story is yet to be told, and the scrimmage in Monte Carlo [three days before the Barcelona Games] may be the most tantalizing episode of all."
That particular scrimmage saw the world's best players going head-to-head in a playoff-like atmosphere fueled by the competitiveness of Jordan and Magic Johnson. Jordan's White Team, which included Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen and Larry Bird, rallied past Johnson's and Charles Barkley's Blue Team 40-36. Which was good for everyone involved. "Let me tell you something -- it would've been worse for everybody if he lost," Johnson told McCallum. "Because I could let something go after a while. But Michael? He'd never let it go. He never let anything go."
Jordan savored the victory, as McCallum wrote:
"Way to work, White," Jordan yells, rubbing it in. He paces up and down, wiping himself with a towel, emperor of all he sees, as Magic, Barkley and [Christian] Laettner disconsolately shoot free throws.
"It was all about Michael Jordan," says Magic. "That's all it was."
It's no joke. Magic is angry.
Jordan continues to pace the sideline. He grabs a cup of Gatorade and sings, "Sometimes I dream...." Jordan has recently signed a multimillion-dollar deal to endorse Gatorade, and the ads feature a song inspired by I Wan'na Be like You, the Monkey Song in the animated film The Jungle Book. The Gatorade version's lyrics are:
Sometimes I dream/That he is me/You've got to see that's how I dream to be/I dream I move, I dream I groove/Like Mike/If I could be like Mike.
As Magic looks on in this sticky-hot gym, sweat pouring off his body, towel around his neck, there is Jordan, captain of the winning team, singing a song written just for him, drinking a drink that's raking in millions, rubbing it in as only Jordan can do. And on the bus back to the hotel? Jordan keeps singing, Be like Mike.... Be like Mike. ...
The game would have reverberations in Barcelona as Michael and Magic relentlessly continued to try to get the verbal edge on each other. And in the years that followed, this intrasquad game became a part of basketball lore, "kind of like an urban legend," as Laettner describes it.
17. Living The Dream
The 1992 Dream Team juxtaposed Jordan with other basketball giants, which, if anything, only served to clarify the divide between Jordan and the best of the rest. Over the years, we've heard tales of what the NBA's brightest stars were up to off the court at the '92 Olympics, and it's in that regard that Jordan truly stands alone. Much of the team got its fill of Monaco and Barcelona, but Jordan regularly hosted marathon card-playing sessions the night before a game and still managed to squeeze in some golf before tip-off. He was an absolute freak whose competitive drive had eclipsed his need for sleep, and yet Jordan's unfathomable schedule didn't keep him from being as dominant on the court as any Dream Teamer.
18. Be Like Mike
The formula was simple: highlight-reel footage of Jordan, canned shots of MJ smiling or goofing around on a playground court, plenty of Gatorade logos and a percussion-driven ditty that is quintessentially '90s. It could have gone down as just another commercial, but the song was catchy enough -- and true enough, for a generation that idolized Jordan -- that it came to be an improbable anthem for the Jordan zeitgeist.
19. All In
Jordan's gambling habits were well-documented during his career. From high-stakes card games and golf matches with unsavory characters to casino jaunts, Jordan craved the action -- and took some hits as a result.
Jordan made headlines in 1993 for leaving New York between Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference finals to gamble in Atlantic City. The New York Times reported that Jordan lost $5,000 playing blackjack until 2:30 a.m. before returning to the Big Apple for his team's shootaround. Jordan scored 36 points that night but the Knicks won, taking a 2-0 series lead. The Knicks wouldn't win again; the Bulls won the next four games, highlighted by Jordan's 54-point outburst in Game 4. Chicago went on to defeat the Suns in the 1993 Finals, collecting their third straight title.
Michael Jordan (right) and Charles Barkley met three times in the postseason with the Bulls winning each matchup. (Manny Millan/SI)
20. A Relationship Built On Respect
Drafted two spots apart in 1984, Jordan and Charles Barkley shared a unique bond throughout their careers. "I love him. We met in '84 at the Olympic trials and we just had a chemistry," Barkley said of Jordan on Oprah in 2005. "People ask me this all the time and I think the one thing he appreciates about me is that I don't bug him."
The two met three times in the postseason -- Jordan's Bulls won each matchup, including knocking off regular-season MVP Barkley and the Suns in an entertaining 1993 Finals -- but often shared their best moments on the golf course. "Basketball never comes up. All we do is talk about is golf," Barkley said in 1991. "I like playing golf. He likes playing golf. We love to play for money."
Though Jordan always appreciated Barkley's candor ("I love Charles. He's very honest. Sometimes brutally honest"), hearing the truth about himself sometimes hurt. "I love Michael, but he just has not done a good job," Barkley said in 2012 of Jordan's time as an NBA executive. "Even though he is one of my great friends, I can't get on here and tell you he's done a great job." Ouch.
21. Batter up
Jordan retired from the NBA for the first time in October 1993 to play minor league baseball, where he batted .202 with three home runs, 51 RBIs and 30 stolen bases in 127 games for the Chicago White Sox's Class AA Birmingham Barons. For basketball fans, it's a shame that the greatest player of all time took a sabbatical during his prime. But Jordan's first retirement has become an important and colorful element of his narrative and legacy and introduces a bit of mystery into the otherwise open-and-shut case of his basketball greatness. Could Jordan and the Bulls really have won eight straight titles had Jordan remained in the NBA? Or did Jordan's absence facilitate the growth of players such as Scottie Pippen, who would only become more crucial during Chicago's second three-peat?
22. ‘I'm Back’
Jordan faced a wall of cameras when he announced his retirement from the NBA in 1993. But his re-entrance wasn't met with the same pomp and circumstance. Eschewing a three-ring media circus, Jordan issued a simple two-word press release on March 18, 1995: "I'm Back." He played the next night, scoring 19 points on 7-of-28 shooting in a loss at Indiana. He didn't regain true top form until the following season, when the Bulls began their run toward a second three-peat.
Michael Jordan became synonymous with the No. 23. (John W. McDonough/SI)
23. No. 23
Jordan influenced a generation of players with his jersey number. He wasn't the first to wear No. 23, of course, but he gave the number a new significance. Who else donned No. 23? Here's a list of the most memorable, before and after Jordan:
|Players Who Wore No. 23|
24. The Tongue
The enduring images of Jordan's infamous tongue wag almost all involve him soaring toward an emphatic dunk, but MJ was just as likely to let the tongue fly on a difficult jumper or a surge off the dribble. It's as if one of basketball's most gifted players was given a single deficiency in his otherwise impeccable body control; even as he flew, contorted and weaved his way to precise and spectacular plays, he was never quite able to contain his flopping tongue.
25. New York State Of Mind
Jordan unofficially announced his return from his first retirement with an electrifying performance at Madison Square Garden on March 28, 1995. Playing against the NBA's stingiest defense in only his fifth game since coming back, Jordan went for 55 points on 21-of-37 shooting and made the winning -- gasp! -- assist to give the Bulls a 113-111 victory.
"That's Michael Jordan. That's why he's the best," New York guard John Starks said after the game.
Said Knicks coach Pat Riley: "Some players simply transcend every aspect of the game. No one in the history of this game has had the impact that he has had."
What makes the mythology surrounding Jordan so powerful is that he was able to combine individual greatness with unbelievable team success, a balance perhaps best encapsulated in the Bulls' record-breaking 1995-96 season. MJ was phenomenal in his first full season after the baseball hiatus, but the Bulls as a whole were even more breathtaking, winning 72 of 82 games for an .878 win percentage en route to the first title in their second three-peat. No team before or since has even reached 70 wins, and with today's coaches as conscious as ever about keeping players healthy and pacing for the playoffs, even the most dominant teams to come may not have a proper shot at unseating Jordan's Bulls from the record books.
27. Father's Day
Jordan endures because he was simultaneously a hero and someone with whom the average person could relate. His leaping ability made him legendary, but his expressive eyes made him human. He always let it all out during title celebrations -- hugging the Larry O'Brien trophy tightly, dousing teammates with champagne, jumping up on the sideline tables, pumping his fists, raising the appropriate number of fingers in the air to the fans -- and that unbridled emotion only drew millions of fans closer. The 1996 title celebration was different, of course, because Jordan's tears came on Father's Day, three years after his father's senseless murder. For Jordan, this was a totally different type of release.
28. Space Jam
Jordan was a fixture in highlight tapes and commercials throughout the late 1980s and early '90s, but in 1996 he took his talent to the big screen, starring in Space Jam. The film chronicles Jordan's quest to use his basketball skills to free the Looney Tunes from the tyranny of criminal aliens. A seminal film for any young sports fan, the movie was met with mixed reviews. Here's a sampling of what the critics thought:
• "It is difficult for an actor to work in movies that combine live action with animation, because much of the time he cannot see the other characters in a scene with him. But [Michael] Jordan has a natural ease and humor, an unforced charisma, that makes a good fit with the cartoon universe."
-- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
• "It is no surprise to find the movie's produced by Jordan's agent, David Falk, who uses "Space Jam" to showcase his client, the products Jordan endorses, and the teams with which he is or was associated."
-- Rita Kempley, Washington Post
• "Jordan, self-effacing and a striking screen presence, ultimately rules. And someday he might actually be the star of an all-human movie if the ball bounces that way in Hollywood."
-- Peter Stack, San Francisco Chronicle
• "[Space Jam] is both a frantic, innovative mixture of animation technologies and a fan magazine full of adulation for Michael Jordan. He handles this tribute with regal bearing and good grace."
-- Janet Maslin, The New York Times
Jordan entered the 1996 offseason as a free agent. The reigning regular-season and Finals MVP was coming off an eight-year, $25 million contract signed in '88 and was looking for a raise. Well, he got one, signing a one-year, $30 million deal, the biggest single-season contract ever in American team sports. "It really didn't take any negotiations, which is the way I wanted it," Jordan told The Associated Press. "I'm very happy with the agreement we have."
He exceeded that figure a year later when he signed another one-year deal, this time for $33 million. The figure has stood the test of time. In the years since, no NBA player has surpassed the $30 million mark, but Kobe Bryant is poised to earn $30.4 million from the Lakers in 2013-14.
30. The Finger Wag
A legendary trash-talker, Jordan didn't always need words to make his point. Shot-blocking expert Dikembe Mutombo made the mistake of letting people know that Jordan had never dunked over him. During Game 5 of the 1997 Eastern Conference semifinals, Jordan posterized Mutombo, who was late in his attempt to protect the rim from the weak side. Jordan took the opportunity to remind Mutombo of his statement, co-opting Mutombo's signature finger wag after finishing the slam.
"No, you don't try to block me," he seemed to be saying. "No, you don't dare mention me ever again." The Bulls closed out the Hawks that night and went on to win their fifth title of the Jordan era.
An ailing Michael Jordan went for 38 points in Game 5 of the 1997 Finals. (John Biever/SI)
31. Flu Game
As with many components of the Michael Jordan narrative, the Flu Game has created a self-contained spiral of conversation and debate. But no matter where you stand on the seriousness of Jordan's illness or the extent to which he may have played up his symptoms, you have to admit that his performance made for magnificent theater.
Just a day after being bed-ridden, Jordan put up 38 points, five assists and seven rebounds in a 90-88 victory that gave the Bulls a 3-2 series advantage over the Jazz in the 1997 Finals. The superhuman element certainly fits the most common characterizations of Jordan, and at some point the legend surrounding the game becomes, in a way, even more pertinent than the true extent of Jordan's illness. The story is its own truth, and as important to defining the image of Jordan as any irrefutable statistic or direct quote.
32. Rivalry With Reggie
Most NBA rivalries manifest through a series of playoff engagements, but Jordan's on-court relationship with Reggie Miller is a shining example of the contrary. Jordan and Miller met only once in the postseason -- in a seven-game epic during MJ's last season with the Bulls -- and yet they formed a fun chemistry on the basis of their mutual irritation. Miller certainly gave Jordan a begrudging respect (he's noted that Jordan is the one player he wouldn't talk trash to for fear of what scoring torrent his remarks might bring), but that didn't stop both players from lighting a fire under one another and bringing about a wonderful matchup of very different shooting guards.
33. 1998 Finals, Game 6
Want to boil a career of basketball genius down to 15 seconds? Look no further than the closing seconds of Game 6 of the 1998 Finals against the Jazz. Jordan secured the sixth and final title of his career with a sequence that displayed so many of his virtues: intelligence, instincts, confidence, calm, gamesmanship and clutch shooting.
With a little more than 20 seconds remaining and the Jazz leading 86-85, Jordan left his man to sneak up behind Karl Malone, stripping him cleanly. From there, he went into killer mode, briskly bringing the ball up the court to set up a go-ahead shot. He milked the clock, working on Utah's Bryon Russell in isolation, before feinting a drive to his right into the paint. As Russell leaned back, Jordan gave him a famous love tap while slamming on the breaks, creating a clean look for himself without drawing an offensive foul. He rose up to shoot with about seven seconds left and everyone in the building knew the result before it left his hand: 87-86 Bulls. He held the release to stretch the unforgettable moment and there wasn't a sound to be heard in the Salt Lake City gym. What a walk-off. He would retire soon afterward, though not permanently.
34. ‘I Hate Being Out There With Those Garbagemen’
The Jordan lore is littered with tales of his trash-talking and just as cluttered with stories of Jordan going off on opponents (or even teammates) who dared to agitate him. The talk was an inextricable part of the game for Jordan, a necessary soundtrack that served to motivate and manipulate, and ultimately give the game its character. It apparently took a little extra for a legend on a dominant team to remain engaged at times, and thus Jordan kept a thorough mental encyclopedia of short- and long-term grudges, filled with those who had said too much or did him wrong.
Here's a sampling of Jordan's best quips (the first two from Sam Smith's The Jordan Rules and the third from a "Player X" column in ESPN The Magazine):
• "I hate being out there with those garbagemen," Jordan said of Bulls teammates Dennis Hopson, Stacey King and B.J. Armstrong.
• "I hope there's a jump shot in there," Jordan told struggling rookie King as he walked into the locker room with a box.
• "The cars I got are just like yours. Except mine were free," Jordan replied when Gary Payton said he drove a nicer car than Jordan.
35. Another Comeback
Jordan had the perfect ending to his career -- that beautiful jumper in Utah -- but he just couldn't stay away. After sitting out three seasons from 1998-2001, Jordan dusted off the sneakers at age 38 to play his first game in anything other than a Bulls uniform. His comeback came with the Washington Wizards, a franchise for which he began serving as president in January 2000. He wasn't the same old MJ but he wasn't a bum, either. Jordan averaged 22.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists, playing a gravity-bound style that relied more heavily on jumpers.
Though his 2001-02 season was cut short by a knee injury, he returned to play all 82 games in the 2002-03 season, averaging 20 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Incredibly, Jordan topped 40 points three times, including a season-high 45 points against the Hornets. While fans ate up Jordan's return, the Wizards didn't make the playoffs either season. Finally, enough was enough, and Jordan played his last NBA game on April 16, 2003.
36. A Final All-Star Appearance
Jordan appeared in 13 All-Star Games, including 2002 and 2003, during his bon voyage tour with the Wizards. His final appearance nearly wound up as another Jordan miracle. Just days shy of his 40th birthday, Jordan went toe-to-toe with players who were barely more than half his age. Jordan finished with 20 points, including a go-ahead jumper in the closing seconds of overtime, which nearly delivered the East a dramatic win in Atlanta. Instead, Kobe Bryant played the role of spoiler, tying the game and sending it into a second OT, where the West prevailed 155-145.
The night was capped by a halftime performance from Mariah Carey -- dressed in a Jordan jersey dress, of course -- and with Jordan passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most points in All-Star Game history, with 262. "I leave the game in good hands," Jordan told the crowd.
37. Greatest Hits
We'd be remiss if we didn't give some space to Jordan's best alley-oops and slams (outside of the dunk contest). These posterizations didn't alter the NBA landscape like some other moments on this list, but, boy, are they fun. Enjoy.
38. Fadeaway J
Jordan didn't invent the fadeaway jumper, but he may be the first to perfect it. The combination was ideal: Jordan was strong enough to create the post-up foundation necessary to fade; he had a stable enough handle to fade off the dribble when necessary; and he had a shooting form with the requisite balance to consistently attack opponents on a lean. A series of short jumpers may seem unspectacular relative to his amazing collection of highlights, but the fadeaway proved to be an invaluable half-court vehicle for Jordan and the Bulls to create reliable offense.
39. One Last Hurrah
For 13 seasons, Jordan called Chicago home as a member of the Bulls. On Jan. 24, 2003, he made one final trip to Chicago as a member of … the Wizards. The jersey on his back didn't seem to matter, though, as the 23,215 in attendance cheered Jordan all the same, giving him a four-minute standing ovation after player introductions.
"Thank you," Jordan said, momentarily interrupting the cheers. "Thank you. It has truly been a pleasure. You guys have given me great pleasure to play here in the city of Chicago. I love you all."
40. Kwame and MJ
As Wizards president, Jordan made the final call on selecting Kwame Brown with the first pick in the 2001 draft -- only to then join Brown on the Wizards' roster a few months later. That turn gave Jordan's relationship with Brown an odd flavor, and serves to partially explain some of their dynamic.
On the one hand, many accounts describe Jordan as being inclusive and patient with Brown, behavior that likely went against every fiber of Jordan's hyper-competitive being. On the other, it didn't take long for Jordan to begin humiliating Brown in front of his teammates, breaking down the confidence of a fragile rookie even further.
It seemed as though Jordan knew that his tact with Brown needed to be different -- gentler -- than it had been with past teammates, but his commitment to that idea wavered. As a result, their relationship was increasingly dysfunctional on all fronts, with Jordan waffling in his role as a quasi-mentor and Brown left confused and hurt by Jordan's treatment. As such, it's no surprise that their false friendship may well have caused Brown's undoing, thereby making his selection and improper cultivation one of Jordan's greatest failures as a general manager.
41. $168 Million Divorce
In 2006, Jordan and wife Juanita split after 17 years of marriage. Juanita previously filed for divorce in January 2002 but withdrew her petition a month later when the coupled attempted a reconciliation. A year after the divorce, the pair settled for $168 million, making it one of the most expensive celebrity divorces in history. "Marriage is hard for any couple," family friend Les Coney told People Magazine at the time, "and if you add celebrity to that, it's even harder."
42. Air Force Jordan
Air Force One has nothing on Air Jordan. Customized to his specifications, Jordan's private plane features North Carolina blue, the "Jumpman" logo and numbers near and dear to Jordan's heart (23 for his jersey; 6 for his number of rings).
43. Out Of Style
Jordan's impact on fashion can't be understated. Look no further than his Air Jordan shoes. But Jordan's style since he hung up his sneakers has gotten quite ... bizarre. So bizarre, in fact, that it has inspired a blog named "What The F*** Is Michael Jordan Wearing?" Here's a gallery of our favorite looks.
44. Struggling ‘Cats
After a fallout with former Wizards owner Abe Pollin, which resulted in his firing as president in 2003, Jordan stepped away from the NBA. But he didn't stay away for long. In 2006, he became a Charlotte Bobcats minority owner, a natural fit given his college ties to North Carolina. Jordan purchased majority control of the Bobcats in 2010, making him the first former NBA player to own his team.
The Bobcats entered the NBA as an expansion team in 2004-05 and have just one playoff appearance and one winning season. Jordan has been widely mocked for the Bobcats' struggles, drawing criticism for employing longtime friends and associates in key management and coaching positions. In 2011, Jordan hired Rich Cho as general manager to help lead a full-scale rebuilding effort. The Bobcats finished with the worst winning percentage in NBA history in 2011-12 and currently have the worst record in the league. Jordan occasionally works out with players but generally forces himself to watch games from a luxury box, where his frustration with their struggles isn't quite as visible.
Michael Jordan picked out a new number after returning to the NBA in 1995. (David E. Klutho/SI)
45. No. 45
When Jordan returned from retirement in 1995, he wore No. 45, as No. 23 had been retired in his honor in 1994. Who else has donned No. 45? Here's a list of the most notable, before and after Jordan:
|Players Who Wore No. 45|
Jordan may be the most referenced athlete in hip-hop history. From Jay-Z to Ice Cube, it seems like every rapper has dropped a Jordan line at some point. Here's a sampling of our favorites:
• "Yeah, you know my flava/Rip this whole jam apart/F--- around and have your heart/Like Jordan had Starks"
-- A Tribe Called Quest, Baby Phife's Return
• "Rebounding, outstanding, no one surrounding/I'm screwing and doing like I was Ewing/The only one soaring and scoring is Jordan/He must of had his Wheaties this morning."
-- The Notorious B.I.G., Jam Session
• "Jay's status appears to be at an all-time high/Perfect time to say goodbye/When I come back like Jordan/Wearin' the 4-5/It ain't to play games witchu/It's to aim at you."
-- Jay-Z, Encore
• "Don’t be mad cause you can’t do what I can/Like when Jordan went up, took that shot and switched hands."
-- Pete Rock, Don't Be Mad
• "What if hate ran through me?/And what if Portland would've drafted Jordan, instead of Sam Bowie?"
-- Jadakiss, What If?
47. ‘Oh …’
Sharing a name with a celebrity is never easy, as this ESPN ad perfectly illustrates. It chronicles the life of one Michael Jordan, a middle-aged white man constantly disappointing those expecting the world's greatest basketball player.
48. A Comedy Of Errors
Great players don't always make great coaches or great executives. That NBA maxim applies even for the Greatest Of All Time, whose career as a front-office executive is remembered most for his selection of high schooler Kwame Brown with the No. 1 pick in 2001 and his selection of Adam Morrison with the No. 3 pick in 2006. Neither player panned out for the Wizards and Bobcats, respectively.
"People are going to point out the mistakes," Jordan said in 2009. "Very rarely do they point out the successes. I understand that. It's part of the game."
49. Greener Pastures
Jordan once called golf "a battle with myself," and it's one he wages regularly (sometimes, apparently, in inappropriate attire). His affinity for the links is no secret, but it wasn't love at first sight.
"When I first played, I thought it was a sissy sport, and then I found out it was difficult," Jordan told the Chicago Tribune in 1990. "When I made a couple of pars, I thought it was easy, but I've found out it isn't. I tried to make 18 pars the next time I played and I'm still trying. I never thought I'd love it like I do."
50. Hall Of Fame Speech
You were fooling yourself if you thought Jordan would thank his parents, thank God and walk off the stage during his 2009 Hall of Fame acceptance speech. The rambling 20-minute talk was pure bravado: Jordan relived old grudges, rubbed salt in wounds, told candid stories and explained why he was so driven by the game. He brought Leroy Smith, the high schooler who beat him out for the last spot on the varsity team, so that he could relive his famous "cut" story. He talked trash to Bryon Russell, whom he had already destroyed in the 1998 Finals. Critics were right to call it petty, a bit strange and reflective of a man who was having difficulty, even after all these years, letting go of the game.
It was authentic Jordan, though; no one disputed that. How could you, when he was busy hinting at another comeback. "Don't laugh," he instructed the audience full of basketball legends. Even today, on the eve of his 50th birthday, there are those who think he could still get it done.
MICHAEL JORDAN TURNS 50
CROTHERS: Jordan legacy began with one fateful shot
WOLFF: A message to Jordan on his 50th birthday
WINN: Taking a deeper look at Jordan's college years | College photos
SI's 100 greatest Jordan pictures | Jordan's 50 SI covers
Pictures from baseball | Air Jordans
| Top playoff moments