He was sick. You could see it in his eyes, in the way he moved.
There was no life in his step as he warmed up, and after a time
he walked over to the bench and sat down while his teammates
continued to shoot. A ball boy came over and draped a Chicago
Bulls jacket over his shoulders, gently, as if protecting an old
man from a chill.
He was sick, and you were tired. Tired of chronicling trade
demands and missed practices and playoff brawls, tired of hotel
rooms and airline food, tired of listening to the inane
ramblings of the Bull with the Technicolor hair. Maybe fatigue
had made you a skeptic. You had heard that number 23 had been in
bed all day with a virus of some sort, but you had dismissed it
as an exaggeration. He has a cold. So what?
But now, as you watched him play in Game 5 of the NBA Finals
against the Utah Jazz, you could tell how bad he felt, which
made his performance all the more remarkable. He dropped in
fadeaway jump shots over outstretched hands, he knifed between
defenders on drives to the basket, he fought his way through
picks, battling exhaustion every step of the way. During one
timeout late in the game he rested his head on a teammate's
shoulder, drained. He got up again, of course, and in the end he
drilled the three-pointer that gave him 38 points and sealed a
90-88 victory for the Bulls, who would wrap up the championship
two nights later.
When the game was over, you learned the full story--that he had
spent the hour before the game lying in a dark room with a
bucket nearby to handle his nausea, that he had been dehydrated
and sapped of strength, that his coach and teammates had not
expected him to play. You appreciated the immensity of his
accomplishment and how privileged you were to have witnessed it
up close. It had been a long season, but after watching him, you
somehow felt rejuvenated.
December 29, 1997
Later that night a man asked you what you did for a living, and
you told him.
"Do you know how lucky you are?" he said.
"Yes, I do."