One of my favorite mementos is a yellowed copy of the New York Times sports section from March 29, 1995. In the large black-and-white photo that takes up most of the front page, Michael Jordan is airborne to launch a jumper, basketball on his fingertips, Knicks guard John Starks helplessly trying to contest the shot.
To Jordan’s left, at about ankle height, a balding sports writer in a jacket and tie looks on from press row. Like every other witness, I was amazed by the night’s events.
That was the famed “double-nickel” game, in which Jordan – fresh out of retirement and wearing jersey No. 45 – announced he really was back by scoring 55 points at Madison Square Garden.
The Bulls won on Bill Wennington’s layup. The lumbering center was open under the hoop because Jordan had drawn the attention of all five defenders – not to mention hundreds of media mopes, a national TV audience and pretty much the rest of the free world.
“Michael is probably the only player who can score 55 ... and his biggest play is a pass,” Wennington said later that night. “You can never predict what he is going to do.”
Actually, you could: Michael Jordan was going to do the impossible.
Game after game, quarter after quarter, play after play.
The man did the impossible so often, it was expected.
To mere mortals, that would have been an unspeakable burden. How many of today’s zillionaire jocks whine about having to deal with pressure?
Michael Jordan kicked pressure’s derriere.
Today, he will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. It’s the sport’s highest honor, and yet it somehow doesn’t seem enough – especially to those of us in Chicago who saw him do the impossible countless times.
At the very least, shouldn’t he get his own wing in the Hall?
Jordan did more than save a failed franchise, more than prop up the NBA’s TV ratings, more than make it cool to be bald, more than make Nike relevant.
He made Chicago special.
A city that had been known for gangs, corrupt politicians and the 1985 Bears suddenly was known for Michael Jordan and his six championships (as well as gangs, corrupt politicians and the ’85 Bears).
Maybe it’s an overstatement to say No. 23 single-handedly made The Second City No. 1, but if you went to a foreign land during the 1990s and said you were from Chicago, this was the response:
“Chicago? Michael Jordan! Chicago Bulls!!”
Chicago loved Jordan because of his talent, to be sure, but also because of his toughness, work ethic and determination.
He marketed cologne, but he was a lunch-bucket guy at heart.
When Michael gave up his baseball dalliance to return to basketball in ’95, the response to the Bulls on the road was like nothing I had seen before and nothing I have seen since. They were The E-Street Band, and he was Bruce Springsteen.
For the next three years, Chicago kept asking him to do the impossible. And he delivered, over and over again.
Win 72? No problem. Play through food poisoning? OK. Steal it from Mailman and then pose after hitting the title-clinching jumper? Piece of cake.
When he retired again after completing his second three-peat with the ’98 crown, he left a void in the Chicago sports scene that still hasn’t been filled.
Then again, finding another athlete who could do now what Michael Jordan did then can only be ... well ... impossible.
• Mike Nadel is a Chicago-based freelance writer who covered the Bulls for The Associated Press and Copley News Service in the 1990s. Read his blog at TheBaldestTruth.com.