When Michael Jordan Moved Into Rarefied Air

In honor of MJ's 50th, an old U.S. News column offers a glimpse of his mortal beginnings.

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Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan holds up six fingers for the six NBA Championships the Bulls have won after Chicago defeated 87-86 in Salt Lake City, Sunday, June 14, 1998.
Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan holds up six fingers for the six NBA Championships the Bulls have won after Chicago defeated 87-86 in Salt Lake City, Sunday, June 14, 1998.

"His Airness" Michael Jordan turns half a century this Sunday. Back in 1991, Jordan was a 28-year-old veteran with a shoe deal, but no championship rings. It was a year before the Dream Team and the worldwide stardom that accompanied it, two years before the murder of his father that would lead Jordan to take a hiatus from basketball, and venture into the dusty fields of minor league baseball, and twelve years before he would step away from the court for good.

When this U.S. News & World Report column was published in 1991, Jordan was just a really good basketball player. He had made a name for himself not through winning—his Bulls had been knocked from the playoffs every year since he joined them in 1984—but for how he played. Jordan flew.

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"He defies gravity much as he defies the tyranny of everyday life," as William Allman writes.

Two days later, Jordan would win the first of three consecutive NBA championships, which themselves were the first of two back-to-back-to-backs. This piece offers perhaps a last glimpse of Jordan the mortal, the high-flying basketball player. Now, with six championship rings, his own NBA team, a billion dollar apparel brand, and one of the most famous names in the world, he is slightly more than that.

"Perhaps the best player in the history of the sport," Allman writes. How quaint.

This column originally appeared in the June 10, 1991, issue of U.S. News & World Report.

Liftoff: Rising Above the Ordinary Ambiguities

It is a moment that is rare in sports, rarer still in the life of Michael "Air" Jordan: a dollop of ambiguity frozen in the camera's lens. Is the Chicago Bulls superstar on his way up or down? Will he score? Will it matter?

Ambiguity melts quickly in the coliseums where men and women play out America's favorite pastimes. A passion play of perfect spheres and regular polygons, a sporting event is an all-out assault on everyday life's compromises and uncertainties. As Jordan and the Bulls battle the Los Angeles Lakers this week in the NBA finals, it soon will be clear who the winners and losers are; equally clear are the terms under which each will have gained his status. There will never be a world's best novel, government, pizza or parent. But for a few months, at least, Jordan and his teammates may be able to repeat the two words over and over like a mantra, mixing the crystalline purity of the expression with the muddied exhalations of ordinary existence.

It is in its perfect clarity, perhaps, that sport gives its ultimate solace. In sports, ambiguity comes in scintillas that can be savored like some exotic spice: the pause while a baseball manager considers whether to pull his pitcher for a pinch hitter when the game is on the line, the quarterback-coach sideline huddle when it's fourth and goal and seconds left. We enjoy these moments because we know there will be a final accounting: a home run, a blocked pass, the snap of the net as the ball whooshes through.

Real life, however, gives us no such satisfaction. Real life is "the great American hero," Ollie North as the subject of a Supreme Court ruling over his alleged transgressions, a hospital battling to override a husband's wishes to keep his wife hooked to machines that keep her alive, the long-awaited end, with American encouragement, of Ethiopia's unpopular Marxist government, which unleashes anti-American protests.

In his miraculous leaps, Jordan typifies the willing suspension of disbelief that we bring to sports. It is a yearning to be removed from earthly complications, a desire to experience a world made perfect and, in the case of Jordan, played to perfection. Now that sports heroes, too, seem to reside in the shadowland of ambiguity with their money lust, drug habits and antiheroic ways, Jordan shows us that what is true of sports can still be true of people. As the best poets do with language, he demonstrates how the humble trappings of our flesh-and-bone existence can be exalted, making even the extraordinary men of the NBA seem flat-footed and human. Perhaps the best player in the history of the sport, he seems as reverent and respectful of his amazing abilities as we are.

Jordan is precisely what we love about sports. He defies gravity much as he defies the tyranny of everyday life. For the moment, he is flying. For the moment, we are transported to a world free of sticky ends, compromises and complications. We watch him leap, hoping he will never come down.