Today, perhaps the single greatest player in NBA history (and arguably the man who got me into basketball among other sports years back) turns 49. And I realized this as I was watching videos of Michael Jordan’s best plays, what better way to pay tribute to this legend of the game than telling of how he made me a basketball fan?

Being of the nerdy sort especially in my younger years, I always disliked Physical Education classes with a passion. So much so that I took to escaping these classes when they would come around, and getting in trouble with the teachers in the process.

When I returned to stay at our ancestral home at my Pop’s bidding after studying in the big city for several years, I felt like I was being isolated from the world, literally. It was this bad:

  1. In the province, the day starts and ends early. After 8:00 PM, everyone would already be getting ready for bed or even in bed sound asleep.
  2. Although we were located along the highway, it was at the outskirts of a relatively small town far away from many of the conveniences of urban life. For instance, the nearest large grocery was at least a half hour away.
  3. Radio, television and even cellular phone signals were a challenge due to the distance from the city. Cable TV was not available in the area at the time, and to this day I wonder how I made it without knowing channels such as National Geographic, Cartoon Network and HBO for so many years.
  4. Betwen 6:00 PM and 10:00 PM every day, the voltage within our area would drop well below the standard 220 volts (which I learned was due to the lack of enough power to match demand during that time). As a result, fluorescent lights had to be switched on while it was still bright and air-conditioning units could not be used during those hours. And even worse, rotating blackouts in those days meant electric power was somehow always in short supply.
  5. The water supply in our area was largely inadequate then, which meant that you either needed an electric water pump (commonly called a Jet-Matic) or made do with a hand pump (or poso) for your water needs.

But there were three things that favored me at our ancestral home:

  1. A large garden with a practice green put up by an uncle of mine. This would lead me to the first sport I would learn to play and love, which was golf. Look for me to elaborate on this in a future post.
  2. A pocket billiards (pool) table. This would eventually lead me to  play pocket billiards, which I will also elaborate in a future post.
  3. A basketball court. It was a concrete half-court placed between two narra trees, which provided wonderful shade in the summer.

Remembering the uncle I stayed with during my early years in Quezon City, he passed on some advice before I headed back to the province:

“If you want to make new friends, try playing basketball. Everyone plays it anyway.”

Out of curiosity, I got hold of a used basketball and tried shooting a few shots. I didn’t do that well, but I somehow got hooked.

I managed to catch replays of NBA games on local television, which recapped the Houston Rockets run for the NBA title in the 1994-95 season. But what got me interested was the late-season return and playoff run of the Chicago Bulls led by a returning Michael Jordan.

Although they would be knocked off by Penny Hardaway (another one of my favorite NBA players) and his Orlando Magic in the playoffs, I was soon interested in finding out more about the alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

And the more I read about His Airness, the more enamored I became with him and basketball in general.

In a truly iconic moment, Michael Jordan sank the game-winning jumper on Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals to give the Chicago Bulls their sixth title of the 1990s. He would retire a second time, and leave behind a legacy for many other basketball fans and players to follow.

With the 1995-96 season starting, all eyes were on the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. Already a certified superstar since his collegiate days at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he was drafted by the said team in 1984 as the third overall pick and would soon make waves for his leaping ability and defensive prowess as well as scoring talent. Aside from capturing honors including Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Valuable Player honors for the regular season, NBA finals and even the All-Star Game, he would lead his team to three straight Larry O’Brien trophies from 1991 to 1993.

He would announce his retirement after capturing his third consecutive championship ring in 1993, citing the death of his father as a key reason as well as exhaustion stemming from his celebrity status. He would pursue his late father’s own wish for him to become a baseball player by signing a minor league baseball contract with the Chicago White Sox, where he would struggle while playing for its minor league affiliates the Birmingham Barons and the Scottsdale Scorpions. Eventually, the hardcourt would call him back and he would answer — with a vengeance. While he and the team would fall to the Orlando Magic in the playoffs after making a late-season return, that would simply motivate Jordan to step up his game and prove the naysayers wrong.

I watched as the Chicago Bulls stormed to a fantastic 41-3 start the following season, and they would eventually finish with the best overall season record in NBA history (87-13), including a spectacular 72-10 regular season and a 15-3 playoff record capped with an NBA title at the expense of the Seattle Supersonics. And all that time, I was building up my own wonderful memories of the great Michael Jordan.

I soon got so hooked on basketball I managed to convince Pop to rebuild the backboard of the basketball goal as well as install massive lights at the court for nighttime play. And when I ended up studying at Don Bosco Academy and staying with my uncle who had moved from Quezon City to Angeles City, I even made arrangements to put up a simple basketball goal at the nearby street corner where I was staying.

Thanks to basketball, I got acquainted with the local boys who lived near the local chapel and never ran out of people to build my skills from on the weekends and vacations. I even got myself a friend with whom I would play basketball after classes, when he and I would meet up at my makeshift court after we both got home.

The Chicago Bulls would win the NBA title the next two years as well, topping the Utah Jazz each time. And despite his age, he continued to play the smart and aggressive game that made him a favorite even for opposing teams and their fans.

So even when Jordan retired after capturing his sixth ring, my basketball fever was not ready to subside yet. To this day, I still follow the NBA although not with as much fervor as I used to.

And while I shook my head somewhat at his decision to play for a third time with injuries limiting nearly to a shell of his former self, I still respected him greatly for the many accomplishments during his heyday. And even if he did not always have the best eye for talent (do Kwame Brown and Adam Morrison ring bells?), he was a business person and a professional off the court who always had a way of turning heads.

As someone who hosted many a family event in past years, it was natural I built an interest in following and imitating many great sports commentators such as Marv Albert and Bob Costas. It led to my being a commentator for barangay basketball games during the summer, and even for company-sponsored sporting events such as last year’s TELUS Healthy Living Cup. And so, stints in company videos and hosting several other company events would follow.

So nearly nine years after he played his last NBA game, he remains perhaps the single greatest player in the league’s history and the inspiration for many of today’s hardcourt stars. Any discussion of Jordan’s “Air Apparent” remains a hot topic of debate (despite the legend himself declaring Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant as the man who best fills his shoes). Somehow, that isn’t enough to match what Jordan has brought and continues to bring to the sport of basketball and his legions of fans — myself included. Sorry, but a jersey number of 24 does not an “Air Apparent” make.

Here are the attributes that have made Michael Jordan the NBA’s best player, period:

  1. Unparalleled athleticism. Especially in his early seasons with the Bulls, he displayed an ability to leap in the air with the greatest of ease and wow audiences and fellow players alike with a showtime dunk or hangtime move. Being extremely quick and agile, he always found himself ready to score baskets, stop opposing players and even get teammates involved in the process.
  2. Player instincts. Jordan was a true master of the game. He was great at finding scoring opportunities, be it a drive to the basket or his trademark turnaround fadeaway jump shot. He also had an uncanny sense of his place on the court, making him able to swipe the ball at a moment’s notice or spot a teammate for the sweet dish and basket. And especially in his later years, he became known for being able to capitalize on opponent’s weaknesses, as shown by the “push” he gave to Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals before nailing the title-winning jumper. Yes, it was illegal but even if it were caught it would not surprise me to see Jordan step up in the closing seconds of Game 6 or in the potential Game 7.
  3. Competitive fire. Few were as willing to take on the odds as Michael Jordan was. He would time and again willingly take the key shots in a game, from the game-winning jumper in the 1982 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game to the series-ending shot in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. But Jordan best showed his greatest passion to win in the crucial Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, where he scored 38 points including the game-winning three pointer despite suffering from food poisoning and being lethargic for much of the game. The game would swing momentum in favor of the Bulls and they would win the series in the following game.
  4. Marketability. As a player with immense talent and passion, Jordan inspired millions around the world to take up basketball and he helped surge renewed interest in the NBA after the glamorous rivalry of the Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s. His calm demeanor off the court and competitive nature on it was a draw for many fans, and it would make him one of the wealthiest athletes in modern sports as he would star in television and movies, and even endorse countless products including his own line of shoes from Nike.
  5. The “Air Apparent” debate. Not surprisingly after each retirement, many have debated about who among succeeding generations of NBA players is the next Michael Jordan. His dominance and skill is such that it has become hard to imagine two-plus decades of basketball without him. And while Jordan himself has endorsed Kobe Bryant as his successor, not all critics have agreed and discussion continues as to who is the next player to carry the mantle of His Royal Airness.

And for more proof, Jordan has a Top 10 video of his best something-somethings on YouTube:

  • Dunks (yeah, can’t have a Jordan Top 10 without those)
  • Assists (Mike isn’t such a ballhog, really)
  • Buzzer Beaters (seriously, he is THAT clutch)
  • Blocks (yes, Jordan is not just an offensive threat)
  • Circus Shots (he is magical in mid-air, and not just because of his dunks)
  • Playoff Plays (the higher the stakes are, the better he performs)
  • Finals Moments (this is why he’s 6-0 in NBA Finals appearances)
And while I could not find Mike’s Top 10 steals, he did feature in a number of videos where his swipes ranked among the best for a season.

Here’s an interesting comparison of the accolades Michael Jordan and his hand-picked successor Kobe Bryant have amassed over their NBA careers. It isn’t that I’m not a Kobe fan, but I simply like Air Jordan better and these numbers don’t lie: featured this list of achievements pitting all-time great Michael Jordan against his touted "Air Apparent" Kobe Bryant. So how do they compare? You decide.

And so I say Happy Birthday, Mike. This humble (and probably insignificant) fan thanks you for flying like an eagle and reminding me that we all have wings to get to where we want to.