The night Michael Jordan scored over Bryon Russell, clinching our sixth championship, defeating the Utah Jazz for the second consecutive year, burying the final shot he’d ever take for my favorite team, I thought it was impossible for the Chicago Bulls to ever lose. I was ten years old then, wearing a huge old T-shirt of my dad’s the color of a blue highlighter as pajamas, jumping up and down in our TV room, beside myself that the greatest thing that could possibly happen had happened again.
Michael Jordan was the odd phenomenon that belonged to everyone, absolutely everyone in the world, but belonged to me most of all. I spent most of my waking hours thinking about MJ, recreating dunks on my basement Jordan Jammer, sticking out my tongue while doing math homework, reading his official Matt Christopher biography so many times that I inadvertently memorized large chunks of it—a trick that both amazed and horrified my parents and friends (“Michael Jordan defies the laws of gravity,” I’d rattle off. “At least that’s what fans, opponents, and teammates have been saying for years…”).
I got a hoop in my driveway that summer, the only birthday gift I could imagine wanting. We’d spent the last six months in a rental house, the first block I lived on with kids my age, and I’d played basketball in our neighbor’s driveway every single day. “Jack always uses our hoop,” I remember the sister complaining to her mom when she knew I was close enough to hear. “Well that’s okay,” her mom said, louder. “That’s the beauty of it—you can never run out of basketball.”
The hoop in the driveway of our new house was cemented into the ground. My dad had my sister and I sign our initials and the date—7/4/98—into the cast using the handle of a fork. Our younger neighbor, Timmy, was over to watch the installation, and my dad had him sign his initials, too. While the cement hardened, we drew elaborate court designs onto the slanted, narrow driveway with chalk—an unbalanced three point line, a misshapen Bulls logo that resembled a pug, a name near the sidewalk in uneven capital letters: FIREWORKS STADIUM. Even then, I knew all courts deserved a name.
The night Michael Jordan scored over Byron Russell, I was watching with my mother, a Cubs fan at heart, who believed disaster was lingering at every moment. Despite the many heroics, despite the stats and achievements I could, and did, announce during each commercial break, she always covered her eyes during the final moments, content to let my crazed screaming reveal the outcome.
The night Michael Jordan scored over Byron Russell, the final shot he’d ever take for my favorite team, her eyes were closed. I couldn’t understand it. Of course it was going in.
Lately, I’ve been playing basketball again. There are courts on the third floor of my gym that almost always have games going on and so I wander in and start asking around: You got next? You got five? You need one? Can I run with you?
I’m not quite washed-up, can still score enough to keep my pride. Basketball is not a game of size and strength, I whisper, but timing, skill, and positioning. I cannot shake the feeling I was better when I was twelve, was sharper, faster, a better shooter. Maybe it’s true. Certainly I’m less competitive. No longer am I willing to dive into a pile of folding chairs to keep a ball inbounds, am now willing to slap five with players from the opposing team after a game. The goal as I see it now is to have fun, where once it was only to win. I’d disgust my twelve-year-old self.
Games on these courts are played to 15, by ones and twos. This is a bad way of playing but this is how games are played. It is not up for discussion. You play straight up, which means teams do not need to win by two points. If your team wins, you get to stay on the court for the next game; if you lose, you have to sit. Players call their own fouls. There are no backcourt violations. None of these rules are written. You just have to know. It is not up for discussion.
The game teaches you something about every person playing: who’s selfish and who’s kind, who’d loan you six bucks if you were a little short in line at the grocery store, who’d lie and tell you a bad haircut looks good; who’d tell you the truth. Personally, I’m the type to lie.
The night Michael Jordan scored over Bryon Russell, I was wearing the Air Jordans I got for Christmas for good luck. I’d found them in my mother’s closet two weeks early. I knew I shouldn’t look but did it anyway. It felt almost sacred, opening that box alone in the dark.
The night Michael Jordan scored over Byron Russell, my cousins and aunts and uncles called to congratulate me, as though I’d personally achieved something, as though I’d directly influenced the outcome, which I in some small strange way felt was true.
The night Michael Jordan scored over Bryon Russell, I use an old broom to lower the hoop in my driveway as low as it goes, drag the blue recycling bin beside it, and launch myself off it towards the rim, tongue hanging out, stuffing the ball over and over.
The night Michael Jordan scored over Bryon Russell, I cry after my grade school team loses games, scream at teammates for dropping passes until my coach makes me sit out to prove a point about sportsmanship—a ridiculous point, I am convinced.
The night Michael Jordan scored over Bryon Russell, my three college roommates and I bring up all of our old memorabilia—posters, magazines, the full-size cut out like the one in Home Alone—and create the Michael Jordan room, show it off to friends, avoid hanging out in it to make sure it remains pristine.
The night Michael Jordan scored over Byron Russell, I wander down to the park late summer nights, too drunk to play, to watch the kids who’ve been there since noon play full court games under a floodlight and the moon. And I’m struck by the total lack of supervision—no coaches, no refs, no league officials, no uniforms, no plays aside from those the natural geometry of the game suggest—and by how much better the game is for their absence. I watch these players—some eleven and too scared to shoot, some thirteen and decked out in gear, the rest at some point in their post-high school career where the only place they can play and feel like they’re really playing is here—and remember the sounds once so important to me: swish, swoosh, rattle, squeak. How odd that the pros play in winter, I think, when the game is so clearly meant to be played in humid summer darkness.
I stayed up late, the night in June Michael Jordan scored over Bryon Russell—in fact, I haven’t fallen asleep since.