Words, no matter how hyperbolic or heartfelt, can't do justice to Michael Jordan's greatness.
Fortunately, pictures are worth 1,000 words apiece, so maybe a photo timeline of MJ's rise to the peak of the NBA universe will come a little closer to being an accurate representation of the best player the league has ever seen.
In celebration of his 50th birthday, here's an attempt to capture Jordan's life in pictures.
High School Days
Jordan's illustrious basketball career started with an apocryphal failure. The legend goes that MJ was cut from his high school team, a slight that helped spark his legendarily defiant competitiveness.
Well, that story's only partially true. In fact, as Thomas Lake of Sports Illustrated reported, Jordan played on the JV team as a 5'10" sophomore at Laney High in Wilmington, N.C. He wasn't on the varsity squad, but he definitely wasn't cut from the team, either.
Another sophomore, 6'7" Leroy Smith, made the varsity club over the smaller Jordan, thanks to the coaching staff's desire to improve an undersized frontline.
Lake wrote, "Over the next three decades Jordan would become a world-class collector of emotional wounds, a champion grudge-holder, a magician at converting real and imagined insults into the rocket fuel that made him fly."
This was just the first of many imaginary instances of disrespect that Jordan used as motivation.
All's well that ends well, though. Jordan ended up averaging a triple-double in his senior year on the varsity squad.
Jordan stayed home for college, which was convenient because one of the nation's most illustrious programs was right in his North Carolina backyard.
Under Dean Smith, MJ blossomed. After averaging just 13.5 points per game in his freshman year, Jordan finished his three-year stint at UNC by winning just about every collegiate honor imaginable. Naturally, that included the Naismith College Player of the Year award for the 1983-84 season.
Perhaps most importantly, Jordan's legend as a clutch performer had its roots in his days at UNC. He hit the game-winning jumper from the left baseline in the 1982 NCAA championship game, appropriately beginning his career-long torment of Patrick Ewing by downing the big man's mighty Georgetown Hoyas.
The Bowie Incident
After dominating the college game, Jordan was temporarily transported back to high school for the 1984 NBA draft—in a manner of speaking. Yet again he was passed over for players with more size. Instead of Leroy Smith, this time it was Hakeem Olajuwon and the infamous Sam Bowie who went ahead of His Airness.
Motivated by yet another slight, Jordan turned in a stunning rookie year. All he did in the 1984-85 season was average 28.2 points per game, start the All-Star Game and win Rookie of the Year. Irked by his immediate greatness, Isiah Thomas and a few other Eastern Conference All-Stars allegedly froze Jordan out during his first All-Star Game.
In a way, the anger Jordan felt over being picked third and frozen out of the All-Star Game was the best thing that could have happened to him. He subsequently cut a wicked swath through the league, leaving nothing but defeated foes in his wake.
But his climb to the top had just begun, and there'd be a couple of stumbles before he reached the summit.
The Jordan Rules
As MJ collected scoring titles every year during the latter half of the 1980s, teams devised strategies to slow him down. Chuck Daly's Detroit Pistons crafted the infamous "Jordan Rules," which were actually pretty simple.
There was just one edict: Whenever a Piston was anywhere near Jordan, it was incumbent upon him to knock the Chicago Bulls icon flat.
For three straight seasons from 1987-88 to 1989-90, the Bad Boy Pistons defeated the Bulls in the playoffs, simultaneously pummeling Jordan with elbows, hip checks and shoves.
Some might point to the championships and career resurrections Jordan enjoyed in his later years as the most impressive feats of his illustrious tenure. But for this writer's money, nothing trumps his dogged determination to get up off the floor so many times against the hated Pistons.
In 1991, Jordan's Bulls finally vanquished the Pistons. After subsequently knocking off the L.A. Lakers in the NBA Finals, it had finally happened: Michael Jordan became an NBA champion.
He averaged 31.1 points per game on 52 percent shooting in the playoffs and collected the first of a record six NBA Finals MVP awards. And in another symbolic sense, Jordan's defeat of Magic Johnson in the deciding series pointed to the true beginning of a new era in the NBA.
The iconic picture of MJ clutching the Larry O'Brien trophy, half elated and half exhausted, is one of the most recognizable images in the league's history.
The championship was Jordan's first of six, but it might be the most significant of them all. It birthed the league's most revered star and legitimized his own personal struggle to reach the ultimate goal.
But he was just getting started.
Jordan Walks Away
After hauling in an Olympic gold medal as a member of the 1992 Dream Team and collecting two more NBA championship rings, Jordan abruptly, stunningly retired on Oct. 6, 1993.
Citing a lack of desire to continue hooping, MJ left the sport at the top of his game. For a human being as pathologically competitive as Jordan, the notion of walking away while there was still any breath in his lungs just seemed wrong.
Ira Berkow of the New York Times would later explain that the murder of Jordan's father in July of 1993 played a large role in MJ's surprising decision to make a change. But even today, the combination of personal tragedy and alleged gambling problems don't adequately explain Jordan's departure.
Yet for nearly two years, the NBA went on without its brightest star.
With two simple words, the NBA was complete again. On March 18, 1995, Air Jordan announced he was ready to fly again.
The version of MJ that rejoined the Chicago Bulls for a late-season playoff push wasn't the same one who had collected rings and MVP awards during the first half of the 1990s, and Chicago fell to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Jordan was clearly rusty, shooting 41 percent in 17 regular-season games after he returned. And although he picked up his play in the postseason, he just couldn't muster the same killer mentality that he'd shown during his first trio of championship runs.
Whispered doubts about whether he was still the NBA's best suddenly felt viable.
After the unsettling embarrassment of the Bulls' 1995 playoff defeat, Jordan returned the following season with renewed focus and frightening vigor. Chicago piled up an NBA-record 72 wins during the 1995-96 regular season and then blasted through the playoffs, losing just three total games in the postseason.
Jordan was back, and this time, he'd come equipped with an unstoppable turnaround jumper.
The Bulls would go on to win two more rings, completing Jordan's second three-peat and giving him a total of six championships.
Jordan's team was utterly dominant during that stretch and simply wouldn't be denied. The iconic "flu game," in which Jordan could hardly stand but still scored 38 points in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, might be the best embodiment of the toughness he imparted.
MJ won two more MVP awards after his return and was inexplicably robbed of a third when voter fatigue allowed Karl Malone to collect the trophy in 1996-97. Nonetheless, Jordan had the last laugh when it came to the Mailman, defeating his Jazz twice in a row in the Finals and winning his fifth and sixth Finals MVP awards.
At the end of what we're calling "Phase Two" of Jordan's career, he was clearly at as high of a point as any player in history. He had six rings, six Finals MVP awards, five regular-season MVP awards and the highest scoring average in league history.
And his last shot as a Bull will live forever. Sorry, Bryon Russell.
Jordan was more than just the best player at this point; he was a legend, widely regarded as the greatest ever.
Retirement, Comeback, Retirement
We've established the moment when Jordan had ascended to the highest heights. But after the 1998 season, he retired.
Never able to stay away for long, MJ came back (again) three seasons later with the Washington Wizards. At age 38, there wasn't much lift left, but Jordan still put up averages of better than 20 points per game and made the All-Star Game in each of his two seasons with the Wizards.
Perhaps most amazingly, he played all 82 games as a 39-year-old in 2002-03. It was as though his final act of competitive defiance was the effort of showing doubters that his advancing age and bad knees couldn't keep him off the floor.
In truth, nobody will remember Jordan as he was on the Wizards. He was past his prime then, but even that final chapter of his basketball life contributes to his greatness.
Throughout his magnificent career, MJ played with a singular focus and a defiant attitude. He retained both of those qualities right to the end.
Happy birthday, Mike, and thanks for the memories.
*All stats via Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
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