The fascination with Michael Jordan never ends, even during tough times

The sports world isn’t turning to LeBron James or Patrick Mahomes or Mike Trout for comfort. It’s turning to a 57-year-old man in the third or fourth quarter of his life.

SHARE The fascination with Michael Jordan never ends, even during tough times
North Carolina’s Michael Jordan hits the game-winning shot against Georgetown in the championship game of the 1982 NCAA Tournament.

North Carolina’s Michael Jordan hits the game-winning shot against Georgetown in the championship game of the 1982 NCAA Tournament.

Allen Dean Steele/The News & Observer via AP

The adulation of Michael Jordan is as powerful as ever. That assertion might strike some of you as a stretch, given that his last championship with the Bulls came 22 years ago and that the attention he received during his career resembled Beatlemania, though with less fainting.

All I know is that, in these dark times, the sports world isn’t turning to LeBron James or Patrick Mahomes or Mike Trout for comfort. It’s turning to a 57-year-old man in the third or fourth quarter of his life.

Apparently, we need MJ more than ever.

I know this because a recent ESPN poll asked voters to select the best college basketball player of all time. In the 64-player “tournament,” Jordan won, beating Larry Bird in the final. My initial theory was that the same kids who had recklessly congregated on Florida beaches during the coronavirus outbreak had stuffed the ballot box for Jordan. There’s no explaining these people.

But there is an explanation for the enduring fascination with Michael, especially now. There’s something very soothing and reassuring about greatness, about transcendence. It’s solid, immovable. It’s something you can count on, even more so when you’re not sure about anything anymore. I’m guessing that many of the people who voted for Jordan never saw him play at North Carolina. I’m guessing that some never saw him play a live game with the Bulls. But if there’s anybody on the planet associated with excellence, it’s Jordan. You didn’t have to see him then to believe in him now.

Six NBA titles, five NBA Most Valuable Player awards and six NBA Finals MVP awards. A vote for him in 2020 is still a brush with greatness, no matter how far removed.

Jordan was not the best college player of all time. He might not have been in the top 10. Lew Alcindor was the greatest, and Bird, Magic Johnson, Bill Walton, Pete Maravich and Patrick Ewing, among others, easily deserve to be in the conversation before Jordan does. They had more glorious college careers than Jordan, who is known for hitting the game-winning shot that gave North Carolina the NCAA title in 1982.

So Jordan, the best? Not even close.

Is that blasphemy in these parts — the epicenter of MJ love? Nah, just the truth. When he was in college, Michael wasn’t Michael yet, OK? Whatever he accomplished, whatever he is now came because of his Bulls career. He’s the Greatest of All Time, pro edition.

We in the media know where to find butter for our dry bread. When push comes to shove comes to a coronavirus pandemic, we turn to Jordan. ESPN has moved up the release of “The Last Dance,” its 10-part documentary on him, from June to April 19. With the pandemic shutting down sports, there’s a lot of emptiness. Who better to fill airtime than His Airness?

Other networks have been trotting out Jordan memories, too. So have newspapers and websites. There doesn’t seem to be any flattening of the curve when it comes to MJ obsession. That’s what the current climate tells us. But the same message was there before the coronavirus. In the 12-month period ending in May 2019, Nike’s Jordan Brand created $3.14 billion in revenues. Jordan earned $130 million from Nike sales during that span. The man can move product.

That speaks to Jordan’s enduring legacy and incredible abilities. The fascination with him 17 years after his career ended also says a ton about us and more than a little about today’s NBA.

Perhaps you’ve been watching replays of Jordan-era Bulls playoff games on NBC Sports Chicago. All these years later, it’s still amazing the way he waved the ball in one hand as if it were a cantaloupe. That takes not just large hands but incredibly strong hands. What stands out most in those replayed games, though, is how Jordan is a working part of the Bulls’ offense, not the entire focus of it. In today’s game, there’s no missing James, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. They seem to have the ball in their hands all the time.

They’re missing Jordan’s fluidity and elegance. Those qualities are hard to describe and even harder to quantify, but if you saw Jordan play, you know them. Here’s the best compliment: Replays do him justice. For other retired players, replays often are incriminating evidence. Maybe that’s why Jordan’s popularity has never waned.

ESPN’s greatest-player vote might have been ridiculous, but it was revealing. Jordan still has a hold on us, in ways he probably shouldn’t. That’s not anybody’s fault. It’s just what is.

It’s good to be the king. It apparently never gets old paying him homage.

The Latest
The grass was so patchy bad that super-agent David Canter Tweeted that Saturday’s exhibition opener against the Chiefs should have been canceled.
Rushdie’s alleged attacker, Hadi Matar, was due in court to face attempted murder and assault charges.
Safety Juan Thornhill dropped his right should into Fields’ head on a slide, and Fields couldn’t believe there was no flag.
Smith, who demanded a trade Tuesday, did conditioning work with his teammates about two hours before kickoff of Saturday’s exhibition opener against the Chiefs.
Two men were fatally shot Friday in their vehicles in separate shootings about three miles apart on the South Side.