I was too young to understand it the first time. I was only beginning to understand it the second time. I understand it now. I understood when, with Michael on the bench in the fourth quarter, the fans in the First Union Center stood up, began to clap, and started chanting, “WE WANT MIKE!”
These were Philadelphia fans calling for a 40-year-old basketball player who wasn’t even one of their own. Yet there they were, calling for one last look at the legend, and that’s when I understood.
I understood that while Mike was about winning and championships and scoring titles, he was about much, much more. Mike was about the game. Mike was about coming to play every night. Mike was about effort and hard work and intensity, both in practice and during a game, and at both ends of the floor.
How many basketball players can you name who won a scoring title in the same year he was named Defensive Player of the Year?
Mike was about a commitment to excellance.
Mike was about showing up every night and giving it everything he had. Even at 40, Mike was diving for loose balls, going up for rebounds, setting screens. He played the game of basketball the way it was meant to be played; with grace, with style, with flair, and with skills that were simply out of this world.
And so we adopted him and embraced him as one of our own. He wasn’t a Chicago Bull (though he was a Chicago Bull) or even a Washington Wizard. He was, is, and always will be Michael Jordan.
That’s why the fans in Philly were on their feet calling for him. That’s why the Miami Heat retired his number. They understand what Mike means to the game of basketball, and what it means to see him walk off the court for the last time. It isn’t just the end of a career; it’s the end of an era.
Bill Simmons writes for ESPN.com and he puts Mike in perspective much better than I ever could. In one of his columns he describes a moment during a Celtic-Wizards game. It’s crunch time and Mike has just drained a jumper over Paul Pierce.
As Mike heads back down court he glances over to everyone in the section where Simmons is sitting and smiles. Simmons writes, “We started giggling and buzzing like schoolkids, and everyone was nudging one another, and the score was tied, and the Fleet Center was more alive than it has been in years, so electric that it gives me goosebumps just to describe it. MJ was back, MJ was on his game, MJ was feeling it… and the possibilities were endless. Some people are just larger than life.”