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This is how it is with icons. As their youth fades, the rest of us are the ones who feel old. Michael Jordan is 50? How can that be? It's not that the milestone means he's ready for assisted living and soft foods—he's still spry enough to mix it up on the practice court with NBA players half his age, and it wouldn't even be a complete shock if he decided to make good on the warning he issued in his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2009. "One day you may look up and see me playing a game at 50," he said back then. "Don't laugh. Never say never." No one is laughing. Anyone who remembers Jordan's six NBA titles with the Bulls, to say nothing of his scoring 43 points for the Wizards four days after he turned 40, knows better than to question his physical abilities at any age. It's just that it's remarkable how quickly he has gone from scoring 50 to turning 50.
Depending on your generation, realizing that His Airness is now eligible for senior discounts is like the first time you heard the Rolling Stones on an oldies station or saw Winona Ryder playing someone's mom. There are high school kids who weren't born yet when Jordan played his last game for Chicago in 1998, college students who don't remember his decision to retire from the NBA (temporarily, as it turned out) in 1993 to play baseball in the White Sox organization. Kobe Bryant, the Lakers star who as a younger player patterned himself after Jordan, was asked recently when he last viewed tape of MJ in action. "Wow, it's been a while," he said. "Probably not since 1999. I used to watch a bunch, but that was a long time ago."
Bryant probably didn't mean that as commentary on Jordan's age or relevance or the breakneck speed at which the culture hurtles on, but it was all of those things. In the half century since he was born in Brooklyn on Feb. 17, 1963, Jordan has become one of the world's most recognizable faces, and his fame has evolved much as his game once did—white-hot at its peak, then less spectacular but still significant. He's changed (along with the way we view him) as both a public figure and a private man. As his 50th birthday earns him an appearance on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED for a record 50th time, it's only natural to do what anyone does upon reaching such a big, round number—assess his place in life, take stock of what has gone before and ponder what is to come.
JORDAN, THE PRINCIPAL OWNER of the Bobcats since March 2010, isn't so different from many men in his age bracket. His face is fuller now, and his 6' 6" frame, once lean and coiled, now has a bit of a bulge. He has been through a divorce and has three adult children to worry about. "You guys have a heavy burden," he said to his kids during his Hall speech. "I wouldn't want to be you guys." Harsh, perhaps, but it shows that Jordan understands how large a shadow he casts. Though their missteps have been publicized because of their famous father—Marcus, 22, pleaded no contest to disturbing the peace last August after what police said was a drunken argument with two women—Jordan appears to have maintained a strong relationship with them. His oldest, Jeffrey, 24, goes by the Twitter handle @heirjordan13. Marcus, a senior guard at Central Florida, includes "Proud to be Michael Jordan's son" in his bio on the social media site. Jasmine, 19, is a sports-management major at Syracuse who's been using the hashtag #CountdowntoMJBig50 in anticipation of her dad's birthday.
His Airness may have some of the same issues and concerns as other men his age, but your average 50-year-old doesn't move into a newly built $12.4 million, 11-bedroom mansion in Jupiter, Fla., on three acres of land, as Jordan and his fianceé, 34-year-old Yvette Prieto, recently did. The 28,000-square-foot manse is on The Bear's Club golf course, owned by Jack Nicklaus; Jordan's friend Tiger Woods is among his neighbors. The property includes a full-size basketball court, a two-story guardhouse and a media room with a ventilation system geared to handle heavy cigar smoke, one of Jordan's most well-known vices (along with gambling). He also paid $3.2 million in 2010 for the two top-floor penthouses in a condominium in downtown Charlotte, just two blocks from the arena where the Bobcats play. (Jordan reportedly put up $25 million of his money and assumed $150 million in debt as the leader of the group that bought the team.)
Your everyday 50-year-old also doesn't have the wherewithal to turn his birthday into a media, marketing and money-making event, as Jordan has. His newest signature basketball shoe, the XX8, was to be released on Feb. 16 in conjunction with his birthday and with All-Star weekend (price tag: $250). The steak houses bearing his name in New York, Chicago and at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut offer a special $125 five-course meal inspired by his life and career. The courses include a shrimp cocktail (to represent his childhood in Brooklyn and the move to Wilmington, N.C.), pan-roasted sea scallop with grits (his college years at North Carolina), "Maxwell Street"--style Duroc pork tenderloin with fries (for the Chicago years) and dry-aged Wagyu rib-eye steak for his basketball career in general. Dessert is goat cheese custard with spiced cherries and sea salt caramel, inspired, according to a press release, by his postretirement life of "playing golf, spending time with his family and supporting various charities."
Is that the postretirement life that Jordan wants? That question has followed him since he left the game for good in April 2003. Is Jordan committed to the painstaking work of reconstructing the woeful Bobcats, or is ownership just a hobby picked up by a retiree to keep busy? Is smoking fine stogies and playing world-class golf courses what his heart really desires? As he hits 50, does he feel fulfilled?
We will have to wonder about that without, as usual, much help from him. Jordan declined an interview request from SI, as he has ever since his baseball hiatus. The March 14, 1994, issue depicted him swinging at a pitch, along with the cover line, BAG IT, MICHAEL! JORDAN AND THE WHITE SOX ARE EMBARRASSING BASEBALL. His refusal to consent to interviews with SI ever since seems to have grown out of his famous tendency to strike back at those whom he feels have slighted him. It's an off-the-court version of the way he would try to drop 50 on an opponent who dared talk trash.
Even if he were to sit down to answer questions, though, it's unlikely that Jordan would offer up his deepest thoughts. He has perfected the technique practiced by some of our most popular athletes—think Tom Brady and Derek Jeter—of being affable enough in controlled settings while careful enough not to reveal too much. We may have read and heard of his temper, of his often cutting humor, of his gambling proclivities, but we have rarely seen any first-hand evidence of them. The Jordan who appears before the public is almost invariably composed and friendly, which may be the key to why after 30 years of the kind of intense scrutiny that his fame brings, he still seems as likable as ever.
His refusal to lay himself open has also helped him maintain a bit of mystery, and with it, a certain cachet. In a culture that cycles through celebrity athletes in a heartbeat—think Dennis Rodman and Terrell Owens—Jordan abides, still with a modicum of cool even as he pitches products as decidedly unhip as Hanes underwear. It's because even after all these years, we feel that we don't know everything about him, that we're not through with him yet. Some athletes chase our attention. Jordan lets us chase him.