Michael Jordan was born on Feb. 17, 1963, in Brooklyn, but Air Jordan was launched on Feb. 6, 1988, at Chicago Stadium. He bounded down a hardwood runway, took off from a thin white stripe and flew into our national consciousness, short shorts and splayed legs, one arm cocked by his ear and the other outstretched like a wing with a red wristband. If you were on the East Coast, your father said Larry Bird was the best basketball player in the world. If you were on the West, he said Magic Johnson. But if you were a child of the '80s, you claimed Michael Jordan, no matter where you lived. His picture was first up on the bedroom wall. He was still three years from a championship, so you argued until your voice cracked that Dave Corzine was no Kevin McHale and Sam Vincent was no Byron Scott, and besides, there were no stats or trophies or banners to gauge a talent as ungodly as Jordan's. You had to watch him as he took off, the way his tongue wagged and chain flapped and body sailed through the canned air. On Feb. 6, 1988, everybody watched. That was the day your dad started to reconsider.
It was just a dunk contest, in the same way the Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 was just a performance. It produced not one but two iconic photographs, accelerated the most successful advertising campaign in sports history and signaled a new era in the NBA, ruled by a new king. Jordan is turning 50, but for a generation he will always be 24, suspended under the scoreboard of a Chicago arena that no longer exists, frozen in time, forever in flight.
"The baddest s.o.b. on the planet."
(Warriors president and former NBA chief marketing officer): In the summer of 1983 I was sitting at home in New York City watching a Major League Baseball Old-Timers' Game in Washington, D.C. Some guy who looked like he was 65 hit a home run over a Cracker Jack sign in centerfield. It rattled around in my head. To that point, the NBA All-Star Game had been a nice little family gathering. Everybody came to town on Saturday, stayed in the same hotel, went to a banquet that night and left right after the game on Sunday. We were going to Denver for the '84 game, and David Stern was taking office as commissioner. He wanted to embrace the history of the NBA in a way he felt the league had not. If you ask people in Denver about the 1976 ABA slam dunk contest, you'll find about 300,000 who claim to have been at McNichols Arena when Julius Erving ran from one end of the court to the other, took off from the free throw line and immediately became a legend. I asked Stern, "Why don't we take halftime and do a slam dunk contest like they did in '76?" But CBS, which was broadcasting, had no interest. So a week later I went back to Stern and asked, "What if we create a second day of events, invite some of our great players back for an old-timers' game and then do a slam dunk contest?"
We walked into commissioner Larry O'Brien's office on Fifth Avenue, and he had a cigarette lit in his ashtray. He gazed out over St. Patrick's Cathedral. To say he was unenthused would be an exaggeration. But a week later Stern said we could do it under two conditions: Don't embarrass commissioner O'Brien and don't cost the NBA a penny. That was the genesis. We called it All-Star Saturday and sold it out. Tickets were $2 or $5, I can't remember. Larry Nance won the first dunk contest, but Julius Erving came back to Denver and did what everyone hoped, running from one end to the other and re-creating that famous dunk.
(Michael Jordan's agent): Michael made the All-Star Game as a rookie, in 1985, and it was in Indianapolis. We drove to O'Hare in his Chevy Blazer, and he was so new to town, he missed the exit and went over the curb. He already had more endorsements than Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas at the height of their careers. The story goes that Magic and Isiah were both offended that Michael came out for the dunk contest in his own Nike line, and they engineered a freeze-out during the game to teach him a lesson. It never occurred to Michael or me that he was frozen out. But when we got back to Chicago he looked back at the game and realized it did happen. We were sitting in his condo, and because he's from the South he had turned off the heat before he left and the pipes had burst. Steam was coming out of his ears in this freezing apartment. He could barely talk. He was in a different place.
(TNT analyst who played in the '88 All-Star Game): When Michael scored 63 points against Boston in the '86 playoffs, he became the best player in the world, the baddest son of a bitch on the planet. He was taking the mantle, but nobody wanted to give it up. That's why there was tension.
(Timberwolves G.M. and former sportswriter who covered the '88 All-Star Game): Everybody knew Michael was a prolific scorer, but there was a feeling among many that he wasn't a team player. It was a ridiculous rap. Magic and Larry Bird were revered, and Michael wasn't accepted as part of that triumvirate. In Chicago they saw how special he was, but the rest of the nation didn't acknowledge it yet.
"Let's give these people a show."
(former Bulls forward): In early February we had a trip to the West Coast, and before we left I asked Michael, "You prepping for this dunk contest?" We stayed after practice one day, and he was trying some really experimental stuff. He stood out-of-bounds on the baseline, right under the basket, then jumped flat-footed out onto the court, did a 180 and dunked. He asked me to try it, and I was like, "Are you sick? I'll hurt myself!" They were giving out prize money for the dunk-contest winner [$12,500], and while we were out West, Mike told us that he was going to split it up among all his teammates if he won. He wanted us to feel like we were part of the event. So our whole team had money riding on it. Maybe that's why we all stayed in town.