JOHN RIORDAN: Overbearing and airborne, Jordan casts long shadow

Michael Jordan turns 50 on Sunday and there couldn’t be a more appropriate day to do it.

It will be NBA All-Star weekend in Houston, Texas and no better man than Jordan to overshadow the gathered egos with his malevolent (and justified) sense of superiority.

Of course, this is all part of the post-Super Bowl lull but the former Chicago Bulls player’s landmark celebration is a major storyline this week — everywhere you turn there’s some inexplicable dunk or fade-away from his showreel being aired to help sports fans reflect on his greatness.

February is the cruellest month in US sport. The silly season conditions are brought on mostly by the dearly departed NFL season. Meanwhile, baseball has yet to restart, the NBA has yet to hot up and College Basketball’s March Madness is still much too far away. So naturally, reminiscing about “His Airness” becomes all the more void-filling.

There is also the sense that Jordan is becoming a little more likeable again. When he entered his 40s, he was in the midst of a regrettable comeback at the Washington Wizards, a club in which he had more than a playing interest and one from which he subsequently left acrimoniously.

Then there was that mind-boggling year two decades ago when the newly-minted 30-year-old won his third title and almost inexplicably decided to walk away from the game for the first of three times.

His father had died in tragic circumstances during that otherwise successful season but the league couldn’t help but look on incredulously as this worldwide marketing phenomenon left them in the lurch.

But that was Michael Jordan, always unpredictable to everyone but himself.

A few days ago, an LA Lakers player called Antawn Jamison caused a stir by suggesting that the 50-year-old probably still has something to offer to the game.

“I wouldn’t doubt that in the right situation, with a LeBron [James] on his team or with a Kobe [Bryant] on this team, he could get you about 10 or 11 points, come in and play 15-20 minutes,” Jamison said.

“I wouldn’t doubt that at all, especially if he was in shape and injuries were prevented.’’ Jordan himself used his speech at the 2009 induction into the Hall of Fame to ruffle the same feathers: “Never say never.”

“He can still score,’’ agreed Nazr Mohammed, a former player at the Charlotte Bobcats, a club owned by Jordan. “He can create space to get his shot off. He has a swagger about him that he wills the ball in... he can still do a lot.

“He just can’t jump as high, but he doesn’t need to.’’

It’s all very much in keeping with a man who loved more than anyone to get inside opponents’ heads.

There’s some interesting insight this week from one of the many former players who felt Jordan’s darkly comic wrath. Jay Williams’ promising career was cruelly cut short by a motorbike accident and he has been promoting his new book about that time in his life.

According to The New York Times, Williams found himself in the dubious but privileged position of being the next big thing in Chicago just over 10 years ago.

He had wanted to follow in Jordan’s footsteps and took the locker which had stayed empty since the second retirement. He welcomed the adulation and the billboards.

Old Man Jordan waited patiently in DC.

“In his rookie season,” reads the piece, “Williams played against Jordan, who was then with the Washington Wizards. Jordan went at Williams on several consecutive possessions. Each time, Jordan told Williams how he would score — first over the left shoulder, then fake over the left shoulder and shoot over the right, and so forth — and each time, Jordan scored exactly as he said he would.”

It’s a telling but small moment with none of the glamour of those iconic episodes of genius.

His 63 points against the Boston Celtics. His 38 points against the Utah Jazz in Game Five of the 1997 finals, anaccomplishment which came against the backdrop of a severe flu or a terrible hangover, depending on whose version of events you believe.

The delicate switching of the ball mid-air or the brute force of his dunks over big men like Patrick Ewing.

Kobe Bryant, arguably the greatest Laker of all time, and the increasingly popular LeBron James, are the men chasing the game’s greatest.

If either of those manages to match Jordan’s six-title haul, the debate will rage in perpetuity.

But for now, when five-time champion Bryant, steps out onto the court for the Western Conference on Sunday to face James and the East, none of what they do will have any enduring consequence.

That floating silhouette will be their overbearing reality check; the formidable weight of a stubborn legend.

john.w.riordan@gmail.com Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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