I was six, running circles around the big dining room table with a Koosh ball, pretending to be Hakeem Olajuwon. My four-year-old brother, Peter, appeared in the doorway to the kitchen and began studying what I was doing. I continued my lap, and when I got to where he was standing, I took the Koosh ball in my hand, held it high above my head, and jumped into him, spiking the ball over his shoulder. The ball struck the hardwood floor and bounced once through the doorway and onto the kitchen tile. My brother wobbled backwards, hitting his head on the side of the door frame and then sliding down along it, feet out, onto the floor.
“Hakeeeem the Dreeaaaammmm!” I said, in triumph. “With the huuuge duuunk, over Peter!”
Worried he would start crying, I quickly reached down and lifted him up, smiling at him to show this was all fun and games. Holding him back with my left arm, I crouched down and lunged for the Koosh ball with my right. When I stood back up, my brother was laughing. I gave him the Koosh ball.
“Your turn,” I said.
“What do I do?” he said.
That was a good question, I thought. I hadn’t gotten that far along yet in my thinking.
“Umm…” I said. “Take the ball, and... run around the table, and I’ll chase you…”
“No, actually, run around the table, and I’ll run the other way, and when you get to me, you have to try to dunk on me, and I have to block you.”
When we met on the other side of the table, I dropped to my knees, wrapped him up by the waist, and began dragging him down to the floor. I knew the floor was hard, uncarpeted, so I tried to bring him down slowly, to make sure he wouldn’t land head-first.
“You can’t do that!” he said, laughing hysterically.
“Shaq attack!” I hollered from below, taking out his legs.
As I lowered him, he threw the Koosh ball over my head. It hit something behind me, something that made a sound different from the short thud of the floor or the longer thud of the wall. I finished the tackle by putting all my weight on top of him. I could hear him laughing and gasping for breath at the same time. The sound the ball had made had been sharper, I thought, more like a crack, but not quite a crack.
“Boys!” I heard my father say, from the room behind the kitchen. “What was that?”
I looked up, sat up. My brother and I fell silent. There was nothing out of place. Nothing had crashed to the floor. I looked closely at the China cabinet in the corner, with its glass door and little cups and saucers, all white with simple patterns, that were never used, never taken out. They looked as they always did: delicate, like little round houses made out of potato chips. Was it possible that the Koosh ball could have hit the China cabinet, and not broken anything inside? Peter had thrown the ball as hard as he could. It would have to have been a miracle.
“What was what?” I said.
My father towered in the doorway. He was very tall - six foot four, we had measured once - and his head reached the top of the frame.
I thought that if I just kept on talking, he might forget about the China cabinet.
“Shaq attack?” I said. “That’s Shaquille O’Neal. He’s the best basketball player in the world. Well, second best. The best is actually Hakeem Olajuwon, but Shaquille O’Neal is younger and may be better someday.”
It wouldn’t hurt to also show how smart I was, too. About basketball, at least.
“But right now, Hakeem Olajuwon is the best, because his team, the Houston Rockets…”
My father had been looking from me to the China cabinet, to my brother on the floor, but now, it seemed, his focus was solely on me.
“Peter, are you okay?” he said suddenly.
Peter nodded, and I felt a strong sense of pride well up inside me.
My father walked over to the wall next to the China cabinet, inspecting it. At the floor lay the Koosh ball. He leaned over and picked it up. This too, he inspected. It was green and blue. It had little rubber strings that came out of it and could stretch. It smelled like rubber, but also carried the fragrance of the house, our clothes, whatever cleaning products or detergent we used, the scents of which I had absorbed long ago, even by age six, as the scents of normalcy, of nothing, of home, scents I could never have noticed, but that any visitor might have noticed immediately.
“Hakeem Olajuwon, huh...” my father said, placing the ball on the dining room table. “What about Michael Jordan?”
I had not heard of Michael Jordan. At least, I hadn’t seen him play when I watched the playoffs last summer, or the NBA on NBC this year. If he wasn’t even in the playoffs, or on NBA on NBC, how could he be better than Hakeem Olajuwon?
“What team does he play for?” I said.
“The Bulls,” he said.
“Well, used to,” he said. And he explained that Michael Jordan was the best player, not just when he was playing, but the best to have ever played, in the history of the world. He was better than the players he never even played against. He was better than Hakeem Olajuwon, better than Shaq. “Even though he is retired,” my father said. “He is still the greatest of all time.” He won three straight championships with the Bulls, and then retired after the last one. He was too good, and had gotten too good that it wasn’t any fun for him anymore. It would be like trying your hardest against Peter every time, so that you always win, or that he doesn’t even have a chance. That wouldn’t be so fun, would it? No, of course not; it’s only fun if anyone can win. So instead, Michael Jordan went and played baseball. He wasn’t very good. Well, wasn’t as good as he was at basketball, but he still played professionally, and that was something. People had expected him to be great, he was like a God for so many people, the God, so when he wasn’t great, it seemed like he was bad. But he wasn’t bad; he just wasn’t great, like so many people expected, or believed he would be.
I looked again at the China cabinet door, and looked back at my father. He smiled at me.
“Why don’t you boys continue playing in the den,” he said.
I looked at my brother. He looked at me.
“Why?” I tried.
“So you don’t shatter the China cabinet,” my father said. He turned around, and with two giant steps back into the kitchen, had already reached the backdoor.
About a month later, Michael Jordan - retired Greatest Of All Time - returned. Naturally, I was skeptical. I didn’t believe in God at the time, not really; it’s true I always said that I did, but that was only to avoid the inevitable follow-up question: why not? And neither did I believe what I had been told about Michael Jordan. I would have to see it for myself. He would have to prove it to me.
Around this time, spring 1995, my father bought for me and my brother the greatest gift I had ever received, up to that point: a real, outdoor basketball hoop, for the driveway. There was no occasion, no birthday, and it was, in a sense, as much a gift for himself as it was for me or my brother. Of course, he got to play on it himself, when he wanted to, which was a relatively few, yet not insignificant, number of times, maybe twice a week, and usually with me and my brother and the hoop set at 7 feet. But mostly, it was a gift for himself because it got my brother and me out of the house -- away from the China cabinet, the hollow walls, the scratch-sensitive hardwood floor, and everything else that could be broken.
As I had expected, once the playoffs rolled around, Michael Jordan and the Bulls lost to Shaquille O’Neal and the Magic. What I hadn’t expected was my father’s reaction. He couldn’t believe it.
“It’s Shaq,” I told him, the next night at dinner. “What did you expect?”
“It’s okay that you don’t understand, yet,” he said. “It’s Michael Jordan.”
It’s true, I couldn’t really understand, yet. It had been a school night.
“Well, if you let me watch the game…” I said.
The next season, the Bulls won an NBA record 72 games. My father let me watch the first half of any playoff game that was on NBC. When it was all said and done, the Bulls won the 1996 championship and Michael Jordan won Finals MVP, in a season during which he had also won league MVP and All-Star MVP. If you’re counting at home, that’s a clean sweep of all three MVPs, the NBA record for wins, and an NBA title, and indeed, I had been counting at home. It was the greatest season, ever, by any player, case closed; I was sold. A firm believer. And yet, I knew, there was still so much more, so much stronger that my belief could become, since I knew that, after all, I had only experienced his greatness for one year, and my father had followed him for his whole career.
The Bulls won the championship again in 1997, and again in 1998. Michael Jordan won the Finals MVP each time, and league MVP again in 1998. In his final game, before retiring for the second time, with the Bulls down by one and 20 seconds left, he stole the ball from Karl Malone (who due to some mistake, or crisis of faith, had won the 1997 league MVP instead of him), dribbled the ball up the court, and made the best defender on the Utah Jazz fall, “broke his ankles” as we all say now, before hitting nothing but net on a long-two with five seconds left to put the Bulls up for good and win his sixth championship in eight years - in other words, two three-peats bookending retirement.
During this time, I had raised my hoop incrementally, to 8 feet, 8 feet 6 inches, 9 feet. About twice a year, my father would tell me to go get his measuring tape from the garage and bring it upstairs so we could mark how much taller I had gotten. Peter, too; though it was obvious that we were about the same height, you didn’t need to measure us separately to know that. And good thing we were, because this meant that we could agree on how high to keep the hoop. It also made for a fair game of one-on-one. Not an even game - I would always win, always - but a fair game, simply because we were the same height.
After school in the driveway, I would pretend to be Grant Hill, my new favorite player, or Scottie Pippen, and my brother would be David Robinson. It was sacrilege to play as Michael Jordan. My father would play as Karl Malone, referring to himself in a constant stream of trash talk as “The Mailman,” Malone’s nickname. He had a flat, almost line-drive shot (my father, not Malone) and his shot would either clank off the front rim, or hit the backboard if he went for a bank shot. As I remember it, he only ever made bank shots, and only from the post, only ever turning over his right shoulder and fading away. When his shot would bank in, he would say: “The mailman is working today!” or “The mailman delivers again!” or “Special delivery!” or “The post office is open today, kid!” And when he would miss, he would say: “Ah c’mon!” or “For God’s sake!” or “C’mon, give me one, already!”
When we played one-on-one, he always let me win. I knew that. He was a giant; he could post up every time and just shoot lay-ups on me constantly, if he really wanted to. But he preferred to play me as a jump shooter. I understood; it was just like how I played most games with my brother, taking it easy shooting jumpers, only my father would take it one step further and actually let me win, whereas I would never let my brother win. But things changed that summer, after Jordan’s second retirement, and I honestly started to believe that I was becoming a better basketball player than my father, truly better, though he was so much taller. I was the better shooter and dribbler. All that practice was paying off.
One morning, I woke up to the sound of a basketball beating against the gravel and the unmistakable rattle of the rim that only our hoop made. I went up to my window, expecting to see my brother, but instead, it was my father who was up early practicing. It was strange to see him shooting all alone; I hadn’t seen that since the first season Michael Jordan had come back. I opened the window.
“Dad!” I said, waving. “Dad!”
He stopped and looked up at me.
“Boy, you’re up early,” he said.
I dressed quickly, hurried downstairs, and ran outside. We played a game of H-O-R-S-E to warm up, and I beat him by one letter. Then we played one-on-one, and I beat him 11-9. My brother came out then, to join us. He wanted to play two on one, us against our father. Two on one? But I was already better than our father; I should be the one.
“How about you two versus me?” I suggested.
My father had his hands on his hips, thumbs pressed against his lower back. “I think I’m gonna sit this one out,” he said. “Check in on your mother. You two play.”
I let Peter take a few warm-up shots, and then we began to play. He had been practicing, too, and was definitely getting better. He was also slightly taller and heavier than me, despite being younger. And he worked harder for rebounds.
My shot had gone cold, and I hadn’t really begun driving yet. He took an early lead, 5-3. Then I started driving, 7-7. He began driving a bit more, too, now, 8-7, 9-7. I called foul, 9-8. Then a tough drive, lot of contact, but no call, can’t call two fouls in a row. His ball, tough drive. “Foul!” “Are you kidding!” “You hit me!” “You do that all the time!” “What are you talking about!” I threw the ball at his feet.
“Boys!” said a voice from above. Peter and I looked up. It was our father, at the upstairs window, the window from my bedroom. “What are you yelling about?”
I shook my head and walked over to retrieve the ball. Silently, I rolled the ball to my brother’s feet.
“Go,” I said.
Peter looked up at my father, who was watching us with a serious expression. He took a shot without taking a dribble. 10-8.
The ball bounced a couple of times after it went through the net. I grabbed it, took a couple of hard dribbles, and I rolled it to him again, extra slowly this time. As it rolled, I put my hands up and took two giant steps backwards until I was directly underneath the hoop, begging him to shoot. I could feel my father watching as I stared my brother down. He did not hesitate, and from the moment it left his hands, I knew it was going in.
Image Source: E!Online/JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images (Left); Author (Right)