IN THE MID-1980s, I fell hopelessly, fanatically and totally in love with professional basketball. There were three reasons for my unbridled passion for the game. Each of those reasons is no longer playing: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.
Johnson first retired in late 1991 when he tested HIV-positive. Bird left a year or so later because of back problems. Jordan announced this week that he was hanging up his Nikes.
The National Basketball Association's golden era -- which began in 1980, when Magic and Bird entered the league -- ended this week with Jordan's retirement. The league will never be the same. Attendance will plummet. Fan interest will dissipate. Those big brains among the NBA ownership must now wish they'd picked another season to lock out the players.
The reign of Magic, Larry and Michael wasn't just good while it lasted. It was exquisite. From Game 6 of the 1980 NBA finals -- when Magic scored 42 points while playing three positions to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to the championship in spite of an injury to center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- to the final 42 seconds of the 1998 season, when Jordan made the steal and scored the basket that gave the Chicago Bulls their sixth title, pro basketball fans were in hoop heaven. It was better than being locked in a room full of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Even the hot ones.
Johnson's rookie season made me a devoted Magic fan. I identified with his "Showtime Lakers" so much that I took their defeats personally. I didn't realize how much so until the 1983 NBA finals, when they were down three games to none against the Philadelphia 76ers.
That day, I went in to work, where a new supervisor greeted the folks in my unit. Game 4 of the NBA finals was scheduled that night. The new supervisor introduced herself, told us what she expected of us in terms of work performance and then asked if there were any questions.
"Do you think the Lakers have a chance of beating the 76ers tonight?" I asked. "Any at all?" I piped right up, without fear of embarrassment. I didn't worry about being disciplined. This was NBA basketball and Magic's Lakers, I figured, and hence serious business. She just smiled. Never did give an answer.
I became a Bird devotee after observing how viciously maligned he was by some blacks who had the nerve to call themselves basketball fans.
"The press only pumps him up because he's white!" they'd grouse. Strange things happen to minds afflicted with the notion that black babies pop out of the womb dribbling basketballs. Some black folks figure we own basketball, that James Naismith invented the game just for us and that the sport has no room for Caucasians. Hence we'll occasionally hear the nonsense that the press praised Larry Bird because he is white.
The press pumped Bird up because he could play. His whiteness was coincidental. The man had game. His detractors apparently figured it was mere coincidence that the Boston Celtics went from being also-rans to champions after Bird joined the team. Even film director Spike Lee got in on the act. A character in his first major film, "She's Gotta Have It" -- played, appropriately enough, by Lee -- tries to convince another character that former New York Knicks forward Bernard King was a better player than Bird.
You have to wonder why Spike Lee wears those dorky eyeglasses. They can't be for seeing. If they were, he would've seen that Bernard was bad, but Bird was better.
That notwithstanding, Jordan is in a class just above Bird and Magic. I got my first inkling of this in the 1991 NBA finals between Magic's Lakers and Jordan's Bulls and found myself in the predicament of wanting both teams to win.
The dilemma was solved in Game 2, when Jordan swooped in for what appeared to be a dunk, suddenly changed hands and kissed a layoff slightly off the backboard. It was a move so exhilaratingly perfect that it left fans gasping.
"The Lakers," I correctly predicted after seeing that move, "ain't gonna win this series."
Jordan's moves thrilled us for six of the past eight years, as he led the Bulls to six NBA championships and a record-breaking 72 wins in 1996. He did it facing personal tragedy along the way -- his father's murder -- and enduring harsh criticism. Some whites -- Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly, for example, seems to have made Jordan his personal whipping boy -- couldn't cope with his success. Some blacks felt he should have been a spokesman for racial issues -- advocating affirmative action here and campaigning against Sen. Jesse Helms in his home state of North Carolina.
Air Jordan ignored his critics and concentrated on what he did best -- playing basketball. He did it so well he became the best the game has ever seen. True basketball fans owe him much.
Thanks, Mike, for a helluva ride.
Pub Date: 1/16/99