With Michael Jordan turning 50 years old on Sunday, I harken back to a time when I was young, and still had "sports heroes" from when I would consider myself to be a kid. As I turned into an adult, Michael Jordan was probably the last who linked me back to those days.
I have always felt fortunate that I was born and raised a Tar Heel, in Charlotte. I felt blessed that my Dad went to Carolina and my earliest sports memories are watching North Carolina basketball together.
We were lucky, there were many good memories. I listened to Woody Durham call the famous 8 point comeback in 16 seconds against Duke, on radio. I saw Phil Ford run the Four Corners and Dean Smith making the final minute of a game feel like an hour. I saw ACC Championships, Final Four appearances and All-Americans running up and down the court in Carmichael Auditorium.
We also had disappointments. Losing to Virginia in the ACC Tournament Final in 1976, losing to Penn in the first round of the 1979 NCAA Tournament and Alabama in the second round in 1976. I remember shedding tears when Carolina lost to San Francisco in the second round of the 1978 NCAA Tournament, realizing that Phil Ford had played his last game in Carolina blue. But two of the biggest disappointments came in 1977 and 1980 when Carolina lost in the National Championships to Marquette and Indiana respectively. After the Indiana loss, the talk that Dean Smith had never won a National Championship had built to an extreme level.
It was March of 1982, the NCAA Tournament was in full tilt and once again, North Carolina was in the mix as one of the favorites to cut down the nets in the NCAA Tournament. Out of the blue, my Dad received a phone call from a colleague who was at the Regionals at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh on a Friday, right after Alabama had lost it's Sweet 16 game. The Crimson Tide fans were bailing Raleigh and basically giving away their tickets that were allotted for the Eastern Regional Final to be played on Sunday. Thanks to my Father, there at the will call window sat two tickets for the 1982 Eastern Regional Final between North Carolina and Villanova, just for us.
My Dad and I piled into his Ford Pinto on that foggy Sunday morning heading for Raleigh to watch our beloved Tar Heels play for a chance to go to New Orleans and the Final Four. We had no idea where we would be seating. When we arrived at Reynolds Coliseum, it turned out that we were two rows from the floor on the baseline. I could practically reach out and touch the basket support.
I was extremely excited to see James Worthy play and was blown away by his power, as I stood on court level. Sam Perkins looked 7'8" with his long arms and those guys played the game well above the rim. Then, there was a lanky Freshman by the name of Mike Jordan.
Watching in person, it didn't take long to notice the athletic ability Jordan possessed and I had never seen a human being jump the way he did. Needless to say, I was awestruck by the whole experience. Carolina went on to defeat Villanova and advance to the Final Four.
Just over a week later, Jordan hit "The Shot" that not only propelled his legend and playing career, but it gave Dean Smith his first National Championship getting the "Monkey off of his back". Dad and I contemplated driving to Chapel Hill to celebrate the Championship on Franklin Street and considered tagging a road Carolina blue which was done all over Charlotte that night, but refrained.
Jordan gave us two more fun seasons at Carolina but they fell short of any additional National Championships and Jordan declared for the NBA Draft. We all felt that Jordan was going to be a very good player, but I don't believe anyone recognized that he would become the player who went on to become "Air" Jordan.
A couple of years later, after Jordan missed significant time due to injury, I got to meet Jordan for the first time. He was friendly, he was engaging and he was a jokester. I recall he and his Brother Larry talking smack to each other about playing football in the backyard in Wilmington.
During Jordan's years in Chicago, I felt like a big shot playing pick up basketball with Michael's Brother at a local YMCA in Charlotte. But, more significantly, I became a Charlotte Hornets season ticket holder and was fortunate to watch Jordan play against good Hornets teams numerous times in the 90's. I still say that the Hornets would have made an NBA Final during that stretch had they not ran into Chicago so many times in the playoffs. But I digress.
As Jordan racked up NBA Championships and personal awards and his playing days went into it's twilight, I wished we could have bottled up those great years and replay them forever. It was an error unlike any other in NBA history. But, as they say, all good things must come to and end.
After Jordan's retirement from the game, I found myself less and less of an NBA fan because I was so spoiled by the level of play during the Jordan era compared to what it had become. It was also a bitter time for the NBA in Charlotte as our community watched the loss of the Hornets to New Orleans. Jordan had expressed interest in becoming a partner with then owner George Shinn, but it never came to fruition. I still believe the Hornets would be in Charlotte had that partnership formed.
Finally, years later, Jordan returned to the Tar Heel State becoming a minority owner of the expansion Charlotte Bobcats and eventually became majority owner, a title he owns now.
For me, that was like coming full circle as a fan of Michael Jordan. I wasn't even legal my first time watching his greatness as a player at Carolina. I witnessed him accomplish so much in Chicago and then to return to the city I was born and raised where I even had the opportunity to help secure his vehicles at a local car dealership while he was transitioning into the Queen City as an owner. It was as though I took the entire journey with him. And what a journey it was. And I am quite certain that my feelings represent countless others who have the same ones.
For over 30 years I have followed Jordan's career in basketball. And there is something really special about sports figures you latch on to as a kid. Sure, you become fans of players as an adult but I don't know that it ever duplicates that of your younger years. Jordan is a link to my younger days and even though he has not had the success as an owner as he did a player, he still takes me back to that teenager who seldom ever missed watching Carolina basketball with my Dad. To this very day, while we don't watch every Carolina game together, you can bet that they are always a huge topic of discussion between my Father and I. Thank you Michael Jordan and Happy 50th Birthday. May you have many more!