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Happy 50th, Michael Jordan! Here Are Our Favorite Plays

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 15, 2013 10:45PM

Photo credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images Entertainment

“Are you from Chicago?”

The year was 1990. I was eating a bowl of ramen and some steamed clams from one of Singapore’s outdoor food courts when my wardrobe—it must have been the Cubs hat, but it could have been the Steve Dahl and Garry Meier “Teenage Radiation” t-shirt—led to an inquiry from a Singaporean student one table over.

“Are you from Chicago?”

I allowed that I was and the student proceeded by fashioning a Tommy gun with his hands, shouting, “Al Capone! RATATATATATATATATAT!!” I was told by other Chicagoans to expect that wherever our ship (I was part of a Navy contingent on an oceanographic research vessel mapping shipping lanes in the Flores Sea) had a port period. Four months into my deployment I heard “RATATATATATATATATAT!!” in Darwin, Australia, as well as Jakarta, Surabaya, and other remote ports along the Indonesian archipelago.

Singapore was different. The city-state was the first place where “RATATATATATATATATAT!!” was followed by an even louder, “Michael Jordan!!!” followed by my inquisitor doing the Jumpman pose.

That was 23 years ago and even then I realized Michael Jordan, who turns 50 Feb. 17, had become the first Chicago sports superstar to be recognized globally. Sure, stars like Walter Payton and Dick Butkus, Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, Ernie Banks and Ryne Sandberg were recognizable in the States. But I didn’t have teens in Singapore mimicking Payton’s stiff arm block or asking me to play two. It wasn't hard to understand why: Jordan, to quote Rush Limbaugh, had talent on loan from God. He was handsome, eloquent and had an juggernaut marketing team branding him. It wasn't a surprise to see the student was wearing a pair of Nikes. They weren't Air Jordans, but Jordan was a Nike man and, if a kid couldn't afford a pair of Air Jordans, standard Nikes would suffice.

Sports Illustrated honored Jordan’s birthday this week by putting him on the cover of the magazine and publishing a list of their 50 favorite Jordan moments. (Jordan, as he has since 1993, refused to speak with SI about the occasion, further cementing his post-playing days reputation of being sort of a jerk.)

But History, as the saying goes, is written by the victors, and there is enough footage of Jordan’s basketball career where we can take a trapped-in-amber look back at our own favorite moments of his career. We didn’t list 50; consider these the ones to grow on.

1985 Rookie of the Year

Jordan was lengths ahead of a loaded rookie class, averaging 28.2 PPG on 51.5 percent shooting, 6.5 RPG and 5.9 assists per game. He scored his season-high 49 points Feb. 12, 1985 in a 139-126 against the Detroit Pistons. Jordan also grabbed 15 rebounds, dished out five assists and seemingly went coast to coast often as he realized he couldn't rely on most of his teammates.

Dropping 63 at Boston Garden

Jordan returned from a broken foot late in the 1985-86 season to will the Bulls into the NBA playoffs, where they would be swept by the Boston Celtics. But what folks remember is Game 2 of that series, a 131-131 double overtime thriller April 20, 1986 where Jordan scored 63 points. The performance was so awe-inspiring Celtics legend Larry bird said after the game "it's just God disguised as Michael Jordan."

1987 Slam Dunk Contest

Fans of the above the rim game will point to the epic 1988 battle between Jordan and Dominique Wilkins at Chicago Stadium where MJ sealed his second straight Slam Dunk contest win with the iconic dunk where he leapt from the free throw line. But his performance in the 1987 dunk competition in Seattle was arguably stronger. Wilkins sat this one out with an injury but Jordan faced tough competition from Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, Kenny Walker and Terence Stansbury. Jordan broke out the free throw line dunk in this one—he only scored a 49 from the judges—but the dunk that earned him his first slam dunk title is still my favorite. Jordan approaches the rim from the baseline, leans forward so he's nearly parallel to the court, and finishes his dunk with authority, eye level with the rim, and plenty of air beneath him. The dunk is a thing of beauty and the kind of memory a teenager still remembers vividly as a 43-year-old man.

Scoring 69 Points Against Cleveland

During the first three-peat era, Jordan and the Bulls played the Harlem Globetrotters to the Cleveland Cavaliers' Washington Generals, and those were some good Cleveland teams with Mark Price, Larry Nance and Brad Daugherty. "The Shot" would have been the obvious choice here, but this March 28, 1990 performance stands out for me. Jordan scored a career-high 69 points and added 18 rebounds, handed out six assists and had four steals. This was Phil Jackson's first year as Bulls head coach and what makes Jordan's numbers more eye-popping is they came within the structure of the triangle offense that emphasized ball movement. What's the saying? The only person to hold Michael Jordan to under 20 points a game was Dean Smith.

The Breakthrough

Jordan and the Bulls finally broke through the glass ceiling in 1990-91 with the first of their six NBA Titles. Jordan was finally comfortable with complementary pieces to the puzzle like John Paxson, Craig Hodges, Bill Cartwright, Horace Grant and especially Scottie Pippen. Again, the obvious video to choose here would have been Jordan's mid-switch layup against Sam Perkins in the '91 Finals. I chose his poster dunk against the Knicks, instead, solely because I can't resist an opportunity to stick it to Knicks fans.

The First Retirement

The murder of Jordan's father James in 1993 added to a growing pile of stress that included being a three-time defending champion, having to deal with new teammate Toni Kukoc, and growing whispers about his gambling. Shocking as his first retirement in 1993 came to fans, his decision to play baseball in 1994 was an even greater surprise. The ESPN documentary Jordan Rides the Bus is available for streaming on Netflix Instant. But the highlight of his baseball career was playing in the Crosstown Classic at Wrigley Field, back when the games didn't count against the regular season schedule.

"I'm Back"

Sometimes a publicist's client makes the job easy, as when Jordan announced his return to the NBA March 18, 1995 with a two word press release: "I'm Back." The 1994-95 Bulls had already retired Jordan's number 23, so he chose the number 45 for his comeback. The number looked out of place. So did Jordan's game, his body reconfigured to playing baseball. But he still dropped 55 on the Knicks on March 28, 1995. Sorry, New York.

The Bulls were knocked out of the '95 playoffs by Orlando, which only provided ruthless competitor Jordan with further motivation. The failure also allowed Jordan some reflection that he wasn't the high-flyer he used to be, and he retooled his game accordingly. Jordan's main offensive weapon during the Bulls' second three-peat wasn't his above the rim game. It was the turnaround jumper—a shot that contained a grace and rehearsed footwork that rivaled any of Hakeem Olajuwon's post moves.