MJ and Fifty Five: Points Scored and Time Alive

Now at the age of 55, we look back at Michael Jordan's 55-point game against the Knicks

Here’s one way to measure time. Michael Jordan turned 55 Saturday and thus qualified to be a formal AARP member. That’s right, people born the year Michael Jordan recorded his famous double nickel have graduated college. Michael Jordan used a rotary phone, eight-track tapes and actually preferred Converse.

And he’s still whom we measure basketball excellence against.

Jordan was to be in Los Angeles this weekend for a birthday celebration, his personal double nickel, the doppelgänger for that elite game in 1995 that perhaps symbolizes why Jordan remains universally the game’s greatest.

We’ll have these debates as new ones come along, recently Kobe and LeBron, previously Wilt, Kareem, Magic and Bird. There really is no other and that night in Madison Square Garden in late March 1995 illustrates why.

It was Jordan’s fifth game back to basketball after 19 months away, and not just away, but way away, playing baseball in the low minor leagues, in shape, but hardly basketball shape. His shape wasn’t even the same, slower and heavier, lacking that brilliant explosive first step that transformed the NBA power structure of the 1990s.

It’s somewhat like watching Tiger Woods now; though Woods’ issues were more serious with back surgeries. But we still want to believe the name and the legend, not the reality. Jordan would become the one to match reputation.

Michael Jordan, in minor league baseball attire, stands next to a child during the National Anthem.

There wasn’t a long buildup to Jordan’s return; certainly not physically. Jordan still planned to play baseball that year. The White Sox assured him he was improving enough that he likely would be at least a September callup. The majors. That was his real goal at the time. That was the grail they claimed he would never reach. It was all he needed.

But he became the pawn in the baseball labor chess game, reached for by management and players. Who would Michael side with? So he left. Nobody uses him like that. Talk about your king.

It was March and it still was too cold in Chicago for golf. Hey, anyone got a basketball?

The Bulls were a mess, a .500 ship listing badly and sinking. The glory of that 55-win season without Jordan in 1993-94 was gone in a fever of pressure that was bursting their pipes. Relief was needed. Nothing to see here. Hey, look over there, it’s Michael Jordan.

The nation turned its lonely eyes toward him. Will he? Was he? Could he?

Hey, he was Michael!

So with a few practices and fewer words, Jordan returned as the biggest sports story of the decade. And fairly ordinary. An overtime loss in Indianapolis to start, seven of 28 shooting. Seven of 23 in a home loss to Orlando—didn’t like those United Center baskets—a game winner in Atlanta, but still just 2-2. Not so much Air Jordan, and on the way to Madison Square Garden to be dissected, examined and analyzed by the critics.

Sure, maybe it plays in Peoria for a while, but let’s see what you have on Broadway.

And this wasn’t those Knicks.

They were defending Eastern Conference champions; they were about 10 games ahead of the Bulls in the standings with Ewing and Oakley and Starks and Harper and Mason and all those guys who almost beat him when he was that other Michael.

Now they had their shot at whatever he had become.

But, you see, this is how to define greatness. It’s why you can’t measure Jordan by the stats, as impressive as they were. It’s as much by the challenge, by the risk.

It was a big game and Jordan let everyone know. He never was one of those guys to say some rivalry was another game, or the big TV game was one of 82 or, gasp, skipping one to rest. Instead, he might make it even more than it was whether it was some imagined slight or seminal moment.

Michael Jordan prepares to shoot a free throw against the New York Knicks in March of 1995.

It was the best and toughest team in the conference, a long time rival against whom the hugs would only land you on the floor, emotional dislike and another ultimate test. Jordan had been good, a high of 32 points against Atlanta, but averaging about 23 or 24 points, shooting a bit over 40 percent, fairly well grounded for the most part.

You know, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Let’s see, they were saying, what he’s got left.

More than they imagined, certainly, and as much as he expected. Go ahead, doubt him.

That’s where the line really is drawn; it’s not so much that one generation of players was more skilled or talented or another was stronger and faster. It’s difficult to find anyone since who competes like that, asks for the toughest challenge, the most physical and mental opponent, trash talks life and then backs it up.

Jordan scored 55 points. He shot 21 for 37, made three of four three pointers, 10 of 11 from the free throw line. And you know they weren’t soft hits. And then passed to Bill Wennington against that last double team when Ewing came up for the game winner.

So he showed it all. He showed the same competitive nature, the dominance, the daring, the team play necessary for victory; and on what is generally regarded as the greatest stage of American sport. It was one game, but it was a larger symbol. If you want to be who I am, exceed what I did, fine. Just Do It against the best when you are not at your best but when they expect you to live up to when you were the best.

None of the greatest really ever have been able to do that, not Ruth or Ali or Woods. It’s why it’s unlikely someone takes that title.

Happy Double Nickel.

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