'The Last Dance' serves as strong reminder about the joy of playing basketball

Michael Jordan, Zion Williamson share that love of playing the game
by Doug Tatum

The ESPN docu-series “The Last Dance” has provided a fantastic look back at the 1980s version of Michael Jordan, with episodes 3 and 4 last Sunday documenting the struggles his Bulls had getting past the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The series reminded me of the one day I got to see Jordan up close. It was June 15, 1989, about two weeks removed from the Bulls’ loss to the Bad Boys in a brutal Eastern Conference Finals series, and just a few weeks before Phil Jackson would replace Doug Collins as the Bulls’ coach.

Jordan, who finished second that season in the MVP voting to Magic Johnson, was making promotional appearances in Birmingham, where I was an intern for the now-defunct Post-Herald. Jordan’s day was supposed to start with a golf outing but a rainy morning washed that out. He then made an appearance at a Just For Feet store at the Galleria Mall, where he amazed thousands by draining jumper after jumper on a make-shift court in the parking lot, many with his left hand, under a hot Alabama sun.

“Everywhere he went he was treated like a god, lower case g,” said longtime Birmingham sports writer Kevin Scarbinsky, who covered Jordan’s visit for the rival News that day.

Scarbinsky, now a freelance writer and communications consultant in Birmingham after a 30-plus year career with the News, remembers Jordan as “already feeling the crush of fame,” even though he had yet to win the first of his six championships.

That night, 8,000 fans in a football-mad state filled UAB Arena (now Bartow Arena) to witness a jaw-dropping dunking exhibition from Jordan, who was just a year removed from his epic dunk contest win over Dominique Wilkins. Jordan was at the height of his athletic ability. To this day, it’s the greatest display of athleticism I have ever witnessed in person.

Scarbinisky remembered the “pure joy” that Jordan had on the court that evening, entertaining fans with unbelievable dunks and funny comments. “That was his place,” Scarbinksy said, “where he could truly be himself.”

Fast-forward 30-plus years and the joy reminded both of us of another freakishly gifted basketball player from a small town in the Carolinas, Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans.

“If they share anything with each other, it’s just that joy,” Scarbinsky said, “it radiates through the TV.”

Pelicans fans have been able to see that joy from Williamson since he first took the court Jan. 22, turning a so-so debut against the San Antonio Spurs into four magical minutes that will be replayed any time someone tells the story of Zion’s pro career.


There have been many disappointments from the pause in sporting events but for me, one of the main ones has been not getting to see the joy in which the 19-year-old Williamson plays with each night. That infectious enthusiasm and love for the game had helped move the Pelicans within reach of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Ideally, the season will resume and basketball fans will get to see the Pelicans on the court, competing for a playoff spot, showcasing their skill, their passion with a high-flying, screaming, flexing Zion Williamson.

Scarbinsky began his story on Jordan 31 years ago by noting the connection the UAB Arena announcer made between the superstar basketball player and Elvis Presley, “Ladies and gentlemen … Michael Jordan has left the building.”

Jordan has indeed left and Elvis is long gone (and perhaps even unknown to anyone under 35 reading this story. Google him.) but Zion will be back. Once “The Last Dance” ends and the NBA returns it will be his turn on the floor.

Let’s dance.

Doug Tatum is the vice president of digital media for the New Orleans Pelicans and Saints, joining the organizations in 2013 following a 20-year career in journalism. He is writing a weekly column while the NBA season is on pause.

 

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