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Limits and Illusions: Michael Jordan in the NBA at 50

A Joke
The night Michael Jordan was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he ended his induction speech with these words:

"One day you might look up and see me playing the game at 50. Don't laugh. Never say never, because limits, like fears, are often just an illusion."

He said not to, but everyone pretty much did laugh. Didn't Michael Jordan try to sell us this same hokum a few years ago? The last time he came back (in a Wizards uniform that was nowhere to be found on induction night) the limits -- most prominently tendinitis -- were very real indeed.

Mock common sense at your peril, Mr. Jordan. A 50-year-old man? In the NBA? Wilt Chamberlain said he could do it. But he didn't. Surely we can all agree that this is athletically unreasonable.

Riding home on the train from Springfield, I didn't even worry that it might really happen. I closed my mind, and opened the book I happened to have with me: the Best American Sports Writing 2007.

It features tremendous articles like Robert Huber on John Chaney, Eric Neel on the Saturday Game and Chris Ballard on the Game of the Year.

But the article that really stuck with me is Daniel Coyle's "That Which Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stranger." It's about Jure Robic, who is surely one of the few people who frequently wins races in which he has repeatedly hallucinated.

Reading that article didn't do wonders for my conviction that athletes should honor common sense. Maybe limits really were illusions.

Not Funny at All
Robic is a Slovenian cyclist who, as Coyle writes in The New York Times, wins races by spitting in the eye of moderation. His technique is essentially, not to stop. One of the races he has won is more or less the course of the Tour de France, only without the nights to rest, eat and recover. He races all the way across America -- some 3,000 miles -- without ever really getting meaningful sleep.

There is a price, though: In the process, Robic goes wholly (if, mercifully, temporarily) insane.

Robic's wife saw him race for the first time and nearly instigated a divorce. His support team has found Robic boxing mailboxes he imagined to be attackers. They have found him in the fetal position on the street. They have heard him complain of being chased by mujaheddin. They have found him so mad that he get off the bike and storms the van. (They lock the doors, they say, when that happens.)

But they have also found him crossing the finish line ahead of the competition, thanks in large part to his unwillingness to listen to those who say there are limits.

People have assumed that muscles could only perform so much, for so long. If you bike for five days straight, surely your muscles would be so overwhelmed with lactic acid that they would stop functioning. But some newer research suggests that's not so. Some researchers argue that the body may be able to perform far more than we ever imagined -- if you can trick your brain into letting the muscles do the work. The limits that were once thought to reside in the muscles are now, some researchers say, really in the mind.

The way past fatigue, then, is to return the favor: to fool the brain by lying to it, distracting it or even provoking it. ...

Some people ''have the ability to reprocess the pain signal,'' says Daniel Galper, a senior researcher in the psychiatry department at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. ''It's not that they don't feel the pain; they just shift their brain dynamics and alter their perception of reality so the pain matters less. It's basically a purposeful hallucination.''

Coyle also points out that just a decade or two ago it was considered nearly miraculous that anybody could finish an Ironman triathlon. These days thousands of Americans complete races that are more than twice as long.

A 61-year-old farmer won one of the world's toughest ultramarathons by similarly ignoring sleep. Everyone else was faster in the early going, but they made the mistake of stopping to sleep from time to time. Cliff Young said he imagined a storm was coming and he had to round up his sheep, and walked for nearly six days straight, shattering the course record.

A "purposeful hallucination," just as the researcher suggested.

Michael Jordan knows purposeful hallucinations. His Hall of Fame induction speech tells us as much. Jordan might be alone among humans in having essentially zero claim to being an underdog. He had, it seemed, purposefully hallucinated a world in which he had not won everything on the earth, a world in which he actually had meaningful rivals and a world in which he still had a ton to prove. That night he skewered, teased, showed up or taunted just about anyone who ever doubted him.

Reading on, we find Robic is not so different. Successful, in his way, but so unbelievably far from satisfied.

''I find motivation everywhere,'' Robic says. ''If right now you look at me and wonder if I cannot go up the mountain, even if you are joking, I will do it. Then I will do it again, and maybe again.'' He gestures to Mount Stol, a snowy Goliath crouched 7,300 feet above him, as remote as the moon. ''Three years ago, I got angry at the mountain. I climbed it 38 times in two months.'' ...

''All my life I was pushed away,'' he says. ''I get the feeling that I'm not good enough to be the good one. And so now I am good at something, and I want revenge to prove to all the people who thought I was some kind of loser. These feelings are all the time present in me. They are where my power is coming from.''

If the key to achieving athletic feats seemingly beyond human capability is tricking your mind, and if we already know Jordan has mastered that trick ... I figured we should at least do our homework.

Calling Chicago
I called Attack Athletics, the multi-faceted gym owned by the man who trained Jordan, Tim Grover. Mike Procopio is the director of basketball operations there. I asked him if it was conceivable that a 50-year-old could play in the NBA.

"The person would have to be an exceptional athlete," he says. "You'd have to be someone with a lot of size, real skills and toughness. I think it would probably have to be somebody who had stayed in good shape after their playing days -- it would be really hard after doing nothing. If you had the right person, they might need three or four months of boot camp, and then I think it wouldn't be too hard to get them into good enough shape."

The player you'd be left with, he says, would likely be able to look really good for a few games. One worr
y, he says, would be on defense, where the need to stick to quicker player might often seem like the teams were playing "six on four."

The flaw in the plan, Procopio says, would come not from a trip or two up and down the court, or even a game. "We could get you in shape," he says. It would come from the long schedule, the banging, and the inevitable wear and tear. "You can get fit, and I bet that for 10 or 15 games you could do it. But any player that age would have a lot of miles on those joints, knees, tendons, soft tissue ... and with all the banging and changing direction, those little injuries could be hard to recover from. If a 25-year-old pulls a hamstring, it could be a few weeks of recovery. For a 50-year-old, it could be a lot longer than that."

He's skeptical that anyone as old as 50 could keep their body healthy and functioning through an 82-game season. A shorter season -- for instance returning for a month or two before the playoffs may reduce the likelihood of trouble.

In general, Procopio didn't sound at all sure such an achievement was possible. But that was talking about athletes generally. Would Jordan -- a man of unquestioned will -- be subjected to the same limitations?

"Oh no no no no," Procopio says. "I'm talking about everybody else."

So, I suppose, we can take that as a suggestion that such a feat could be possible.

Robic, meanwhile, is trying to fulfill his own dream, of trying to become the first person to ever win the Race Across America four times. He led this year's race with about 40 easy miles to go, but served a one-hour time penalty, fell into second place, and quit the race.

Many limits are illusions, it turns out, but not all of them.