|A dream deferred: MJ's last shot|
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
Barring a 17th change of heart, or the start of a seniors league, the end of the Michael Jordan era is fast approaching. For real this time.
The book on the most storybook career in NBA history finally closed. Can¹t you just see the ending? The Wiz, America's gritty, gutty, No. eight-seed-underdog darlings down one to the high-octane Mavs in Game 7 of the Finals.
Washington ball, nine seconds left, time out on the floor. Stackhouse, who's been a deal-with-the-devil madman throughout the playoffs -- scoring points in buckets -- wants the rock. Coach Collins, (with the full support of everyone else in the building, millions watching at home, the guardians of history, and a certain mustachioed living legend sitting next to him on the bench) tells young Jerry to check the script, because this drama doesn't play out like that -- 23 is the call.
Ball into MJ on the right side against Finley. There's a shimmy-shake, a shoulder dip and a launch off the left foot. 4-3-2 ... he rises (not as far as he once did, but just far enough to reach free air) and fades, shoulders squaring, tongue wagging, and wrist flicking. Splash down. Money. Binga ...
One, zero ... time's up, time stands still. Seventh title. Fist in the air. Screams and shouts all over the joint. Poets and pundits speechless. Beautiful.
Of course, it's probably not gonna go like that. Jordan and the Wizards might not even make the postseason. And if they do get in, it's a good bet they're in for a quick, hard first-round fall.
Could be like this: down six to the Pacers with the clock running out in the fourth game of a four-game dusting, Jordan puts up a three at the top of the key and hits it -- big burst from the fans, three Chicago natives holding hands in section 211 channeling Jesse: "Keep hope ... ALIVE! Keep hope ... ALIVE!" But on the next possession Indy gets the ball in low to Jermaine O'Neal who has his way with Brendan Haywood: five-point ballgame. Seven seconds to go. Stackhouse clangs a three in-and-out. Rebound MJ. Shimmy-shake and shoulder dip, little lift and, sure enough, it's good. Just not good enough. Pacers advance; Michael and history head home.
Or it could be worse than that; he might miss the big shots at the end, might miss shots all night, or even all series.
However it ends, this end will be measured against the last one, the sweet, tie-a-bow-on-it perfection of the final shot of Game 6 in the 1998 Finals.
Bryon Russell in the popcorn machine and MJ sticking the dagger shot to win the title, his arm lingering for days in the follow-through. Costas recognizing it on the spot as maybe the last Jordan shot we'd ever see. A ball full of suspense and, at the same time, a lead-pipe cinch to rip through the net like so many big shots before it. Perfect.
Jordan gave up that ideal ending when he donned the Wizard blue, and now we (him, me, and anyone who¹s ever played, watched or rooted for or against him) are approaching a new and undoubtedly less spectacular conclusion of Michael Time. We're in uncharted territory with him now, coming up quick on an ending without championship drama attached, an ending that could make him look vulnerable more than brilliant.
I've been imagining lately how it might play out.
I fear some ugly 2-for-11 nights down the stretch. I fear him pressing, sagging, boiling over and getting hurt. And I fear anything (from teammates or opponents) that looks like the All-Star Game force-feeding manufacture of a "special" moment that isn't actually special at all, but kind of weird and desperate.
But he's had an All-Star-caliber season and so there is reason for hope, and what I hope for in these last couple of months are glimmers and echoes of what he once did routinely; little things to stir up the awe in me. I'd love to see him drop 50 on the Knicks, just for sport, for instance. I'd love to see him steal the ball from Kobe at midcourt and take it the other way for a cocked-arm, splay-footed dunk, and it would be nice to watch him palm the ball and stare into his opponent's eyes like he owns the poor fool, or take two dribbles forward, a step back, and then jet by a guy on the right.
And I've been thinking about his very last shot -- thinking about it in a Ted Williams, homer-in-his-last-at-bat sort of way. What should it be? A dunk that, however simple, calls up his head-to-head with Dominique? A little baseline runner with a hint of 63 at the Boston Garden in it? A top-of-the-circle jumper that invokes the shot over Ehlo in '89? Maybe something from a post-up, with some arch in his back, the way he was after the first comeback? Or should it not be a shot at all, but a pass to an open shooter, a la the dish to Kerr? And what if he misses it? Whither the legend then?
The '98 shot was sublime, dripping with the brilliant weight of the moment, and my first thoughts about this new last shot were that it couldn't be anything but a homely, sorry coda by comparison.
But the more I think about it, the more I think that's exactly what makes the shot still-to-come interesting and appealing. The '98 shot was so perfect, so tuned to history, that in the end it was kind of one-dimensional, just a rehearsal of some clichéd sports fantasy about storybook endings. Unbelievable, really; not quite human. The 2003 shot probably won't be grand. There will be something mundane about it. And there will be something sad about it, too, because you won't be able to watch it without remembering, without literally seeing in your mind's eye, the air, energy and significance such a close-the-deal Jordan shot once had.
No matter what the shot is, it will be a mix: What was and what is.
40 and 23.
Fast and slower.
Air and earthbound.
The Jordan of the six titles and the Jordan whose wheels are giving out now.
Unmitigated, unstoppable, tireless genius and the crafty, opportunistic, wisdom of experience.
Watching a shot like that will kind of be like listening to the late-career Billie Holiday. Her pipes were on the wane, she couldn't sing like she once did, but there was a whole lotta humanity and a ton of shrewd genius in her voice. You could hear the range of where she'd been, what she'd done and been through. Broken notes made you hear whole ones, sour sounds suggested something sweet.
So I'm thinking now that it won't really matter what the last MJ-at-40 shot is, and it won't even matter whether it falls through the net or clangs off the rim. What will matter is what it carries with it, what it calls up about the MJ we¹ve known and been dazzled by over the last 20-odd years.
Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.