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How modern NBA players grew up on Michael Jordan way after he retired

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Ewing opens up about competing against MJ (0:49)

Patrick Ewing says he has been competing against Michael Jordan for decades and that MJ's relentless trash talk continues to this day. (0:49)

MICHAEL JORDAN WAS walking back to his chair in the Washington Wizards locker room when assistant coach Patrick Ewing introduced him to a new fan.

It was March 1, 2003, and 6-year-old Jalen Brunson was in town with his father, Rick, who was playing for the Chicago Bulls. Jalen, who collected NBA jerseys at every arena, was proudly wearing his new, white Wizards No. 23 when the legend himself asked the kid if he wanted it autographed.

"No," Jalen replied. "You'll mess it up."

As the Wizards players erupted with laughter, Ewing marched out of the locker room and yelled down the hall to Rick, his former New York Knicks teammate, about what had just happened. The most unstoppable player of that generation -- and perhaps any -- had been soundly rejected by a first-grader.

This season, 14 NBA players on opening-night rosters were born after Jan. 1, 2000. As Jordan's six championships with the Bulls become more of a distant memory, the next generation's exposure to him has almost been exclusively through grainy video on the internet or classic games aired on TV.

ESPN's documentary "The Last Dance" is providing a comprehensive look at a man considered by many to be the greatest ever, the player every kid wanted an autograph from -- except maybe one.

"He didn't know the magnitude of who he was talking to," Rick Brunson said of his son, who is now a point guard for the Dallas Mavericks. "He was like, 'Nah, you can't sign this.'

"Basically, he looked at [Jordan] like, 'Who the f--- are you?'"

MORE: "The Last Dance" updates

ON THE WEDNESDAY before the first two episodes of "The Last Dance," Jalen Brunson came across a trailer for the documentary that led him down a Jordan rabbit hole.

Soon, the 23-year-old guard was on YouTube, watching a 12-minute video of Jordan, wearing No. 45, dropping 55 on the Knicks in just the fifth game of his comeback in March 1995.

Afterward, Brunson called his dad with a burning question.

"Why they got John Starks guarding him?" he asked.

Rick Brunson, a 10-year NBA veteran, got a good chuckle and had to explain to his son -- who was born in 1996, the year before Starks won the Sixth Man Award -- that the former Knicks guard had been a second-team All-NBA defender.

"I said, 'Listen, man, John Starks guarded all the best players,'" said Rick, who coached Camden High School in New Jersey last season. "And John would lock people up. He just couldn't lock this guy up. Jalen said, '[Jordan] just makes it look so easy.' I said, 'He shot 50% from the floor. Fifty!'"

Jalen Brunson is one of many players today who have heard an older friend, family member or high school coach wax poetic about "the flu game" or the six championships without facing an NBA Finals Game 7.

Inevitably, these players often turn to the internet as their Jordan encyclopedia.

"All I know about Michael Jordan is through YouTube videos and the stories from old heads," said former Vanderbilt star Aaron Nesmith, who was born in 1999 and is projected as a top-15 pick in the 2020 NBA draft. "I was actually arguing with my high school coach the other day [over] why Michael Jordan is the GOAT.

"For my generation, LeBron [James] is the GOAT. And he was arguing that Michael Jordan is the clear-cut GOAT -- there is no ifs, ands or buts."

YouTube has not only informed a new generation about Jordan, it's also serving as an educational tool for some developing prospects.

Nesmith said he was in awe of how Jordan effortlessly found holes in the Portland Trail Blazers' defense and elevated on his pull-up jumpers. "He rose up over the defender and killed them," Nesmith said after his high school coach told him to watch Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals.

For a generation accustomed to watching basketball in crystal-clear high definition, adjusting their eyes to fuzzy and distorted Jordan highlights is like their parents watching black-and-white footage of Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell.

"They're not HD, sometimes you can't really see what's going on. It's not good picture," Nesmith said. "So you're like, 'Eh, I'll just flip to something else.'"

For some, seeing final scores in the low 80s or the Detroit Pistons repeatedly grabbing and decking Jordan might feel like prehistoric basketball.

"The one thing I do see a lot, I see that game winner he hit at UNC," said Cole Anthony, a 19-year-old North Carolina point guard who is projected as a top-15 prospect in the upcoming NBA draft. "I don't [normally] look at things like this, [but] I'm looking at the court and there's no 3-point line.

"I'm looking at that and I'm like, 'Man, that had to be a while ago.'"

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On this date: Jordan wins title for UNC

On March 29, 1982, Michael Jordan's game-winning shot against Georgetown captures the national title for North Carolina.

THIRTY YEARS AFTER Jordan celebrated his game winner over Craig Ehlo in Game 5 of a first-round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kyle Guy jumped as high as he could while pumping his fist as the final seconds ticked off in Virginia's national championship win over Texas Tech.

It was a celebration the 2019 Final Four Most Outstanding Player had seen a hundred times, even in his sleep. When Guy was 6, he received a "Michael Jordan to the Max" documentary DVD that he wore out.

"I used to have to always fall asleep with something on," said Guy, now a Sacramento Kings rookie. "So that was usually a go-to."

During his senior year at Lawrence Central High School in Indiana, Guy used his two study hall periods a day to dissect clips of Jordan, paying close attention to Jordan's game winners and patented fadeaway.

"I definitely learned [the post-up fadeaway] from Mike," said Guy, who was born in 1997, just a few months before Jordan began his final season with the Bulls.

"I still work on it in my workouts," the 6-foot-3 guard added. "I just don't get to use it very often because everyone is bigger than me."

Onyeka Okongwu, who left USC after one season and is projected as a top-10 prospect in the draft, remembers not appreciating Jordan's talents -- until Okongwu was older and more skilled at basketball. Like many young players, Okongwu's first choice as GOAT is LeBron James.

"When I was about 8 years old, I am watching LeBron play on TV at my friend's house, and I was like, 'Wow, LeBron is the best player ever,'" Okongwu said. "And my friend's dad was like, 'You must not have seen Michael Jordan.'

"I'm like, 'Who's Michael Jordan?'"

"Any kid coming up through high school, they're going to have to watch Michael Jordan clips if they're serious about basketball. And I think that is not going to fade for generations." Aaron Nesmith, 2020 NBA draft prospect

Okongwu was instructed to look up the Bulls legend online.

"I was initially like, 'That's not better than LeBron,'" said Okongwu, who was born in 2000. "As I got older, I realized back then the NBA was tougher, more physical, a lot of fights were going around. There's handchecking and he was still doing the same thing.

"I was like, 'Wow, Michael Jordan is really elite.'"

One thing these younger NBA players -- and those on the verge of entering the league -- agree on is that it's nearly impossible to be a hardcore basketball player and not know anything about Jordan.

"Any kid coming up through high school, they're going to have to watch Michael Jordan clips if they're serious about basketball," Nesmith said. "And I think that is not going to fade for generations."


WHEN DEVONTE' GRAHAM'S draft rights were acquired by the Charlotte Hornets in 2018, it wasn't a question of whether the kid from Raleigh, North Carolina, knew of the Bulls legend, it was the realization that he now answered to him.

"One of my friends was like, 'Yo, Michael Jordan is your owner,'" said Graham, who grew up hearing tales of the state's greatest basketball product.

"We started celebrating that even more than me getting drafted."

On one of his first days in the Hornets facility, the rookie nearly froze when he ran into Jordan, who bought controlling interest in the Charlotte franchise in 2010.

"I was just like, 'Oh, s---,'" Graham said. "[Jordan] said my name and shook my hand. He said, 'What's up?' He told me to cut my hair.

"I was hyped. I was real starstruck."

That awe formally collided with his occupation the next year, seven games into the 2019-20 season. The Hornets were taking on the Indiana Pacers at home. Late in the game, Graham had an opportunity to take his defender one-on-one but passed, resulting in an empty possession. Jordan, sitting near the Charlotte bench, pulled Graham to the side during a break.

"He told me, 'Hey, don't pass the ball,'" Graham said. "'At the end of the shot clock, you got the ball in your hands, you got to make the play.'"

The second-year guard scored the final seven points for Charlotte to claim 35 points and six assists in an overtime win.

"That right there really inspired me," Graham said. "If he believes in me like that, I have to have that same energy for myself."


ONE OF THE first memories of Jordan that comes to mind for Cole Anthony is from the third grade, when someone told him that his father and Jordan nearly fought.

Cole was only 3 when Jordan retired for good as a member of the Wizards. So he never got to watch his father, 11-year NBA veteran Greg Anthony, play in one of the many Bulls-Knicks rivalry games as a New York point guard during the '90s. And unlike the Brunsons, Greg and Cole Anthony did not often talk about Jordan.

"Really? My dad?" Cole asked at the time, incredulous when told his father got into a scuffle with Jordan. "Word?"

Anthony immediately went to YouTube and soon discovered what many young basketball players have unearthed by typing "Michael Jordan" into a search bar.

"I mean, the moral of the story is: He was busting my dad's ass," Anthony said.

"It was a lot of Jordan kind of busting the Knicks' ass. ... Excuse my French."