May 20, 2020

Rare Air Jordan

Thursday, March 19, 1987, is a day I’ll hardly ever forget. Yes, it was the 21st wedding anniversary of my parents — Abigail and Juan Martin — but being a normal 19-year-old college student, I had something else to do.

Michael Jordan was the biggest attraction in the NBA even in his third year in 1987.

A few weeks prior, Rey Garza, one of my closest friends since 7th grade, asked me if I wanted to get in on a group of tickets he was buying to go see the Clippers. Rey and I had shared fandom for the Dodgers, Lakers and Rams, but never the Clippers. Before I could ask him why he’d want to get a group of friends going to see the Clippers, he said that the only reason he was getting tickets was to see Michael Jordan.

By that point, Jordan was merely on his way to becoming a superstar. The global icon part would be several years away. P.T. Barnum could not have created more of a center-ring attraction than Air Jordan flying all over the place in the ’80s. His dunks were beyond legend at that point, even if his team was barely .500. This was still, after all, the league of the Lakers and Celtics. Specifically Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. But as rabid sports fans we had to see MJ take flight.

He did not disappoint. Even sitting up in the top level, we were close to center court and could see Jordan’s skills on full display. Mid-range jumpers. Athletic drives to the basket and double-pump layups. MJ had brought the full arsenal on this night, and the 15,371 fans in attendance were cheering his every basket as if the Bulls were the home team. That’s what it was like to be at a Clipper game in the 1980s.

I kept mental score on how many points Jordan was scoring, and knew he was well into the 30s on this evening. Yet there was one thing lacking.

No dunks.

There was a feeling of anticipation and longing that the fans in attendance were feeling well into the 4th quarter. We’d paid money to see Jordan dunk all over the Clippers, who would have their record fall to 11-53 that night. 

As the game seemed headed to garbage time, the ball got tangled up near the Clippers’ basket, and a jump ball was called between Chicago’s 6-7 Gene Banks and the Clippers’ 6-1 Darnell Valentine with 2:42 left in the game. Advantage Bulls. 

Even with the Bulls ahead by 15, the game clearly in hand, Jordan remained in the game. He’s said on many occasions that he felt a responsibility to fans who paid to see him play, that they get his best. 

Jordan positioned himself at the top of the key, and the Bulls’ announcer even said, “Watch Geno hit it all the way down the court, with Michael going, maybe?” That proved to be prophetic.

As the ball went up, Jordan took off, leaving three Clippers flat-footed. A Harlem Globetrotters skit could not have been better choreographed. Jordan had a couple steps as Banks’ swat of the ball went over MJ’s head at halfcourt.

I remember the play unfolding slowly, almost as if it were in suspended animation. As Jordan got the ball about the three-point line the crowd rose in unison, the noise level growing with each step as we all knew what was to come. All he needed was a single dribble before he lifted off a couple steps in front of the foul line. Jordan was leaning toward his left, the ball coming around in sort of a sideways windmill. His eyes just below the rim, MJ slammed the ball home on a dunk that would have gotten many perfect scores on All-Star weekend. (On this YouTube video, the dunk happens about the 1:34:00 mark)

The Sports Arena crowd erupted like it was a buzzer-beater in the playoffs. This was no longer a sporting event, but a celebration of athletic gifts hardly ever seen before. Or since. I feel lucky to have seen this. Rey and I still reminisce about this game. That the Bulls won, 114-97, and Jordan finishing with 40 points was almost inconsequential. We had seen Jordan dunk!

And it was the only time I ever saw Michael Jordan play live.

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