The pinnacle of Air Jordan. Hmmm...
Maybe it was June 1991 when he finally won his first NBA championship. Or the first 3-peat in ’93.
Maybe it was March 1995 when he returned to basketball after a year-and-a-half hiatus and hung 55 on the Knicks. Or the 72-10 season of ’96.
Yes, I think it was the summer of '96.
By that point, MJ's shoes had been on teenage feet for more than a decade. His impact on American sports culture was immeasurable.
It was certainly true in my house. My older brother’s bedroom walls were covered with Jordan posters. Our hallway closet was filled with Jordan VHS tapes — “Michael Jordan’s Playground” and “Come Fly With Me” were the two best. In a house without cable TV, we must’ve watched those tapes 100 times.
Jordan came to fame in the mid-80s, thanks in part to Phil Knight’s brilliant marketing campaign. By the mid-90s, he had fulfilled all the prophecies and promises. He had secured his throne as the GREATEST OF ALL-TIME. The athlete to whom everyone else bowed. If it sounds dramatic — even spiritual — well, that’s exactly the way Nike wanted it.
To question Jordan’s dominance was blasphemy — like doubting the order of the universe. To honor Jordan’s supremacy meant imitating his personality.
It wasn't just his tongue-wagging, it was his intensity. His fury. His refusal to laugh at himself or reveal weakness.
Jordan was cutthroat like no athlete America had ever seen. And he spawned a generation of disciples.
Two, in particular, stand out. They emerged on the scene in 1996, right between the 72-win season and the release of “Space Jam.”
The first was a 17-year-old from Philly named Kobe Bryant. Drafted in June ’96 and immediately traded to the Lakers, where he debuted on Nov. 3, 1996.
The second was a 20-year-old from California named Tiger Woods. Turned pro in August ’96 after his third U.S. Amateur title, debuted at the Greater Milwaukee Open and won his first tournament in Las Vegas on Oct. 6, 1996.
They were the Nike heirs to Air. From clutch performances to scandalous infidelity, their career arcs were strikingly similar. Above all, what united them was intensity. Fury. Refusal to laugh at themselves or reveal weakness. They were Jordan clones.
The lesson they took from MJ was Manifest Destiny. You couldn’t relent. Ever. You had to walk like Mike. Talk like Mike. Scowl like Mike. You had to be a cold-blooded assassin. The joy was in the misery.
This worldview carried Kobe and Tiger for years. They built images, then empires and ultimately legacies. And then... they burned out.
Just about the same time, too. Tiger’s final epic achievement was June 2008 when he won the U.S. Open in San Diego — that same Sunday, Kobe was playing the Celtics in his fifth NBA Finals appearance.
Tiger last contended in a major championship in July 2013, just three months after Kobe tore his Achilles.
The last three years have represented an agonizing, long goodbye as Kobe’s and Tiger’s fans tried to come to grips with their demise. It’s not just the end for two icons, it’s potentially the end of the Jordan worldview.
Nike’s cold-blooded assassins, overpowering and unwavering, are going out of style. They’re being replaced by the Under Armour boys next door — warm, humble, approachable. Steph Curry and Jordan Spieth aren’t exactly underdogs anymore. But they FEEL like underdogs. The kinds of guys you’d want your sister to date.
In that sense, they violate every Nike campaign ever made. Jordan, Tiger and Kobe ruled by force. They thrived on hate. Steph and Spieth have no comprehension of that motivation. When they close their eyes and listen to the crowd, they don’t seek out the boos, they take fuel from the cheers.
They’re flipping superstardom on its head. Not without resistance, by the way. Fans of the old way have a hard time believing in Curry and Spieth.
Golden State wins 73 games? Pssh. The Bulls would sweep them, they say.
Spieth chases the Grand Slam at 22? Pssh. Tiger won by wider margins, they say.
Truth is, they see weakness in today’s icons. Curry can’t windmill dunk. Spieth can’t drive it 330. They believe that Kobe and Tiger — if only their bodies would allow it — would vanquish them by force of personality. By sheer will.
And yet time is overpowering and unwavering. Time doesn’t relent.
Tonight in California, Kobe will take his final shots as Curry breaks one of Jordan’s prized records. You can watch them at the same time, if you wish. The Past vs. The Future.
The heirs to Air are saying goodbye. A new kingdom reigns.
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>> However you feel about Kobe, this piece by Baxter Holmes is worth reading.
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>> Michael Greller’s Masters post-mortem serves as a pep talk for Jordan Spieth’s fans and also a reminder of how quickly Spieth (and his caddie) have become superstars. They’ll be back and I imagine Spieth will be even more popular because of those 15 vulnerable minutes on No. 12.
>> Is Carson Wentz really worth $20 million? Kevin Van Valkenberg goes deep on the North Dakota State mystery man.
>> This will appeal to the NFL geeks out there (that’s actually a huge audience, isn’t it). Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan, son of former Husker Kent McCloughan, opens up about the personnel process. What he looks for when he starts building a team.
Speaking of Kent McCloughan and former Husker teammate Pat Fischer, here’s a year-old story about bump-and-run coverage and who actually popularized it. Pretty cool that both are in the conversation.
>> The Michigan Man(iac), Jim Harbaugh, makes reasonable points in this SI column about satellite camps. I don’t imagine the Wolverines will be scheduling Ole Miss anytime soon.
>> Excellent story from Jon Solomon about athletic departments hiring search firms during coaching transitions. Solomon focuses on Iowa State’s pursuit of Matt Campbell. Here's a snippet:
Many athletic directors crave search firms for confidentiality and plausible deniability about candidates they're vetting.
“What's changed? Agents,” explained Pollard, Iowa State's AD. “You can't trust anybody. As soon as I make a call to an agent, that agent is putting it on Twitter or giving it to some reporter. Who's sincere? Who's trying to get a raise for their client? Who's going to make me look bad in the process because they're not interested? When you're on this side and know exactly what happened and you see all the rumors, it's mind-boggling the amount of misinformation out there. The crux of it is the agents because the agents get paid for more money for their clients.”
>> Remarkable story from Oregon about juveniles behind bars who are training for a marathon.
>> Gordon Wittenmyer on how changes to the 2012 collective bargaining agreement incentivized tanking and reshaped baseball.
As many as five National League teams are following the Cubs’ and Astros’ leads and deliberately finishing low in the standings so they can have more money to spend on draft picks. It’s not the draft order that promotes tanking; it’s the cash.
>> Tim Brown on Vin Scully as the legend begins his 67th and final season. Great stuff.
>> Dana O’Neil writes about Jay Wright’s amazing ride from hot seat to national championship. It’s hard not to like the Villanova coach.
>> Who is Christian Pulisic? Only the latest savior of U.S. men’s soccer. At 17, he might already be one of America’s best attackers.
>> Finally, Iowa defensive tackle Drew Ott (native of Giltner, Neb.) has been denied a fifth year for the Hawkeyes. I’m not surprised by the decision. I am disappointed the NCAA dragged this out so long.