I had the privilege of witnessing Michael Jordan


Robert Baker | Associated Press

FILE – In this May 7, 1995, file photo, Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan (45) and forward Scottie Pippen (33) walk back to the bench during a timeout in the closing seconds of an NBA basketball playoff game in Orlando. Pippen says he’s talked with Jordan since “The Last Dance” documentary aired in the spring and downplayed any rift between the retired Bulls stars.

Mike Knapp, Columnist

For five Sunday nights in April and May, much of the nation was captivated by the Michael Jordan-produced documentary “The Last Dance”.

In case you missed it, the documentary focused on the Bulls’ 1997-98 season, the final year of the team’s run of six NBA titles in eight years. While chronicling that season, the documentary also documented much of the previous five titles, Michael Jordan’s foray into professional baseball, and gave a backstory as to how that final team had been constructed.

For many, it was a true introduction into the NBA of the 1980’s and 1990’s, and it told the story of how Jordan and the Bulls became global icons.

How global? In November 2018, I was in Dubai, and my wife and I went on a desert tour. Sharing our car with us was a young couple from Japan. When we shared where we were from, the first thing they wanted to talk about was the Bulls, and the husband spoke of how he played pickup games wearing Scottie Pippen Nike shoes.

I’ve had that same conversation with people in places like Monaco, Milan, Rome and Singapore. The Bulls and the NBA are bigger outside of the U.S. than we give them credit for. Jordan, of course, is one of the most recognizable people on the planet.

For me, watching “The Last Dance” was just reliving a great time in my life. During that time, I was a huge Bulls fan. I watched as many games as I could, and Jordan’s poster hung in my bedroom during middle and high school, as well as my room in college. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I was close, personal friends with the man himself.

Not really, but I did meet him once. In June 1984, my dad was attending a business seminar at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, and I spent most of my days playing Finley Golf Course, the university track.

One day, MJ himself was there, and I rushed over to him in the parking lot for an autograph. As this was a couple of weeks prior to the Bulls selecting MJ in the 1984 draft, he was driving what looked to be about a 1978 Buick LeSabre, and offered to give me an autograph if I took his cart back to the clubhouse.

Dang, I wish I still had that autograph.

While I was a Jordan fan before that, meeting him took my fandom into overdrive. That’s why “The Last Dance” had so many great memories.

But the greatest Jordan memory I have? Seeing him play in person.

That happened on Jan. 10, 1990. I was living in Indianapolis at the time, and we got tickets to see the Bulls play the Indiana Pacers at Market Square Arena. I forget how we got the tickets, but given where we were sitting, they were probably in the $10-$15 range. Fifteen dollars in 1990 is worth about $28 today, meaning I’d have enough money to park but wouldn’t have enough left to get me in the front door — or even a beer for that matter.

Living in Indy at that time in NBA history was awesome. The Pacers hadn’t become perennial playoff contenders yet, so tickets were always available, with the cheapest ones costing $8.

That’s right, I saw people like Jordan, Pippen, Isiah Thomas, Dennis Rodman, Clyde Drexler, Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway and David Robinson for less than $15 a pop. Did I mention I kind of miss those days?

One thing I quickly noticed that night is that the buzz was different. MJ was in town, and the crowd was a mix of die-hard Pacers fans, Jordan fans and people making their way from Chicago, because tickets at Chicago Stadium were near impossible to get.

There is always a buzz before any big game, but when Jordan is on the floor, it never ends. You could feel a collective move-to-the-edge-of-your-seat every time he touched the ball. The “oohhs” and “ahhhs” for Jordan are different than anything else, because when the ball was in his hands, you were always seconds away from something you’ve never seen in your life and you may not ever see again.

This night, though, belonged to the Pacers. Indiana ran out to an 11-point halftime lead and eventually went on to win by a score of 120-113 to drop the Bulls season record to 21-12.

By his own admission, Jordan didn’t play well. Sure, he finished with 35 points, but he shot just 13-for-30 from the field and his point total was the result of a flurry of buckets down the stretch as he tried to bring the Bulls back.

Pippen finished the game with 14 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, while John Paxson hit nine of his 13 shots to add 19. None of it mattered, though, because the Bulls had no answer for Pacers guard Reggie Miller.

Miller, then in his third year in the NBA, was en route to scoring 24.6 points per game for the season and making the all-star team for the first time. Throughout his career, Miller loved going head-to-head with Jordan, and on this night he dropped a career-high 44 points, all the while letting the Bulls know exactly what he was doing to them.

Miller had a special relationship with Market Square Arena and the Pacers fans. When he got it going in that building and got the fans behind him, it became a crazy place. Miller started dropping in 3-pointers, the energy level of the building went into overdrive, and, as happened to the Bulls many times in that building over the next several years, they had no answer.

That night, I was disappointed that the Bulls lost, but as the years go on, the more I become grateful to have seen that game. It stunk to lose, but we all knew even then what was in store for the Bulls in the years to come. What sticks with me is knowing that I saw an incredible basketball game played by two of the best teams of the decade that featured three players in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Jordan hasn’t played an NBA game in close to 20 years, but he is still my all-time favorite player. It turned out that being able to see him play in person was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’m sure there are lots of people out there who saw Jordan play dozens of times, but there are also millions of people who only saw him play one time.

I’m in that group, and I’m so glad that I am part of it.