|In Michael Jordan's last All-Star Game, he still shined brightest. (Getty Images)|
We know there has been talk of whether or not Michael Jordan would be able to play in the NBA at 50 years old, but a little over 10 years ago, MJ was playing at age 39. After hitting The Shot in Utah in 1998 and seemingly ending his career on a storybook finish, Jordan decided to come back to the game in his late 30s in the 2001-02 season.
Jordan wasn't in his typical shape physically, and he had setbacks in his return because of a broken rib suffered from a Ron Artest injury during the offseason before his comeback. However, Michael fought through these things and still managed to be a highly effective player for the Washington Wizards at 38 and 39 years old.
During his final run in 2003, he was elected to the Eastern Conference All-Star team for the Feb. 9 game. Aside from the controversy heading into the game of whether or not he'd be allowed to start his final All-Star Game, the night was about Jordan going against the best players in the Western Conference and showing he still had enough to beat anybody one-on-one.
There were two points to the Michael Jordan aspect of this game: 1) celebrate the legacy of Jordan and 2) go at the greatest player to ever play the game.
Looking at Jordan's final line, one can see he struggled throughout the game. He finished with 20 points on 9-of-27 shooting from the field. He took shots at the rim, and he took shots at every player who tried to defend the legend. The experience embodied everything we knew about MJ and everything we continue to know about him.
He was relentless, even when things weren't working out for him. Shawn Marion was probably near his athletic peak at the time, capable of deterring down anybody on the court who wasn't named Shaquille O'Neal. Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett were two of the best players in the league on both sides of the court. Gary Payton was still a very capable defender when it came to guarding slower guys. And the West had plenty of length with Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, and Shaq to bother anything Jordan tried to put up.
Michael didn't let anything stop him from trying to prove he could still take any one of them when given the opportunity. His competitive nature that we wax on about to this day had the biggest spotlight of the weekend.
Much like everything he had to do in his comeback with the Wizards, Jordan had to try to outthink you to get to where he wanted to be. The first step was more of a premonition than a reality, but he used the fear of what he once was to his advantage. He had to get to his spots, and he had to have a quick release when he got there, before you realized he had reached his destination.
When defenders did close on him, he had to trick them into thinking he was out of options and stuck in neutral. The famous pump fake that had dissected the defensive capture by his opponents so many times was still as deadly as it ever was. He got you in the air, where much like space nobody can hear you scream. Once you were in the air, his impeccable footwork that had taken so many years to perfect would carry him into his shot.
And his hands were still accurate once he was freed up. Muscle memory, repetition, and hundreds of thousands of jumpers taken in his life were guiding the ball into the basket. Watch the video below and remember this is the Kevin Garnett who was one of the best defenders in the world, often assigned the task of being the duct tape that kept Flip Saunders' makeshift zone defense together in Minnesota. He was third in Defensive Player of the Year voting that year, and yet still susceptible to biting when Jordan tricked him.
He was no longer a muscle twitch away from blowing past you and assaulting the rim before it knew what hit it. The instincts were there, but the body rarely complied with the thought process. As Jordan hit his athletic peak and then started to slowly roll down the hill, he developed the destructive post game he would abuse defenders with on a nightly basis.
It wasn't just about strength, although by that time Jordan seemed to have the same vice-like grip a 50-year old steelworker might still possess. Like everything MJ did in his career, there was a plan to using that strength. The shoulder would fly into the middle of your chest to let you know he's there. Then he'd work one side of the chest over the other, to take away your balance. Once your balance was gone, it was going to be hard for you to contest the shot, especially if you were a smaller player.
And that's the space he needed to create. Post play is always about creating space. Create enough of it and you can ease into whatever shot you are allowed to take. Know the defender's outstretched hand will miss by an inch, and it feels like a mile of room to operate and execute.
The 39-year old Jordan was a con man. Not in the business sense, but he was a con man in the sense that he would set you up to play the shell game, make you think you could win, and then empty your wallet by sleight of hand. If he knew he could knock down the midrange jumper against your stretching fingertips, it was immediately used as a smoke screen to set up a future play.
When a player gets in rhythm on a certain shot, you have to find ways to take away that shot and a variation of that shot. Against Dirk Nowitzki below, midrange jumpers set up the moment of believing a post-up fadeaway from the same area on the floor could happen. That's when the footwork creeps back in and provides you with a drop step and a layup at the basket against a 7-footer.
And then there was the idea of putting the game on the line and giving the ball to the greatest player to ever lace up a pair of kicks. It wasn't just about hoping to recreate magic on the court for MJ. People accepted that he wasn't the player holding his hand up for a photo finish in Salt Lake City five years earlier. But you still hoped he'd deliver in the clutch, and he rarely disappointed.
Even with the knee tendinitis and athletically drained legs, Jordan could still find that extra space to get off a jumper that mattered more than any other shot from the previous 47 minutes.
This would have been a storybook send-off for MJ if Jermaine O'Neal hadn't fouled Kobe Bryant in the remaining seconds of this game to allow an overtime period. In that overtime period, Kevin Garnett took over and finished off his All-Star Game MVP campaign.
But the people got what they wanted to see. Jordan still had it against the best players in the world, even if it wasn't pretty at times. He could score against the most athletic defenders, even when age and history told us it wasn't really possible for a perimeter player to do this. The East gave him a chance to end the game and add to his legend, which he promptly complied.
With Michael Jordan turning 50 today, there is going to be a lot of talk about free-throw-line dunks, shrugs to the crowd, heroic games against the Utah Jazz, and a legend that has become one of the influential world figures over the last century. But let's not forget that moment 10 years ago when he was at the NBA All-Star Weekend and proved to us that there was still a little legacy left in those fingers.
Happy birthday, Michael. It was an honor to watch you play.