Sometimes Phil Jackson looks at his bulls, and they are on national television, wearing new nike sneakers, running the floor in an instinctual trance. The ball is a pet; the basket a bed. The two nets sense each other from across the court. The bulls keep on without breath. Their nikes are squeaking. The crowd is blushing. The heat of the whole entire room. The ball is traced by eyes; the clock ticks how it’s taught. This playoff series will never end. The shot clock is stopped; there are three balls on the court; the fouls are flagrant. The assistant coach is laughing. The players sweat, they sing, they poke each others eyes, they cry. They won't stop passing, muscling, free-throwing, threatening. The shot clock dies. The players are becoming stars, stuffing time in their socks. Their lettered last names, plus their numbers, plus their clean faces, all a clear truth for the camera. Phil Jackson watches life played out in quarters, his bulls the pullers of fantasy.
Basketball associations go beyond the NBA, the fondly remembered ABA, the occasionally mentioned CBA. Back in the late 1800's, basketball is invented before airplanes. There are no bras, no ballpoint pens, no movies. The game is born an animal. It likes being played; it’s nameless, spontaneous. Everyone likes it. Within a week it has an audience. Basket ball is free of connotations. There is no jazz to it. It’s white and neat and quick. It has no swaggering bad boys; it is for a time, heroless. Brooklyn and Philadelphia fall in love. Later comes the BAA, the SBL. The whole unreality of forgotten teams. The New Jersey Swamp Dragons, The Magic City Snowbears. High schoolers drew up the logos.
What happens in this long between? Blackened globs of chewing gum start to spot sidewalks. Men wear frock coats. The teddy bear appears. The windshield wiper. Cornflakes, Crossword puzzles. Wars and music. The slinky. Silly putty. The first credit card. Fat presidents and thin presidents. First kisses all around. Jokes, problems. JD Salinger writes Catcher in the Rye. Days, nights, people waiting for the telephone. People falling down stairs. People blowing their noses. Dick Dale tries out Leo Fender's new Stratocaster Electric Guitar and blows the amp into flames. The ballpoint pens, the underwire bras, dark dreamy movies. Triumphant jack hammering and pouring of cement at the end of driveways. The animals run to the woods. The woods get cut into pieces. The game HORSE. A girl's first period. Family pets fall ill. To celebrate the new pinball ban, New York Mayor Fiorello Henry LaGuardia smashes a number of machines in front a supportive crowd. America sits up neatly in its states. Someone keeps track of all the seals and flags, songs and birds. Young children can tell the difference between a Chevy and a Toyota just by the sounds outside their window. Basketball still building. Primary and secondary colors combine in every combination. Wax builds in small ears. The wind feels mean, but sometimes nice, depending on the weather and what is going on at the time. The sky is the background in back of everything. Cigarettes sit back smugly. Cats try and act sexy. Dogs eat garbage. Raccoons eat garbage. Skunks are very elusive. Deer are magical angels. Foxes are also elusive. Giraffes and elephants are locked up in fake areas meant to simulate the world. Baby chimpanzees are put in diapers. Monkeys are taught languages, given toys, made to watch videos. Pink and blue are chosen as the team colors for boys and girls. Mickey doesn't want to do his work and uses magic to make the broom do it for him, but he doesn't stop there! The Beatles eclipse Elvis and become the world's most popular musical artists. The Lakers are #1. Dads are #1. Everyone who played the first game of basket ball has died. Lucille Ball is dead. Buster Keaton is dead. Dogs are dead, foreign dictators are dead, authors are dead. Ants wander into the house and get lost in the bathroom floor tiles. John Casavettes makes some magic. Looney Tunes make magic too. Babies are born fat and naked. Plans dreamt up. Traditions grudgingly survive. The weather runs its cycles. TV Commercials use classic rock to sell products. Grandparents tell good stories. A Varsity coach makes his cuts. Boys carry home their basketballs, dejected. One grows all summer long. The game gathers watchers. Video cameras eat it up, spit it out. A part in the chest, below the heart, above the stomach, weasels around in sympathy and faith while ten point leads inflate it. The unfeeling buzzer stabs it. Adidas gets involved. Fila, NBC, TBS. Full court brawls. Big big names. Pale refs run insistently along side.
What rushes to all minds is Michael Jordan. 23, 23, 45, 23. Now that there has been Michael Jordan, we will never be without again. He smiles at us cleanly, with no moustache. He smoothes his head and we stare at his earring. "Michael," we say. He puts on deodorant, no earring, a faint moustache. "Michael," we awe, "Didn't it mean anything?" The ball spins on his finger like it’s glued. Time swallows a pause. "Everything," he smiles. He dunks in a leisure suit. He dunks in Hanes boxer briefs. He dunks in montage, from the right, from the left, in the Olympics, in college, with Bill Walton bellowing, with japanese sports casting, with instant replay, with frame-by-frame analysis, with sloppy digital pen circling his knees and tongue.
This is the version of him that has no future or past. No ex-wife or kids, no off-court life. He lives in the United Center. He doesn't fuss with food or water. There are whole months in the air, between the floor and the rim. This moment of quiet and loud gets stuck on repeat.
Michael Jordan shoots, swishes, but a lot of times he just stands, lit. An occasional swivel. Rotates like a figurine. Television size. He could dribble his basketball in the palm of your hand.
Michael Jordan leaps off the foul line in his famous all star dunk. This is more than just sneakers that pump up. Michael Jordan is The Sure Thing. The best fit protagonist. Even more though. Michael Jordan as visually understood, exact. A ladybug, a domino. Composition notebooks. Iconic as a beagle dog. Familiar as a landmark. A shared phenomenon. Ketchup on French fries. "The dog ate my homework." Something usual. Sleep at night. Popcorn at movies. Phil Jackson can't slow this roulette wheel. People plus life, plus time, plus ketchup on fries?
Mostly we have stopped whispering. The jerseys still hang like flags from old teenagers, but none of the babies understand. Some will take the time to sit in front of espn Classic Games and piece it back together. Once there was a guy who was so good. It always went in. He stuck his tongue out like this. He was so appealing. As long as Michael plus Jordan sits encoded in our minds, he'll still be shooting in an empty court. Video doesn't just die. It keeps relaying itself through outer space. It mixes up NASA's guys. Jordan can't remember anything. All he knows is the ball belongs in the basket. He dunks it, he hooks it, it wishes through the net, he takes it to three point land. He smiles. He pauses. He's making the nineties pretty. He's making them vivid and infinite. Each day attaches end to end, stretching to the moon in full moving color.