Fourteen years ago, in the same city in which I’m writing these lines, I played my only game against Michael Jordan, my childhood hero. I remember that it was a December 31st, that I was coming back from an ankle sprain and that I had played briefly, maybe two or three minutes the day before at the Madison Square Garden. Back then, Pop wasn’t the Pop he is today and was not resting players at all. The chances of playing significant minutes were slim but not null, I would’ve been happy with five or six good minutes in which maybe, I was gonna guard him a couple time or be guarded by him. Who knows? Well, Pop. Of course.
In my mind, this is how the night went. Game started. Excitement in the air. Nothing in the first quarter, but I expected it. Nothing for most of the second quarter and I was getting worried but when I was about to head to the locker room, Pop turned, looked at me and said “GO! Take TD!”. I now recall playing around 7 seconds, not touching the ball and with MJ not even being on the court at the time. Doesn’t matter. 48 minute game. Looooong and tight second half left. It’ll be fine.
After halftime I made sure I was ready for the rest of the game, I was flying during that warm-up, I think I even windmilled it once. Maybe towards the end of the third quarter, at least to give Bruce Bowen a breather I was gonna play. No. It didn’t happen. Very close game in the fourth, too, and Pop never turned back again. Game over. Loss. No MJ. No cool story to tell. Very poor end of 2002. You might think, “Relax man! there’s another game against them in SA. When finally healthy you are gonna be able to play”. Yeahhhh… NO! The Wizards had come to SA two weeks before, a few days after I sprained my ankle. There was definitely not gonna be another MJ-MG game.
To make sure that my memory was not exaggerating I went to www.basketball-reference.com and checked it out. I went back to that exact day and found the boxscore. I wanted to convince myself that it wasn’t as bad as I remembered.
Here’s the final boxscore.
Wait wait… I played a minute! Not as bad as I thought! Besides, I even took a shot. Sweet, maybe it was a good shot, probably “in and out”, then a good solid defensive play and that was it. But I wanted to know more, I wanted to challenge my brain so I went to explore the play by play…
Bad news!! I actually played 5.2 seconds and I airballed a 40 feet long three. Now I even remember. MJ was on the court, but on the other side guarded by Bruce Bowen (of course). Pop saw that they had gone small and didn’t want Tim Duncan to get his third personal foul. “Manu, go get TD, take Hughes!”. Ouch! So close!
I know it’s not a terrible story, but as a rookie, I hoped for a great one. I had only one chance to play against the guy featured in that poster. That life size poster that looked at me every single night as a kid before going to bed and challenged me to get better and better.
And I did! Not for long, but I did!
A few days ago Dante and Nico, my six and a half year-old twin sons, asked me about Michael Jordan (one friend in school mentioned that long time ago, there was a guy that was even better than Lebron they said). So I told them who he was and showed them some memorable highlights on YouTube. When done I asked them, did you guys know that once I played against him? And I began telling them this story while their eyes were getting bigger and bigger.