Words: Jim Litke

He was as relentless as the winter, and he always kept score, two things that carry a lot of weight around here.

His name gave us a street cred that wasn’t tied to body counts or mob bosses, two other things for which we were already too well known. For a while, we owned the bragging rights to the universe.

It’s become an article of faith that sooner or later, the “next one” will come along; if not in this generation, then the next, or certainly the one after that. But there will never be another Michael Jordan.

Bill Russell won more NBA championships. Kareem-Abdul Jabbar and Karl Malone scored more points in a career. Wilt Chamberlain scored more in a night. Larry Bird was a better shooter. Magic Johnson was a better passer. Kobe Bryant might retire as the most complete offensive player ever. LeBron James has time on his side and 22nd-Century skills already. His accomplishments might one day dwarf all theirs.

But MJ wasn’t just about basketball. Once he won (so long as you forget the early days of the second coming, and the third altogether) he never lost again. And as long as he was on our side, we felt like we couldn’t lose, either…at anything.

Don’t believe it? Then ask yourself: Down by a point with 0:01 left and the fate of mankind hanging in the balance, whose number are you gonna call?

The original 23. The same guy who bailed out the planet the last time.

He wasn’t just ours, of course. Jordan roamed the planet in search of a competitive fix, Ulysses in sneakers and baggy shorts, Atlas holding up a globe with seams stretched around it.

He was the first superstar at the dawn of the 24/7 era, then its first super salesman. No other athlete could play himself in a corny movie like Space Jam—battling animated alien giants who looked suspiciously like Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, et. al.—and still have it gross $230 million worldwide.

Tiger Woods? Maybe once. At the moment, no one else is even in the argument. Open it up to history, and you can still count the names on one hand.

Four decades ago, author Wilfrid Sheed noted you could walk into a mud hut in the remotest corner of Africa and find a picture of Muhammad Ali hanging on the wall. But TV had only so much immediacy back then and only a fraction of the audience yet to come. Four decades before that, Babe Ruth became the larger-than-life embodiment of a burgeoning Yankee empire. But that was when newspapers still covered the corners of the earth.

When Jordan showed up in Chicago as a rookie 30 years ago, cable TV and the satellite networks in Europe and Asia were just taking off. Everybody wanted sports programming, and Jordan produced a highlight reel’s worth every night. Better still, viewers in even the most faraway markets didn’t need subtitles to be thrilled by the sight of a man flying through the air.