This Magic Moment: Knowing and Being Known

Michael Jordan turns fifty years old this week. For many people, including myself, that's a scary reminder of how quickly time flies. But it means more than that for me. Any mention of Jordan reminds me of one of the most peculiar moments of my youth, a moment that has only become more meaningful for me as the years have rolled by.


To celebrate Jordan's birthday, ESPN is running a week-long series of extended reflections on aspects of Jordan's greatness. Despite the real tendency for talk of Jordan's greatness to slip easily into idolatry, there is no question he was a phenomenon. In my judgment - admittedly quite irrelevant to any formal discussion of the question - there really should be no debate over who is the greatest basketball player ever to play the game. It's Jordan, and by a sizable stretch.

I once had the fortunate experience of seeing Jordan play in person, and it is this event that I have in mind in today's post. The mighty Chicago Bulls came to Miami to play the then-unimpressive Heat, and a friend of the family, knowing my enthusiasm for Jordan, generously bought me a ticket and took me to the game. On our way there, my friend also stopped at a sports store and bought me my pick of the Chicago Bulls caps on the wall. It wasn't the only time this family friend showed me such kindness: the next year, he brought me to his favorite high-end clothing store and bought me an expensive tie to wear to a school banquet. (Even today it seems terribly expensive to me.) I'll never forget these gestures, and they continue to bear fruit in the ways I think of young boys and how to show interest in them as men-in-the-making.

The days leading up to the big game - big for me, that is, but pedantry for Jordan - were impossibly agonizing. Restless anticipation affected everything: eating, sleeping, homework, classwork. This family friend happened to be dating one of my teachers at the time. This is yet another fortuitous feature of the story, since she was sympathetic from the start with my utter uselessness in the classroom for at least a week leading up to the game.

1997 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 4: Chicago Bulls vs. Miami Heat

The game itself did not disappoint. Jordan scored his usual 30 points or so, and had  plenty of show-stopping moves and plays to keep any fan happy. The Bulls also won the game easily. The noteworthy, memorable moment I have in mind, however, occurred before the game.

My friend and I arrived at the Miami Arena (later demolished and replaced with American Airlines Arena) well ahead of tip-off, which meant we had time to move down in the bleachers, only a few rows up from court-side, and watch the players ease into their pregame warm-up routines. Of course I only cared about locating one player on the court, and eventually Jordan showed up and started his jump-shot drill, making his way around the arc.

I watched him for a few minutes, my new Bulls cap snugly in place, and then it happened. A ball skipped off the backboard and bounced in my direction. Jordan trotted after the ball and grabbed it about twenty feet away from where I stood. When he picked it up, he glanced in my direction, turned around, and headed back to the court. I was standing and staring at him at the time, of course, and when he looked up the strangest thing happened: for half a second, probably less in fact, I fully expected him to recognize me.

Upon reflection, I understand why I expected him to know me. I knew him - or about him - very well. For years I had followed his career with the meticulous devotion of a student zealous for his subject. I knew his exact height and weight, his stats, his hometown and the high points of his play at North Carolina, and more than a few of his favorite things. I knew so much about him and had known (of) him for so long, I expected, for that fleeting moment, that he knew me too. Of course he did not know me, and of course his glance in my direction was not only fleeting but completely unrelated to the fact that I was standing there. By now, he has surely glanced in the general direction of millions of young boys who have thought what I thought in that peculiar moment. But for that half-second or so, I stopped breathing, fully expecting him to say, "Hey, Mark, how's it going? Glad you could make it."

My brief and exciting expectation that Michael Jordan would know me was of course silly evidence of my youth, but after all these years it has also come to mean more than that. These days, my heart is wooed by Love from beyond that came down to me, closer than court-side, in order to love me unto death. By his grace I have come to love him, too, and for many years have grown -  in fits and starts, surely - in that love for him. Life is, for me, a journey of learning more and more about him, and of longing patiently for the day I will see him with the eyes of sight and perfected faith. And the wonder of that moment to come will surpass infinitely what I, as a young boy, thought might and should happen in that half-moment before a trivial basketball game: after all, He will know me. In fact, he knew me and loved me long before I knew him.

If Jordan's birthday this week pulls me, hazily and imperfectly, into a revived longing for perfected communion with my Beloved and the visio Dei, I might almost think all that time spent as a boy watching and studying the basketball player worthwhile. Well, almost.