A Touch of Greatness

On February 7, 1987, I was a freshman at the University of Washington, trying to decide what to make of myself. I was a hard-working walk-on, trying to make an impression on the Husky basketball team and was completely unaware that before the year was out I would play my way into the starting five. What I did know, however, was that I loved basketball, and when the NBA decided to being the 37th All-Star game to Seattle, I knew I had to be there in some capacity. In those days, the Kingdome was the site of any and all major sporting events in Seattle, but there was no way I was going to be able to afford a ticket. Resigned to watching the game on television, I was ecstatic to learn that for $10 I could get into the Slam Dunk contest, to be held at the old Seattle Center Coliseum the night before the big game.

The dunk contest itself had been around since the mid-1970s when Julius Erving shocked the world by dunking from the free throw line. In the years leading up to 1987, it has seen a resurgence, with superstars like Dominique Wilkins taking part, and seemed to be peaking in interest after the diminutive Spud Webb swept the competition in 1986. Conspicuously absent from that contest, however, was one Michael Jordan, who missed it and most of the season with a stress fracture in his foot (but oh, were those shoes something special!) Tickets clutched firmly in our hands, my buddy, Jeff Watling and I found our seats high up in the arena and watched and waited.

I really only went to see Michael, though the field included notable dunkers such as Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey (the eventual runner up), Terence Stansbury, and surprisingly, Tom Chambers, the eventual All-Star Game MVP. What happened during those five dunks of Michael’s transformed the event and me. I still recall sitting up high on the edge of my seat, watching him defy every law of physics I thought I knew, exploding out of my chair to applaud a dunk that was, up to that point, the greatest dunk I had ever seen. I marveled as he rammed home double-clutch reverse dunks. I was awestruck when he introduced us to his “Kiss The Rim” dunk where he took off from outside the key on the left side, approached the rim nearly parallel to the floor, and threw the ball down so quickly and forcefully, if you blinked you would have missed it. And I saw him slowly backpedal to the end of the court, letting each of us know in no uncertain terms that he was going to take off from the free-throw line, accelerate, leap from a place few had ever leapt before, DOUBLE-CLUTCH IN THE AIR, and finish the most spectacular dunk I had ever seen (again). This dunk is the one that has been shown repeatedly on television ads, highlight reels, and now You Tube, for the past 24 years.

And what of those that blinked? You see, when Michael completed each of his dunks, I was wild with joy, unbridled awe, and admiration for a feat I was sure I would never see again…until his next turn. I was immediately on my feet, doubled over in shock, jumping into Jeff’s arms, shouting and screaming with all I had. But the thing is, I was alone in my celebration. No one else around me was having that same reaction. Were I not such a fan of his, I would have been mortified to be the only one fawning over what I had seen. But I wasn’t embarrassed. What was wrong with everyone? I was a little shocked and a lot mystified. Why weren’t the others going nuts like I was? And then it happened. The replay, in slow motion. As we all watched the big screen, there was a roar that started small but quickly rose to deafening levels. Only in slow motion could most of the fans truly appreciate the majesty of Michael’s dunks. Only on a replay could you see the subtle double-clutch on his free-throw line dunk – more than Dr. J had ever done on his – see him nearly actually kiss the rim, see the power and fluidity of his movements. Once we all had a chance to marvel over his latest feat, we sat back down as one, murmuring about what we had just witnessed. As for me, I was just exhausted.

When the last score was posted and Michael had been announced as the winner, I hurried down to be courtside. Now, please understand, I have never been an autograph hound. Truthfully, I never understood the allure of having someone write his name on a piece of paper and then showing that paper to other people. Look, someone signed this once. So I don’t linger outside locker rooms waiting, hoping to get an autograph, even though I signed plenty myself during my playing days. But something called me down to the court, and as I stood there by the courtside exit to the locker rooms, Michael began walking my way, holding his new trophy. At that moment I knew in my heart that I might never again be that close to greatness, close enough to reach out and touch him as he walked by, to feel the sweat on his jersey, to suck in the aura of a true superstar, even before he had established himself as possibly the greatest ever to play the game. As he passed, I slapped him on the back and said something inane like ‘Way to go, Michael!’ But as I pulled my hand back, I had many of those silly thoughts that so many kids have at some point – am I ever going to wash this hand again? Would washing my hand wash away the greatness that, for the briefest of moments, had graced it? Was greatness something you could wash away? Was it even something you could ‘catch’? As I made my way back to meet Jeff and head home, I was sure that there was a tiny little buzz in my fingertips, as if I had touched something wonderful and powerful that I would probably never touch again.

To Michael, I was nothing but another fan in another arena trying to invade his personal space. I think he was even cradling the trophy, protecting it and himself from people like me. He never knew I slapped him on the back, nor what that one simple act meant to me. But as he grew into the icon that he became, with MVP trophies, endorsement deals that staggered the imagination, and eventually championship rings, I always recalled that moment, when our paths, for some completely unpredictable and meaningless reason, crossed. I never made the NBA, and though I saw him play in Seattle many times over the next 11 years, I never made it below the third level of the arena, let alone meet him face to face. That brief encounter was my brush with excellence, with perfection. Thanks, Michael. From someone who always wondered what greatness on a massive scale looked and felt like, to the person who showed me.

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