My youngest sister was born in the summer of 1985. She grew up playing with the boys, being invited to join their soccer teams and beating them in pick-up games on the tarred basketball courts of the elementary school playground. On Sunday, she'll be with me and our two other sisters for an increasingly rare reunion.
It is significant that the four of us have managed to break away from our busy lives to spend a weekend together, just us. It is also significant that Michal Jordan is turning 50; the birthday itself is a milestone, and Michael Jordan is a cultural touchstone. ESPN has dedicated an entire week of its programming to a commemoration of the birthday boy.
The least I could do was dedicate a simple blog post to the little girl who didn't just like Mike, but loved him.
The growth charts of MJ's career and my sister's life follow similar arcs. As he was helping a franchise find its footing, she was learning to walk. As he began winning the first of his many league awards and advancing his team into the playoffs, she was showing her own early signs of athletic precocity. On Michael's 4th anniversary with the Bulls, Phil Jackson became the team's head coach, and my four-year-old sister ran a 3.5 mile loop around a bay in Portland.
The Bulls began their march into the record books in the early 90s. They won their first NBA Championship, and Michael was named MVP of the league and of the Finals. Both feats were repeated, twice, and in a row. In the midst of the three-peat, MJ brought the Dream Team to the Olympics.
Meanwhile, in a small town in Maine, my sister was beginning to understand what she could do and who she wanted to be. In a house full of girls, she eschewed playing with dolls in favor of going out to the driveway to shoot foul shots at the regulation-height hoop. She covered her short hair with baseball hats, dressed in windpants and t-shirts, and attended practice after practice, sports camp after sports camp. Her own collection of MVP trophies began to grow, and as a child who could not yet reliably tie her own shoes, she started to gain a local reputation as the girl who could do it better than the boys.
Her personality made her singularly determined, and her natural love for sports kept her happy as she toiled through the drills she assigned for the day. But soon she found motivation outside of herself, inspiration that propelled her still further in her ambition. It was Michael.
My most distinct childhood Christmas memory is traipsing downstairs in our traditional line, with her leading the way. As us older three delighted in the typical delights of little girls, she jumped up and down in front of a cardboard cutout of Michael, poised as if he were about to take a free throw. She was trying to hug the figure looming several feet above her. Every t-shirt she wore, every baseball hat she donned, was emblazoned with the Chicago Bulls logo. She watched every game, knew every statistic, owned every shoe.
After Michael left the Bulls for a season and then returned, he cemented the dynasty by winning another record three NBA Championships and three regular season/Finals MVP awards. This was the era of the Jordan-Pippen-Rodman triumvirate. This was when everyone started asking whether that team, and those players, were the greatest, ever, in all of sport.
Meanwhile, in a small town in Maine, my sister was in middle school. No longer allowed to play on the boys teams, she achieved the beginnings of her local phenom status. She was featured on the news for the first time, and the video showed her doing a stutter-step move and draining the shot. She'd learned that, of course, from watching Mike.
By the time he retired from the NBA, she was heading into a high school career that would lead her to a college career as the starting point guard for Boston College. Her once-short hair was by then pony-tail length, and she replaced the bull with an eagle. But the little girl with the gap-toothed grin and the too-big #23 jersey was still there, in the callouses on her hands and the behind-the-back-no-look passes.
Now Michael is 50. Now she is married. Now he works out of an office. Now she loves fashion and getting her hair done. But his office overlooks a basketball court. And she volunteers every day at a Boys & Girls Club where she spends most of her time on a basketball court, too.
The passage of time marches on. Michael is still Michael, even though he can't do Michael. And my sister is still the kid who idolized her hero, even though she carries his name in her memories and not on her clothes.
What Michael did as Michael will forever be the stuff of sports history. What my sister did in her pursuit to be like Mike will forever be the stuff of her history. And mine.
Thanks, Michael. And thanks, sweet sister. You both were really, really fun to watch grow up.
Image via myhero.com.