I grew up in New York City, which made being a Michael Jordan fan a little tricky. All my grade-school friends got riled up about John Starks, Patrick Ewing, and the rest of the bruising New York Knicks, but I couldn't bring myself to root against Jordan. Though he destroyed my hometown team season after season, I didn't care. Every May, as my classmates sulked, I grinned ear to ear, asking them, "Did you see MJ last night?" They'd always look at me with bad intentions, mumble something, and walk away. I got used to it.
Friends, girls, grades: All of these things came and passed as I got older, but MJ was always MJ (expect for his Washington Wizards days, but let's just all agree that his second comeback never happened, ok?) Six NBA titles in six appearances in the NBA Finals. I expected him to be the best, and he was.
So naturally, when I was pitched a chance to travel to Chicago and check out the new Air Jordan XX3'S, I was beyond excited, even though I tried to temper my hopes. Would he be there? Would he just appear via video and be done with it? Would we hang out with him? It turned out to be better than I ever could have imagined. Here's the full scoop:
My flight from Kennedy Airport in New York City lands at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. I retrieve my duffel bag and meet a polite gentleman who drives a large, black SUV adorned with a Jordan-brand logo. He's going to drive me back to the hotel. "Do you like UFC?" he asks. Do I ever. He puts on a DVD of an old fight between Royce Gracie and Matt Hughes on his new dashboard DVD player. We watch. Hughes wins, convincingly. It's awesome.
Check into the W Lakeshore in Chicago. The bustling, trendy lobby is filled with beautiful, rich people. I am neither beautiful nor rich, not after sitting in the airport all day and surviving on a writer's salary. I take my credit-card-key-thing, scoot up the elevator, and throw open my room's door.
Change into cushy, white bathrobe. Lounge exotically.
Click. Volume down. Click. Click. Click.
Pull out a notebook, start brainstorming each and every question that I could possibly have a chance to ask MJ tomorrow. Questions range from "Why are you so great?" to "Are you greater than everyone, or just most people?"
"You've always exuded a personal self-confidence, either on the court or in the boardroom. How important has that confidence been to your success?"
No way I'm asking Michael that question.
What time is it? I better hit the sack soon.
Now I really need to get to bed after five pages of handwritten questions are complete. I'm as prepared to ask him about Laney High School and his brother Larry as I am about the new shoes. Perhaps I'm overpreparing?
Meaningless channel changing over, I finally turn the light off. I wonder if Santa Claus will wake me up in the morning.
Wednesday, October 24, 7:00 AM
What time is it? Where Am I?
Bearings together, I hop out of bed and take the quickest shower ever.
Breakfast buffet of eggs, bacon, home fries, juice, and coffee. I eat way less than I'd like to. I'm sure, should I get the chance to meet MJ, I'll vomit, either on or near him. It's not worth the potential heartache to have seconds of scrambled eggs.
"Hi, I'm Brandon. Men's Fitness. Hi, I'm Brandon. Men's Fitness. Hi, I'm Brandon. Men's Fitness..."
Hey, is that ESPN.com's Scoop Jackson?
Waiting for an elevator with ESPN sideline-reporter Ric Bucher. "John, right?" I ask. "Ric," he says. "Think we'll be meeting the big guy?" I ask. "We'll see," he says, as he gets in an elevator, the door closing behind him. I subtract two points from my score for getting his name wrong and slam my head into the elevator when it finally arrives for me.
I need to change my shirt. Do I need to change my shirt? I'm overdressed. Should I worry? Everyone's wearing sneakers and hoodies. I'll be fine. Do I look fine?
Following instructions from the PR people who are steering this ship, the 23 journalists, handpicked to attend the event, wait around in the lobby of the hotel like we're eighth graders preparing for a field trip. I resist the urge to check my lunch and see if I have tuna on white.
Still unaware of exactly what we'll be doing today, we all board buses. I've successfully made friends with one French basketball journalist, but haven't conquered the language barrier with the throngs of Asian journalists. The NBA is most certainly a global game-arguably, it's the world's pastime.
Oh yeah, soccer. Forgot.
Pull into United Center parking lot through players' entrance. Check pants. Have not soiled myself yet. Something we can build on.
We empty out of the Jordan-brand buses and are greeted with flashbulbs. There's a camera crew recording our every move, which is awkward but very cool at the same time. I silently wonder if I could get used to this.
Where are we going? Do you know where we're going? Where do YOU think we're going?
We enter the visiting locker room. Each locker is adorned with a specific journalist's name and some Jordan-brand gear. I sit in front of my locker, pretend I'm about to take the court for a big game, and feel a knot of excitement in my stomach. I'm either ready for the next part of the day or I had too much bacon this morning. Either way, I check my pants again-still clean. This is a plus.
We sit through a presentation of all the previous models of Air Jordans. Suddenly, a PR person removes their buttoned-up shirt to reveal a referee jersey. We're still a bit unsure of where this is going, but we now have reason to believe we'll be taking the court. The actual court. The same one the Bulls play basketball on. I manage not to faint, somehow.
We line up just outside the tunnel. This is my first time inside one of these things, and I've got to tell you, if I was going to be playing a professional basketball game, I'm sure I'd be able to get hyped in this area. You can see the court, from diagonally out of bounds behind one basket, and you can see the crowd, but the enormity of the building escapes you. It's big, but feels small, if that makes sense.
It's clear what's going to happen now. As the Alan Parsons Project's "Sirius" plays over the loudspeaker, the Bulls public-address announcer introduces each editor as their names are broadcast over the big screens overhead.
Almost my turn, huh? Holy shit, what AM
I going to do when I get out there?
I see my name flash up to the screen. I don't remember reading it. I'm pretty sure I blacked out, actually. Thankfully, my pregame ritual went off without a hitch. As soon as my name is called, I make the peace sign with both hands, bring them both to my mouth, kiss the index and middle fingers of each hand, and then raise both to the sky. Think Double J, Jeff Jarrett, the WWE years. I give a two-handed high five to the person in front of me, hop onto the hardwood (mind the gap), serve a sweeping low five to the on-court contact, and run down the baseline to give the already-called editors low fives.
The court seems much smaller than I thought. Seems like the same size as every court I've ever played on, upon further inspection. I feel like this is a mistake, but that's why basketball is so cool-you can play on the same-size court as the NBA's best, mimic their moves, and then, when you watch the games on TV, you can truly appreciate what they're doing.
Please direct your attention to the overhead screens. You got it, Bulls announcer.
Cue the inspiration Michael Jordan video. I have goose bumps up and down both arms. It may be cliché, but the quotes about never giving up, champions performing under pressure, and succeeding at all costs get me every single time.
Feels like we're building up to something, doesn't it?
I scan the arena seats, searching for a certain former shooting guard.
He's got to be here somewhere, right?
I spy a tall, bald silhouette.
"Hey, do you think..."
Coughing because I've forgotten how to breathe.
After settling down and repeating over and over to myself to stay calm, the Bulls PR guy announces Michael Jordan, who walks out slowly from the tunnel where the editors were just preparing to race onto the court. Jordan is clad in jeans, a mock turtleneck, a crushed blue velvet blazer, and black wingtips. He seems to be at least nine feet tall.
He's slapping high fives with the editors.
"Sup, Mike?" Thwack. (Stares at hand lovingly for three minutes.)
We take our seats at center court for the unveiling of the kicks. The Nike execs pulled the curtain back to reveal, for the first time, the AIR JORDAN XX3's. The attention to detail this year is phenomenal.
Apparently, the presentation is over, and there's a Q & A portion. Apparently, we're going to be allowed to ask Michael Jordan a question. Apparently, I've got to ask him something. I forget everything I've already prepared and just try to remember my name.
What in the hell should I ask Michael Jordan? I didn't know I'd be without my question sheet at this critical juncture...
Gotta ask him something, right?
Most questions are casual, focusing on the shoes. "Will there be lowtops?" or, "How do you address counterfeit sneakers?"
Can I actually do this?
He's just another guy, he's just another guy, a regular dude, that's it.
I'm crushed. We're told that the next question will be MJ's last. My one opportunity to speak with my hero, the man I've idolized since I was a kid, and I've passed it up. I'm furious with myself for not being the first person to raise their hand, and completely relieved it's over.
Wait a minute...
Some people still have their hands raised. I'm holding my right elbow with my left hand, an old trick from my grade-school days. The idea is that my hand has been raised for so long that it's throbbing and needs to be held up.
Oh. My. God.
Michael looks me in the eye and says, "Go ahead."
"Michael, Brandon Guarneri, Men's Fitness magazine. You've always exuded a personal self-confidence, both on the court and in the boardroom. How important has that confidence been to your success?"
I can't believe I asked him that question.
Michael pauses, so everyone pauses. He thinks, so everyone thinks. For a brief moment, I think that he'll laugh off my question and chalk it up to "some kid." He doesn't. Instead, he launches into an incredibly thoughtful response on how playing hard in practice has translated to him working hard in business.
I do black out a bit at this point, though. Michael (we're clearly on a first-name basis now) continues to look me right in the eye while he speaks. I can barely remember my hometown at this point.
He must have answered the question because now people are removing folding chairs from our seating area. Apparently, other people are wheeling ball racks out.
Mike leaves, ushered by security, and we remain, to play basketball on the United Center Court. I'm still buzzing from my question, so this doesn't feel as amazing as it does looking back two weeks later.
By my own estimation, I've already shot approximately seven airballs, launch two jumpers that strike only the backboard, and it takes me no fewer than ten shots to hit a single free throw. I'm not a dud, either. I can play. Some kids played Little League, I played summer league. I'm just so emotionally charged from the event that I'm too overly excited to play well. I get over this pretty quickly.
Knock down my first three. Damn, it feels good.
Stroke another three-ball. Left-wing. All day, baby.
We're asked to put the balls back on the racks and leave the court. I do not have to be restrained and dragged off the court, although I briefly think about how awesome it would be to be arrested for such a thing. "Men's Fitness Writer Goes Berserk, Injures 15 in United Center Scrum."
We're back in the locker room. We take some more pictures. I slump into my cushy seat, remove my sneakers, and wonder if life can possibly get any better than this. I realize it can't, pack up my bag, and continue smiling for the next week and a half.