In his Notes on Hoops column, Hanif Abdurraqib recalls the golden age of basketball films shot by shot.
Best not to let this confuse you: there are many ways to grow up poor. There are differences between those who have little and those who have little, even in the same neighborhood, even on the same street, even if these differences are not reflected in the outside appearance of a house or in the way it is done Court is held. To know these differences, you would have to grow up a bit poor, I would say. You should grow up a little poor and know some people who grew up a little poorer than you. Just ask the children who admired the hustlers and the children who had to crowd. Just ask the people who are tired of eating the same stale and boring meals, then ask the people who went to bed hungry.
When I say that as a child my parents didn’t have the money to buy me cool sneakers, there are several things for the initiated and the uninitiated to look out for: What I’m saying is that my parents didn’t have the money to buy for something Spending stupid things, certainly not on something that cost more than a hundred dollars and was used to decorate feet in the unpredictable weather of the Midwest. When I talk about pushing lawnmowers for sneaker cash in summer or breathlessly heaving thick snow out of driveways in winter, I also say that I lived in a place where there was enough money left over to buy a few Giving dollars for work their children could have done, work they absolutely could have done themselves.
As many ways as there are of growing up in poverty, there are just as many ways, if not more, of hiding any foolish and misguided shame one may have in one’s material circumstances. There always had to be a sacrifice to be wrapped in a pulsating distraction or delusion.
To bring it to a close, it turns out that Calvin Cambridge really just wanted a family, and I know – of course it does. Like Mike I suppose it was never really about basketball. Movies with kids playing sports are only sometimes about the sport, especially if the movie has something mystical or magical about it. Sport is the framework, but the child, or at least one of the children on a team, seeks fulfillment elsewhere. And yes, for Cambridge this is a little more urgent. He was in an orphanage selling candy for an abusive guard. The shoes weren’t magic when he found them, but he climbed a pole to get them off a power line, there was a lightning strike, and then Michael Jordan’s old sneakers had the power of Michael Jordan himself. And although that was all good is, it cannot dissuade me that the film is at least partly about loneliness, about placelessness, about wanting to pull the curtain back on a world in which a child feels worthy.
But before we go also By far, it’s just a silly basketball movie about a silly pair of shoes, and let me be clear that the silly movies I love most are the basketball movies. Especially those that take place in the NBA and especially the ones where the universe of the league is skewed – where there are assembled teams and players alongside real teams and players. Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki take a defensive stance to stop Morris Chestnut’s advance to the edge. These are my favorite parts in sports films, but especially basketball films. There’s something about the mechanics of basketball that makes it clear who can and can’t play, even if they pretend they can. That level of cross-universe absurdity is like in a movie Like Mikewhich is based on the trope of “child finds an object and the object enables him to live a sports dream”. It cements the impossibility of travel in case you have any ideas.
The thing is, by the time I was an independent basketball-loving age with full memories, no one I hung out with wanted to be anything like Michael Jordan. This was the end of the first Michael Jordan era and then the second MJ era – still uniquely great, but a little less cool. My pals’ older siblings had posters of the cooler MJ on the walls. The MJ was floating in the air, two gold chains soaring with him, making their way to his open mouth, flirting with his dangling tongue, his arm around a basketball, his body twisted in an impossible collection of limbs. The immortal MJ in the dunk contest, adorned with glamor that the NBA had banned years earlier. Fly to fly.
To be “like Mike” in the Gatorade advertisement of the early 1990s meant trying to emulate your movements. In a commercial, a young black kid tries a dunk, the edge is miles away from where it lands. Back then it was about making Michael Jordan appear likeable and relatable. I vaguely remember the advertisement. I remember the song more than anything, its terribly infectious tune that I was humming in my elementary school hallways in black, nondescript sneakers that I bought somewhere.
When I was in middle school Michael went and came back and stayed great, albeit different kind by great, everyone I knew wanted to be like Penny Hardaway or Allen Iverson or the occasional Grant Hill, but nobody really wanted to be Grant Hill The No matter how slick he was with the ball, because if I know one thing it’s that the older kids on the block pronounced Grant Hill cheesy, and god knows no one wants to be cheesy.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year thinking about how and when Michael Jordan’s relationship with cool changed for me. He was a myth to me during the first half of his career when my memories of him were fuzzy until about 1993 or so. And then, when he came back in 1995, the NBA got younger, more exciting than it already was. He routinely foiled and frustrated these younger players. The Bulls have been constant obstacles to teams like the Knicks, a popular team in my household. I had no relationship with this Michael Jordan like the one who was in the air and decked out in gold, frozen on a Nike poster.
June 16, 1996 was Father’s Day. It was also the sixth game of the NBA Finals. The Bulls had a chance to finish the Seattle Supersonics and win another title. I loved Gary Payton and I loved Shawn Kemp, so I went to the finals to promote Seattle knowing my rooting was a futile effort. They played hard, but it quickly turned out that, like most of the teams that faced the Bulls, they just weren’t good enough. The Bulls won that game and I don’t remember much of it. I don’t remember how anyone played and without looking I couldn’t even tell you who the home team was.
It was Michael Jordan’s fourth title, his first since the 1993 championship, about a month before his father James was assassinated.
Despite all of the visual and aesthetic iconography surrounding Jordan, much seems – in retrospect – forced and sometimes too dramatic: the flu game when he collapsed in Scottie Pippen’s arms. I have no qualms to put it bluntly, especially sports theater. So I love every moment of it. But there is a difference between typical sports theater and real expressions of emotion. On Father’s Day in the locker room after winning his fourth title, Michael Jordan was holding a basketball on the floor and sobbing. Loud, billowing sobs. He looked exhausted, not physically, but emotionally. Run publicly into the arms of his grief. A grief that remained. A grief that lasted, as so many different types of grief do.
My mother wouldn’t die until almost exactly a year later. I hadn’t been to a funeral yet, even though I’d heard about it. I had seen my friends and neighbors dress for them. I had heard stories of people crying like this, loudly and apparently out of control. But this was the first time I’d seen it up close, the first time I’d seen it on someone who was an immortal up to that point.
I don’t like to do much about what is called humanizing people. It’s a tired trope that has become too abstract for my taste. The moment Michael Jordan cried didn’t embed me in an understanding that he was human. Rather, it set a framework for me to fit my big emotional self into. I was a sensitive child. I had cried a lot, and I would cry a lot more, and there was a time when I was mocked for it outside of my home and then there was a time when the mockery stopped. In my youthful imagination, I felt like I owed Michael Jordan something. A foolish feeling that I held onto for years. Nobody could tell me about my big, overwhelming emotional pursuits because look at this: A man at the top of his game, his career, was crying on national television and it was loud and chaotic, and I now remember the Chicago Bulls were the home team because when I close my eyes I can still see the big red “23” on the white fabric that trembles on Jordan’s back with every trembling scream. And at that moment, it wasn’t about basketball for me, and certainly not about shoes (although I’m sure it didn’t help selling the latter). And to make it clear, I didn’t understand it at the time. I didn’t understand how Michael Jordan could still be sad about something that happened three years ago. I wasn’t even a teenager. Little did I know about the immense nature of grief.
I can’t remember if my mom even saw the game. She would weave basketball in and out with varying degrees of interest. I probably imagined her in the room with one arm around me as I watched, but I don’t think that’s real. It won’t stop me from holding onto the fantasy, but I don’t think that’s real.
I’m not as lucky as Calvin Cambridge and find magical shoes in a dumpster. But I took on a new task in the last year. My teenage self would envy my sneaker collection. And I buy sneakers understanding that my relationship with them is complicated. I think they are beautiful and emotionally fascinating, but also foolish and a vehicle for multiple exploitation. But I have it. Too many of them to be precise. And last spring I found a pair of the original 1996 black and red Jordan 11s. The kind of pair MJ wore in this ’96 final series. I got it for a good price, from someone who had never worn it and would never wear it. I observe Like Mike laugh again. But watching it made me obsessed again: how many real, original couples that I could afford at the time of their release can I get now? I delved deep into the search for Jordans from 2001, from 2003, from 1998, from 1995. The ones I once circled in Eastbay catalogs left them open on the table, hoping my parents would look at them and soften them up. I’ve found couples all over the world who have never been worn. I haggled and harassed and chased and counted coins and consulted sneaker friends to make sure I wasn’t spending too much. I’ve never been as lucky as I hoped. A couple of pairs of 01, a couple of 96. The thing about such old sneakers, especially if they have never been worn, is that the white parts of them start to organically yellow. The soles begin to soften over time. They require a real tenderness, from a very tactile point of view: you have to touch them gently, hold them gently, lace them gently. I don’t look at shoes so much as if they were art. I don’t make anything of it. But I found myself looking at them like they were artifacts. Projecting my own past onto them, thinking about where they were when I wanted them when I was thirteen, when I was sixteen.
But because I firmly believe in wearing the sneakers I buy, I decided to wear the 1996 black and red Jordan 11 to one of my weekly errands out of the office. The soles, softened from years of inactivity, crumbled as I walked through Trader Joe’s. Everything before I got any special powers or before I unlocked the special magic that was in it. As I carefully walked back to my car, I figured that maybe the magic was crumbling. The message that a memory whispers: Nothing from the past is as wonderful as I remember it. If I get close enough, the memories will shatter.
I remember the morning my mother died because I heard my father cry, loud sobs from his upstairs bedroom. I heard it all over the house. I remember the morning my mother died because I didn’t cry when I felt like I should have been crying. It made sense for me to cry and I wanted to but I didn’t. It was months later when I walked home from one of the first days of school with headphones on but nothing was playing on my Walkman, I sat on a bench and cried uncontrollably for minutes that felt like hours. I was wearing my very first pair of Jordans, which I bought with money I’d earned doing housework and saved up my extra pocket money. They were already caked in a light layer of dirt. I got up, complained, and plunged into my own sadness with a clarity. Grief is something we carry, not something that passes.
But that’s just a stupid thing. About basketball. About shoes.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio.