The first sports memory I can recall vividly is from the summer of 1992, when I was 7 years old.
In my grandparents’ house in Waukee, Iowa, the couches have scratchy fabric, all brown, black and gold with white cross-stitching. The television set is in front of windows that face east out toward their garage and 10 acres of farmland.
I am on the floor. The sun is setting way out. And Michael Jordan is making six three-pointers in the first half of Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers.
I am taken away.
He is shrugging.
My family is shrugging.
Is this perfection?
Three years later, I am in my driveway in Dallas Center, Iowa. It is early April and I am wearing my present for turning 10 years old: a Nike black and red nylon track suit.
Michael Jordan returned to the NBA just two weeks ago, after retiring in 1993 and playing minor league baseball. My mom and I watched Jordan score 55 points in New York. Well, we did not watch so much as leap, pirouette, high-five, fist pump and shoot high-arching jumpers while falling back onto the couch together.
Outside, I am working on my up-and-under reverse layups, just like Mike.
My dog chases long rebounds into the yard and never returns the ball.
Our tongues wag.
On Sunday, ESPN will air the first two episodes of “The Last Dance,” a 10-part documentary focusing on Jordan’s career and his final NBA championship season with the Chicago Bulls, during the 1997-1998 season.
Documentarian Jason Hehir combed through 10,000 hours of primarily behind-the-scenes footage that has never been seen before.
I am not so much interested in remembering what it was like to be a kid and cheer for Jordan as I am in new discoveries. What will it feel like to be able to see the reality behind idolization? What will it be like for me, now 35, to be a witness to the perfect and imperfect 35-year-old Jordan?
Because even if imperfection didn’t cross my mind much then, watching this team and that player, it does now.
For a while, it was all I could think about.
• • •
The first time I experienced personal suffering was when the Bulls lost in six games to Orlando in the ’95 Eastern Conference semifinals.
Jordan had gone from No. 45 to No. 23 midway through the series to change the momentum. I was as certain that the sun would come up as I was that as long as he wore that jersey, he could not fail.
I remember former Bull Horace Grant swinging his eye goggles around, rubbing it in Jordan’s face as he was carried off the court by his new teammates.
The effect on me was devastating. I rushed upstairs and shoved myself under my bed, wailing.
My mom asked me if I thought Jordan was acting this way after the loss.
I screamed that I did not care.
And told her that she had no idea what I was going through.
My life became a treasure hunt for all things Air Jordan. It started with basketball cards and spun up into books, newspapers, cologne, figurines, backpacks, jerseys, shoes, hats, posters, art prints, and even dinner plates. (Those three beautiful MJ commemorative dinner plates now sit next to wedding plates on the shelf of untouched things.)
My family was on a first-name basis with a man named Doyle who we would meet at a Kwik Trip near our home and who, beneath a counter, would pull out sets of cards and make us deals, always with a smile. A personal Santa Claus.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized he was a cashier at the gas station.
• • •
My memories of Jordan’s commercials are so clear they might as well be memorabilia, too. One in particular.
The Nike spot shows Jordan walking toward an arena past cheering fans, janitors and security guards. His voice recites the stats: He has missed more than 9,000 shots, he has lost almost 300 games, he has missed 26 game-winning shots, he has failed over and over and over again in his life. And that is why he succeeds.
“The idea is to tell young kids, ‘Don’t be afraid to fail, because a lot of people have to fail to be successful — these are the many times that I’ve failed but yet I’ve been successful,’ ” Jordan told the New Yorker’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. in a 1998 profile.
When that commercial aired I was 12. One of the reasons I am most excited for “The Last Dance” is because of that reckoning with time. What will it feel like to look at my idol through the lens of myself, at his age? What daily challenges did he navigate that I have never considered?
He was as successful as any human to don a jersey. Infallible to a younger me.
But also a man who would use his failures as a way to see himself.
• • •
The past few years of my life have been a personal reckoning of looking back and trying to digest who I want to be, who I was and why.
My own little internal documentary.
I first went to therapy when I was 29. My uncle, who made sports essential to my life, had died unexpectedly and afterward I had actively started to ruin my own existence.
I was drinking so much that one night I woke to a fireman standing over me. He had broken my door down when I failed to wake up from the smoke alarm blaring above me. I had left a pot of pasta on the stove, the water boiled off, the pasta charred and billowed, everyone else in my apartment building was standing on the sidewalk at 3 a.m.
I asked him, “What are you doing here?”
My therapist asked me if I was an alcoholic. And I told her I didn’t think so. I was employed. Living on my own. Paying rent. Buying groceries. Washing dishes.
I also ruined relationships viciously, went to work at 4 p.m. hung over, rushed off at midnight to get drunk, and every morning kept telling myself I could figure this thing out.
Still she asked me if I would take an assessment from Hazelden and, three months later, I did.
I scored just below the threshold for intake treatment. I carried that score with me like an MVP trophy while I actively didn’t change.
A different kind of fadeaway.
Four years later, I was lying in bed with my eyes glued to the wall trying to reason out how to make it through another day. My wife was next to me, aware and trying her best to keep a grown man under control.
I was failing, and trying to find some way to ask for help.
I went to a new therapist who specialized in addiction. He was bald on top like Mike and his game was just as cerebral.
He told me that shame and guilt turn our life story into a very thin thread. We look back and see only failure at every turn, we miss any success.
We miss any time we were good people or tried our best, or held a door, called family to say hello, contributed at work or at home, helped someone or just sat still on a park bench as the breeze blew through on a warm afternoon.
In much the same way that Michael Jordan could look at all of his accumulated failures and see them as a key to success, I could look at any success in my life, and blanket it under the shadow of my failures.
• • •
My therapist gave me a challenge. He asked if I would not drink for 90 days and, as he said, “collect the data.”
It was a lopsided challenge.
Along the way I admitted first to myself, then to my wife and then to him, that I was an alcoholic.
Then I told my parents on our way to a football tailgate.
Then I told a room full of strangers.
It felt a bit like poking my head out from underneath my bed.
And I was, and am, terrified.
Eighteen months later and I can still tell you the story of my failures. But they aren’t the only story I tell anymore, and that feels like success.
Whatever lessons Michael Jordan offered me about success and failure became muted as I grew up and closed myself off to the sensations of wonder that childhood traffics in so easily.
But I’m ready to see him with all of his humanity restored. No longer an idol. No longer worshiped. Just a person trying his best in the face of daily obstacles.
Maybe there is something to learn that I couldn’t understand when I was 12 years old, trying to fly. Maybe it will make perfect sense to an adult, trying to find his way.
Because at 35, I feel a bit more steady.
I realize the good and the bad that courses through me courses through others, too.
And there’s no shame in saying I failed.
And there’s no shame in trying to be better, in taking another shot, from a different angle.
And I’m excited to feel like a kid again.
To stand (or sit on a couch) in awe, unconcerned with perfection.
Jeff Day is a Star Tribune sports copy editor.