By WRIGHT THOMPSON l ESPN The Magazine Feb.22, 2013
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Five weeks before his 50th birthday, Michael Jordan sits behind his desk, overlooking a parking garage in downtown Charlotte. The cell phone in front of him buzzes with potential trades and league proposals about placing ads on jerseys. A rival wants his best players and wants to give him nothing in return. Jordan bristles. He holds a Cuban cigar in his hand. Smoking is allowed.
“Well, s—-, being as I own the building,” he says, laughing.
Back in the office after his vacation on a 154-foot rented yacht named Mister Terrible, he feels that relaxation slipping away. He feels pulled inward, toward his own most valuable and destructive traits. Slights roll through his mind, eating at him: worst record ever, can’t build a team, absentee landlord. Jordan reads the things written about him, the fuel arriving in a packet of clips his staff prepares. He knows what people say. He needs to know, a needle for a hungry vein. There’s a palpable simmering whenever you’re around Jordan, as if Air Jordan is still in there, churning, trying to escape. It must be strange to be locked in combat with the ghost of your former self.
Smoke curls off the cigar. He wears slacks and a plain white dress shirt, monogrammed on the sleeve in white, understated. An ID badge hangs from one of those zip line cords on his belt, with his name on the bottom: Michael Jordan, just in case anyone didn’t recognize the owner of a struggling franchise who in another life was the touchstone for a generation. There’s a shudder in every child of the ’80s and ’90s who does the math and realizes that Michael Jordan is turning 50. Where did the years go? Jordan has trouble believing it, difficulty admitting it to himself. But he’s in the mood for admissions today, and there’s a look on his face, a half-smile, as he considers how far to go.
“I … I always thought I would die young,” he says, leaning up to rap his knuckles on the rich, dark wood of his desk.
He has kept this fact a secret from most people. A fatalist obsession didn’t go with his public image and, well, it’s sort of strange. His mother would get angry with him when he’d talk to her about it. He just could never imagine being old. He seemed too powerful, too young, and death was more likely than a slow decline. The universe might take him, but it would not permit him to suffer the graceless loss and failure of aging. A tragic flaw could undo him but never anything as common as bad knees or failing eyesight.
Later that night, standing in his kitchen, he squints across his loft at the television. His friend Quinn Buckner catches him.
“You gonna need to get some glasses,” Buckner says.
“I can see,” Jordan says.
“Don’t be bulls——ing me,” Buckner says. “I can see you struggling.”
“I can see,” Jordan insists.
The television is built into the modern stone fireplace in his sprawling downtown condo, the windows around them overlooking Tryon Street. An open bottle of Pahlmeyer merlot sits on an end table. Buckner, a former NBA guard from near Chicago and a Pacers broadcaster, is in town for an upcoming game. They’ve been talking, about Jordan’s birthday and about the changes in his life, all seeming to happen at once. Jordan feels in transition. He moved out of his house in Chicago and is moving into a new one in Florida in three weeks. He’s engaged. Inside he’s dealing, finally, with the cost of his own competitive urges, asking himself difficult questions. To what must he say goodbye? What is there to look forward to? Catching an introspective Jordan is like finding a spotted owl, but here he is, considering himself. His fiancée, Yvette Prieto, and her friend Laura laugh over near the kitchen island. Jordan relights his cigar. It keeps going out.
“Listen,” Buckner says, “Father Time ain’t lost yet.”
The idea hangs in the air.
“Damn,” Buckner continues. “Fifty.”
He shakes his head.
“Can you believe it?” Jordan says quietly, and it sounds like he’s talking to himself.