February 6: Air Jordan

JumpmanThe legacy of Michael Jordan has taken a bit of a hit over in the 21st century. First there was the disastrous comeback attempt with the Washington Wizards. Then there was his 2009 Basketball Hall Of Fame induction speech which he mostly used to taunt old foes. Not to mention his admittance on 60 Minutes to perhaps being a bit reckless with his gambling (and the persistent rumor that his first retirement was actually a quiet suspension from the NBA for gambling). On top of all that, an ESPN profile on the eve of Jordan’s 50th birthday revealed that even as he eases into his later years, Jordan remains competitive, spiteful and also desperately lonely…

But let’s look past all that. Let’s go back to a time before the gambling, before the six rings, before even the first ring. Let’s go back to February 6, 1988, the night that legend of Michael Jordan was born. A night when you truly could believe a man could fly.

The 1988 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, held as part of the NBA All Star Game festivities in Chicago, was guaranteed to be an entertaining show. For one thing the last three Slam Dunk champions were all participating (Those would be Jordan, Spud Webb and Dominique Wilkins respectively) and the most exciting part about that was the perceived rivalry between Jordan and Wilkins. You see in 1985, the two titans of the rim faced off against each other in the event’s final round with Wilkins winning. Wilkins played in the 1986 contest while Jordan sat out, and Jordan won the 1987 contest with Wilkins unable to compete due to injury. So, when it was announced that Wilkins and Jordan were both taking part in the 1988 contest, the anticipation was through the roof.

Unsurprisingly, the final came down to Wilkins and Jordan. Both men performed several amazing dunks, and before Jordan’s last dunk attempt, Wilkins was up 145 to 97. Jordan’s dunk would have to get a score of 49 or 50 points from the event’s judges in order to repeat as Slam Dunk Contest champion. So, Jordan stepped to the baseline at the far end of the court, and the Chicago crowd knew exactly what he was going to do.

In 1987, Jordan had won the contest by running from the end of the court to the free throw line and then jumping, slamming the ball into the hoop. He had performed this same trick earlier in the ’88 contest, but this time he was starting at the very end of the hardwood. So, Jordan dribbled and once again ran up to the free throw line and took flight. It was a masterful dunk that looked almost as if Jordan had jumped from a particularly springy trampoline. Jordan won the contest, with the judges perhaps being swayed by the Chicago crowd, and Air Jordan was born.

One last thing before we get to today’s drink. Bill Smith was the Chicago Bulls’ in house photographer in 1988 and he knew that Jordan was planning on performing the free throw line dunk. So, he made sure to get a prime position and managed to take one snap during Jordan’s final dunk of the evening. After the dunk contest and an evening of parties, Smith left his film at an all night photo lab. When the morning came, he picked up the developed slides and went straight to the free throw line dunk photo. It was the pre-digital photo era, so Smith had no idea what the photo would look like. As Smith told Sports Illustrated in 2013, “My hand was shaking. I was scared to look at the frame. So many things can go wrong. His eyes could be closed. His hand could be blocking the ball. But it captured exactly what you saw.” The result was the amazing photo seen above, depicting Jordan fresh from lift-off. The shot became instantly iconic and Nike even gave Smith $3,500 to turn it into a poster. Smith still owns the original slide, keeping it secure in a fire proof safe.

So, on the anniversary of this iconic dunk, let’s drink a Slam Drunk. It’s a sweet drink based around the Southern Comfort cordial, with a warm alcoholic finish that has a color not unlike a basketball.

Slam Dunk

  • 1 ½ oz Southern Comfort
  • 2 part cranberry juice
  • 4 ounces orange juice

Shake all ingredients and pour over ice in a highball glass.

Tomorrow: From one of basketball’s greatest players to cycling’s most famous fan.

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