The Night I Raced Michael Jordan

by Marshall Marcovitz

“Grandpa, did you really race Michael Jordan?”

Yes, I did.

“Who won?”

Who do you think?

I don’t trust my memory as much anymore. Searching my past for memorable feelings is highly unreliable when you’re in your eighties. I forget lots of words and names now, and I used to be a spelling bee champion. But I’ll never forget the night I raced Michael Jordan. Yes, that Michael Jordan, the best basketball player in the world—EVER! All six feet six of him stood “this” close to me and flashed his famous “MJ” smile. We were waiting for a nasty Chicago rainstorm to let up. Rain was coming down in sheets, blown sideways by thirty mile per hour winds off always-breezy Lake Michigan. We were leaving the Northbrook Racquet Club. The Chicago Bulls basketball team had their practice facilities there and I played tennis there too. My grandchildren love this part of the story. Michael and I carried our own gym bags. He lugged a budging duffel bag stuffed with all his basketball practice equipment and CHICAGO BULLS stenciled on the top. It looked like it weighted a ton. Mine? It looked more like a small backpack. I had tossed my sweaty tennis clothes, Stan Smith white tennis shoes, my Jimmy Connors signature metal tennis racquet, and my shaving kit into the bag.

We waited. The rain wouldn’t let up. He suddenly looked at me. I looked back at him. He had that grin on his face. Everybody knows that  “23 grin.” I smiled back. I spoke first.

“Let’s go for it.” I said. I still can’t believe I actually spoke first.

He went “Humph. “

We continued to wait. It rained harder.

Finally, I said to him, “I’m going for it. I’ve got to get home for dinner. How about you?”

He looked at me. Again, he had that sly Jordan smile. “In this weather?”

“Come on, I’ll race you.” I really can’t believe I said that. This is where my grandkids crack up.

“You challenged Michael Jordan to a race!” They fell on the floor laughing their heads off. I’ve never said anything funnier, or more ridiculous in their opinion. I had just dared the greatest basketball player in the world to race me. Michael looked at me with an even bigger smile. He scratched his head as if he were mulling over the odds on a million-dollar bet.

“Where’s your car?” I asked.

He said, “See that Red Corvette, that’s me.”

I said, “See that green Volvo station wagon. That’s me.”

Then he said, “You’re on. One two-three—we’ll take off on three.”

I’m ready,” I said.

I looked at him. He looked at me. We gave each other a little salute.

“One, two, three!”

I heard “three”, glanced over my shoulder where he had been. The rain was  still pouring down, the light was dim. He was gone. Before I even got started – he was ten, twenty feet in front of me. I looked around. I swear I only saw a dim blur leaping into the Corvette, two red taillights glowing, an engines roar. He was gone.

The incident means much more to me now than when it happened. I have five grandchildren: Spencer, Houldin, Olivia, Jonas and Hunter. I love them all very much. I’m eager to show them the world, but I don’t get around much anymore, as the song goes. I want them to think of me as a pal, a youthful grandpa who can do everything they can do, even though I know it’s not possible, probably not even advisable. It’s not my job anymore, to be their pal. It probably never was. The grandpa they have is eighty-three and needs a walker to get around. I’ve been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. I feel like a car that’s gone from having an automatic transmission to a nineteen-fifties stick shift model.

My grandson Jonas wants to “be like Mike.” He’s got that intense competition gene, just like Mike. I bought him a vintage Bulls jersey, 23 with “Jordon “on the back. I told him that Michael is a hero to me. He could score fifty points a game, make the winning basket, but win it taking and making the last shot of the game. He was a real “clutch’ player. He always preached the value of hard work. “No matter how gifted you are, you need to put in the work, or you’ll never achieve your goals.”

“Michael never stopped believing in himself,” I tell Jonas.  “When he was retired he said, “One day, you might look up and see me playing the game at fifty. Don’t laugh. Never say never, because limits like fears, are often just illusions.”

I hope my grandkids will always remember that their grandfather raced Michael Jordan and I like to think that they will tell their kids the story. Now I think where did I get the chutzpah to talk to him? What would I give to be able to lose a race to Michael Jordan again?

Marshall Marcovitz, who died in 2020, was a much loved member of the IRP community. For Voices, he was the first photo editor and a frequent contributor of prose.