According to the National Vital Statistics Report, there were 346,754 births in the United States in May of 2003, and they officially represented the dawn of a generation too late to catch Michael Jordan.
His final game was a month earlier, April 17, when he limped off the floor in Philadelphia wearing a Washington Wizards jersey and a wince. He played 28 minutes that night on a cranky knee, scored 15 points, the last two on free throws with 1:45 left. His teammates in the starting lineup were Christian Laettner, Tyronn Lue, Larry Hughes and Kwame Brown. They lost by 20. They finished the season 37-45. They didn't make the playoffs.
Those are the facts, but in a sense, Jordan's final game, when he was truly Michael Jordan anyway, was in Salt Lake City, wearing a Bulls jersey, on June 14, 1998. With minutes remaining in Game 6 of the NBA Finals he stripped the ball from Karl Malone and cut Utah's lead to a point. Then he hit the winner from near the top of the key and kept his right wrist bent and hanging for about two seconds, for effect. He scored 45 points, was named MVP, and won his sixth and final championship. He left the floor with a smirk and six fingers hoisted in the air. "Six! Six!" he screamed defiantly, over and over.
"Is that right?" asked Anthony Davis, the NBA's No. 1 pick last summer, and a Chicago native.
Davis wouldn't know about that epic Game 6 performance, at least not intimately. He's 19. He was only five when Jordan shook Bryon Russell. He hadn't even picked up a basketball yet. He isn't sure what he was doing at that exact moment, although he does venture a guess.
"Probably sleeping," he said. "I had to go bed early back then. I wasn't allowed to stay up."
The next day, he knows there was no sippy-cup discussion at his pre-K school about what had happened overnight. He does allow this much: His mother, a big basketball fan, was pretty buzzed. She sat him down, explained the marvels of Jordan to him, and said maybe if he worked as hard as Jordan did he could be great at something, someday. She did not know, nor did he, that it would be basketball.
"She would always say, `Michael did this, Michael did that,' and I just kind of took it all in, for what it was worth to me then, at that age," Davis said. "I really didn't understand any of it. And when I got older and realized what I had missed, I felt like I missed out. Not to see the greatest player ever, and he's right in your hometown, that's very upsetting."
What do you say to Davis and his unlucky generation of NBA players, other than, "Sorry"? How do you place the proper context and find the right meaning to what Jordan did for us and mostly, for them? Yeah, they have his videos to gape at, but as Harrison Barnes of the Warriors, age 20, admitted: "It's not really the same as seeing him in an actual game, because when you watch the videos, you already know who won and what he did. There's no drama or intensity or surprise."
Take note of this: We are in an era of players who can claim ignorance of Michael Jordan and be excused for it. There are 20 players on active NBA rosters born in 1992 or later, making them too young to recall Jordan in his true glory, the Bulls years, the Joy of Six. And while some have a faint recollection of him with the Wizards, please. Don't go there. Klay Thompson (23) of the Warriors said: "That doesn't count."
How do you explain to them that a man who turns 50 Sunday made such an impact on sports and basketball and pop culture that the tremors are still being felt, to this day, by people who may not even know it? People like … them? The Missed Generation? How do you break it to them gently, to compare it to being born after the Beatles broke up?
You begin by playing a game they were probably busy with while Jordan was busy winning championships. You connect the dots. You start with The Shot that helped North Carolina beat Georgetown. That night, Jordan showed the talent, the guts and the desire for championships that would shape a good portion of his legacy. He didn't let someone else, either on his own team or Georgetown's, win the game. He didn't shrink from the moment. He didn't feel any doubts.
This was 1982. Jordan was a freshman. The parents of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, currently the youngest player in the NBA and a rookie with the Jordan-owned Bobcats, were in middle school.
"I haven't even seen the videos of that shot," Kidd-Gilchrist (19) said.
You tell them about Jordan the Olympian and how Bob Knight, the coach of the U.S. team, was the first to project greatness by saying after a few practices, "If I had him I'd never lose a championship," and people sort of half-brushed it off. Until Jordan did a gold-medal gallop over the competition and turned heads like a supermodel in a frat house.
You tell them what Rod Thorn, the general manager of the Bulls, said right after drafting him: "Michael will be a good player for us, but I want to caution you, we're not expecting him to carry the team or be a savior, nothing like that. That's too much to ask of anyone."
You tell them Jordan immediately averaged 28.2 points and made over half his shots and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated two months into that season - "A Star Is Born" was the headline - saved the franchise and carried a crappy team to the playoffs. You tell them Jordan transformed Chicago and began selling out arenas everywhere. You explain how this ticked off some NBA vets, how this flashy rookie hogged attention and charmed everyone in sight and was a victim of jealousy in the All-Star Game, led by ringleader Isiah Thomas.
You tell them about Jordan breaking a bone in his foot one month into his second season, then how he bit a bullet while sprinting through rehab and angrily demanding the Bulls allow him to return for the playoffs. And then, when he dropped 63 on the Celtics, he heard Larry Bird draw comparisons to God.
You explain the years of failure that followed - and by failure, we mean no championships and frequent beat-downs by the Pistons - and how that only made Jordan's thirst for competition and winning turn legendary. Even bordering on insanity. On the afternoon before a playoff game against the Heat on April 29, 1992, a restless Jordan needed a full day of competition, so he played 36 holes of golf at Doral, then scored 56 points that night.
Right around this time, basketball went global for good, giving kids an alternative to soccer in places such as Lithuania and Russia and France. And also in Spain, where a boy in Barcelona, where Jordan became an international basketball icon through the Dream Team, first felt the itch to play. You tell them what that boy saw from the adults in his life, who behaved like children when Jordan played.
"My parents watched him," said Ricky Rubio (22), who was seven when Jordan won his final championship, which he can't remember. "There was a seven-hour time difference and they were watching basketball at 2 a.m. It was because of him. It was crazy. They bought me a Michael Jordan jersey to wear when I first started playing basketball. I went to the gym ready and anxious to show my friends, and I got there and all the kids were already wearing them."
You tell them about the championships that kept coming in a rush after the first one, interrupted only by a two-year mid-life crisis spent in baseball and then the dreaded No. 45 jersey. You tell them to forget the Wizards years; that was a gutsy yet incoherent decision by someone who just couldn't fix his competition addiction until it damn near crippled him. You relay what Jerry Colangelo said the other day. Colangelo has been involved in basketball on the executive level for almost five full decades. He has more point-blank observation of the game on that level than anyone still involved in basketball. He saw Russell and Wilt and West and Kareem and Oscar and Magic and Bird. His Phoenix teams lost to all of them, to varying degrees. He also suffered a crippling defeat at the hands of Jordan in the 1993 championship. And here's what he said about Jordan:
"He was the greatest competitor to ever play. From a skill point of view, a competitor point of view and a winning point of view, he's right at the top. What's sad is there are players coming into this league who don't even know some of the greats who played just five years ago. I tell them if you don't know what Michael Jordan did, then you need to find out quick, because he did an awful lot for you."
You ask who they gawked at growing up and they trot out the usual suspects: Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter. And you tell them those players, every last one and many others, stole from Jordan, either his shorts or how he wears his sweatband or his shaved head or a head-fake or a move they incorporated into their game. You tell them that's proof that Jordan reached them through others.
The commercials he made, the style he created, the records, the influence, you tell them all about that and hope they can connect those many dots. And to your surprise, they already have.
As kids, when they were too young to see or comprehend Jordan the player, they bonded directly with Jordan through his shoes, and still do. They wore Jordans before they knew what Jordan did to sell them. They knew the pitchman, the brand, the Jumpman, the cool. And when a good many of the future stars in the Rookie-Sophomore game at All-Star Weekend in Houston met Jordan through the prep All-America games he sponsors, they felt an instant connection with a man they never saw play.
Dion Waiters (21): "I remember we went through an hour or so practice at the Jordan Brand game, then they told us to go downstairs. He walked into the room. Everybody's whole demeanor changed, just like that. It was surreal. The place just shut up."
Davis: "He gave us some advice but I wasn't listening. I couldn't tell you what he said. I was like, man, this is Michael Jordan standing here in front of us. First thing I did was call home. Everybody was screaming. That's when I knew I made it. Michael Jordan spoke to me."
One month ago in Charlotte, Kidd-Gilchrist finished up a Bobcats practice and was ready to grab lunch when Jordan walked into the gym. This wasn't too unusual; Jordan often makes appearances, to check on his investment. But this day was different. Jordan motioned for the rookie. He said something. The rookie said something back. Jordan removed his sweats and grabbed a ball.
"It was on," said Kidd-Gilchrist.
The rookie not only challenged Jordan to play, Kidd-Gilchrist told Jordan he was going to whip him. Jordan liked this, to be called out, to see another player refuse to back down. And also to get a chance here in his golden years to rip someone's heart out.
Jordan scored first. "Too slow," he yelled at the rookie. Then, Kidd-Gilchrist remembers, Jordan said something he couldn't repeat. "Not for a newspaper," he said.
On it went. Word spread, and players who were in the locker room ready to shower grabbed some shorts and flip-flops and hustled back to the practice court, according to Kemba Walker (22), a witness. By then, Jordan was in full attack mode, backing Kidd-Gilchrist down, dropping jumpers, taunting, teasing, reaching for the throat.
"I didn't think I was going to lose," said Kidd-Gilchrist. "We were going at each other."
Repeating: This was one month ago.
Jordan was 30 days from a milestone. And minutes from issuing a whipping.
"I lost," said Kidd-Gilchrist. "I lost to a 50-year-old man. And it was hard for me. Hard to take. Hard to accept. Hard to talk about. I've never told anyone. Not even my family. Especially my family."
Kidd-Gilchrist felt the need to clarify.
"I lost because he's good. Still good."
Those who played before Jordan, and those who played against him, all swear by him, because they must. He beat a lot of them, drew respect from all of them, and left an unforgettable impression on everyone inside of basketball and out.
Gary Payton said: "We all became better players because of who he was and what he did. He raised everyone's talent. He raised the stakes. He elevated the game."
But the real essence of an icon is one who can feel the stare and hear the testimonials from those too young to really know. And so maybe that's the most amazing of anything he ever pulled off, watching his legacy tap into a generation that never witnessed anything.
"I wished I could've watched him play, but that doesn't take away from my appreciation of him, or in terms of how big I perceived him to be," said Barnes. "He became my favorite player just based on what people told me about him."
Michael Jordan is 50. He must be thrilled to know that only his body is getting old.