Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is a recent alum of Oregon State's MFA Program. He won Bayou Magazine's Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, Iron Horse, Front Porch, and Bellevue Literary Review. He works as a contributing editor for Moss and blogs about professional wrestling and a cappella music on the side. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.
According to legend, George Mikan once said, I’d like it if, someday, I’d walk down the street and have someone recognize me. I’d like to hear him say there’s George Mikan, the greatest basketball player who ever lived. He said it in the twilight of his career—1955 or 1956. This was his humble ambition, in those days when color TV was a new technology, well before Twitter.
Compare him with Kobe Bryant, who called himself the greatest. Announced himself as Black Mamba, because he could strike with ninety-nine present accuracy at maximum speed and later Vino, because his game aged like a fine wine.
What is this drive to be not only good, but historically good, better than anyone before, good enough to fend off those who came after?
Michael Jordan had it, too. That drive, that confidence, that swagger. That insistence that he knew best. He got his coach fired. Got in a fist fight with a teammate who dared stand up to him. He was that consumed with dominance, until few and far between denied His Airness, MJ, the Mike in I wanna be like Mike.
Michael earned this consensus when the game had developed long enough to mean something, forty years after Mikan hung up his sneakers. When it was not a matter of debate—no naysayers like the critics Kobe never quite quieted.
But being the greatest means it’s never quiet. Always questions like what’s next, like who’s next, like why were you in Atlantic City gambling the night before the big game, like how are you dealing with—
When things weren’t quiet, when the greatest needs an escape, what’s he to do? Losing your old man is hard, but you can’t be sad with that seven-figure contract to the Bulls, with Nike and Wheaties throwing millions more at your feet, with the championship rings all across your hand—
Michael Jordan can’t walk down the street.
That’s the price.
EVERYBODY HATES REGGIE MILLER
We hated Reggie Miller. Knicks fans, we watched him score eight points in nine seconds to steal our ’95 Playoff run. Watched him jaw with Spike Lee at courtside. Watched him flash the choking sign, calling every Knick, every fan a failure, incapable under pressure.
We hated the possibility he might be right.
Did he really have to say that?
Looking back at the sports villains of my youth, they were just playing the game. Happened to get signed to another team and did their best. You can’t blame someone for that.
But Reggie Miller.
Reggie Miller. Born with hips out of place so he had to walk in braces before he ever ran the length of a basketball court.
Reggie Miller, younger brother to Cheryl who was a basketball star, beat him one-on-one in the driveway, an Olympic gold medalist and NCAA champ who outshone her little brother until he made the pros. Did Reggie go to UCLA just to spite his big sis at USC? To force the sibling rivalry after they should have outgrown it?
Reggie Miller—even the Pacers fans didn’t want him. Thought they should have drafted Steve Alfred (Steve who?), NCAA champ out of Indiana University.
Reggie Miller who had to fight for everything he had, out of the womb, out of the home, out of school.
I can relate.
We all think we can, right? It’s easy to play the victim.
Harder to play the villain.
But were there any wins sweeter than those over Reggie Miller? Michael was better, ‘Zo was more heated sometimes, but no one embraced the hate like Reggie.
So I watch him now. Cordial, wearing a shirt and tie, mic in hand at courtside. Trying to watch him, to hear him, to resist adding fucking before or between Reggie and Miller. To accept the war is over. He’s a broadcaster now. A white-collar expert analyst.
Still, I hate him.
And I thank him for it.
SIZE OF WATER
They say a fish grows to the size of its container.
The Bulls signed Toni Kukoc to replace Michael Jordan. The Croatian Sensation, a jack of all trades who could handle the ball with the grace of a guard, but was tall enough to defend a center. A defensive nightmare for whomever was matched against him.
It didn’t work out like it was supposed to. The American professionals stronger, taller, meaner when Kukoc did get a big game, last shot opportunity, Scottie Pippen benched himself, insulted the coach had picked Kukoc over him.
Then Jordan came back.
Why do fish grow to match their surroundings? Sheer space? Availability of food? A matter of survival against natural predators?
Kukoc became the sixth man—the player who didn’t start games but was first off the bench when someone needed a rest or got into foul trouble. The platonic ideal of a sixth man, too, for he could truly sub in for any position. Color commentators got in the habit of noting he’d start for any other team at any position he was needed in. That the Bulls were that stacked that championship year, that season when they won more games than any team before them.
Big fish. Big pond.
He played the role. Three rings in three years—more than most players could dream of across a career. And only the occasional push back. A comment to the press that he could average thirty points a game (more than Jordan)—it’s just that that wasn’t his job on this team.
Here’s the thing about how fish grow. It’s not so much the size as the quality of the water, the filtration. You can restrict them, sure, but it’s the toxicity that ends their spans of life—and so their growth—prematurely.
Toni Kukoc retired back to Croatia. He isn’t a legend—at least not the type who shows up in late night debates about the best of all time, or even his time.
But Kukoc—he must remember.
© Michael Chin