I was standing frozen on the sideline in Cleveland while John Elway engineered "The Drive." I was sitting on the baseline in Boston Garden, looking on in disbelief as Larry Bird stole the ball from Isiah Thomas.
I was one of about a half-dozen people at press row in Honolulu one night before Christmas when a tiny school named Chaminade upset No. 1 Virginia. I sat ringside in Las Vegas and stared up in shock as Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield's ear. And I was in the Orange Bowl the Saturday afternoon Maryland erased a 31-point deficit to beat the Miami Hurricanes for the biggest comeback in college football history.
But all that stuff is no higher than tied for second.
Michael Jordan is first.
All of it--the ascension, the losses, the triumphs, the retirement, the comeback, his whole career. It's one sustained moment of athletic genius, cut into 100 different slices, each its own sublime moment. I was at the Louisiana Superdome when Jordan The Freshman hit that jumper to beat Georgetown for the 1982 NCAA championship, and at Delta Center in Salt Lake City when Jordan The Icon hit that jumper to beat the Utah Jazz for the 1998 NBA championship. Bookends.
I think I'll cover sports long enough to watch another Elway. Some school already has topped Maryland's comeback. I've come to accept the reality that I--make that we--won't see anything like Jordan again, not in basketball anyway. It's a futile vigil, like waiting for another Babe Ruth or another Muhammad Ali.
Sometime during Jordan's third championship season--1993, the year the Bulls beat Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns in six games--many of us who regularly covered Jordan for news organizations outside Chicago started to realize this was the most exciting thing we would ever do in our careers.
The standout performances and games all have identifiable names. In the NBA, it all started with "The Boston Game," the 63-point masterpiece against Larry Bird and the Celtics in the 1986 playoffs.
Then there was "The Shot," the one he hit over Craig Ehlo at the buzzer in Cleveland to eliminate the Cavaliers from the playoffs. Only the uninitiated would call the last shot of Jordan's career "The Shot"--that one is "The Finale."
But there was so much in between: "The Switch Hands Shot" came when Jordan made that absurd layup against Sam Perkins and the Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals. "The Shot II" was another buzzer beater, which again eliminated the Cavaliers from the playoffs, in '93. There was "The Starks Game," when Knicks guard John Starks played what might have been the best defensive game ever played against Jordan, who scored 54 points anyway. There was "The Fourth Quarter" at Phoenix in Game 6 of the aforementioned NBA Finals, when Jordan scored every Bulls point except John Paxson's game-winner.
There was "The Return" in Indianapolis in March '95 when Jordan ended his 18-month retirement. (I happily flew overnight from Boise, Idaho, to Atlanta to Cincinnati to Indianapolis for the game.) There was the "Double Nickel" game about 10 days later when in Jordan's fourth game back he scored 55 against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
My favorite, even more than "The Finale," was "The Sick Game" when a feverish, dehydrated, vomiting, glassy-eyed Jordan stumbled around Delta Center while dropping 38 points on the Jazz to win the critical Game 5 of the NBA Finals, setting up a championship triumph back home in Chicago.
It was staggering to chronicle no matter where you were from. But for a kid who grew up in Chicago and was a Bulls fan 20 years before Jordan made it fashionable, it was a fantasy, really.
Almost as amazing were the reactions people had when they met somebody that even knew him. On a flight to Chicago once, a nun wrote a note and asked me to give it to Jordan. Do I hand Jordan a note from a nun and risk embarrassing myself? Or do I lie to the nun, throw away the letter, and risk something far worse than embarrassment?
I bought a satellite dish to watch every single Jordan game I couldn't attend after he unretired. It had to be the longest, most riveting encore in the history of American sports.
We think of ourselves mostly as cynics, hard-core analysts and detached chroniclers of history. But late at night, when we're putting away the notepads and box scores, there's a voice inside our heads that says, "My God, do you have any idea what you're seeing?" And the answer, amazingly, is, "yes."
Michael Wilbon has covered sports for The Washington Post since 1980.
CAPTION: From his collegiate career at North Carolina to his final triumph over the Jazz, Michael Jordan's basketball career was a spectacle the likes of which might never be seen again.