March 29th, 1982. New Orleans. NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game.

With 18 seconds remaining on the dwindling clock, Michael Jordan catches a skip pass that had wafted above the swarming Georgetown 2-3 zone defense as gently as a beach balloon. Two Hoyas ravenously converge, but we know their fate is already sealed. In this particular moment, it takes only a single second for Jordan to inflict the type of heartache he would eventually administer upon opponents for more than a decade-and-a-half. His 18-foot jumper splashes through the net without grazing the rim.


Watch it again, now. The players’ shorts are tiny and tight. There’s no 3-point line, just a vast expanse of blank hardwood surrounding the paint. But there’s Jordan. And he was being MJ — before we even knew who MJ was.

At the time, Jordan was a freshman at North Carolina, a prized recruit who averaged 29 points and a triple-double the previous year at his hometown high school in Wilmington. In an era before every schoolboy star arrives with a viral sizzle reel of dunks against 5-3 foes who end up as accountants, this was his introduction to basketball’s national stage

Jordan was just a skinny teen, lacking the pounds of upper-body mass he would add during the next two summers. There wasn’t a sandwich yet named in his honor at a local Chapel Hill restaurant (for the curious, it would be crab salad with lettuce and tomato, served in pocket bread). It was years from the 1984 Draft, and he was not a household name or a brand or a word for children to utter as a prayer when hoisting jumpers on the playground.

Jordan was not yet the ultimate point of comparison for any hoops legend who dares to ascend the sport’s most thin-aired apex.

But still — there were glimpses of the man who would become the most iconic athlete on the planet. The dangling tongue. The leaning, rock-cradling dunks where, in defiance of gravity, it appeared as if he was shouldering open a door in midair while carrying groceries. The vicious, relentless assaults upon the rim that could never be deterred, even if opponents would craft brutal defensive schemes based on intimidation and physical punishment. Yes, those attributes were present in Jordan’s most raw and precocious form, provided you squint closely enough.

But the most crucial traits were clearly visible on that fog-shrouded night in New Orleans. In fact, the whole basketball world witnessed precisely what made Jordan so profoundly inimitable. His competitiveness. His talent. His cold-blooded execution in the clutch.

Even after he dutifully perfected his game with other key elements — unguardable turnaround jumpers, wolf-like defense, 3-point range — those same undeniable, baseline characteristics were what led him to greatness and allowed him to lead others to the same hallowed ground.