This is how it is with icons. As their youth fades, the rest of us are the ones who feel old. Michael Jordan is 50? How can that be? It's not that the milestone means he's ready for assisted living and soft foods—he's still spry enough to mix it up on the practice court with NBA players half his age, and it wouldn't even be a complete shock if he decided to make good on the warning he issued in his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2009. "One day you may look up and see me playing a game at 50," he said back then. "Don't laugh. Never say never." No one is laughing. Anyone who remembers Jordan's six NBA titles with the Bulls, to say nothing of his scoring 43 points for the Wizards four days after he turned 40, knows better than to question his physical abilities at any age. It's just that it's remarkable how quickly he has gone from scoring 50 to turning 50.
Depending on your generation, realizing that His Airness is now eligible for senior discounts is like the first time you heard the Rolling Stones on an oldies station or saw Winona Ryder playing someone's mom. There are high school kids who weren't born yet when Jordan played his last game for Chicago in 1998, college students who don't remember his decision to retire from the NBA (temporarily, as it turned out) in 1993 to play baseball in the White Sox organization. Kobe Bryant, the Lakers star who as a younger player patterned himself after Jordan, was asked recently when he last viewed tape of MJ in action. "Wow, it's been a while," he said. "Probably not since 1999. I used to watch a bunch, but that was a long time ago."
Bryant probably didn't mean that as commentary on Jordan's age or relevance or the breakneck speed at which the culture hurtles on, but it was all of those things. In the half century since he was born in Brooklyn on Feb. 17, 1963, Jordan has become one of the world's most recognizable faces, and his fame has evolved much as his game once did—white-hot at its peak, then less spectacular but still significant. He's changed (along with the way we view him) as both a public figure and a private man. As his 50th birthday earns him an appearance on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED for a record 50th time, it's only natural to do what anyone does upon reaching such a big, round number—assess his place in life, take stock of what has gone before and ponder what is to come.
JORDAN, THE PRINCIPAL OWNER of the Bobcats since March 2010, isn't so different from many men in his age bracket. His face is fuller now, and his 6' 6" frame, once lean and coiled, now has a bit of a bulge. He has been through a divorce and has three adult children to worry about. "You guys have a heavy burden," he said to his kids during his Hall speech. "I wouldn't want to be you guys." Harsh, perhaps, but it shows that Jordan understands how large a shadow he casts. Though their missteps have been publicized because of their famous father—Marcus, 22, pleaded no contest to disturbing the peace last August after what police said was a drunken argument with two women—Jordan appears to have maintained a strong relationship with them. His oldest, Jeffrey, 24, goes by the Twitter handle @heirjordan13. Marcus, a senior guard at Central Florida, includes "Proud to be Michael Jordan's son" in his bio on the social media site. Jasmine, 19, is a sports-management major at Syracuse who's been using the hashtag #CountdowntoMJBig50 in anticipation of her dad's birthday.
His Airness may have some of the same issues and concerns as other men his age, but your average 50-year-old doesn't move into a newly built $12.4 million, 11-bedroom mansion in Jupiter, Fla., on three acres of land, as Jordan and his fianceé, 34-year-old Yvette Prieto, recently did. The 28,000-square-foot manse is on The Bear's Club golf course, owned by Jack Nicklaus; Jordan's friend Tiger Woods is among his neighbors. The property includes a full-size basketball court, a two-story guardhouse and a media room with a ventilation system geared to handle heavy cigar smoke, one of Jordan's most well-known vices (along with gambling). He also paid $3.2 million in 2010 for the two top-floor penthouses in a condominium in downtown Charlotte, just two blocks from the arena where the Bobcats play. (Jordan reportedly put up $25 million of his money and assumed $150 million in debt as the leader of the group that bought the team.)
Your everyday 50-year-old also doesn't have the wherewithal to turn his birthday into a media, marketing and money-making event, as Jordan has. His newest signature basketball shoe, the XX8, was to be released on Feb. 16 in conjunction with his birthday and with All-Star weekend (price tag: $250). The steak houses bearing his name in New York, Chicago and at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut offer a special $125 five-course meal inspired by his life and career. The courses include a shrimp cocktail (to represent his childhood in Brooklyn and the move to Wilmington, N.C.), pan-roasted sea scallop with grits (his college years at North Carolina), "Maxwell Street"--style Duroc pork tenderloin with fries (for the Chicago years) and dry-aged Wagyu rib-eye steak for his basketball career in general. Dessert is goat cheese custard with spiced cherries and sea salt caramel, inspired, according to a press release, by his postretirement life of "playing golf, spending time with his family and supporting various charities."
Is that the postretirement life that Jordan wants? That question has followed him since he left the game for good in April 2003. Is Jordan committed to the painstaking work of reconstructing the woeful Bobcats, or is ownership just a hobby picked up by a retiree to keep busy? Is smoking fine stogies and playing world-class golf courses what his heart really desires? As he hits 50, does he feel fulfilled?
We will have to wonder about that without, as usual, much help from him. Jordan declined an interview request from SI, as he has ever since his baseball hiatus. The March 14, 1994, issue depicted him swinging at a pitch, along with the cover line, BAG IT, MICHAEL! JORDAN AND THE WHITE SOX ARE EMBARRASSING BASEBALL. His refusal to consent to interviews with SI ever since seems to have grown out of his famous tendency to strike back at those whom he feels have slighted him. It's an off-the-court version of the way he would try to drop 50 on an opponent who dared talk trash.
Even if he were to sit down to answer questions, though, it's unlikely that Jordan would offer up his deepest thoughts. He has perfected the technique practiced by some of our most popular athletes—think Tom Brady and Derek Jeter—of being affable enough in controlled settings while careful enough not to reveal too much. We may have read and heard of his temper, of his often cutting humor, of his gambling proclivities, but we have rarely seen any first-hand evidence of them. The Jordan who appears before the public is almost invariably composed and friendly, which may be the key to why after 30 years of the kind of intense scrutiny that his fame brings, he still seems as likable as ever.
His refusal to lay himself open has also helped him maintain a bit of mystery, and with it, a certain cachet. In a culture that cycles through celebrity athletes in a heartbeat—think Dennis Rodman and Terrell Owens—Jordan abides, still with a modicum of cool even as he pitches products as decidedly unhip as Hanes underwear. It's because even after all these years, we feel that we don't know everything about him, that we're not through with him yet. Some athletes chase our attention. Jordan lets us chase him.
And we chase him to this day, drawn, in large part, by our memories of his brilliance on the court. The debate about history's greatest player will rage forever, from bar stools to blog posts, but Jordan has as much claim to the title as anyone. It's not just that he bracketed six NBA championships around the two-year baseball interlude, or that he won and was the MVP of every Finals he appeared in, or that he led the league in scoring 10 times, or that his career average of 30.1 points is the highest of all time. It's also that the case can be made that no one has ever been better at his or her profession than Jordan was at his. He is one of those rare artists who become the gold standard, not just in his specialty but in general. How many times have we heard someone's mastery summed up by describing him as "the Michael Jordan" of his field? It is a shorthand understood immediately: the undisputed best.
In fact, his excellence spoiled us. Jordan provided the heroic, straight-from-a-Hollywood-script ending so often that we have expected it of every star since. The buzzer-beater that eliminated the Cavaliers in the 1989 playoffs is forever clear in our minds, and for many of us, a star isn't truly a star until he has produced similar moments, until he has done an indelible Jordan imitation. The reason LeBron James was dogged by criticism that he wasn't a great closer? Jordan. The reason that teams clear out for their best player to go one-on-one with the game on the line, playing "hero ball"? Jordan.
In some ways players are still trying to be like Mike, even 10 years after his last game. It was Jordan who made the jump from simply being paid for endorsements to developing his own brand, and he's the reason that so many stars are bent on becoming business moguls.
"The thing about Michael that you all need to understand," his good friend Charles Barkley said of him years ago, "is that he doesn't worry about what you all think of him." Barkley was referring to the media, and by extension, the public, and he was right, in a sense. As a pitchman who still makes millions per year in endorsements, Jordan realizes that being positively thought of is good for business. But again he benefits from his silence. Jordan has been the subject of his share of salacious rumors, from a supposed dalliance with a porn star years ago to the unsubstantiated theory that the real reason he played baseball for two years was that he had been suspended by the NBA for his gambling, but rarely does he bother to issue denials. He simply ignores such stories, and they usually gain no traction. Just last week there were reports that former NBA player Jalen Rose, now an ESPN commentator, told Indiana students at a party that Jordan was actually hung over, not ill, in Game 5 against the Jazz in the 1997 Finals. The assertion seems far-fetched—that would have been some hangover—but don't hold your breath waiting for a reply from His Airness.
The approach has served Jordan well all these years. According to Marketing Evaluations Inc., he is recognized by 89% of fans and has a positive Q score (meaning respondents identify him as a favorite) of 43%. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is tops among active athletes, with 88% recognition and a positive Q score of 32%.
There was a time when Jordan was the coolest guy in any room, the black James Bond. He turned the shaved head into a game-changer for prematurely balding men. Baggy shorts with black socks, once the province of dorky retirees, became stylish once he started rocking them. Sometimes it seemed that he would purposely wear something outlandish off the court just to test his power to turn something that would look ridiculous on anyone else into a fashion trend. But how long can Jordan's level of public admiration last? As his playing career fades further into the background, can the post-50 Jordan maintain his cool pose?
There are already signs of a shift in the way he is regarded, thanks mainly to his stumbles as a basketball executive. No one aspires to be the Michael Jordan of team owners, because he has proved to be all too fallible there. As talent evaluator and deal-maker, his batting average is no better than it was as a baseball player. As president of the Wizards he took Kwame Brown with the first pick of the 2001 draft, leaving Tyson Chandler and Pau Gasol to go with the next two. With Charlotte, Jordan traded Chandler to Dallas, where he was the defensive backbone of a title team, in return for three minor players and cash. His tenure as an executive, consequently, has been marked by more losing than Jordan has ever known—the Bobcats' .106 winning percentage (7--59) last season was the worst in NBA history. It is the first time we have seen him fail, really fail (baseball doesn't count because no one expected him to forge a career as a big leaguer), and he has been the target of the kind of criticism he never knew as a player.
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander scorched Jordan last April for attending a Blackhawks game while his Bobcats were losing 101--73 to Washington. It was a bad look—Jordan as a dilettante boss, more interested in a fun night out than in supporting and evaluating the team he was supposed to be running. "We know Jordan is a hedonist," Telander wrote. "He golfs, he skis, goes to resorts, smokes cigars and looks beautiful. But he seems to stand for nothing. No charities, no statements about world issues, no cares beyond himself, no strength of character, no using the astounding public platform he has. Is his image bulletproof? Is the public so shallow that it will gawk at His Airness forever, even as his feet of clay turn to mud?"
It wasn't the first time Jordan had been ripped for being a mere fun-seeker without a social conscience; his greatness as a player always seemed to push those criticisms into the background. But now that he can't dazzle anyone on the court anymore, Jordan no longer gets quite the free pass that he once did.
In November he was playing the tony La Gorce Country Club in Miami Beach while wearing a pair of stylish cargo shorts, a violation of the club rules that require Bermuda shorts. Course officials offered him a chance to change, which Jordan declined. He was allowed to finish, but the club reportedly decided he won't be allowed to return. A spokesperson for Jordan confirmed the incident to the New York Post, saying, "We were not aware that he is not allowed to return to La Gorce. I guess it's their loss, as MJ is a great golfer and a great guest."
The younger generation sees him as just as ripe for snarkiness as anyone else. There is a tumblr devoted to making fun of his fashion choices called wtfismikewearing. (If you don't know what wtf means, let alone what a tumblr is, ask your kids.) It has a series of photos of Jordan's most unusual getups, from playing days to recent years. There have always been those who criticized Jordan, praised Jordan, analyzed Jordan. But laughing at Jordan? That's relatively new.
Jordan occasionally joins the Bobcats on the practice floor, where he offers some hands-on advice. "I'm in it for the long haul," he told The Charlotte Observer last month. "I was frustrated. For a guy who played the game of basketball, I could only do so much sitting in that [owner's] seat. It was too close, and I couldn't control my emotions. I moved myself back up, so that I could scream and yell without you guys [reporters] hearing me. You're not going to run me out that easily. Losing is not something I take well, but it's not something I run from, either. It's my nature that when someone says I can't do something, I focus on trying to do it. So when people say we can't win here, it drives me nuts and gets me motivated to do everything I can."
For his 50th birthday, what do you get for the man who has everything? Maybe you give him a challenge, a chance to be great at something again. Here, then, are the Bobcats, all but gift-wrapped for their owner as a post-50 project. Happy birthday, Michael. As you blow out your candles, our wish for you is that inside something still burns.
"ONE DAY YOU MAY LOOK UP AND SEE ME PLAYING A GAME AT 50," JORDAN SAID IN 2009. "DON'T LAUGH." NO ONE IS.
Now on SI.com
Full coverage of Michael Jordan at 50, including an extended version of this list, as well as a gallery of the 100 most memorable MJ photos and exclusive video of Walter Iooss Jr. reflecting on his favorite Jordan pictures, at SI.com/mag
Photograph by WALTER IOOSS JR.
MARCH 1998 Since his heyday as a player, Jordan has left a fainter imprint, overseeing two moribund franchises and drawing criticism for his refusal to stand for anything.
KENT SMITH/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (JORDAN IN 2013)
JANUARY 2013 Jordan watched his Bobcats lose to Indiana 103--76.
ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (VERSUS PISTONS)
MAY 1989 Before winning their first title in 1991, the Bulls saw three straight seasons end at the hands of the Pistons, who employed the so-called Jordan Rules to stifle His Airness.
NOVEMBER 1983 Early in his junior year at North Carolina—his last at the school—Jordan was carefree, and with good reason: His Tar Heels were the consensus preseason No. 1 team.
STEVE LIPOFSKY (VERSUS CELTICS)
MANNY MILLAN (ROOKIE)
NOVEMBER 1984 Then a lanky rookie, Jordan hadn't yet helped make baggy shorts the style. He had, however, already introduced another trademark look: the wagging tongue.
WALTER IOOSS JR.
JUNE 1993 Jordan was a one-man gang against Barkley (center) and Kevin Johnson (right) of the Suns, averaging 41.0 points and 8.5 rebounds in the Finals.