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MJ Memories

Go to college, you think you're waiting. Life is what you're preparing for, supposedly—all that grown-up work, the marriage and kids, the wide world opening up someday but not now, not here. At 19, 20 years old, there are these dead spaces between semesters, after the scurry of finals. You're tending bar or lying on a dorm-room bed: Time crawls. This isn't real, you think, feeling vaguely superior; it's an air lock. Someone, a mutual friend, says, "Let's go see Mike." You shrug: Why not?

Summer 1982, Chapel Hill even more sleepy with most of the students gone. Jordan had hit the 17-footer that beat Georgetown and won Dean Smith his first national title a few months earlier, but that could have just been a matter of good timing. The North Carolina program had minted player after star player; the media guide first listed him as Mike: No one knew yet. His high school buddy from Wilmington, N.C., had nothing better to do—neither did you or Mike, for that matter. Soon you were in a parking lot outside Granville Towers, squinting. His buddy shouted, voice carrying up three or four stories.

A shout back, then there he was: close-cropped hair, upside-down ears, a grin bobbing over the windowsill. An arm dangled out too. What ensued was instantly forgettable, useless variations of What's up? Didn't matter, didn't care: It made time move some. The following season he would break out—a flurry of last-second steals and astonishing dunks—become something no one even in Chapel Hill had ever seen before. You saw it as it grew, years later, in Chicago, California, Barcelona and Birmingham. You saw him be vicious, funny, loyal, vindictive and kind, saw him transform American sports, saw him become the most famous man on Earth.

Strange, though, that you didn't see how wrong you had been until much later. Because that was the future, right then, waving at you. Wake up now, it said. Here I come.