My mom kept the picture in her purse until the day she died, the photo in a five-by-seven frame purchased at Walgreens; a cough drop hopelessly stuck to it. The photo was not of me and my sisters, but me standing next to Michael Jordan at a 1994 PR stunt in Chicago. Wheaties unveiled a new official champion on their cereal box to coincide with the reformulation of their taste, giving the 100% wheat taste more taste than ever, making the flakes 120% pure cardboard.
If you squint at the photo, you’ll notice Michael Jordan is the tall black guy amongst the entourage of pasty white agency folks with outdated hair and other Wheaties champions, including Mary Lou Retton, the late Walter Payton, and Bob Richards. Plus, the version of Caitlyn Jenner who used him/her pronouns.
My mom would pull the photo out everywhere, showing relatives, bank tellers, care-keepers, and even strangers standing next to her in line waiting at Krogers. It didn’t matter that my head was about the size of a popcorn kernel. Or that it was three-peat Michael, not the six-peat Michael. Or that the client opted to put a photo of their whole wheat flakes on the box instead of this one or one with Michael and his tongue hanging out.
All that mattered was that I was near this icon, or whatever the world molded this man into.
Somehow, that photo followed me to China, a scanned version, where seven-year-old Jing Cheng, couldn’t stop staring at it.
“You met 二三 èr sān?”
Or in English, “You met number twenty-three?”
Jing Cheng, like many Chinese boys, was dressed head to toe in Michael Jordan apparel, the real deal, not the bootlegs. He had Nikes on his feet, an 二三 sweatband on his wrist, and a red BULLS jersey that he wears every day, even though his parents were in elementary school when MJ put on his for the last time in Salt Lake City.
Why does this fascination with Michael continue, especially in China? This is not the West Side of Chicago, where one could visit the United Center where the Bulls still play. It’s Kunming, the twenty-first largest city in China, twenty-five years after the last Bulls rally in Grant Park. A measly population of six million. Home of rose-flavored moon cakes and over-the-bridge noodles and that’s about it.
Jing Cheng isn’t alone. Michael Jordan is more prevalent on apparel than any Chinese Basketball star. Chinese kids’ captivation with 二三 èr sān got me to download the Netflix series, The Last Dance, about the Bull’s quest for their sixth ring.
I was glued to the screen, dumbfounded that the BULLS won six championships. I thought it was three. This is a cardinal sin since I was living in Chicago at the time.
Maybe I changed the channel to Mash reruns when Mark Giangreco did his nightly sports recap.
As I watched this special, I couldn’t help I can’t help but compare my measly career/existence to that of MJ. Not that my face has ever been on a Wheaties box, I was relegated to writing the offers on the back for free this or free that. Or that I could make a basket. But I moved to Chicago roughly the same time as MJ, uprooted from a small town and swooped away into advertising, where my creative director was enthralled with this rookie from North Carolina, where everyone in the Chicago advertising would help the world be like Mike. Art directors. Type Setters. Music Writers. Film Editors. Stylists and on-call home economists who would make oatmeal cookies with chocolate-covered raisins for MJ whenever he was on a film set.
My brush with greatness wasn’t any commercial or poster than you remembered but making the most recognizable man on the planet unrecognizable. The director forgot to check the camera gate during the filming, and the lighting was hopelessly dark, making it impossible to distinguish MJ from Lady Gaga.
With every episode of The Last Dance, I thought about who I was on the sidelines.
Micheal Jordan is now retired from basketball, sitting in a cage on top of the world, me still working with booger-flicking children in a classroom in Covid-phobic China, where not wearing a face mask can get you to lose a recess. I think how a good chunk of 二三 èr sān’s life has been like covid quarantine, locked up without the ability to go anywhere, not due to a pesky little virus, but fame.
I think of all the teachers I’ve known, superheroes in their own rights who have changed lives. Do kids want to wear clothing with their faces? Where is the line of shoes for the guy who invented the semi-colon? Where is the energy drink for the teacher who encouraged a student to reach for the stars? We will never see our likeness on a T-shirt. At best, we may get a disk of Pu’er Tea at a parent-teacher conference.
On my first day of school this year, many of my students were wearing MJ clothing. I snapped a few photos. As for Jing Cheng? He wasn’t at school the first week. He was at basketball camp.