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Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson, Jam Video

Where were you when Michael Jackson died?

I'm not sure, less than 24 hours after his passing, that this question will have the same kind of cultural relevance in 10 years that it is currently being assigned. Michael Jackson was not John F. Kennedy or even, arguably, Elvis, in part because, in this age of 24-hour celebrity, our fondest memories of him can't erase the strange and complex narrative that was the last 20 years of his life. We watched it unfold in real time, and it was messy. Jackson, though, is easily one of the most influential people of my youth, and long before he was a punchline, he was the most electric entertainer alive, other than, perhaps, Michael Jordan.

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I was driving to Washington D.C. with my friend Gerry, to attend a Nationals vs. Red Sox game, when the news came over the radio that he was dead, and we spent the first few innings of the baseball game trying to wrap our heads around the idea that the man who made "Thriller" and "Billy Jean" really was gone. Between every inning, the Nationals played various songs from his catalogue, and although it initially felt strange, possibly even in poor taste, eventually it felt like the proper tribute. Baseball seemed only mildly interesting anyway. The King of Pop was on everyone's mind. There are very few people who can have the kind of impact on an entire stadium. Nothing grinds our collective culture to a halt anymore, but I guess we can measure someone's influence by how long their memory lingers in our minds even when there is something else right in front of our face to distract us.

Jackson had very little to do with sports, other than putting on one of the most memorable Super Bowl halftime shows in history. But there was a fluidity to the way he physically moved that no athlete, except Jordan, could ever touch. In 1992, Jackson hadn't yet tumbled down into the rabbit hole of weirdness that would define his later years, and so when he released a video for the song "Jam" that featured Jordan, it's hard to describe how big of a cultural moment it was for people in my generation. Jackson wasn't my favorite artist and Jordan wasn't my favorite player, but I remember feeling absolutely riveted when the video debuted on MTV (back when MTV showed videos instead of scripted narcissistic claptrap like The Hills.)

The song "Jam" isn't particularly good -- even then, before I understood anything about music criticism, I remember feeling like Jackson had just added the word "jam" to the chorus of a song about something else entirely simply so Jordan, Heavy D and Kris Kross could be added to the video to help market his comeback -- but seeing the two MJs together on screen was, and still is, a little surreal.

There's absolutely nothing you could possibly compare it to today, especially in this era when entertainers and athletes like Jay-Z and LeBron James are regular friends and business partners. Here were two of the most influential people of the 1980s, two African-American men who transcended race and become global icons, clowning around in a poorly-lit gym. They influenced everything and everyone who came after them in their respective fields, and yet somehow, no one managed to do it as well as they did. Muhammad Ali's famous meeting with the Beatles is probably the closest cultural comparison there is.

My favorite part of the video, though, has nothing to do with the music. And you can only catch it in the outtakes at the very end of the extended cut. It's Jackson teaching Jordan some of his dance moves.

There's never been an athlete who understood the way that his body moved in tight spaces like Jordan did. ESPN's Bill Simmons mentioned it the other day when talking about Kobe Bryant, but we forget how cool Jordan was in his prime. He was always the coolest guy in every room, and he moved like there was a soundtrack playing at all times that only he could hear. The same way that Justin Timberlake (and countless others) can never truly nail Michael Jackson's moves, Bryant (and countless others) can never quite duplicate Jordan.

When you watch the end of that video, though, it's funny to see how awkward Jordan looks compared to Jackson. One of the most graceful men on the planet is reduced to that clumsy guy who stumbles around the dance floor at every wedding you've ever been to. He's not the guy who scored 63 against the Celtics in the playoffs. He's the guy who can't quite pick up the beat to Kool and the Gang.

What I love, though, is that there is a tenderness to the way Jackson keeps giving him instruction, laughing every time Jordan claims "I've got it!" Maybe it seems weird or creepy to you, considering all we would come to know about Jackson in time, but I love the way Jordan's deep baritone voice and huge silhouette stands in contrast to Jackson's skinny frame and his effeminate squeak. Jackson, for all his oddities, was one of only a handful of people who could make Michael Jordan seem graceless, but seem kind doing it.

True artistry comes in such different packages that it's a little disarming to see it juxtaposed this way. But like Jordan, Jackson was an American original, a man whose talent and fame made an impact that is impossible to quantify.

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It's unlikely I'll remember where I was when I heard that he died, but like millions of people, I won't ever forget that he was one of those rare people who reminds us, with every note and every move, what it is to be alive.

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