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Commentary: A happy 50th to an icon, a fierce competitor, the Symbol

I'm a fan of the occasional long walk; clearing my head, or gathering (or getting lost in) my own thoughts by way of the isolation afforded by a slow-stepped stroll.

A week ago Sunday, in the middle of one such solitary saunter, I passed by Baugher's (the country store and restaurant; not the orchard), which had placed the following message upon their roadside A-frame sign - "Apples are a symble of Love! Happy Valentine's Day" [sic].

The sign's message, was, I assumed, intended to spur apple sales (for the health-conscious romantic?). Instead, and quite honestly, the sign - specifically the schadenfreude-inspired humor I found in the misspelling of the word "symble" - sparked my thinking for this week's column.

Jerry West has long held the moniker, the Logo, because, well, his is literally the silhouetted image that is the inspiration behind the NBA's logo. Unfortunately, if polled by way of name association, more young basketball players of today would probably guess West was ("that guy who played ") Batman in the (1960's) TV show, before guessing he was/is the Logo (if they even wagered a guess at all).

More disheartening to basketball players from my generation is that most kids today register blank stares in response to references to Larry Bird, Christian Laettner, or Charles Barkley (except for those who laugh at Barkley as that guy who talks about his "meatballs" on the Weight Watchers commercials).

Sunday, Feb. 17, was Michael Jordan's 50th birthday.

Watching childhood heroes hit milestone lifetime (age) mile-markers is, or at least can be, a harsh reminder of our own aging. I was reminded of this when I stopped by a friend's house near the end of my walk and was asked rhetorically if I "could believe Michael Jordan was turning 50?!?!"

I've spent a lot of time, in a lot of gyms, with a lot of basketball players; some (players) of certain degrees of fame and notoriety. But, only once - only one time - have I walked into a gym and been able to tell, from a silhouette, that I was in the gym with Him. (Apologies to my more pious, Christian friends who reserve the capitalized "Him" for another, non-basketball deity).

I've met Michael a few times; been in a gym with Him twice; in layup lines with Him once.

The foregoing religious aside aside, well, walking into that gym, seeing - and knowing from - the silhouette that it was Him was surreal. If West was/is the Logo, the iconic Jordan is the Symbol of and for the pinnacle of basketball greatness. He is arguably, along with Bill Russell, the greatest to ever play the game. (Russell, with his 11 NBA championships, being the greatest winner to ever lace them up.)

I recognized Him, from 150 feet away, with his back to me, before I even saw Him. His silhouette had been emblazoned in the minds of my entire generation; and, had become emblematic of basketball greatness. With the short memories and even shorter attention spans of today's kids, I wonder if his undisputed greatness, and his iconic and symbolic status and stature can endure. Will a yet-to-lace-'em-up generation of basketball players grow-up to "wanna be like Mike?"

Michael took Flight in rarified air because he is of that special breed (of athlete) that admittedly hates losing more than they enjoy winning; the fiercest of competitors; a stone-cold killer (on the basketball court); unapologetic about his unrelenting desire to be the best. He once cheated His college roommate's mom at a game of Go-Fish because He was that obsessed with winning; and, that genuinely sickened by the idea of losing.

He invited his high school basketball coach - the one who famously cut him - to His Naismith Hall of Fame induction ceremony; seemingly for the singular purpose of, well, because He was/is Michael Jordan and somehow, despite the singularly and unique to Him accolades and accomplishments, and the countless other messages and stories He could have shared, well, He thought it fitting to remind His coach, and the world, on that stage, upon His induction into the Hall of Fame, that this coach had made a mistake; he'd cut (the) Michael Jordan; and, a lifetime of unparalleled basketball success later, it still burned Him.

Writing this a few days before the NBA descends on Houston for its annual All Star Weekend, I can only hope that the league, at some point either before or during the All-Star Game on Jordan's birthday on Sunday (or, and perhaps equally fittingly, during the slam-dunk competition on Saturday) p(l)ays tribute to the undisputed G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time).

Maybe Kobe and Lebron - the two heir apparents (to the throne) - will don (retro) Air Jordans for the game in tribute to their (basketball) idol. (If so, I hope they rock the Jordan XIs; the greatest basketball shoes ever made.)

Maybe, just maybe, the league will replace the Logo with the emblematic Symbol - with the iconic silhouetted, three-pointed, mid-flighted (Air) Jordan - on its jerseys for All Star game/weekend. (Unfortunately, in much in the way Jordan himself draped an American flag over the Reebok logo on his Dream Team jersey during the medal ceremony at the '92 Olympics; I don't see Adidas, the current official uniform supplier to the NBA, playing along too nicely with that idea.)

Here's to you on your 50th, MJ.

Happy birthday you old G.O.A.T. (But, would it have killed you to sign my Gatorade towel that night in that gym?)

Matt Laczkowski is an athlete, coach, and sports columnist living in Westminster. Email questions to coach@with-character.com.

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