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Michael Jordan ''comeback'' with the number 45

From the ''double nickel night'' to the debut of the Air Jordan XI

Michael Jordan ''comeback'' with the number 45 From the ''double nickel night'' to the debut of the Air Jordan XI

Just over 18 seconds left in game-1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference semi-finals when Michael Jordan - 19 points and 8/21 from the field so far - was out of the timeout and received the ball in his half Nick Anderson: the Bulls lead 91-90 on the Magic and each of the 16,000 spectators of the Amway Arena knows that the future of the game and the series passes from that defensive game in single coverage.

The pressure of Anderson is monstrous since the reception, Jordan after a couple of dribbles goes of spin move and accelerates to overcome the half field and lose eye contact with Anderson. Instinct brings MJ on the right side but Anderson takes just a fraction of a second to come out of nowhere, rob ''the GOAT'' and start the action closed by the crush of Horace Grant on assist by Penny Hardaway for the advantage of the masters of home. The building, meanwhile, has literally caught fire.

This time it's Phil Jackson calling the timeout with 6.2 seconds on the stopwatch. The pattern is naturally for Jordan who receives at the height of the logo marked by Donald Royal and attacks along the central band before stopping at the free throw line: everyone expects the dribble-stop-throw that can never go out, including Scottie Pippen who is inevitably taken by surprise by a passage that goes to die among the photographers crowded behind the basket. It ends here, game-1 is by Magic: ''45 is not 23. At 23 I could never have done such a thing'', Nick Anderson will say commenting on the play of his life, as if he wanted to bring back the normalization of those supernatural basketball instincts to a mere matter of iconography.

Even the statistics seemed to reinforce that thesis: despite the "double nickel" at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks, the 17 games played by Jordan after the "I'm back!" In the regular season had revealed that was a gap to fill with Michael #23, to confirm it were the worst statistics by average points (26.9) and percentage from the field (41.1) since 1986.

45, a number also maintained during the forgettable months with the Birmingham Barons, derives from the years of Laney High School: in the ''junior varsity'' team (what for us would be the high school B team) Michael had just 45 but, one once he passed to the "junior" the following year, he was forced to change it because of his brother Larry, already in possession of the favorite number. Michael then chose the - almost - half, a number that all in all brought him luck: 23.

A return to the past, a heartfelt choice: ''When I returned to basketball I didn't want to play with the last number my father had seen me play with. He was no longer there so I wanted to experience my return as a new beginning" he would have written in 1998 in his autobiography "For the Love of the Game"; it was mostly a marketing operation: the 45, in fact, also showed off on the back of the brand new Jordan XI ''Concord'' worn for the first time in race-1, despite Tinker Hatfield had suggested to wait at least for the official launch on the market.

All the theories that put MJ in a bad light were denied in game-2, when, with the return to 23 in his twenty-third game of the season, he forced the Bulls to pay a $ 25,000 fine - in addition to the usual 5,000 for shoes not suitable for the ' 'dress code' from the league - for changing the number. Not bad: 38 points in the final 104-94 which is worth the 1-1 in the series and the feeling that everything really depended on the cabal. ''I think it was a matter of trust. 23 is who I am, and I will keep it until I stop playing basketball. So why try to be someone else?'' He will say, with the stats once again supporting; the five games played in those playoffs with 45 were 29.6 points on average with 47% shooting, the next five with 23 will be closed at 33.4 touching 50% from the field.

It will not be enough for the Bulls to avoid the elimination and neither for Jordan to deny who was already claiming not to be the old Michael. And certainly not for a matter of jersey numbers: it is not the presence of the 23 that is missing but that condition of mental superiority, even before technical and physical, which allowed him to decide when and how to win, without leaving the slightest doubt that there is he would have succeeded. At that moment MJ is ''only'' a very strong player with limits that were not believed to have.

Superman would see himself in better shape than ever after a summer spent training furiously in view of the redemption season, that of 72 victories and the first title for the "three-peat repeat". And the Air Jordan XI ''Concord'' in their original coloring would also have been reviewed: abandoned in race-3 of that series against the Magic - in favor of a couple of unusual ''Air Flight One'' and then in the version ''black royal'' (with the iconic Jumpman in blue) which will also appear in Space Jam together with the Jordan IX - they would have returned to the ancient splendor of black and white already starting from the opening night of November 3: 42 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists against the Charlotte Hornets, with the 23 clearly visible on the shirt and on the back of the sneakers. Because it wasn't going to be a question of numbers, but it was better not to risk it.