Fifteen years ago today, the best basketball player ever stepped off the court for the last time… ever.
It was Michael Jordan‘s third and final retirement. His first came after his father’s tragic murder when he left to play baseball in honor of his dad James. He’d, of course, come back and win three more titles in a row before hanging up his J’s again, deciding to go take up team ownership as his new hobby. In January 1999 he said he was “99.9%” sure that he’d never play another NBA game. But a year later his love of the game would resurface and that 99.9% dwindled.
Becoming president of basketball operations and a minority owner of the Washington Wizards wasn’t enough. He rid the team of ridiculously high contracts held by players like Rod Strickland and $100 million man Juwan Howard, but also made odd decisions like choosing Kwame Brown with the first pick in the 2001 NBA draft. His Airness was back. Seemingly tired that his team couldn’t win enough games, he returned.
I am returning as a player to the game I love.
“I am returning as a player to the game I love,” he said at the time and even donated a portion of his salary to the 9/11 terrorist attack relief efforts.
An aging Jordan played just 60 games that season but still led the team in scoring, assists, and steals, too. He was unable to push the Wizards into the playoffs, but he was able to double down on some of the achievements he’d accomplished in his prime. The game was no longer his— the torch was passed to the likes of Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson. But, he’d finish his career with 32,292 points and a 30.12 average, the highest in NBA history.
His career was officially over after he hit his last few free throws on April 15, 2003, thanks to Eric Snow fouling him out of respect. But most importantly he did it while donning the Sport Royal Air Jordan 18s, which marked the beginning of the sneakers taking on a life outside of the player. The iconic Bulls colorways that we were used to seeing on the signature sneakers were traded away when Jordan put on a Wizards jersey.
He’d start his Wizards stint in the 17s but would end it with the envelope-pushing and elegant 18s. They were constructed of one piece of leather, and the luxe-looking blunt toe took inspiration from Italian race cars— just one of Jordan’s favorite expensive toys. The blend of style and performance wouldn’t be enough to make the silhouette insanely popular off the court, and the market for retroes began to boom even with Jordan out of the league. However, the sneakers did serve as a pivotal moment of Michael Jordan transitioning from basketball player to living off his legacy as his career becomes folklore.