Michaelllllll Jorrrrrdan!

Forget the NBA playoffs. At the IMAX movie "Michael Jordan to the Max," the greatest player who ever was lives again.

Published June 7, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

I used to live in Chicago and I moved away not so long after Michael Jordan retired. What was the point of sticking around? Like I was going to sit there year after year, on the same couch facing away from Lake Michigan, and look at the same TV while who -- Shaq? -- won the NBA championship? No more throwing open the windows after Bulls wins to better hear my neighbors in the high-rises next to the lake banging on their balcony railings with joy, as the cars on Sheridan Road honk their horns in time to "Sweet Home Chicago" on their radios.

Have you ever been part of something like that? Sheltered beneath some grand, citywide umbrella of agreement? In arguably the most segregated metropolitan area in the nation, where even the two baseball teams splice the town in half, brother against brother, North vs. South, the fact that almost every kid in every neighborhood and 'burb owned a No. 23 Michael Jordan T-shirt was a relief. Which is why on the afternoon in 1998 that Jordan announced his retirement, after leading the Bulls to six NBA championships, you couldn't walk down the street without looking into bloodshot eyes. I admit it: I, too, cried.

All of which is to say, there's a new Michael Jordan IMAX movie and if you don't mind embarrassing yourself by rooting for a basketball team that no longer exists playing games you've already seen, and you can bring yourself to ask the box office cashier for a ticket to something called "Michael Jordan to the Max," then my lord is it fun. It might not be "good," in that its hokey narration is delivered by the hokey Laurence Fishburne; in that most of its talk is sports talk, which can almost always be boiled down to "try hard" or "try harder"; in that its footage is limited to mostly Jordan's final season. Still, it's lovable like the "Gladiator" movie is lovable -- sweaty and principled and wispy about the glory that was Rome.

Directed by Don Dempf and James D. Stern, the film has a back-and-forth structure. It outlines a bare-bones Jordan bio -- basically, North Carolina kid who doesn't make the varsity team one year in high school becomes biggest sports hero of all time by working hard and being nice to his parents -- in between IMAX-shot footage of his final championship series against the Utah Jazz.

Because of the colossal IMAX screen and the hugeness of the Jordan talent/persona, the whole experience is suitably large, though most of its loveliest moments are small. A cameo by comedian and Chicagoan Bill Murray finds him mugging for the IMAX crew, holding up his tub of popcorn in the United Center asking, "How big does that look on IMAX?"

A shot of the press assembled on the court in Salt Lake City includes a reporter behind a sign reading "Bosnia-Herzegovina" and alludes to the fact that even in the war-weary Balkans, maybe especially in the war-weary Balkans, news of MJ's last exploits warrants sending someone all the way to Mormonville. (In fact, I know a war correspondent who was about to be killed by one of the factions in the former Yugoslavia and when he told his executioner he was from Chicago, the guy yelled "Michael Jordan!" and put down his gun.) And during the scene at a sports camp for kids in which Jordan passes the ball to this little blond girl on his team, who makes a basket and then beams at her hero, even the Bulls-hating Knicks fan next to me took a break from his grudge long enough to lean over and coo, "Oh my God, that was cute."

The most shocking thing to be reminded of in "Michael Jordan to the Max" is not one of Jordan's aerospace maneuvers, though there are plenty of those. It was astonishing to see the team reassembled -- to see the band back together. Like old movies of the Beatles on that London rooftop or Nirvana after Dave Grohl joined up, hearing the United Center announcer yelling "Michaelllllll Jorrrrrdan" as he runs out to stand next to Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman and Luc Longley and Toni Kukoc and Ron Harper and Steve Kerr, you can't believe your luck. Giants among us, that sort of thing. Pictures float by like they're falling from the family album: Michael in the arms of Scottie as Luc looks on; Dennis driving Karl Malone of the Jazz stark raving mad as Michael sails past them; the smile on Jordan's face as you hear the play-by-play "Kerr for three!"

"Michael Jordan to the Max" is putting a damper on my progress. I not only moved away from Chicago -- even more embarrassing, I moved to New York, and I have been trying to talk myself into being a Knicks fan. I am, as they say, learning to love. I do feel for sad old Patrick Ewing -- who doesn't? And I'm fond of Latrell Sprewell, being a sucker for cool hair. But King Lear-level disappointment and op-art cornrows aren't exactly the stuff great marriages are made of.

The day before I saw the Jordan film, during Game 4 of the NBA's Eastern Conference Finals, I had made it three-and-a-half quarters rooting for the Knicks against the Indiana Pacers. Three-point-five quarters cheering for the Knicks is my personal record. But when Pacers star Reggie Miller, who is more beautiful than the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin's Egyptian Museum, missed a shot I heard myself groan and I knew I was on Indiana's side. By Game 5, I was not only up against my crush on Reggie Miller: Thanks to "Michael Jordan to the Max," I had Bulls on the brain. Staring at the television, where Sprewell had just made a really tricky basket, an old Randy Newman lyric came to mind: "I'm looking at the river, but I'm thinking of the sea."

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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