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Monday, February 17, 2003
Forty birthday wishes for ol' No. 23

By Greg Garber

The man who defied gravity so elegantly and for so long turns 40 today. The Big Four-Oh for Michael Jordan. Can this be true?

Michael Jordan
Despite turning 40 years old, Michael Jordan isn't showing his age.
Sadly, yes.

Air Jordan's time on the planet Earth officially crosses over into a fifth decade. For basketball fans of a certain age, this is devastating news. As long as his lithe 6-foot-6, 216-pound body hung in the air, tracing a majestic parabola -- whether it was over Craig Ehlo or Bryon Russell or even Shawn Marion -- we vicariously floated there with him, our disbelief suspended. All things seemed possible.

And now? The hair is thinning. The waistline is thickening. Random muscles ache for no apparent reason. Sleep is suddenly valued over, well, a lot of things that once seemed more important. Grounded and rapidly approaching generic. Welcome to reality, MJ. Those 20 points in the All-Star game were nice, but a bit expensive. It took 27 shots (and 18 misses) to get them.

Jordan, of course, has retired from basketball twice before -- in 1993 to play baseball and again after winning his sixth ring in 1998 -- but after this season, Jordan swears the third time will be a charm.

"I'm not tempted to continue on and play," Jordan said in Atlanta for his All-Star swan song. "I just think this is my time. This is the perfect time for me, this is my choice. The itch is finally scratched in that sense and I can walk away knowing that."

Jordan's position as the preeminent player in basketball history seems secure. He won six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls between 1991 and 1998. The only two failures were when he missed most of 1994 and 1995 playing baseball. Six times Jordan was the NBA Finals MVP and five times the league MVP. On nine occasions he was voted to the NBA's All-Defense first team. In 1988, the irresistible offensive threat was also an immovable object; he was voted the Defensive Player of the Year. He averaged 30 points in well over 1,000 NBA games.

How would he like to be remembered?

"As a guy who loved the game and loved to take challenges, and always against the odds," Jordan said. "People said he couldn't do anything, and he said he could. Or, he just believed in the unknown, that no matter what, he chased it.

"I just want to be remembered as a hell of a competitor that never gave up on anything."

On the occasion of Jordan's 40th, wondered what the people who crossed paths with him at one time or another would write on his birthday card. Here are 40 sentiments -- some sweet, some wickedly caustic -- one for each season of his life, plus one to grow on:

Affirmation that MJ's over the hill

"Dear Michael,

You're good enough,
you're smart enough,
and doggone it,
you've lost a step!

Happy birthday!"

a.k.a. Stuart Smalley, whose Daily Affirmation sketch on "Saturday Night Live" with Jordan in 1991 is considered a cult classic
"M.J. -- You old man. Forty years old. It took 40 years for you to finally be grounded. Air Jordan grounded! Happy Birthday."
BUZZ PETERSON, University of Tennessee men's basketball coach who was Jordan's roommate at North Carolina

"Michael: To a guy who has always flown above all of our aspirations, when you do come down to earth, welcome to our world."
RAY CLAY, Chicago Bulls public address announcer from 1990-2002, presently director of campus recreation at the University of Illinois-Chicago

"First of all, I'd like to ask (people) not to compare the two of us. The success that (you've) had has been just unbelievable."
YAO MING, Houston Rockets center

"(You have) had a storybook career. It's not possible to fill (your) shoes. Like if (you) named five guys, it's probably going to take five or 10 more to fill those big shoes."
ALLEN IVERSON, Philadelphia 76ers guard

"(You are) the Big Hegemony. Hegemony means to dominate. (You are) the greatest player to ever play the game."
SHAQUILLE O'NEAL, Los Angeles Lakers

"I've seen so many of (your) highlights. I remember my first meeting last year against Washington. My legs were shaking, my hands were shaking. I was so excited."
PEJA STOJAKOVIC, Sacramento Kings forward

This stogey's for you

I wish you a happy birthday and many more. But there's so much made of this & An old fogey like me, you get fed up with it. You didn't see this when Havlicek turned 30, or Cousy or Russell. Hey, it's not like it's the end of the end of the world.

Hall of Fame coach and former Boston Celtics general manager

"(You're) not retiring. I'll believe it when it happens. (You're) like the Rolling Stones. (You've) been retiring for 10 years."
BILL CARTWRIGHT, Chicago Bulls coach and Jordan's former teammate during Bulls' first three-peat

"Watching your exciting career has been a pastime for the entire country. You're a hero to all of us. Happy 40th Birthday."
ARI FLEISCHER,, White House press secretary

"It's the end of an amazing time. He's the guy we grew up admiring and was a hero to many of us."
STEVE NASH, Dallas Mavericks guard

"Happy birthday, Michael. Hit 'em straight, hit hit 'em far and be happy. & oh, and do yoga."
RICHARD ESQUINAS, former San Diego businessman who claimed Jordan lost $1.25 million in golf bets to him during 10-day span in 1991, and present-day siddha yogi in Columbus, Ohio

"(You're) in amazing shape. That shows (you're) an amazing athlete. That's what (you are). That's amazing how (you) still get it done every night."
DIRK NOWITZKI, Dallas Mavericks forward

"Happy Birthday. I remember when 40 was your scoring average."
SAM SMITH, Chicago Tribune basketball writer and author of "The Jordan Rules"

"(You have) defined the Bulls, the city and the NBA. (You) will always represent the standard of excellence."
JERRY REINSDORF, Chairman, Chicago Bulls

"Everybody was influenced in one way or another by Michael Jordan. He's the greatest of all-time in my book. I've never seen anything like him."
CARON BUTLER, Miami Heat forward

If opposites attract ...

We were two very competitive people going for one thing. I wanted to win the championship and (you) wanted to win the championship. (You) and I are very similar in terms of the way we went about it. That probably is the thing that kept us apart.

Indiana Pacers head coach and former Detroit Pistons guard whose team was swept by Jordan's Bulls in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals

"M.J. -- look at what great shape I am in, now that I am middle-aged! You have sooo much to look forward to, don't you? At least you will get to spend quality time with us in the boardroom -- that will really be a lot of fun."
TED LEONSIS, Washington Wizards and Capitals owner, who orchestrated Jordan's role as part owner of the Wizards

"Michael, 40 is a great number to close on. It may be time to bow out, but congratulations on the impact you've had on basketball -- and on our society."
WOODY DURHAM, radio voice of North Carolina men's basketball for 32 years

"The quality that sets (you) apart from all the other players is that (you) set the bar of excellence at such a high level that in our immediate future, (your) status is unlikely to ever be challenged."
HUBIE BROWN, Memphis Grizzlies head coach

"MJ, Happy 40th Birthday. I look forward to continuing to work with you to build on the great legacy that you have established. You know they say life begins at 40 - so based on what you've done so far, just imagine what the future has in store."
LARRY MILLER, president, Jordan Brand for NIKE Inc.

"Michael: Keep competing the way you always have -- no matter what you choose to do next."
KEVIN LOUGHERY, Jordan's first head coach with Chicago Bulls, in 1984-85 (38-44)

"When you come in the first day and you play the best player ever, it gives you a confidence in any situation that you might find yourself. You showed me how to prepare, how to get ready to play. You showed me what it took to play basketball. I just want to say thanks. Thanks for everything."
PETE MYERS, Bulls assistant coach, who as a player replaced Jordan in the Bulls' starting lineup when he left to play baseball in 1994

Someone to look up to

"All the players in the All-Star Game should (have) said, 'Thank you.' (You) drove the ratings, which drove the salaries they're getting."

former Los Angeles Lakers star who lost to Jordan's Bulls in 1991 NBA Finals

""Thanks for being the great role model that you've been for everyone. No one plays as hard as you do."
OSCAR GRACIA, reportedly the world's most avid collector of Jordan memorabilia, more than 13,000 pieces

"I congratulate (you) on your awesome career. It can't get any better."
DESMOND MASON, Seattle SuperSonics swingman

"Sure wish you hadn't broken your foot, but you're still the best."
STAN ALBECK, Jordan's second Chicago Bulls head coach, in 1985-86, and presently an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors

"(You) taught us how to play with passion, how to dress before games and how to market ourselves. (You) set the platform that all guys still follow."
KEVIN GARNETT, Minnesota Timberwolves forward

"Enjoy the rest of your basketball career, Michael, but when June comes around, throw out all of those 34-inch belts."
RICK TELANDER, Chicago Sun-Times columnist

"Michael, (you) are the epitome. The top of it -- but I think guys are pushing that bar."
TIM DUNCAN, San Antonio Spurs center

"I asked (you) one time, what was the key to success? (You were) like, 'You're doing pretty good so far -- it seems like you have it already.' "
AMARE STOUDAMIRE, Phoenix Suns forward

"It's been a great, great run, but now think of Willie Mays."
DAVID HALBERSTAM, Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote "Playing for Keeps," Jordan's authorized biography

"Michael, (you are) a legend -- the greatest player to ever play the game. (You have) opened the door for a lot of players."
VINCE CARTER, Toronto Raptors

It's in the mail

"Welcome to the Club of 40-and-Above. What a remarkable first 40 years. I know you'll do well in whatever you choose to do next. And, no, I didn't forget your birthday. I've got a little something for you I'll send along later."

former North Carolina coach who won the 1982 NCAA title when Jordan was a freshman

"(You are) the last of what they call the Mohicans."
DOMINIQUE WILKINS, former Atlanta Hawks star who finished second to Jordan in the NBA's Slam Dunk Contest in 1988

"Happy Birthday. You're still the best."
ROD THORN, former Bulls general manager who drafted Jordan third in the 1984 draft, and presently New Jersey Nets president and general manager

"Michael: Beef is best when aged."
PENNY AND PETER GLAZIER, owners of Michael Jordan's, The Steak House in New York City

"I don't understand how (you) guys score 40 points a night. I would have to sleep for a week after doing something like that."
JASON KIDD, New Jersey Nets guard

"We hope you can reach the same great heights in the next 40 years."
OMRI AND JULIE ROTBLATT-AMRANY, creators of "The Spirit" Jordan sculpture outside Chicago's United Center

"(You are) one of the greatest players to ever play the game, if not the greatest. From seeing Michael Jordan all the time, (you have) the same competitive spirit, the same kind of attitude. Who knows? It might not be (your) last All-Star game."
JAY WILLIAMS, Chicago Bulls guard

"We look forward to seeing you in the Hall of Fame, just after your 45th birthday. But we invite you to visit the Hall of Fame any time."
JOHN DOLEVA, president and CEO, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame

Greg Garber is a senior writer at