He imagined himself entering the Hall of Fame leaning on a cane.
Or else posthumously.
"That's the way I look at it," Michael Jordan said. "I was hoping this day was coming in 20 more years, or that I'd actually go in when I'm dead and done."
His eyes were red-rimmed. He wasn't laughing. That was five months ago, at the announcement of Jordan's election to the Class of 2009, inside a downtown Detroit hotel on a grim, snowy Monday afternoon that fit his mood.
Even so, come Friday, he will stroll into the Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony on 46-year-old legs that he believes have at least one more transcendent performance left in them, even if everyone else has doubts. He is -- still -- The Most Competitive Man in the World.
It's become an article of faith in sports that sooner or later, the "next one" will come along; if not in this generation, then the next, or certainly the one after that. But there will never be another Michael Jordan.
Bill Russell, whose likeness is already inside, won more NBA championships -- 11 to Jordan's six. Two other men, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar (in) and Karl Malone (a cinch for the 2010 class), scored more points over the course of a pro career. Wilt Chamberlain scored more on a single night. Oscar Robertson put up 153 more triple-doubles.
Larry Bird was a better pure shooter. Magic Johnson was a better passer. Kobe Bryant might retire as the most complete offensive player ever. LeBron James has time on his side, 22nd-Century skills already, and a RoboCop physique to boot. His accomplishments might one day dwarf all of theirs.
But ask yourself: If your team is down by a point with 0:01 left and the fate of the universe is hanging in the balance, whose number are you gonna call?
The original 23.
Jordan was the first superstar of the 24/7 era. Then its first supersalesman. Try and name another athlete who could play himself in a corny movie like Space Jam -- battling animated giant aliens who looked suspiciously like Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, et. al. -- and still have it gross $230 million worldwide.
Substitute a golf course for a basketball court and a 10-foot birdie putt at the 18th for the last-second shot in the scenario above and the answer is: maybe. At the moment, no one else is even in the argument. Open it up to history, and you can still count the names on one hand.
When Jordan showed up in Chicago as a rookie, cable TV was just taking off and the satellite networks in Europe and Asia, set up to share soccer, were struggling to expand their modest reach. Everybody wanted sports programming, and Jordan produced a highlight reel's worth every night.
Jordan planned to enter the Hall on his way out of one arena and on his way to the next, preferably sandwiching his appearance between game-winning shots. He wanted the honor to be just another milepost on his way to still others, not a set-in-stone reminder that nobody wins forever, not even Michael Jordan.