During ‘The Last Dance,’ I’ll remember how Michael Jordan brought me closer to the most important man in my life
Jordan’s final NBA season was the last time I watched a game with Uncle John
Shortly before midnight on June 14, 1998, my Uncle John and I knew it was over. Only the light from a dim floor lamp, the fish tank and his TV — and our joint euphoria — illuminated his studio apartment.
We high-fived. We hugged. And we yelled. Moments earlier, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls won their sixth title in eight seasons, and did so in the absolutely most Jordan way possible. On fumes, Jordan drilled a clutch jumper over Bryon Russell of the Utah Jazz. The shot proved to be the game winner and life, as Uncle John and I knew it then, would be different moving forward. We just didn’t realize how different.
The Bulls’ 1997-98 season is the subject of ESPN’s The Last Dance, which premieres Sunday in five weekly installments. For most viewers, it will be the authoritative narrative of Jordan’s life and times. For me, it’s an opportunity to remember sitting in that living room one more time. Because less than a year later, 203 days to be exact, my uncle died.
John Marshall was the reason I fell in love with sports. All sports. Professional and college. Men’s and women’s. As long as it involved a competition, he was invested. He briefly played college football at Virginia State University in the late 1970s. His father, my grandfather, John “J.D.” Marshall, was a longtime coach and athletic administrator who was posthumously inducted into the CIAA Hall of Fame in 2009. Uncle John was a Washington fan, one of those guys who lived and breathed the era of Joe Gibbs, Art Monk and Darrell Green. Thanks to my mom, I’m a Dallas Cowboys fan. Regardless of family ties, you can guess where my first taste of sports trash talk came from.
We shared a ton of favorite athletes: Ken Griffey Jr., Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, Bo Jackson, Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes, Allen Iverson (Uncle John adored him at Georgetown), Deion Sanders and Barry Sanders. I didn’t know much about boxing, but he loved Pernell Whitaker and Roy Jones Jr. — so I did, too. And he’d constantly talk about Muhammad Ali, this larger-than-life man who “shook up the world first, then changed it.”
He got a kick out of passing down war stories about Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and the Lakers and Celtics’ rivalry from the ’80s. Julius “Dr. J” Erving was the epitome of cool to Uncle John — and Uncle John was the epitome of cool to me. The “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons were, for him, the most appropriate nickname in sports behind Mike Tyson’s “Baddest Man on the Planet.” Unequivocally, though, Jordan was our No. 1. No other athlete charged us up the way he did.
I was 12 in 1998 and I spent most of that summer in Washington with Uncle John, who was 42 at the time. We had always been extremely close. He was then, and still is now, the closest I’ve ever experienced to what I’d surmise a father-son relationship feels like. He was the first man I said “I love you” to and didn’t feel weird about doing so. But that summer was special. He taught me how to ride the Metro and the art of laundromat politics to make sure “your clothes don’t get up and walk away.” He explained, albeit delicately, why President Bill Clinton was facing fire. And he established my love of seafood, thanks to countless trips to The Wharf fish market. Most importantly, he peppered me with life lessons. I didn’t realize it then, but he was doing it with a purpose. A clock was counting down that only he could see.
Like most kids growing up in the ’90s, I worshipped the ground Jordan walked on. I drank Gatorade and ate Wheaties because of Mike. I chewed my gum the same way Mike did. I wore wristbands on my elbow because Mike wore wristbands on his elbow. I didn’t want to be like Mike. I wanted to be Mike. Uncle John got a kick out of me purposely moving in the barber’s chair one time so that the barber had to repair the plug in my head by giving me a baldie. He laughed even harder when my mom told me that I didn’t look like Jordan, but instead looked like a lightbulb. He kept laughing when he found out I purposely got myself sick before a basketball game because I wanted to have my own “flu game.” Believe it or not, sleeping with the window open and the fan on full blast in the dead of winter doesn’t help your game. I went scoreless and sat out the entire second half because I could barely make it up the court.
Uncle John and I always watched Jordan — whom he called “Money” because filmmaker Spike Lee did — whenever we were together. This included Christmas Day 1997. Jordan scored 24 points in a 90-80 Bulls win over the Miami Heat, but all my uncle, a sneakerhead before I knew what the term meant, could talk about were the MJ’s kicks. The shoes eventually became immortalized as the He Got Game 13s. That game doesn’t even rank in the top 100 MJ moments, but he won and that’s all either of us cared about.
What I really remember from that night are the stomachaches.
Maybe he had been experiencing them for a minute. I can’t remember. But I first heard about them that Christmas. Coincidentally, it was one of the most fun nights of my young life. My best presents that Christmas were a Nintendo 64 and the Madden 64 game. We started a season — but there was one “small” issue. He wanted me to pick Washington. I wanted to play as Dallas. After about 10 minutes of looking like the Diddy staredown GIF, we found middle ground with Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers.
Uncle John was my head coach, offensive, defensive and special teams coordinator. We stayed up all night — him calling the plays, me running them. At some point in this marathon, he told me about his stomachaches. He’d been having them off and on for a few weeks, but he wasn’t too concerned. He figured they’d just go away at some point. I advised him to do what my mom and grandma told me to do every time I had a stomachache: drink ginger ale. The vividness of his laugh still lives in my head.
“That’s black people medicine for everything,” he said. “But since you said it, I’ll try it.”
By early 1998, the stomachaches still persisted, but he was still working. He loved his job as a bellman at a Washington hotel. He was a people person and it was perfect for him. Around that same time, one of the elders in our family died: Aunt Margaret, who lived to be almost 90 years old. Sitting in her Philadelphia living room shortly after her death, I remember Uncle John saying something that didn’t mean much to me then. But these words, like his laugh, are eternally carved in my memory. “Man,” he said, sighing. “I hope I get to see that age. That’s a blessing.”
Winter turned to spring and the stomachaches got progressively worse. I think he feared it was cancer, but he never said the word around me. I’m not even sure I could’ve processed what that word meant at the time. But he was constantly at the doctor. Still, he never let that affect our relationship. I’m sure it was youthful ignorance that didn’t allow me to panic — and I think he was thankful for that, too. My grandma went to stay with him in his studio apartment off Constitution Avenue in Northeast Washington. She was, and still is, the strongest person I’ve ever met. If she was worried — and how could a mother not be worried about what was ailing her child — my 12-year-old self never recognized it. Her daughters, my mother and Aunt Cynt, were the same. Never in a cold way, but in a “Don’t worry, we’re going to figure this out and we’ll be just fine” way.
Spring was always Jordan time for Uncle John and me. We watched all the playoff games, but it was Jordan who brought out the fire in us. Most of the time, we couldn’t watch them in person because he lived in Washington and I was in school in Central Virginia. But we’d talk on the phone while watching the game until it was time for me to go to sleep. My grandma would stay up and watch the rest of the game. The next morning, I’d find sticky notes on the bathroom mirror with the final score and stats for Jordan, Scottie Pippen and, her favorite, Dennis Rodman. My grandma was a retired high school science teacher, and The Worm reminded her of one of her problem kids whom she came to love.
By June 14, 1998, the day of Game 6 of the Finals, I was a bundle of nerves. Waiting to receive a note from your middle school crush was one thing. Jordan in the Finals was far more serious. The only Jordan I knew was the one who always won. I hadn’t begun elementary school when the Pistons and their “Jordan Rules” piledrived Jordan into the hardwood annually. The Orlando Magic beating Jordan, Pippen and the Bulls in 1995? I loved Shaq and Penny, but it didn’t count because that was “retirement rust Jordan.”
What were frayed nerves before tipoff turned into an avalanche of doomsday scenarios when Pippen, a serious Finals MVP candidate, went down with a back injury in the first quarter. His injury history was well known, as were Pippen’s public clashes with a front office that made no secret of its hopes to trade him. All season long I heard talk about this being Chicago’s last run. Uncle John had mentioned it a few times himself. He saw the writing on the wall. The truth about a dynasty, he’d say, is that they eventually all end. It’s best to live in the moment because once it was over — it was over.
Ali would famously admit that by the time he got to the 14th round versus Joe Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila,” that it was the closest to death he had ever felt. The Bulls weren’t near literal death, of course — but, in terms of dynastic death, absolutely. Jordan took 35 shots to 32 for the rest of the team. There were long stretches where Jordan looked done. And I felt physically sick. The Bulls were up in the series, but it couldn’t end like this.
“Don’t worry,” I can still hear Uncle John saying. “Jordan’s got this.”
The final moments of Game 6 run in my head as if they happened five minutes ago. Uncle John and I were polar opposites of emotion. John Stockton’s 3 to put the Jazz up 86-83 took the air out of me and I fell to the floor. If the Bulls were to go into Game 7 this depleted, the odds didn’t look good for anyone, especially not me. Jordan’s layup to cut it to a one-point deficit with 37 seconds left elicited a fist pump from Uncle John. As for me, I can’t remember if I was even breathing. On the next possession, Jordan and Rodman doubled Karl Malone, causing Uncle John to yell, “STEAL!” Then Jordan did.
I recreated this exact moment so many times in my backyard or a friend’s driveway, but this was the real thing. Jordan was bringing the ball up the floor, on the road, in the NBA Finals, with a chance to win the series. Guarded by Russell, Jordan dribbled the ball on the elbow behind the 3-point line for what felt like an eternity. Then he made a hard drive to the free throw line and stopped on a dime, pushing Russell out of the way. (As an adult, I can ask: Did Jordan foul Russell? Maybe. Although it looks like he really didn’t push off more so than Russell, understandably, overcommitted. Who knows how different the world is if MJ is called for a foul in that moment? We might not be getting this documentary if so.)
Uncle John had been quiet for the most part the entire game. But when Jordan made that move that led to “The Shot,” he stood up, yelled and clapped his hands, “That’s money!” Swish. I lost my hearing for a split second and everything and everyone stood still. The next thing I heard was Bob Costas saying, “Chicago with the lead!” Then Stockton missed a 3 that would’ve forced Game 7.
The Bulls needed every one of Jordan’s 45 points to win their sixth title. Jordan took home his sixth Finals MVP trophy of the decade.
Uncle John and I knew the ride was over, but we were happy to have seen it through together. Yet, it wasn’t until years later that I noticed something else Costas said during the telecast. “If that’s the last image of Michael Jordan,” Costas immortalized, “how magnificent is it?”
I didn’t know it then, and maybe he didn’t either. But for my uncle, it was.
His health wasn’t improving. One time I came back from the laundromat down the street and he was sitting on the couch where we had watched the Finals. He had never looked this sad, this defeated. My grandma was in his kitchen washing dishes. Due to an injection he received at a doctor’s appointment, his face, hands and feet were swollen. He was embarrassed for me to see him like this. I told him he didn’t have to be. He was still my guy — my best friend in the entire world. Every day, I’d tell him the swelling was going down because I convinced myself it was until it actually did. He was so happy. We both thought he was on the road to recovery. Life, though, had other plans. That mass on his stomach was colon cancer. By the time it was diagnosed, the disease had spread throughout his body.
As my summer of freedom gave way to the unwelcome return of homework, my grandma and Uncle John moved to my house near Petersburg, Virginia — less than five minutes from where he went to college. If I close my eyes, I can hear the medical personnel pushing his bed down the hallway. I can hear the sheets rustling. I was doing homework in my room — the same room where we played Madden all night less than a year earlier — with the door open that day. And if I close my eyes even tighter, I can see him in that bed. We didn’t say anything to each other. He smiled, gave me a nod and then the medical professionals got him situated. Life was changing so quickly and I was struggling to process why. We went from walking around Washington earlier that summer to Uncle John losing the ability to walk on his own by the fall. I remember so much from that time. But, for the life of me, I can’t remember if I thought he would actually die. Uncle John, much like Jordan, was a superhero. Superheroes didn’t die.
A few weeks later, around Thanksgiving, Uncle John moved to a hospital in Richmond, Virginia. He had come to peace with impending death. There was always a ton of people in and out of his room. Nurses, doctors, family members, friends who came from out of town just to chop it up with him one last time. Maybe it was God’s plan, but at one point, it was just him and me in the room together. With the sun beaming through a window onto his face, he looked angelic. He told me he only had a short time left, but nothing would change. That he would always be there with me, and that he was finally going to get that courtside seat he always wanted. The only difference was this one would be in heaven.
If it were up to me, he would’ve talked forever. At 12, he said, I had so much to learn, and that it was a blessing to have that much life in front of me. The only way to live life, he said, was to live, because no one knows the second date on their tombstone. He told me to be fearless. I was a young black boy who’d become a black man and that was something to be deeply proud of, but also to know that the world would be fearful of that same gift. A dream should never stay a dream, he said, as long as there was air in my lungs. If I could produce the thought, he said, I could produce the result. He spoke of the women and friends I had yet to meet who would change my life in ways I couldn’t envision. He spoke about heartbreak and triumph — and why both were necessary to understand the magnitude of the other. He made me say I promise to protect the women I loved most in my life — my mom, my grandma, my aunt and his two nieces Kim and Angela. That conversation is one of the foundational pillars my life is rooted in. Looking back on it, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that was his version of “The Shot.”
The last time I saw Uncle John was Dec. 29, 1998, at the hospital. Due to the morphine pumping through his system to ease the pain, he couldn’t speak. I walked over to his bed and held his hand. It was cold, but sweaty. Aunt Cynt instructed me to ask yes or no questions, and he’d respond yes by squeezing my hand twice and once if the answer was no. Did he know who I was? Two squeezes. Did he enjoy Washington losing to Dallas a few days earlier? One squeeze. Even in the face of death, his sports loyalty never wavered. Did he know I loved him? Two squeezes.
The last words I said to Uncle John, as I let go of his hand, were “I love you.” I turned around to glance back one final time at him in the hospital bed from the hallway. The only sound were the life monitor machines beeping. For a man who gave me so much in such a short amount of time, and never asked for anything in return, there was nothing I could do to help him. That was the most hopeless feeling I’ve ever experienced. And the weight I felt in that moment is one I’ll never truly be able to lift. I suffocated from it then, and I still suffocate from it now. Because, at that moment, I knew my childhood died.
Uncle John died at 8:52 p.m. on Jan. 2, 1999, four months shy of his 43rd birthday. I made the trip to Rock Hill, South Carolina, where much of our family is from, for his funeral. But I didn’t attend. I didn’t want my last image of Uncle John to be of him lying in a casket.
After a bitter labor dispute that would eventually clip the 1999 All-Star Game, and months of speculation that Jordan would return for one more season, he retired for a second time on Jan. 13, 1999. The entire world, from Hank Aaron to Aaliyah and the Wu-Tang Clan, paid homage.
I saw Jordan again earlier this year at Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s memorial. His speech was a humanizing moment in the life of a man my uncle and I convinced ourselves was anything but human. Jordan felt the same pain I did. We shed the same tears. But in my grief for the Bryant family, I felt connected to my uncle again. Like Uncle John in the hospital so many winters ago, I wanted Jordan to speak forever. I simultaneously mourned and celebrated — an emotional tag team that could only feel pure when both emotions are.
As I prepare to watch The Last Dance, I do so with a personal connection my soul desperately covets. To revisit a season when my life was beginning to change before I realized what was happening. A moment when two dynasties were ending before my eyes. I look forward to going back to June 14, 1998, the last time my Uncle John saw Michael Jordan play basketball.
More than anything, what I’m most excited for: to be that kid on the couch with my best friend one more time.