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Raising sport to an art form

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Chicago Bulls player Michael Jordan goes past Jeff Hornacek of the Utah Jazz during game two of the 1997 NBA Finals at the United Centre in Chicago. Photo: AFP

Chicago Bulls player Michael Jordan goes past Jeff Hornacek of the Utah Jazz during game two of the 1997 NBA Finals at the United Centre in Chicago. Photo: AFP

Chicago Bulls player Michael Jordan goes past Jeff Hornacek of the Utah Jazz during game two of the 1997 NBA Finals at the United Centre in Chicago. Photo: AFP

The first time I saw Michael Jordan fly, he was a scarlet-plumed albatross sailing on currents of Gotham air.

And the fluid beauty of his weightless arc - a dancer completely absorbed in the choreography of his own stage show - felt like a hymn to a higher being.

The intensity of the memory, its emotional power rolls across the decades, a moment of jolting, born-again rapture.

Winging across Madison Square Garden's ozone, buoyant and aerodynamic, an immaculately contoured bird of prey, MJ was a triumph of sleek, mesmerising aviation.

"A creature," to borrow words David Foster Wallace would compose years later in homage to Roger Federer, "whose body [was] both flesh and, somehow, light."

It was November 1986, closer to Jordan's first dance than his last, the Bulls' season opener in New York City.

Long before the final act, the 19,325 souls in the Midtown coliseum knew what it was to be close to divinity.

Freedom

Jordan, his age and the number on his crimson Chicago vest a matching "23", was an unconstrained computer graphic, moving with the freedom of a generated image, pixel art.

Except this laughing-at-gravity avatar was somehow flesh-and-blood real.

That night, tongue dangling as he swam in the New York stratosphere, an algorithm's calculation of grace, he went for 50 points, a human kite declining to come back to earth.

Perhaps the playwright David Mamet was there in The Garden that night, because he subsequently wrote: "The purpose of theatre is to create cleansing awe."

On this one stupefying night, Jordan made the world feel undirty.

Michael didn't have a dim switch. He was molten lava, a firefly, a stanza of poetic flame, blazing with the rare combination of balletic poise and competitive fury to which a Netflix audience has been so compellingly introduced.

Imagine if God had wanted to communicate through dance. This was it, the artistry of Lionel Messi married to the obsessive intensity of Rudolf Nuryev; a raging Roy Keane gifted the airborne agility of an F-18 combat jet.

We were 18-year-old Dublin gym-rats on a transatlantic pilgrimage to basketball Mecca.

Four days later, from a seat in the gods high above the parquet floors of the draughty old Boston Garden, we'd watch Larry Bird, the Hick from French Lick, deliver a tutorial to the Indiana Pacers.

Bird was a hero, the reigning three-time MVP, master of that creaking, leprechaun-haunted New England house.

But Jordan, winging above the world, feeding make-believe images to the optic nerve, felt like a godhead operating on an entirely different latitude to the surrounding mortal cast.

The Foster Wallace quote is taken from the essay "Roger Federer as Religious Experience".

And that's how it was that night as Jordan transformed The Garden into a Times Square billboard: spiritual, otherworldly, metaphysical; yes, a religious experience.

Like the finest art, the power of the spectacle carried the audience toward a kind of teary delirium.

The Bulls were still years off their Phil Jackson era pomp. A pre-Pippen journeyman roster with Steve Colter, Earl Cureton and Granville Waiters among a less than A-list starting five. Yet, the heart of their solar system was illuminated by a magnetic, dazzling sun king.

In that pre-internet age, we had devoured every Sports Illustrated, Sporting News or Street and Smith article on this emerging wonder.

The rhythm of our youthful summers revolved around watching, rewinding and watching again Michael's slam-dunking highlight reel video tapes.

Even then he smouldered at imagined or invented slights, a bard with piercing eyes and a serrated soul, a supernova with the fiercest will.

While he performed, he owned your senses. You could not avert your eyes.

The young Jordan's gymnastic finesse - later in his career he would be the master of the baseline fade-away jumper, but now he was nitroglycerin - was like nothing the sporting universe had ever known.

Explosive

Somehow, he was simultaneously explosive and a slow-motion portrait, hanging in the air, paragliding, lost to the narcotic of flight.

Joseph O'Connor, the Irish writer, deploys a phrase in his novel Shadowlands that fits that mid-1990s version of Jordan like a second skin.

His Airness was "a powdercloud of stardust". A sheer gaiety of being overtook the world's most famous arena that night almost 34 years ago.

Jordan seemed less an athlete than an aria. What he was doing was inexplicable, impossible, yet it was happening, and, in the aesthetic thrill of a lifetime, we were witnesses to the preposterous. Here, unspooling before us, was the kind of miracle that moved the monks to evensong.

'The Last Dance' has introduced a new captive audience to maybe the greatest athlete of them all.

Perhaps there are elements of hagiography to the production, though the taunting, nasty, insatiable Jordan - this man who wants not only to win, but to humiliate and obliterate those in front of him - is hardly disguised.

But it is the ecstasy of his movement that has rendered many incontinent with disbelief.

I was fortunate to see Jordan, a psalm to the wonders of human possibility, in the flesh maybe 20 times.

Most nights offered glimpses of a creature from another world, his competitive edge as sharp as razor wire, his gifts baffling, incomprehensible and glorious.

Margot Fonteyn, in the autumn of her superior ballet career, became the dancing partner of Nuryev.

Asked to describe what set the Russian apart, she said: "Genius is another word for magic and the whole point of magic is that it is inexplicable."

It is a truth that dawned on an 18-year-old Irish kid one November long ago in Gotham, the night Michael Jordan cast a spell that, decades later, exhibits no signs of losing any of its hypnotising power.