It sounds like the start of an ESPN 30 For 30 short, and maybe it should be one: What if I told you that Michael Jordan once wore Team Jordans in an NBA game on the United Center floor? What if, in fact, I told you that Michael Jordan wore Team Jordans in his last game on the United Center floor? Because that’s exactly what he did. It was January 24, 2003, and for his final NBA game in Chicago, Jordan laced up a pair of Jumpman Team FBIs.
It was a curious decision by any measure. After all, back in 1998, Jordan had dug deep in the vault—or his closet anyway—and pulled out a pair of original 1985 Air Jordan 1s for what he thought would be his final game at Madison Square Garden. And in what many figured was his final NBA game ever, he wore a pair of beyond-early Air Jordan XIVs as he hit the game-winner to end all game-winners in Utah, cementing his sixth NBA title and sixth Finals MVP.
But he returned once more, in 2001, in an unfamiliar jersey and an unfamiliar city, donning the No. 23 as a member of the Washington Wizards. That first season he stuck primarily to the newest Air Jordans—”Ginger” XVIs in the pre-season, XVIIs in the regular season. But in his second and presumably final-final season, Jordan mixed it up more. Yes, he wore the new Air Jordan XVIII often, but he also wore the III for the first time since 1988, the VII for the first time since 1992. In his final game at Madison Square Garden as a Wizard, Jordan wore the “cool grey” Air Jordan XIs. Even as he awoke memories in us, he appeared to be re-living some of his own.
So on January 24, 2003, as he suited up for his final game in Chicago, he could have worn anything. Perhaps another return to the 1s, or even—and there’s no reason to believe Nike couldn’t have made this happen—a pair of Air Ships. Go back to where it all began. Or maybe the IIIs again, in honor of his first All-Star MVP, won in the city’s previous gym. Instead, Jordan laced up a pair of the unassuming FBIs, a $120 Jordan XVIII takedown, in a white-and-blue colorway that complemented the Wizards road uniforms. He then went out and scored 11 points—on 4 of 14 shooting—in a seven-point Wizards loss.
There was precedent to this. Jordan had worn the FBIs a week earlier in Washington, on January 18, in a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers—Jordan scored 25 points on 25 shots. It was something of an Iversonian performance, one that Iverson himself nearly matched—he scored one more point on one fewer attempt. Then again, Jordan’s box score was more well-rounded, adding eight rebounds, seven assists, and five steals. He also wore them for the rest of the week leading up to his Chicago finale, which included a win over the Nuggets on the 20th and a loss to the Hornets in Charlotte on the 22nd.
Jordan would wear the FBI at least one more time—a red pair, with their removable rubber-band like straps in place, along with the white throwback Bullets uniforms at home on April 12 against the Hawks. In his third-to-last game, Jordan scored 17 points on 8 of 16 from the floor, and added eight rebounds and six assists in 30 minutes of action. The Wizards lost by one.
Less than a week later, at 40, Jordan’s NBA career was over. He played his final game in Philadelphia, scoring 15 points in a game the Wizards lost by 20. He checked out with 1:44 to go after making a pair of free throws, replaced by Tyronn Lue. He walked off the court for the final time as an NBA player to a standing ovation—wearing his signature white and royal Air Jordan XVIIIs. He didn’t wear Team Jordans in his final game. That wasn’t a surprise. What was surprising was that he ever wore them at all.