Twilight of the GOAT: Michael Jordan’s YouTube Afterlife

For years, a community of basketball obsessives has been collecting, editing, and uploading clips of Michael Jordan to YouTube — a form of digital immortalization for the sport’s greatest player.

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In his NBA season preview for Grantland, Jalen Rose predicted that Michael Jordan, the disengaged owner of the lowly Charlotte Bobcats, would suit up for one final game in the league. Rose’s prediction isn’t as crazy as it sounds — even at age 50, Jordan is likely superior to many of the interchangeable yokels on the Bobcats’ roster — but for unabashed Jordan nostalgists like me, it’s also wholly unnecessary. After all, thanks to YouTube, we’ve been able to imagine that the high-flying, tongue-wagging basketball icon from the 1980s and ’90s never went away in the first place.

Over the past six years, a small but dedicated group of Jordan obsessives have made it their mission to post selectively edited clips of every game Jordan has appeared in on YouTube. These ten-minute uploads generally include every basket scored by Jordan in a particular contest, along with any flashy assists, rebounds, or steals — and, if the editor is feeling generous, a vicious dunk or two by Scottie Pippen. (No Jordan turnovers make the final cut, nor do any slow-motion replays of Bill Cartwright’s flailing elbows, sadly.) Sometimes the game’s final score is given at the end, but it’s just as often not. The outcome is of little consequence anyway. What matters is bolstering Jordan’s status as the “Greatest of All Time” (or “GOAT,” as commenters refer to him) and satisfying cravings from Jordan diehards who spent too many afternoons in their formative years practicing windmill dunks on height-adjustable basketball hoops.

Compiling clips of every Michael Jordan NBA game has proven challenging. First, there’s the sheer volume. From 1984-1998, Jordan played in 1,109 regular season and playoff games for the Chicago Bulls. (Note that I don’t include Jordan’s cringe-worthy stint on the Washington Wizards here because, for me, it never happened. No amount of video evidence can convince me otherwise.) Many of these games, especially from the mid to late ’80s, were broadcast on local Chicago-area channels before national packages like NBA League Pass existed. So unless some far-sighted fan from Winnetka recorded these games and then stored the VHS tapes safely for decades in his attic, they’re most likely lost.

The website of a foremost collector of vintage Michael Jordan games illustrates the obstacles Jordan completists face. According to the site, only 46% (175 of 381) of Jordan’s games from his first five seasons are in circulation. The rest are marked as “I NEED THIS GAME.” Among these is Jordan’s first-ever game in the NBA against the Washington Bullets on October 26, 1984. Only part of the second half exists; the first half represents for collectors what the lost footage for Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons represents for film buffs. Presumably the National Basketball Association keeps an archive of all games played, but collectors are reluctant to interact with the NBA, considering that the league could quickly shut down their channels for copyright infringement.

Adam Ryan, an Australian collector known as Rairjordan to his 1,400 YouTube subscribers, is a frequent uploader of obscure Jordan footage. Growing up in the ’90s, he signed up for PonTel, a German-based video service that mailed subscribers two VHS cassettes per week of games from their favorite team. As a result, Ryan now has in his library every game that Michael Jordan played in from 1996-98, the golden years of the Bulls’ dynasty. Over the past several years, Ryan estimates that he’s purchased nearly 300 tapes of classic Jordan games from Craigslist and similar sites, paying a small fortune in postage along the way. Ryan’s YouTube channel features a standard mix of game footage and interviews along with batshit-crazy clips of Jordan battling Martin and Charlie Sheen in a 2-on-1 pickup contest. (The Sheens, for the record, are too much for Jordan to handle.)

Despite all the lost footage, what Jordan collectors have managed to accumulate is astonishing. Looking for that Finals game when Jordan switched hands in mid-air? Oh, it’s been uploaded. How about when Jordan netted 63 points in the old Boston Garden? Check. If you go too far down the rabbit hole of Jordan clips, you’ll find oddities that don’t even seem real. Here’s Jordan shattering the shit out of the backboard in a 1986 Nike exhibition game in Italy. Here’s Jordan losing a game of 1-on-1 to the CEO of Ariel Investments. And here’s Jordan competing in a 3-on-3 tournament with Larry Bird, John McEnroe, Lorenzo Lamas, and country singer Kenny Rogers. Rogers, it turns out, got game.

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This tiny niche of the immense YouTube universe will never garner a sizable audience, but it’s perfectly suited for engaged viewers like me. Growing up in Illinois in the 1990s, I covered my bedrooms walls with Bulls posters and memorized the entirety of Michael Jordan’s “Come Fly with Me” video. I drank Gatorade, wore Nikes, and ate Wheaties. Be like Mike? Yes, please — just tell me what else I should consume.

When Jordan retired for the second time in 1998 (again, his stint on the Wizards never happened), my interest in the NBA went from zealous to casual. I tried following Kobe Bryant, but it didn’t stick. While Bryant can match Jordan move for move, he often comes across as an actor impersonating Michael Jordan rather than as a player with his own distinct style. (Jordan admitted in a recent interview that Kobe might be able to beat him in a 1-on-1 contest, but only because Kobe “steals all my moves.”)

But then along came YouTube, a game-changer for me. In the early years, I mainly watched highlight clips of Jordan’s dunks and in-air acrobatics, but soon these started to seem like basketball pornography — a string of money-shots spliced together without context or meaning. That’s when I discovered edited game footage from early uploaders like Hoopsencyclopedia and KOrOne79. These were the contests I remembered from childhood, re-edited as showcases for Jordan’s awesome abilities. No commercials, timeouts, free throws, or scrubby players like Dennis Hopson or Jud Buechler. No opposing team either, except as defensive props helplessly watching another Jordan jumper swish through the net. And, most importantly, no complexity or uncertainty — just pure Jordan dominance, exactly as I would’ve wanted in my hero-worshipping adolescence.

Within weeks, I had raced through all the especially memorable games of Jordan’s career: his six appearances in the Finals, his game-winning shot over Craig Ehlo in the 1989 playoffs, his epic postseason battles against the New York Knicks in ’92 and ’93. Afterward, like others in the community, I started to relish rare games, even if there wasn’t anything noteworthy about them. I rolled my eyes at uploaders who recut Jordan’s most well-known performances; my sarcasm ballooned to Comic Book Guy proportions: “Oh, another upload of the Jordan flu game— h ow did you ever manage to find footage of that one?” But when someone posted a meaningless Bulls-Nuggets contest from March 1992 I’d become giddy with anticipation. In the small world of vintage Jordan collectors, the highest compliment you can pay is not “Great post!” or “Awesome edit!” but, quite simply, “Rare.”

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After a few years, I became aware that my consumption of Jordan clips began to affect the way that I watch and assess live NBA games. When Miami Heat superstar LeBron James misses a shot, I reflexively think to myself, “Michael Jordan would’ve easily made that one.” After all, in his collective YouTube clips, Jordan hits around 95 percent of all shots, his misses coming mainly on spectacular attempts or buzzer beaters. LeBron James has to deal with the real-time indignities of blown bunnies, bricked threes, and careless turnovers. When Scottie Pippen recently asserted that LeBron James had the potential to surpass Jordan as the GOAT, I was baffled. How could Pippen say that about a former teammate who missed so few shots?

Ultimately, Jalen Rose’s prediction that Michael Jordan will come back for one final NBA game has less to do with Jordan’s diminished abilities — even though he can still dunk effortlessly at age 50 — and more with a desire by fans of a certain age for Jordan to remain forever ready to slay all challengers to his GOAT throne. Jordan himself encourages this line of thinking. In a 2013 interview, Jordan mentioned that O.J. Mayo had the audacity to talk trash to him during a pick-up game several years ago when Mayo was a top-ranked high school player. Jordan told the brash youngster, 24 years his junior, “Look, you may be the best high school player, but I’m the best player in the world,” and then supposedly shut down the teenager. (Footage recently surfaced on YouTube.) Note that Jordan didn’t state that he used to be the best player in the world. In his mind, he continues to be the biggest star of them all. It’s the league that’s gotten smaller.

And perhaps it’s this forthright certainty that helps explain why I continue to search for Jordan clips daily on YouTube. It gives me a chance, however fleetingly, to reconnect with that teenaged self who followed Jordan with such uncritical, naked passion, long since dulled by years of English majoring and desk jobs. For ten short minutes a day, it’s 1997 again, the Bulls are playing the Milwaukee Bucks in the dead of winter, I’m sprawled out on my parents’ couch, and a youthful Jordan is drilling jumpers from all sides of the court.

Luke Epplin has written for The Atlantic, The New Yorker Page-Turner, n+1, and The Daily Beast. When not scouring YouTube for Michael Jordan clips, he tweets at @LukeEpplin.