On his birthday, especially this one, it's probably the nicest thing we can say about Michael Jordan.
Best 40-Year-Old In NBA History.
Except that we can't really say that.
The best we can do is place Jordan in the second slot, or 1A if we pushed it, based on the criteria MJ himself would insist on.
It's called winning.
As No. 23 celebrates No. 40 on Monday, albeit with his matinee party against Toronto regrettably snowed out, Jordan's Washington Wizards are iffy for the playoffs, clinging to eighth place in the East. Contrast that to the season Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had when he turned 40, in which Kareem averaged 17.5 and 6.7 rebounds ... after teaching Magic Johnson the skyhook ... and won his fifth of six championship rings largely because Magic swished a "junior, junior skyhook" at Boston Garden to win Game 4.
Of course, this might be the one time where Jordan can handle slotting in at No. 2. Or 1A. He doesn't have the group around him to challenge what Abdul-Jabbar did team-wise at 40, but the offset is that Jordan -- alongside John Stockton -- is grinding forward at a tougher position. History shows that it's much easier to age gracefully at center, as opposed to guard, so MJ and Stock can rightfully feel proud about what they're doing these days, even if they won't be doing it past Round 1 of the playoffs.
"I did consider it, and I'm sure these guys considered their (legacy)," said Celtics legend Bob Cousy, who played in seven games for Cincinnati as a 41-year-old in 1969-70. "They don't want to tarnish it, and so far they haven't.
"It was more difficult to be a specialist or just hang on as you got older because there were less teams back then, so the talent was much more concentrated. But with that said, it's still amazing what they are doing in a game that is so high-energy. I think all three of them, frankly, are absolutely maxing out in terms of how well you expect guys would be doing at 40."
Cousy was also referring to Stockton's Utah teammate, Karl Malone, who turns 40 in July. As a trio, if you permit yourself to grandfather Mailman into the premise, Jordan and his former NBA Finals rivals are indeed redefining the standards for fortysomethings in a sport that simply isn't accustomed to seeing them.
Stockton, upon turning 40 last March, became just the 10th player in league history to play after his 40th birthday. Abdul-Jabbar, who retired at 42 after averaging 10.1 points and 4.5 rebounds in 1989, and Robert Parish (11.7 points per game and 7.3 rebounds per game at 40) were the only players among Stockton's nine predecessors to attain more than bit-part status. Parish did recede into bit-part status in his final three seasons with Charlotte and Chicago.
That all makes what's happening now a full-blown phenomenon, with San Antonio's Kevin Willis also past the Big Four-Oh barrier ... and starting at center on the league's hottest team in place of the injured David Robinson, who's trying to drag his body through one last season at 37.
Jordan, Stockton and Willis give the NBA three active and legitimately productive 40-year-olds for the first time, with Malone a pledge on the verge. Their shared presence is magnified when you consider that four of the league's eight oldest players from last season chose to retire over the summer, three of them to become assistant coaches.
Patrick Ewing, a 40-year-old as of Aug. 5, wanted to play on but became a Wizards assistant instead. Terry Porter (38) and Sam Mitchell (38) took coaching jobs in Sacramento and Milwaukee, respectively. Hakeem Olajuwon, who turned 39 on Jan. 21, was forced into retirement by myriad injuries with two seasons left on his Toronto contract.
It's a phenomenon, furthermore, because 40-year-olds are comparatively commonplace in other sports. As recently as the 2001 season, baseball offered more 40-year-olds named Franco than the NBA had by any name: John and Julio, along with Roger Clemens, Rickey Henderson, Jesse Orosco and Dan Plesac. Five 40-year-olds were employed in the just-completed NFL season: Morten Andersen, Doug Flutie, Darrell Green, Sean Landeta and Jerry Rice.
Without question, the comforts of modern NBA travel -- charter planes and fancy hotels -- and advanced training methods can prolong a career. Expansion to 29 teams, as Cousy suggested, created extra job opportunities. Yet none of that could save Ewing or Olajuwon. Jordan, Stockton and Willis are marvels in their own way, and not surprisingly they're all fitness fiends.
MJ is clearly healthier at 40 than he was at 39, clearly benefiting from what little help he does have, also known as Jerry Stackhouse. Jordan's scoring is down (18.6 ppg from 22.9) but he's shooting better from the field (.433 compared to .416) and considerably better from 3-point range (.324 compared to last season's .189). Of greatest importance, with Stackhouse carrying at least half the load when healthy, Jordan hasn't missed a game yet after starting the season amid concerns that he'd have to come off the bench or scale back his minutes to get through the schedule. He's averaging a half-minute more per game this season (35.3 mpg from 34.9) and needs only nine more games to surpass last season's total of 60.
Stockton checked in with final averages of 13.4 points and 8.2 assists in 31.3 minutes per game last season after celebrating his 40th. He then proved to be the only point guard in the playoffs capable of neutralizing Sacramento's Mike Bibby.
This season, with his per-game-minute allotment taking a tuck to 28.0, Stockton is still averaging 11.2 points and 7.6 assists while helping Utah (yet again) confound the naysayers by climbing into the West's top six. Stockton and Malone (20.3 ppg and 8.2 rpg) are also doing what they do -- which is almost never miss a game, remember -- in the face of new rules that arguably hurt the pick-and-rollers more than anyone else in the league.
"You can't just go back to John and Karl in every situation because others teams can take you out of that with the zone," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. "But they're still out there playing. They don't have the get up and go they used to have, but they haven't lost any intelligence."
Cousy is especially impressed, knowing how hard it can be to try to run a team in your forties. After a retirement of more than five years, Cousy was asked to try a comeback as a promotional boost.
"I took myself off the active roster very quickly," Cousy said. "Thank God I was the coach, because I realized very quickly that it didn't work."
Except for Kareem, it hardly worked for anyone until now.
This shouldn't be a one-season fad, though, even if Jordan upholds his latest promise to retire again. Malone will almost certainly be playing next season and there's every chance Stockton will, too, after Stock makes his 19th (yes, 19th) straight trip to the playoffs. Willis, meanwhile, is determined to play at least one more season to make it an even 20.
Let's face it: Who out there is prepared to rule MJ out, the way he's playing, even after the Mariah Carey clinch and all the slobbering in Atlanta?
"It's a great club to be in," Jordan said last week, before the two Jazz geezers ganged up on him in Utah.