LAS VEGAS — The Michael Jordan the basketball world saw in a rare public appearance Saturday night gives a glimpse into where he is four years into retirement, a king not quite ready to crown his successor.
Jordan turned Simon Cowell as he judged the dunk contest. He consistently gave the lowest scores and refused to award a perfect 10 until Gerald Green's over-the-table windmill dunk in the finale. Not even Green's first try, a never-before-seen dunk in which he came flying down the baseline to catch Boston Celtics teammate Paul Pierce's pass off the side of the backboard and threw it down, could elicit double digits from Jordan.
It seems he still wants just a bit more from his descendants.
He chatted for 50 minutes with a couple of reporters on Thursday night, sitting at the circular Hard Rock Hotel lobby bar after an early knockout from Trent Tucker's celebrity poker tournament. It wasn't an interview, but at the end I did have to ask this: Does he miss it?
"I miss it," Jordan said.
He misses it every time a star player doesn't put in an 82-game season or finish strong in the fourth quarter.
At least no one needs Jordan's approval to win an NBA championship. But Green would have to impress him to win the dunk contest.
"Michael was pretty tough," Green said. "But I think I would have been tough. He's one of the greatest dunkers of all time, so when you've got him judging you it's going to be kind of tough."
Green received 10s all around for his finale to beat Nate Robinson. But the star of the night still was Jordan.
The buzz was back on All-Star Saturday night, simply because the audience knew Jordan was about to walk onto a stage, then sit behind a desk and hold up colored cards with numbers on them. A dunk contest short on celebrity contestants relied on judges to supply the star power, with Jordan joining former dunk contest winners Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins.
When Jordan was announced he drew the largest cheer of the night, a standing ovation so loud it drowned out the end of the introduction.
He really hasn't been seen in public much since he retired at the end of the 2003 season. Not even the Charlotte Bobcats, whom he serves as president, see him around the office much.
But the lesson from the weekend is that the greats never disappear. Not even here, where they tear down or blow up the classic buildings to start the newest billion-dollar project. Even in this transient town, icons live forever. That's why a group of Rat Pack imitators opened the evening with a song and a bunch of acrobats dressed like Elvis dunked off trampolines during a break.
Despite the big marketing push for the new kids, with the likes of Dwyane Wade and Gilbert Arenas plastered all over the big hotels in town, Air's heirs still have a way to go to match the global reach of Jordan and the way his shadow was draped across the league.
"It still is," Kevin Garnett said. "It's good, though. He was a great influence to this game, a great example to everybody. It's not a bad thing to have him still be amidst [us].
"He holds the standard. Forever."
A man walks down the street wearing a pair of the original, red-white-and-black Air Jordans. People take pictures of a life-size Jordan mannequin outside the Venetian hotel. The televisions at the MGM Grand hotel have a channel (No. 23, naturally) dedicated to showing the new 22nd-edition Air Jordan commercial on a continuous loop.
You still hear echoes of Jordan throughout sports and pop culture. In an ESPN magazine story, Vince Young described his mentality when he took over the Rose Bowl as entering "Jordan mode." Jay-Z illustrates his supremacy in the rap game by calling himself "the Mike Jordan of recordin'."
The perfect comparison is James Brown. Nas rapped over "Pappa Don't Take No Mess" slightly after midnight Saturday at ESPN's party at Tryst. Later that morning, Brown's former saxophone player Maceo Parker (or, as he identified himself, "\o7That \f7Maceo") broke out a couple of familiar riffs from the James Brown days as he jammed with Prince's band at the Rio.
To reach the status of a James Brown you must not only excel but influence, even after you're gone. Jordan started the trends of hair getting shorter, shorts getting longer, socks getting lower, heads getting balder. He set the standard for excellence carried on by today's stars such as Bryant, Wade and LeBron James.
"It helped me get a vision, helped show me what I can do in basketball if I tried," said Wade, who grew up in Chicago during Jordan's glory years with the Bulls. "Michael's a big influence on me basketball-wise, more than he probably knows. I thank him for being as great as he was and he is."
Who he is now, this weekend, is a relaxed individual, as evidenced by his jeans-and-jacket ensemble that was considerably more casual than the suits and ties worn by the other judges. That's also indicative of his mental state now that his playing days are over.
"I can wake up and do what I want," Jordan said.
Saturday, apparently, he didn't want to give high scores.
The king has spoken.
\o7J.A. Adande can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more by Adande go to latimes.com/adandeblog.