Thursday, January 5, 2012


The Best Time I Thought I Saw Michael Jordan

After I graduated college I spent six months waiting tables and substituting at a day school in suburban Chicago. I bought myself a fancy gym membership, and became one of those people who schedules her day around a workout. Mostly I went to the branch near my parents house, but occasionally I went to others depending on what time I was teaching.

One day I went to the suburban branch of my gym and positioned myself in the back of the weight room to begin my circuit. Standing in front of me with his back to me was a tall, muscular black man. He was bald, had one ear pierced, and was working with a tiny personal trainer (I’m 4’11” and she was no taller than me).

Oh. My. God. I thought. That’s Michael Jordan. I’m working out at the same gym as Michael Jordan.
I’ve never been a huge basketball fan, but growing up in Chicago in the '90s, Michael Jordan was at least as important as God. When he announced his retirement, our gym class was canceled so we could watch the press conference. Life-sized posters of him in flight were all over my grammar school. Though of course I’d never met him, he felt like a relative, or a friend of my parents — very familiar.

Almost as soon as I had my realization I was horrified at myself. How could I possibly be so racist? There was a tall black man working out at a suburban gym so I just assumed it was Michael Jordan? I was so embarrassed. I immediately began internally scolding myself for being such a racist and was in the middle of a nice long silent rant when the guy turned around and ... it was Michael Jordan. He grunted at me (we were the only two people using weights) and returned to his trainer.

So maybe I’m a racist and maybe I’m just really good at recognizing people from behind.

Tamar Fox likes PG Wodehouse, polka dots, and whiskey. She sees a surprising number of celebrities at the gym.

Photo by Vadim Ponomarenko, via Shutterstock.

63 Comments / Post A Comment



No, but seriously, that's fine. Think of it as optimism! "I would very much like that man to be Michael Jordan." And he was!

Lily Rowan

Given that it was Michael Jordan, I feel pretty good about your ability to (at least subconsciously) recognize him by the shape of his head.

Also, that is awesome.

Lily Rowan

By which I mean, I slept under a poster of MJ for most, if not all, of college, and I'm not even from Chicago, so I think I might die to this day if I saw him in real life. Except for the current mustache.


This is almost like The Best Time I Thought I Saw Edith Zimmerman. Except it wasn't really her. It was at the gym, though.


@boyofdestiny I saw that guy with the awesome Bea Arthur arm tattoo at the gym once and I thought "I know you from the internet!" but out loud I said nothing.


Had that be me, I think I might have started humming the Space Jam theme song just to try and get it stuck in his head.


When I worked retail, a beautiful, tall, black woman came into the store, and my co-worker turned to me and said "Please don't think I'm racist, but I think Tyra Banks just came in." It was Tyra Banks. She looked a-MAY-zing, and bought some really hideous clothes.


@unfortumissy Interior, theater
Me: That woman looks just like Laura Linney with red hair.
Amazingly patient actress friend: That is Laura Linney.

Faintly Macabre

@unfortumissy Did she smize at you?


@Faintly Macabre Or did she tell you a bogus story about how she had been jogging with friends and got bit by a dig, and then pretend to have rabies right in front of you? (Personal favourite Tyra moment)


@Decca Dog, even. Sheeesh.


@unfortumissy Ooh noted fashion photographer Nigel Barker came into the store I worked at (Hotty McHotterson). I bet between the whole Hairpin, we could compile all of the ANTM folks!


@unfortumissy I was at a favorite restaurant with my husband and there was a slender, middle-aged, balding little guy having dinner with his wife a few tables over. We spent the evening joking about how much he looked like a bad copy of Ralph Fiennes. He was, of course, Ralph Fiennes. My 20-year-old self had a little fan moment, and the rest of me was a teensy bit disappointed.

Lily Rowan

@Layla I totally sat next to Benny Ninja on a plane once!

Who here has met ALT? Someone fabulous, I'm sure.

Atheist Watermelon

@thefingersofgod noooooo don't say that.... Ralph Fiennes is at the top of my "list", has been ever since the English Patient ruined me for all other men when I was 16.


@unfortumissy UGH I wish! She didn't really smile at all? She was very down-to-business about buying kelly green jogging shorts and thigh-high socks.


@Layla Ooh, this is late, but I was walking up 6th Ave outside Da Silvano in the West Village last year and Miss Jay walked right past me. He was super tall and walking straight down the middle of the sidewalk, exactly as you would expect, and he owned it, of course.

hairdresser on fire

One of the greatest losses of my Chicago suburban childhood was outgrowing my spandex two-piece Michael Jordan outfit, complete with mom-made black and red sparkly ponytail holders. The golden days. At least there's D-Rose now so I can resurrect the Bulls outfits, aahhh!


I saw Michael Jordan in a Chicago elevator once. My heart started to beat really fast and I started sweating profusely.. for the 20 seconds we were alone together. Then he got off and I let my pits air out.


I thought this said "Michael Jackson" until I got to the physical description.


@klemay Racist.


I went to a Weight Watchers meeting and the typical team leader was on vacation and I caught a glimpse of a woman that looked eerily like Jennifer Hudson. I was like NO WAY, she's running secret meetings? How cool is that? After it took forever to get weighed, I rushed in....and it was not her. The team leader looked so much like her though, it was scary.


I would say that Michael Jordon's beautiful bald head is recognizable enough for this not to be racist.


Awkward racism.

I'm really awful when it comes to faces. I NEVER recognize people. Like, even people that I really ought to know, people I have known for years. If I don't see someone pretty consistantly for at least a few months, I'm screwed. Nothing makes me feel more racist than when I do this to someone who isn't white. I always want to back pedal and shout, "No! It's not that your (whatever you are)!! I don't recognize anyone! Not even white people!" This just makes me look insane.

Insane is arguably better than racist, I guess.


@OhShesArtsy Christ in a hammock, faces are difficult. I once walked straight past my sister who was waiting for me at the train station because she'd dyed her hair. And then looked angry when she tried to stop me. I think I may also have used the 'not a racist, just a moron!' gambit.


@OhShesArtsy Maybe you have prosopagnosia? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosopagnosia


@ThievingMagpie I have the faces/sorry-I-didn't-notice-you-dyed-your-hair thing too and have also read up on prosopagnosia! It says people with poor facial recognition have a harder time following movies which is ALSO true for me and now I have a reason I can cite.

I do really like "I don't recognize anyone! Not even white people!"


@OhShesArtsy I have occasionally failed to recognize students when I see them 20 minutes after class lets out. I might just put a link to that Wikipedia page on my course website.


"They often make friends with children with other distinguishing features."

THIS is why I find scars/mottling/large noses/bicolored eyes so attractive. And why people with pale eyes look like they barely have a face at all.
I have some weird feeling about saying I have a mental disorder, as I always assume I'm just lazy/stupid and other people genuinely have it worse, but this looks verrrry familiar.


@ThievingMagpie OMG. I read that whole wiki article with that inkling of familiarity. So weird.

I definitely have trouble following movies with a lot of characters, especially if they every character has the same "look". Teen movies where everyone is conventionally attractive are really hard to follow, but I love movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey where there are basically three people you need to keep up with and they all have a certain costume they wear in most scenes.

*Also, I'm a moron who just realized I used the wrong form of your/you're up there. I am appropriately ashamed.


@OhShesArtsy Oh my GODDD, me too. I had the most mortifying moment when I held a make-up class on a different day, in a different classroom, and people kept coming in because they thought it was an open classroom. I told one of my students, who was wearing a HAT, how dare he, that he'd have to find another classroom, because there was a class going on in here. Oops. I took the MIT face blindness test and scored like a 20%. Not great.


We were driving to a Bulls game back in the Jordan era, when a black Chevy Blazer (for which Jordan was the spokesperson at the time) with tinted windows inched up next to us in the traffic on the expressway. The window was slightly rolled down, and my dad yelled "Oh My God! It's Michael Jordan!" just as he cut in front of us and proceeded to merge over onto the shoulder and then take off like a shot. I didn't see him before he merged, but the plate was some ridiculous vanity like "Air 23" or something, so I'm pretty sure Dad was right. Dude was running late for the game!
Also my Dad swears that His Airness winked before he cut our car off, but I'm pretty sure that part is a total lie.


Man, all tall bald black men who are Michael Jordan look the same. (Specifically, they all look like Michael Jordan).


aaaaah!! i lovex1000 michael jordan. i'm so jealous of people who have met him. i too grew up in chicago in the 90's and he was (and if i'm being honest, still is) my hero.


From a distance, I think that every bald man around 5'9" (black or white) is my dad. So I think it's just baldism.


If you watch a lot of sports, I think recognizing an athlete from behind is almost as easy as from the front! I was at a college football game once and amazed all my dudefriends by recognizing John Elway on the sidelines before he ever turned around. He was a solid decade post-Broncos and wearing street clothes, but I still knew it was him. What can I say? I watched a lot of football in the 80s and 90s. Woulda picked out Steve Young even quicker. (Call me, Steve!)


I think I told this story already, but I swear I took the bus with Ewan MacGregor all through the summer of 2010.

Atheist Watermelon

@Teffodee ooh, wait, where did you tell the story? I wanna hear it!! :-)


@Teffodee Seconded on that!


@Anji So, I was taking the bus every morning at stupid o'clock to a way far away corner of Montreal to work at a YMCA. One morning, I noticed this man get on the bus. I noticed him because he was gorgeous and looked familiar. A couple days after we started taking the same bus, he started smiling and winking at me every morning, and I placed him: dead ringer for Ewan Macgregor. I looked up pictures, like, every day, because I couldn't believe how great the similarity was. He had the same mole on his cheek. He had the same teeth. The same smile. Hell, the same HANDS. The entire summer went on this way, smiling and winking and then leaving and never talking, because I couldn't bear to find out that he actually wasn't Ewan Macgregor. Later I put up a craigslist missed connections (Yes: I did. I went there.) and I only got a response from a man in his late forties with a face like a bassett hound. The mystery remains unsolved, but I will cling to my conviction that for a whole summer, Ewan Macgregor flirted with me.


When I was little, I used to see Jack Nicklaus on TV (my parents were big golf fans) and yell, "Daddy!" because my dad also had white-blond hair, a tan, and plaid pants.


@Xanthophyllippa As a child I was convinced that a classmate's dad was Kenny Rodgers. Even though I knew his name (not Kenny Rodgers) and where he worked (not Nashville, or a Kenny Rodgers' Roasters), I knew he was secretly Kenny Rodgers.


@Xanthophyllippa My godfather is a dead ringer for Kenny Rogers. His name is Dennis, but everyone calls him Denny. And as a small child, I was convinced he secretly WAS Kenny Rogers, but that it was his secret identity. And then once when I was in 8th grade, we had to make this autobiographies and we had to have pictures of our family and I included a picture of me & my godfather. My teacher was like, "Oh wow! You met Kenny Rogers? That's very neat, but I don't think you should include him in the 'family' section." And I was like, "No, that's my godfather." "Your godfather is Kenny Rogers?!" "No, my godfather is Dennis Risk. He just looks like Kenny Rogers."


@TheSkyGirl That is AWESOME. I had a friend in grad school who was a dead ringer for Jeff Bridges. Every time we went out to dinner people would stare, and every now and then someone would be all, "Do know you look like Jeff Bridges?" as if he somehow had managed to miss this fact. Once a waitress came up, all blushy and giggly, and said, "do you know --" and he turned to her and said, "Yes, I know. Could I have the carnitas and a Corona, please?" and turned right back to talking to me. I imagine being asked got old after a while.


Love this! While I was growing up as a kid in Chicago in the 90's, my friends' dad was MJ's pilot in his off time. We never got a chance to meet Mr. Jordan in person, but my friends' (3 sisters) dad always came home with the coolest autographed stuff for his daughters. We were all jealous.


I need to look up some references to back this up, but I think there is an actual scientific basis for the "you people all look alike" phenomenon. Basically when you're young, your brain goes through a period of learning how to distinguish faces from other faces. Your brain quickly learns to zero in on specific features that best distinguish the faces that you are exposed to. During this learning period (which I think lasts for much of your childhood), if you are only exposed to a limited variety of faces (for instance, faces of only one race), then that exposure informs what features you tend to (subconsciously) zero in on. But surprise! -- those features might not do a very good job of distinguishing faces that are outside your initial learning set! So in a sense, some people *may actually* look alike to you because you don't know which part of their face to focus on in order to differentiate. Moral: expose your kids to lots of different looking faces!


@mephista This is mostly right! And the only addition is actually really good news - with continued and repeated exposure to different kinds of faces we can get much better at this even as adults. Non-Asian people who move to Asia, for example, become very good at distinguishing Asian faces. And there was a great study that showed that Scandanavian (I think) adults who watched a lot of basketball over a period of time became much better at distinguishing black faces! So there's still hope even if you aren't exposed too much as a child.


@mephista That's true, and interesting! That said, while you might know in your head that there are reasons that people have trouble distinguishing you from others, personal experience suggests that it doesn't stop you from being hurt and kind of enraged when it happens. I was one of two white people in a village a while back, and even knowing that there were good reasons that I was constantly being mistaken for the other chick didn't stop me from wanting to scream at the top of my lungs, "HELLO! I HAVE LIVED HERE FOR A YEAR! WHY CAN'T YOU SEE MY FUCKING FACE?!" It really was kind of soul-crushing, and no amount of logic really made it better.


@Kristen Oh definitely. I was in no way trying to suggest that people shouldn't feel hurt or upset! I guess the takeaway for me after reading about these studies was: 1) If I have trouble distinguishing people, I don't beat myself up and call myself a racist. I grew up in a town that was over 95% white! 2) I make a conscious effort to combat the issue by purposely spending an extra second or two studying faces that I know are outside my initial learning set. I know I can't trust my brain to automatically do the right thing all the time, and it seems like making a little extra effort really helps me.


@Kristen Also your comment reminded me of something I noticed when I spent some time at a school in a Muslim area. Apparently one of the things I normally rely on for facial recognition is hair color/style. I found it extra difficult to distinguish between some of the girls since they all covered their hair, and would frequently change between different colors. I had an embarassing moment with one girl when she changed her head covering in the middle of the day. I had just been talking with her an hour earlier - I knew her! I knew her name! But when she came back with a different color, I flat out did not recognize her and I felt like a huge jerk. I had to retrain myself to only look at faces and ignore the misleading "hair" color.

Kerri Mercury Morris@facebook

I saw Dennis Kucinich once. It was a glorious day.


@Kerri Mercury Morris@facebook I almost got run over by John Major's motorcade when I was a Parliamentary intern.


I threw up on the feet of Dennis Rodman once. It was terrible but I am not sure he noticed (he's really tall!). I also stood next to Beck for a good 10 minutes (without vomiting, thank god) before realizing it was him as he walked away.

Everyone, more celebrity encounters... tell, tell! I love this shit!


Walking back from the bathroom at a restaurant Monday, I thought, 'That guy looks like Vince Vaughn.' And, then, it was! The waitress told us that the woman he was with was his wife and it was their second anniversary. He had called the restaurant in advance to confirm that they could get in and out unseen. Cute!


@josiah YAY! I used to have a big fat crush on him and then it went by the wayside somewhere along the line.

Atheist Watermelon

<----- rode on a plane with Wolf Blitzer. Oh yeah.


@LittleBookofCalm <--- slammed into Mike Ditka while trying to dodge a crowd in O'Hare. Ow.

Veronica Mars is smarter than me

<------ rode on a plane with Anti-Flag. Whaaaat.

a small sea

I didn't grow up in Chicago but I did grow up near and then later go to school at UNC (where MJ went). We were in the same stadium a few years ago for the 25th anniversary of their nearly undefeated 1982 season. My friend's dad played on the basketball team at Carolina with MJ!!


One time I was driving in Pittsburgh and I looked in my rearview mirror and it was ELYSE from Hell's Kitchen! She was smiling, though, and she looked gorrrrrrrgeous.


I saw Lenny Kravitz walking down the street once. I yelled for my friends to look, but they were too busy fighting over where to park. Lenny was wearing that ubiquitous patchwork jacket of his.


Why is it racist to see a black guy who looks like another black guy and think it's the black guy you think it is? It's not because he's black, it's because he looked like Michael Jordan. It's not like you're saying every black guy you see you think it Michael Jordan.

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