Michael Jordan once floated through the air like a feather, bound only loosely by gravity. He could switch hands in mid-air, relax in the stratosphere until opponents fell to the court (Craig Ehlo might remember that), or sky to floors that most players’ elevators could not visit. But in the end, as the story goes for everybody, he was mortal. He got old, lost a step and misplaced a few inches on his vertical leap, and soon he was a (bad-ish) General Manager drafting Adam Morrison with the third pick.
That’s what happens. Our heroes age and sometimes not so gracefully. Sure, we can still recognize Jordan. His face, for a time at least, was (and maybe still is) the most recognizable face in the world. But while he still facially resembles the man who terrorized Bryon Russell and kept Karl Malone from ever winning an NBA title, he can’t do what he used to do. He can’t step onto an NBA court and fadeaway J opponents to death. He can’t summons his powers to score a bucket whenever his team needs one the most. Hell, he doesn’t even play organized basketball anymore. And at risk of awakening Jordan’s inner competitive beast, I would bet my house (you know, if I owned one) that he couldn’t play for an NBA team even if he wanted to.
Just like Jordan, my grandfather Pop-Pop is one of my heroes. He’s strong and proud and tells stories that make everyone in the room laugh. He loves golf and can still perfectly remember holes he played 55 years ago. He served in the war and can still discuss every mission he flew. He recalls afternoons he spent at Fenway Park watching football games (yes, Fenway used to host football games); days he spent swimming in the (now-unswimmable) Connecticut River; nights he spent imbibing all-you-can drink drafts for five cents; and, as a former used-car salesmen, every local celebrity he sold a car to.
Pop-Pop tells one story about attending a professional golf tournament 30 or 40 years ago. He spent the morning following groups and walking the course. Later in the day, he spotted a young golfer sitting by himself.
“I didn’t know who he was, but I went over to talk to him because, hell, he was still a professional golfer,” Pop-Pop will say. “Plus, he looked like he could use someone to talk to.”
The golfer turned out to be Lee Trevino. He developed into a six-time major champion, Ryder Cup team captain, and, yes, he also played a cameo role in Happy Gilmore. Later, he would run into the brick wall of his own mortality. His signature fade would stop being so accurate, and his drives, already shorter than most great golfers, would travel even fewer yards. But when Pop-Pop met him, he was a seed waiting to blossom into a flower, an inexperienced golfer with miles of talent, a young stud a few years away from becoming a hero.
Pop-Pop was once young like the Trevino he met that day. I know only because I’ve seen pictures. One of the pictures is a newspaper clipping from when Pop-Pop arrived home after the war. The picture was accompanied by the headline “Hero on way home,” and it’s one of the few times I can see Pop-Pop before he became Pop-Pop, back when everyone called him Tom. His chiseled face was handsome and his smile was disarming and his wife was beautiful, and I imagine he could spin a great story even back then.
He had all his teeth at that time, and he did not yet have cancer to threaten his life. He did not yet have a tumor growing from his upper jaw and he did not yet need an electric contraption to carry him up stairs. He did not yet need a walker to move or a handicap-accessible bathroom to piss, and his feet were not yet permanently swollen and discolored. He did not yet spend almost all of his time sitting in the same chair, either trying to learn how to use On-Demand, chatting with my lovely grandmother, squinting his quickly-degenerating eyes to read a book, or, during the best of times, sharing stories with his children and grandchildren.
Our heroes are mortal, all of them. But they never disappear. They just change.