By CHUCKIE MAGGIO
J.R. Bremer still remembers the moment he was assigned to guard His Airness like it was yesterday.
The Celtics were in Washington on Halloween 2002 for the first of four games against the divisional foe Wizards. A 22-year-old Bremer, fresh out of St. Bonaventure, was tabbed by coach Jim O’Brien to substitute for Paul Pierce.
“At the time Paul was guarding MJ so I subbed in and asked who I was supposed to check,” Bremer recalled. “The coaches quickly replied, ‘Mike!’ In my head I said, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m really about to guard Michael Jordan.’”
The matchup was set, wide-eyed rookie meeting legendary veteran.
Jordan, even at 39 going on 40, was about to average 20 points a game for the 15th time in his 15-year career. He always looked out of place in a Wizards uniform, unretiring a second time to play two years for the club he part-owned and assumed the president of basketball operations role for the previous year.
A return to the league’s postseason, which Jordan had thoroughly dominated in the ‘90s before and after his first retirement, was not in the cards; he was plagued by a knee injury in 2001-02 and Washington finished five games out of the eighth seed in the 2003 Eastern Conference playoffs.
Jordan wasn’t the All-NBA player from the Chicago Bulls years, when he led the franchise to six championships and became one of the most famous people on the planet. He remained, however, a top 25 scorer, becoming the first 40-year-old to score 40 or more points when he scored 43 on Feb. 21, 2003.
The Celtics-Wizards meeting was Washington’s home opener, another sold-out affair in a prosperous run where the Wizards sold out every Jordan game at the MCI Center and were the second-most watched team in the league.
The game represented the Celtics’ first away contest and the start of Bremer’s first regular season road trip. Bremer, who did not play in the season opener against Chicago, didn’t expect to see the floor unless the game was a blowout near the end of the fourth quarter. But as Boston fell behind early on a night it eventually suffered a 45-point loss, Bremer was sent in for his official debut.
“Excited and locked in at the same time,” Bremer’s time guarding the Hall of Famer went as it had for many players before.
“As soon as he saw me guarding him he looked at (point guard Tyronn Lue) and immediately called his own post play. You know what was next: MJ fadeaway,” he described. “I played good defense but hey, it’s Mike, what can I say? The very next time down the exact same thing happened. He called for the post, I planned on blocking it and bang, another one in my face.
“Right after that I saw Paul walking back to the scorers table and that was my night.”
Bremer was among the thousands of kids who, like the chorus of the Gatorade commercial, wanted to be “like Mike.” The ease of Jordan’s game, how he could get to any spot he wanted and leap for layups and dunks, inspired the Bonaventure All-Time Team selection.
The All-Rookie Second Team member didn’t defend Jordan again, but he played a crucial part in assuring MJ wouldn’t participate in another postseason until he owned the Charlotte Bobcats. Bremer scored 20 points in 26 minutes, including the go-ahead 3-pointer with 19 seconds left, to help the Celtics win 87-83 and eliminate the Wizards from playoff contention.
“Until last night, J.R. Bremer had started 41 consecutive games at point guard… Jim O’Brien decided to go with experience and re-inserted Tony Delk into the starting lineup against the Wizards,” Shira Springer wrote in the next day’s Boston Globe. “Bremer handled the change with aplomb, hitting the 3-pointer that sealed the game after he couldn’t miss in the first half.”
Armed with those fond memories newly refreshed in his mind, Bremer is looking forward to “The Last Dance,” the highly anticipated 10-part documentary about Jordan and the 1997-98 Bulls that begins airing Sunday night on ESPN. The series, which offers unprecedented all-access footage of the Chicago core’s last season together, was moved up after increased demand from fans and celebrities alike due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even the men who faced Jordan after that “Dance” will be tuned in.
“I can’t wait for it to come out, not only for myself but for the younger generation to actually see how great he was as a player,” Bremer, who now coaches at alma mater Cleveland Heights High School, noted. “Many of these kids wear his shoes but really never seen him play. All they know is the debates that he is one of the best players ever.
“It will be good for my team to watch it and my son to learn about the history of the game.”