Photo by Sam Riches.
In their purest form, every minor league is a reflection of the greater systems that live above them. Scattered in small cities across North America, they are transitory homes, humble launch pads shuttling bodies forward, further into the sports stratosphere, or providing a side stage for it to fade out. In the moment, these minor careers play out in relative quiet and before small crowds; all involved lean on the passion of everyone else to make it work but every minor league team is, in one way or another, a point of departure.
Sometimes those that inhabit these ranks slip momentarily into greatness, their skills firing off in perfect sequential rhythm. If you’ve played sports, you know the feeling of the hot hand, the way the game softens and slows and becomes, however briefly, much easier than it is. When it stops, as it always does, we’re left to wonder what it would be like to inhabit that space permanently -- to perform on that level over and over again, infallible. The players who succeed as professionals spend more time in that liminal immortality than the ones who don’t. The difference is a matter of degree and duration. Everyone that makes it this far can get there; those that make it further are the ones that can stay there longest.
Most everyone in the minors has once shared the court with someone clearly destined for something more. They know what sports immortality looks like, in person and in action -- not just because they’ve felt it, in flashes, but because they’ve seen it stretch over quarters, games, weeks or months. They are fans, too, in those moments, but never just fans. It’s a complicated thing. Cedric Moodie has one of those stories, and Michael Jordan is in it.
Moodie, 35, tells his story in the back corridor of a multi-purpose arena in Brampton, Ontario. It’s a city of about a half million people, about a half hour west of Toronto. It’s a growing, diverse place, with competitive teams, in leagues of varying notoriety, playing hockey, lacrosse, football, soccer, rugby, cricket and basketball.
Moodie’s team, the Brampton A’s, are less than a year old and share their home, the Powerade Centre, capacity 5,000, with the Brampton Beasts, a mid-level hockey team, and three lacrosse outfits. As the newest tenants in the building, the A’s are still in the early stages of attracting a crowd but they have a few things going for them; the best, perhaps, is that the drive to Toronto can be an absolute nightmare, depending on traffic, and Raptors tickets don’t come cheap. Locally, the A’s offer the best basketball in town and, for the most part, it’s pretty good.
Moodie leans against a gray cement wall, hard white light flickering above him. He wears a team-issue shooting shirt, black and red, with a National Basketball League of Canada emblem sewn over the chest.
The league, now in its third year, is still figuring out what it wants to be, and which cities can support a franchise. Brampton, which hosted its first game in November, is the latest question mark. During the season, Moodie and his teammates live in Orangeville, a smaller city, further north and safe, for the moment, from Toronto’s encroaching concrete and steel. On game nights they share a bus into town.
Canada has tried in the past to support a domestic league, but none have lasted more than a few years. The most notable experiment, probably, was the similarly named National Basketball League. It lasted a season and a half between 1993 and ’94 and carried the stipulation that no player was allowed to be taller than 6’5.
Today’s National Basketball League of Canada consists of nine teams scattered across Central and Eastern Canada. The plan, if the league can get there, is to expand to 20-25 teams and operate as a feeder system for the pros. More than half the players come from a Division I background, and each team is required to carry three Canadians.
Some of the players are faintly recognizable from their college days, others are gleaned from Europe and the various forgotten corners of North American basketball. The players that fill the Brampton roster were selected over a two-day tryout. If they were able to get in on early registration, that tryout cost them a $225 fee and came with a free lunch.
The league is about what you’d expect. There are moments of slick, impressive gameplay followed by longer stretches of missed shots, errant passes and leaky defensive rotations. On most nights, Moodie is the oldest player on the court. He directs the team on both ends of the floor, hoists shots from deep, barrels to the basket cradling the ball like a running back, and lofts passes in anticipation of phantom cutters and streaking wings. Sometimes they materialize, sometimes they don’t.
On this night, the A’s are hosting the Saint John Mill Rats, a team from the second-largest city in Canada’s maritime provinces. They are led by 5’11 point guard Anthony Anderson, a haywire sparkplug buzzing across the court in flashes of spins and crossovers, his body jetting in one direction before snapping back in another. On one possession he dribbles to the basket, hesitates, cuts back to the three point line, and then drives into the paint again -- all before five seconds can tick off the clock. He leads the league with 24 points per game and arrived in the NBL after stops at the University of Massachusetts and professional stints in Qatar, Venezuela, Poland, Cyprus, and the United Kingdom. He’s a unique player, but also something like the prototypical NBL player.
Moodie zips around the court with Anderson, using his size advantage and spatial awareness to bump him, slow him down and guide him into the long-limbed defenders that wait in front of the basket. Moodie plays savvy, anticipatory basketball. He has a swiss-army skillset that places him among the league’s leaders in triple-doubles, double-doubles, three-pointers and assists, and the sort of understanding of his craft that can come only from years at work. Anderson is younger and fresher; Moodie has something he doesn’t, which is hard to name and easy to spot.
Like Anderson, Moodie has lived the nomadic, migratory life of a pro athlete chasing pay checks. He is in Brampton for as long as he needs to be, and seems happy to be there. “This is the best situation I’ve ever been in, by far,” he says, after the game, in the light of the tunnel.
“Once you're in here it’s family, and it’s treated that way. There’s a sense of security but we still have to compete for our jobs, you can never get too comfortable in this game. It’s a cutthroat business.”
Moodie grew up in South Bend, Indiana and played college ball at Ball State under Ray McCallum, who now coaches at Detroit Mercy. With McCallum’s guidance, Moodie and his teammates were part of one the most successful eras in that school’s history. McCallum compiled a 126-77 record and won a record seven MAC tournaments. Moodie was never quite a star, but he contributed a lot to three strong teams.
Like most great coaches, McCallum was also a mentor, and in the summer of Moodie’s sophomore season, he landed him a job as a counselor at a Michael Jordan Skills Camp. There Moodie worked alongside other college athletes and Jordan himself, who at night would come down from his office to run pickup games with the staff. On the final day of that camp, they played in the middle of the day, in front of the kids and their parents -- a full house, with the cameras rolling.
Before this game, someone could have asked Moodie what it’s like to share the court with Michael Jordan and he’d have had an answer, thanks to those late night runs. They could ask him about guarding the greatest ever to play the game and he’d have been able to talk about that, too. They could ask him what it feels like to dunk a basketball on Michael Jordan’s head and the conversation would stop there, as there are few souls on earth that can speak to that. After the day’s game, though, Moodie would be one of them.
So then: about that dunk.
On its surface, with Jordan removed, this dunk is an impressive feat, in the way that every put-back dunk is an impressive feat, hinging as it does on perfect timing and the right read on the ball’s trajectory. It is not, however, especially captivating or aesthetically pleasing. It doesn’t carry the conflicting power and grace that the greatest dunks often contain. In your pickup game or mine, it would be talked about and high-fived over at length, but it’s the sort of play that happens in higher quality basketball games, and generally passes without much notice. We see this sort of thing every time we watch a game on television. There is, though, additional context to consider.
At the time, Moodie was a 21-year-old and had just wrapped up his first season of college basketball, during which he averaged seven points per game. Michael Jordan was in the beginning of his second retirement, two years away from stepping back on the court with the Washington Wizards and just a season removed from capping his second three-peat with the Chicago Bulls. In that 1998 season Jordan won his sixth NBA Championship and his sixth NBA Finals MVP on the heels of his fifth regular season MVP award. Michael Jordan, in other words, was still Michael Jordan.
In the stands, Moodie’s mother kept a camera tracked on the game, a practice she’d enacted for as long as he can remember. On the play preceding the dunk, Moodie leaked out on a fast break, bounced the ball off the court to himself, and threw down an emphatic one-hander. There’s video of that, too, but Moodie’s aunt, in anticipatory celebration, jumps in front of the camera, obscuring the view. It would be upsetting, if it weren’t for what happened next.
To hear Moodie tell it is to watch him, in a grounded form, relive it.
“We got a steal, and a guy came down for a layup and he missed it,” he says. “I was just coming in for the rebound, but I saw Mike jump and then I jumped and I...”
He trails off and his eyes close, the scene, presumably, playing out on the back of his eyelids. He raises his hand high in the air, and lets it hang there for a moment.
“It was the highlight of my life, man,” he says, fading back into the present. “The basketball highlight of my life. Just to be there, to be on the court with the greatest of all time.”
In the pre-game lay-up lines, Moodie stretches beside the court, as his teammates fire long range shots between windmill dunks. In the stands, families file into the seats, hard purple plastic, and a dance team of five, the Lady A’s, wave tinsel pom-poms. Moodie stretches with his head down, the arena lights reflecting like a sunspot against the dark silk grain of his warm-up shirt. With all eyes locked on the aerial theatrics of his teammates, he goes through his own routine. He stretches, and he waits.
When the game begins, he shoots a jumper from the elbow that lips out and from the stands someone evidently unconcerned with seeming too stereotypically Canadian shouts out, “that’s a good try!”
The NBA’s courtside culture of celebrity filters down to these stands. A few people watch with sunglasses on and baseball caps pulled low, dressed, as one would, if they were trying to deflect peering eyes. One man appears to be Drake, in that he is similar in height and weight and facial symmetry of Drake, and is dressed as Drake would dress; he is not, of course, actually Drake. For some of the younger and more impressionable spectators, he might as well be. Brampton Drake keeps up a running dialogue with Anderson, who has something to say each time he knocks in a three.
On the court, Moodie catches a pass on the block, and with his back to the basket he palms the ball, holding it high above his head, away from his chest. He drops a shoulder fake and then spins toward the baseline, before letting loose a jumper that falls through the net. Anyone who has watched any basketball can identify this as the Jordan fadeaway.
The day after the dunk, Moodie sat at the bottom of a flight of stairs that led to Jordan’s office. Security, which refused to let him up, kept a wary, watchful eye. When Jordan eventually came down from his office, he looked at Moodie and asked him where he’d been all day.
“I was shocked that he even remembered who I was,” Moodie says. “He took me into a small room and we talked for about ten minutes about the game and I asked him what does it take be great and he said ‘the mid-range game’ and ever since then I’ve focused on that. It’s a lost art in basketball and it helped my game a lot. I’ll always remember that conversation. I’ll always appreciate that.”
With three minutes to go, Moodie hits a pull up three in transition to pull the A’s within one point of the visitors. Several times, fueled by the pace and energy of the game, players get tangled underneath the basket and need to be separated. Elbows are thrown and bloodied noses leak onto jerseys. Moodie is the first man in between, pushing players apart, trying to keep heads levelled and fists unballed.
In the final minutes of the game, after playing the entirety of the fourth quarter, the Brampton offense becomes, Give The Ball To Cedric. He hits a short jumper, a fading, contested three and then thuds into the hardwood on a drive to basket. He pops back up and knocks down one free throw, then another.
Moodie pestered the younger Anderson into a poor shooting night, and the gunner starts looking for his teammates instead. With the game knotted at 124, the A’s run the final play of the night for Moodie. The fans, at this point, are all on their feet and most have left their seats to gather around the court. Their cellphones are held high, snapping photos and recording the final possession.
Moodie catches the inbounds pass and holds the ball at half court, his eyes fixed on the shot clock. The anxiety of the moment, even to a spectator, slows things down. Ten seconds, then nine and then eight and then he makes his move. Moodie shakes his defender with a jab step and rises up for the game winning three. It’s the perfect ending, except that he misses.
It hits back rim, bouncing crookedly off the steel, before being swatted back into the basket by a high-flying teammate. At the three-point line, Moodie raises his hands in victory. The buzzer sounds. He finishes the game with 19 points, 11 rebounds and four assists.
In the hallway outside the gym, the cheers of the fans are muffled by the concrete walls. On the other side of the wall is a hockey rink, where young skaters stumble and trip down the ice, while a bored coach fires slap shots that hammer into the boards. A lone server waits at the concession stand, also bored, serving $6 bottles of Molson Export to fans that come loitering with intent down the hallway.
Back inside the gym, Moodie is mobbed by his teammates and the fans, who will later pose with him for pictures near the stadium’s main entrance. The entire A’s team spends time after each game chatting with spectators and signing autographs. It’s a ritual that captures the small town wholesomeness of minor league sports.
Later, outside the locker room and back in the tunnel, Moodie doesn’t have an answer for what will come next in his career. Under the weight of time, he’s learned to live with the uncertainty.
“I’m 35 years old, man. I love the game and it’s a great opportunity here. I don't want to have play too long but I don't want to quit too early and regret it. I feel like I got three more strong years in me, it just depends on another opportunity coming up. If I do play in this league, it’d have to be for this team. I wouldn't play for anybody else.”
When asked about that summer night, almost 15 years ago, he smiles and draws air in deeply.
“That dunk was such a long time ago. I don't think about it until people ask me about it, you know? Everyone’s got their Michael Jordan stories. I rarely brought it up after it happened. It was my personal thing and if you weren’t there to see it, you didn’t need to know about it.”
A trainer walks through the tunnel as he speaks, pushing a cart of basketballs down the hallway. She stops, momentarily, and does a double take, apparently startled that an interview is taking place.
It’s a long way to the NBA from here but also surprisingly close. It’s basketball and it’s a living. For most of the players, the dream stays alive, whether it’s truly tangible or not.
Wherever Moodie goes from here, his dunk and his moment will remain, impervious to time’s erosion. It’s his for as long as he wants it, and will be kept alive by the words of his family and friends and those who were there, in that moment. It will play out, over and over again, in some far corner of the internet, on someone’s screen, showing the time Cedric Moodie and Michael Jordan shared the same space, as opponents, peers, basketball players -- and Moodie got the best of him.