THE TICKET was in one of his pockets and stayed there during the game. He discovered it later that evening when he rode the train back from the city and returned to his freshman dorm room, as he set his personal items on the desk before bed. Mike Cole would've taken the ticket and either opened the tiny desk drawer at the side of the room by the window and stored it inside, or placed it on one of the shelves in his closet above a pile of dirty laundry and his low-top Nike basketball shoes.
Thirty-seven years later, in the winter of 2021, Cole was watching a newscast one evening when a headline flashed on the screen. He immediately stumbled into the basement of his Connecticut home and turned the lights on. He almost slipped going down the stairs and made his way to the auxiliary closet and the plastic bin with "MIKE'S MEMORY BOX" written in Sharpie on recycled duct tape on the side. The manila folder was still in there, and the ticket, too, with all the other tickets, where it had landed for years after following him around for most of his adult life.
It had a reminder on the back about the box office hours of Chicago Stadium in 1984, noon to 6 p.m. except Sundays, and a block paragraph of microscopic typeface that the service charge was nonrefundable and neither the Bulls nor their players were liable for fans getting injured during the game. On the front, a watermark of the stadium as its centerpiece; the Bulls' mascot on the left edge of the perforation; a handsome red border that set the dull background promoting the event -- Chicago Bulls vs. Washington Bullets, Oct. 26, 7:30 p.m -- in relief. Those design flairs added to its singular value but weren't the actual explanation of why it turned out to be the most valuable ticket from a sporting event in history.
The game was the professional debut of a rookie guard from the University of North Carolina, who in a middle-aged man's recollections had done nothing that night to portend his legend.
The ticket allowed Cole only a single memory: No. 23, in his white jersey, on his back on the court, the crowd around him rising in whispered concern. Cole, then 18 years old, had stood, too; if he strained, he could still picture the young player in the air with his tongue out, long before it was emulated by the world. On that very first NBA dunk attempt, Michael Jordan fell on his back and almost ended his professional career the night it began.
Cole's attendance became an erstwhile conversation piece as he aged and his recollections about the whole thing faded -- he'd long ago put the ticket away in the manila envelope in the plastic container. As the Bulls made playoff runs in the late '80s, and Jordan finally got past the Detroit Pistons in the early '90s, Cole found opportunities here or there to brag about being at MJ's very first game. But even after the sixth championship, it was merely another relic from some sporting event Cole had saved, along with about two dozen hockey, baseball and football tickets and a Cindy Crawford signed calendar from 1990, framed pictures of his mom and dad, purple pompoms from the Rose Bowl -- the ticket never seemed special beyond its personal value.
That it ever had any real value before last year was a different kind of conversation altogether, one about his father, old games and the reasons people hold on to anything at all. His dad was a D.C. lawyer; pretty much the only time they hung out was when they attended events together. Cole left home to attend Northwestern, and as a surprise, his dad had called a friend in the Bullets' front office and had him leave Mike two tickets at will call to Jordan's first game. All these years later, Cole hated the idea of letting any of his tickets go, of giving them to someone else who couldn't understand and hadn't actually been there.
"Every ticket can tell you a story," Cole says. "I'm someone who's about relationships and experiences. And that's what tickets are to me."
But then, that winter night in 2021, he saw the news story on TV: Ticket stub from Michael Jordan's NBA debut sells for $264K. Cole's ticket in the basement wasn't a mere stub; it was unused, untorn, a complete ticket in good condition. A few weeks later, an armored truck came around the stop sign at the end of the street outside of his house, his neighbors and friends watching in stupefaction, his wife, Kristen, bundled against the cold so she could take a commemorative picture of Mike letting the ticket go to auction. Still, even as appraisers and investors hyperventilated at his discovery, the first ticket of any kind likely worth a million bucks; even as Cole was promised the moon from auction houses seeking his business and hyping its value; even as he stretched his arm to give the ticket to a man wearing a bulletproof vest and a Glock on his waistband bound for Heritage Auctions in Dallas, he wasn't totally convinced parting with it was the right thing to do.
On a shivery evening last Feb. 26, the final night of the ticket's auction, Mike and Kristen hosted a party at their house in Cheshire, Connecticut. His neighbors toasted him while gathered in the kitchen. Cheers to randomly keeping it! Cheers to some NBA game four decades back, and Mike's luck of being there. Cheers to the greatest basketball player of all time! The recent snow was still shiny in Cole's driveway, the empty starlight in the frozen sky. The Cole family laptop screen streamed the live feed from the Heritage Winter Sports Collectibles Auction on the large TV. The two dogs curled up, ambivalent to the noise in the living room. Cole blushed, as 10 p.m. turned to 11 p.m. and the ticket's value surpassed $300,000. The neighbors chanted, "TO THE MILLION-DOLLAR TICKET!" and "Go, go, GO!" as Cole brought a mini bottle of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky up to his lips each time the only known complete ticket from Michael Jordan's first NBA game went up in value by increments of $10,000.
THE TICKET made him famous with his neighbors. They already liked Mike Cole anyway for his odd place in the equilibrium of the cul-de-sac, the tall, bald guy who waited too long to shovel his driveway when it snowed and then slipped on the ice while coming back from retrieving the mail. An admissions director of the medical school at Quinnipiac University who once purchased two Justin Bieber singing toothbrushes, telling his wife and kids that he'd open one and save the other because he had a hunch it would someday be valuable. That had yet to be true, the tinny rendition of "Baby" playing through the mechanical plastic speaker every time Mike raised his arm to clean his teeth.
Nine hours before the auction party, he was inside Sliders Grill & Bar with his knees uncomfortably pushed into the bottom of a high table, holding his reading glasses over the various flavors of wings on the menu. A 55-year-old distracted by the impending sale of the ticket and what he and his family could do with the money. Kristen, a software analyst and IT specialist, admitted, "I don't need any more stuff. But the washing machine looks a little old ..." Mike's 15-year-old Kia Sorento had broken down beyond what it was worth to repair. He chuckled at what seemed like ideations of grandeur for a financially stable family that never liked to splurge, even on something like $10 bowls of his favorite mac and cheese from Panera Bread.
"I told my neighbors, 'I need this money to replace our underwear,'" he joked. He did allow himself something that was totally unlike him: Googling the price of a Lamborghini, which he considered to be the ultimate rich person's car. What would he even do with it, he wondered -- he was wearing a lululemon hoodie he bought at a discount online, and a Purdue cap (his daughter was a freshman there), and he complained about being so tall as to always be uncomfortable in any kind of car, a titanium replacement in his right knee. Lambos started around $230,000 and shot up from there.
Mike unconsciously checked the Heritage app every few minutes on his phone. The ticket had been out of his possession for 23 days by then and in the air-controlled confines of an auction-house vault, promoted by Heritage online and in a 646-page Winter Sports Collectibles catalogue with holographic cover: "1984 Michael Jordan NBA Debut Chicago Bulls Full Ticket, PSA Authentic -- The Only Known Example!" A three-page foldout showed a close-up of the front and back of the ticket, fastened into its translucent case, highlighting the creased left flap that hadn't been torn away. All the other known tickets from the game, around 30 total, were stubs with that same left edge in various states of having been torn.
Seventeen people had put in a bid by the afternoon of the 26th. Mike both wondered aloud why anyone would care about that ancient season-opener against the Bullets and dreamed of American billionaires or people of unimaginable wealth from overseas being some of the interested parties. "Is it Bezos? Is it Gates?" he asked. Were they big Jordan fans? (Wasn't everyone?) And "How closely are they tracking this ticket?" The price was already at $260,000, and he was aware bidding could ramp near the end of the auction.
He was probably but one of a thousand sports fans at random bars across the country at that moment zoned in to some kind of nostalgia about the greatness of No. 23 -- but from his stool, he offered no memories of any of Jordan's clutch shots or famous games, no sentimentality about following the man's career or what it had meant to him (though he did once live in Chicago and was there for the first two titles). An entire generation of NBA fans had never seen Jordan play, which hurt to think about at the bar. Besides recent footage from "The Last Dance," trying to put that kind of career into context for people who couldn't understand -- like his son and daughter, who thought him having the ticket was weird and funny -- was impossible. Out of all the people anywhere who might be talking about Michael Jordan at that moment, he reasonably assumed he was the only one for whom fate was about to intervene. Michael Jordan was about to, in Mike Cole's words, "enhance our quality of life."
MIKE COLE STOOD one inch taller than Michael Jordan but always claimed the same height. He had been 6-foot-7 for his adult life, and it seemed to delight people when he provided that piece of trivia when strangers inquired how tall he really was: as tall as Michael Jordan. He became aware not too many years after attending that game in 1984 that everyone could understand such a reference point, staring up at him. He took in the world from the same vantage point, though he was pale white, with a paunch, and high cholesterol, and a bad knee, and he wore glasses and loathed to have his picture taken.
His experience with actual basketball amounted to a few years in high school in Bethesda, Maryland, when in his junior year, he grew from 5-10 to 6-5 and had trouble figuring out how to transition from being a shooting guard to a center. He was still coerced onto the team, stuck in the middle of the paint by the coach and instructed to just stand there and be taller than anyone else. The other kids nicknamed him "Franchise," no matter his dearth of skill.
He'd found life at that height a daily hindrance ever since, especially in his mid-50s: the elongated body, the misfortune to never blend in, the most noticeable thing about him being the most tiresome, what people joked about and fixated upon in every room he stepped into. He sometimes wondered if Jordan's experience had been the same, especially now he was conducting his life as an executive, at nearly the same age -- like if he had trouble contorting himself into one of the smaller sports cars that he surely owned, or if he also stood next to the marble island in some mansion and got frustrated with the tiny space between the counter and sink.
To be the same height; to also be named Michael; to prefer the shortened Mike; to live near and in Chicago in his late teens and early 20s; to share the ignominy of his hair receding early -- well, Mike Cole was, as he remarked using the words from the famous Gatorade commercial, kind of "like Mike." Still, while he'd never totally forgotten he possessed the ticket to that first game, it wasn't something he thought about much either -- until the overnight demand for his own bit of history was forcing him to have it pried away.
Before he left Sliders to go home and prepare for the neighbors, he placed the manila folder on the table, taking care to avoid getting it greasy with wing sauce. The Jordan ticket wasn't there anymore, of course, and he let the other tickets fall onto the table to show that he didn't save every one and that none of the tickets he kept would be easy to get rid of. A couple of large Final Four tickets, a Wrestlemania II ticket, a World Series ticket. An Orange Bowl ticket his father purchased for OU vs. Washington when the Sooners got penalized after the covered wagon came onto the field and got stuck in the grass. The Rose Bowl ticket when Northwestern lost to USC (the purple pompom from the game back in the memory box). One of the greatest hockey games of all time, the championship of the 2009 Frozen Four that Boston U won in OT not long before his dad had a stroke. In most cases, he never looked at the tickets he'd saved again.
THE NIGHT of Michael Jordan's first regular-season game as a Bull, Chicago Stadium was nearly 60 years old. At that point in its history, before it became the hardest ticket to buy in sports, the place was famous not only for bad basketball but for all of its eccentricities, like the cats that lived there and hunted mice in secret beyond the stands, and the peanut smell of old smoke, and the staircase inside of the walls that literally led to nowhere.
Mike Cole surely would've been one of the 13,900 fans arriving from the streetside, stopping in front of the will-call window through the entrance on the edge of Madison, reaching his hand into the space in front of the teller to retrieve the two tickets. Then going into Gate 5 of the stadium, where an usher ripped one of the tickets into a stub, he had no idea what he would've done except drop it to the ground. He would've taken his place in the second level in the fourth seat from the aisle, among the crowd -- nearly 4,000 short of a sellout -- in Section P, Seat 4, light jacket folded into the seat next to him, Seat 3.
Cole can't remember the standing ovation that lasted 13 seconds as Jordan rose from the bench in team regalia, white jersey with red piping. Jordan almost jumped out of his seat on the bench, the last player to rise and join the others, sidestepping a cheerleader who'd blocked his path onto the court, pumping his fist four times, his older teammates forming a circle around him. From the stands, Cole rustled around to get comfortable in the red wooden seat, rising when Jordan got the very first opening tip of his career and then sitting in disappointment as he came down the court and missed his first shot (rebounded off the back of the iron by Steve Johnson and tipped in).
In comparison to Chicago's Bears and Cubs, the Bulls were awful, but Cole was a Bullets fan there to see Gus Williams and Jeff "McFilthy" Ruland. It sounded ridiculous to admit years later that he couldn't even find anyone from his dorm to go with him -- "It was a Friday night, one month into my freshman year. I have one extra ticket, I live in a hallway with 20 guys, and I'm going to pick one?" Mike said -- and that he'd gone to root for the visiting team.
Jordan missed 11 out of the 16 shots he attempted and was admonished in the lede of Bob Sakamoto's story in the Chicago Tribune the next day, even after scoring 16 points: "We'll forgive you this time, Michael Jordan." Cole was not too far from where Jordan exited the bench to begin his career. He saw Jordan fall, knocked to the ground by McFilthy, and then everyone stood, and then No. 23 got up and walked it off. That was before forces beyond the culture turned Michael Jordan into Michael Jordan, who turned the arena and the city into his own dominion for the next two decades, the dominion of the air.
COLE COULD ONLY wonder what his father would say. About the enticement of a windfall and the publicity of the basement discovery taking precedence over something they'd shared together -- him buying the ticket as a gift and imparting such an opportunity on his son. His father, well, Mike could see his old man, shoulder to shoulder, eye to eye after they marveled at a great play, a few rows from the ice in the Beanpot classic, then close enough to smell the action at the Final Four; the dinners, the jerseys, the plane rides together to some faraway game, their family meals held hostage by the jabber of correcting each other's memories about stats or pivotal points in the action,the ice arenas where they could hear every word they said to each other above the sound of skates on the rink. Maybe letting that ticket go for big money would have been an easy call for most people, but in a part of Mike's mind, it was like placing a price upon his dad.
The ticket demanded a story alongside the experience it had provided, some kind of introspection. It had allowed Mike Cole to be there, after all, at the very beginning, so long before the apotheosis, with Jordan coming onto the court in warmups and dribbling near the center of the floor, almost like he was anyone else.
What was it like, the neighbors were asking him the night of the auction, what were people saying back then about Michael Jordan at 21 years old? Cole struggled to come up with something interesting to say, and the neighbors were disappointed that there weren't a thousand details within reach. And left to wonder, if no one could remember hardly anything about it then, why that game had become so valuable at all. Like the Jordan sneakers, they saw a pair in the same auction as Cole's, game-worn and cracked at the soles, selling for $105,000. That made sense. So, too, his jersey from Game 1 of the 1998 NBA Finals in Utah going for $10.1 million at Sotheby's. The iterations of his basketball cards, in mint condition, worth six figures. But his debut game in 1984 had, until recently, escaped any real part of his mythology, except for a single paragraph of David Halberstam's Playing for Keeps: "[Jeff] Ruland knocked Jordan down hard after a drive, and he hit the floor with a sharp crack."
A company called Globe Ticket, in 1984, printed the tickets, a physical copy for every seat in the house for every game. There were five versions, and Mike Cole ended up with what became the most sought-after, inarguably the prettiest-looking, version the Bulls printed for season-ticket holders with the red border and the Bulls logo and the Chicago Stadium imprint on the front. The other versions were less visually appealing, certainly, the box office versions that were plain blue and flat white with no logo, strange color choices when it came to the Bulls. The fourth ticket type was sold at Ticketron Sears and Carson's store outlets with nothing discernable in the rainbow coloring that had any connection to the team at all. And a fifth version that had been discovered, mistakenly printed with the Chicago Blackhawks' logo.
"A lot of things happened in the last three years that altered the course of the importance in value of these tickets," says Simeon Lipman, a sports memorabilia appraiser for Antiques Roadshow for the last 25 years. "The first thing, the pandemic. The second thing, the demise of Kobe. His death started this nostalgia. The third thing, unbelievably important, was the documentary, 'The Last Dance.' You had all these people who are very nostalgic for a moment in time -- the '80s, '90s, early 2000s, all these kids who are now in their 30s and 40s. The tickets are some of the rarest pieces of ephemera that you can put at the event. What people started to realize, Jordan's debut is top of the mountain as far as tickets are concerned, this unbelievably important piece of ephemera, there's barely any of it out there. People have the basketball card, the Jordan 1s, but not a ticket to his debut game. ... Tickets in general are becoming extinct. People don't have paper tickets anymore. They have it on their phone."
MIKE COLE, alone, had watched "The Last Dance," all 10 parts of it, downstairs in Connecticut. He loved it, an aging man on his own couch taking a bittersweet trip down memory lane. But it wasn't exactly easy viewing for someone who grew up with Jordan as the greatest athlete of all time, the camera lighting that revealed the strange cruelties of the particular way he'd aged. That his face had swollen and his eyes had yellowed almost like they were jaundiced by what all it took to win. That he hadn't appeared to ease into the congeniality of hearing other people recall his life from an older perspective. He still seemed under a kind of duress. All the grudges, maybe, still festering somewhere within. The spiteful laugh as he watched the interviews with former players, lesser men all of them, conquered at his hand years ago. MJ chuckling and fiddling with a cigar. How empty it must've been for him when he played -- the solitude, the giant headphones, everyone an enemy. The never-settled scores, the imaginings he used to motivate himself, the soul-ravening appetite to win a game. The world bursting into the lobby of all those hotels on the road, his couch as prison cell, the alcohol and gambling as soporifics, the sunglasses as simulacrum of personal space.
Cole had watched the documentary in the same living room where he and his neighbors were now gathered as the auction crossed into 11 p.m., and then midnight. Cole bug-eyed, beyond exhaustion into an anxious delirium, the ticket on the screen reflecting in the lenses of his frameless glasses. "This is the first time you can ever buy this!" he said to no one in particular. "This is the only one in existence. That's the importance! The shoes, the jerseys ... this has a different cachet."
The neighbors ribbed Kristen into admitting marrying Mike had finally paid off. "Did you foresee this investment?" "Was all that time, and years with him, worth it now?"
"If it gets to a million, Mike has to drink the whole bottle!"
"We're all going to Michael Jordan's restaurant for dinner!"
"You need to send an email to Michael Jordan in some way, and say, 'Hey, I have your ticket,' Identify if you're the seller, and, hey, if Jordan responds ..."
Eventually, as the auction lagged, the neighbors left, the room quieted and Mike and Kristen toasted each other. It was 1 a.m.
"In another 50 years, we're going to have ... an unopened Justin Bieber electric toothbrush to sell!" Mike said.
FOR A COUPLE HOURS after their neighbors went home, Kristen sat on the couch with her husband, imagining a young, dorky Mike Cole in his dorm room making a then-meaningless decision to stash the ticket. The dogs were asleep, the Fireball bottles empty, the cul-de-sac black in the nighttime except for little halos of the streetlights. Finally, they went to bed; the auction, still going, seemed like it would probably keep going forever.
Mike overslept that morning and kept hitting snooze on his phone. Kristen had been up earlier and was so tempted to look, but she waited so that her husband could be first. Finally, he woke up, and when he opened the Heritage app, he discovered the ticket had sold at 3 a.m. for $468,000, becoming one of the highest prices paid for a ticket from a sporting event.
"The happiness is incredible, but I definitely have the feeling of, I can now get back to my life," Mike said at breakfast, over pancakes, which meant trying to figure out the best way to get the kids through college and save money for early retirement. "The beauty of this, for me, is it'll allow us to chip away."
The money arrived as a lump sum in the mail in a FedEx package from Heritage on March 20, in the form of a single check. When Mike took it to his local Wells Fargo to deposit it in person, almost $430,000, he handed it to the teller and felt that he should explain: "Are you interested to know why I'm able to pay off my mortgage today?" he asked.
"OK ..." the teller said.
"Are you a basketball fan?" he asked. "I imagine you've heard of Michael Jordan ..."
A few months after the auction, he really started to wonder if he made the wrong decision, almost to the point of paranoia. This became a type of torture, the second-guessing, the looking at other stubs at auction that had surfaced since his ticket sold and checking the prices of each -- he'd made some kind of mistake, and now there was no way to go back and recoup something priceless. "I'm a panicker," he admitted. "Should I have waited?" There was again the knowledge of his father calling to purchase the tickets as a surprise, to expand his worldview, as a way to get him out of the dorm and into the big city freshman year.
Was it priceless, though? He would obsess about this question at Quinnipiac, where he'd gone back to work Monday after the sale and become just another coworker again; a couple of people who saw the news told him congratulations, that's exciting, in passing. Or when they took friends out to dinner and Mike picked up the bill with an expanded bank account, which he tried to assure anyone who was close to them would not become a habit. "My generosity cannot continue," he laughed. "They've known that's not my character."
"I feel good," Mike said in May. "The sale of the ticket is yesterday's news to most, which is fine by me."
"You know, being 55, I don't have the time anymore to worry about this," he said. "It's just a piece of paper."
THE TICKET's importance wasn't lost on the two brothers who went in together to purchase it from Heritage Auctions, both in their 30s and residing in Miami. Cole's assumption was that whoever bought it would be looking to expand his or her portfolio, to make an investment, plain and simple. That it wouldn't be a real Jordan fan, at all, which was a thought that verged, for him, on disgust. But though the buyer(s) had listed the ticket immediately for sale after purchase (for nearly $700,000), and were businessmen of some capacity and means, he was wrong, partly. One of the brothers wrote to ESPN through an intermediary that he'd "gotten into" tickets as a collectors' item. But this particular one, Cole's ticket, the attractiveness of it, the red in the Bulls logo, the Chicago Stadium imprint in the middle, that it was completely intact, he was obsessed about "what it meant," even though "nothing special necessarily happened" during the course of that game.
The buyer mentioned "nostalgia" for that era of the NBA, for the players, the uniforms, the shoes, the commercials, for Mars Blackmon and Spike Lee. For a youth spent learning the game through Jordan. "This ticket is the Michael Jordan collectible of the ticket world!" he wrote. The buyer wanted it known that as a kid he had come to understand basketball through MJ, and, like everyone else, wanted to be "like Mike." As the neighbors in Mike Cole's house laughed and drank and then went back to their own homes, the buyer bidding on the ticket found the experience "nerve-wracking," and was awake near dawn on the Eastern seaboard, raising his price every 30 minutes each time he was outbid.
The buyer admitted, "I would've spent a million dollars to own it, if that's what it took."
WHEN JORDAN WAS YOUNG, he had a townhouse in Northbrook, Illinois, in 1984, when the team was training at Angel Guardian Gym, a former orphanage where the Bulls practiced. In his youth, he was circumspect and loyal and played golf without betting thousands on a round. His mother did his laundry and folded his clothes.
On the day of his first NBA game, he would've taken the Edens Expressway to the Kennedy, and pulled off at Ogden Avenue downtown near Chicago Stadium, where in the years to come, a group of young kids stuck around all day just to watch him drive by. Even when he was the most famous person in the world, he would still stop to talk to them before games and leave them tickets. He had a deal with Chicagoland Chevrolet in those early years, and he also owned a Corvette. It scared the team because he drove too fast.
On Oct. 26, he would've pulled it into the West lot, off Wolcott Avenue, the player's lot, and entered Gate 3½, and began the first routine of getting dressed in the bowels of the stadium. And though it wasn't a sellout and hardly anyone seemed to remember, the game was a precursor in the beauty of how he moved and the ease of the ball gravitating toward him, a thing of infancy but there already. A theatrical twist to snare a rebound, cutting through all five Bullets as he came down the floor as though nothing could impede his desire to score. Then jumping in the air, hanging and making a no-look pass to Dave Corzine. The older players, such as point guard Ennis Whatley, who was the last Bull introduced before Jordan, surely took note of the crowd's reaction, the sound rising as Jordan came off the bench, the ovation for him alone. At one moment, Jordan took the ball on the baseline and did something that he would become famous for -- a move to his left to fake out Dudley Bradley and then jerking to his right on the baseline and fading away, hitting the shot while getting fouled.
There would be people in the stands who would somehow keep a ticket, including one man who would use some of the money he got from selling it to buy his wife a bike trip in Italy. A husband and wife who normally took vacations dictated by hotel points splurged: They bought padded bike shorts and biking attire, and a package that included fancy meals, though they didn't go all the way and fly first class. In late September of last year, they biked 30 miles a day in the Dolomites in Northern Italy, in their 50s and the youngest people on the trip. There were 18 Americans, afforded a wine tasting with a mountain view, a cheese tasting at a dairy.
They stopped one day in a village in the area of South Tyrol that was preparing an Oktoberfest, a tall man awkwardly dancing to German music and eating Bratwurst in the town square. Everyone remarking about his height. In the course of the trip, the attendees got to know one another, and someone inquired why the couple was there. In rural Italy, the husband, tall and tan, said, "Are you a basketball fan ...?"