ESPN’s stellar docuseries The Last Dance has renewed interest in Michael Jordan, and with that comes a fresh round of unbelievable stories and tall tales about No. 23. The latest comes from University of North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who claims he witnessed Jordan run a 4.38-second 40-yard dash in 1982. It’s easy to brush that off as impossible, but it turns out there’s more to this than one Williams’ quote.
The best metric we have for evaluating the quickness of 40 times is the NFL Scouting Combine. In 2020 only four players ran times faster than Jordan’s purported 4.38, which puts him on par with Baylor wide receiver Denzel Mims — one of the quickest players who entered the NFL this year. That 4.38 time is also faster than some of the biggest names in the NFL, including Christian McCaffery (4.49), Amari Cooper (4.42), and Jalen Ramsey (4.41).
Conventional wisdom dictates that the taller a player is, the more difficult it is to set a quick time in the 40. The longer gait of tall runners makes them more suited to sprints longer than 40 yards, which is often referenced to overlook slower-than-ideal times from receivers like Mike Evans, who is 6’5 and ran a 4.53, or A.J. Green, who ran a 4.50 at 6’4. That makes the likelihood of the 6’6 Jordan running a 4.38 even more implausable.
However, despite these factors being stacked against Jordan, there is a lot of evidence this actually took place. Williams himself has been referencing the storied “Jordan 40” for years, not just in the wake of The Last Dance. As far back at 1983, the New York Times wrote about Jordan, introducing him to the world, and referencing his speed, saying:
“He is a well-proportioned, 6-foot-6-inch, 190-pounder who can play either guard or forward. He is fast, having run the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds. He is strong and a good jumper, which enables him to play against forwards a few inches taller.”
Considering the 40 wasn’t scrutinized as heavily in the 1980s as it is today, we can safely assume the story is referring to the same 4.38 that Williams is now. They just rounded down in the copy for ease of reading. It’s best to use this as an assumption, because if we go down the rabbit hole of trying to see if Jordan ran a 4.30, well, that does seem impossible.
The subject of Jordan’s speed has been debated for years on the internet. Largely stemming from comparisons against Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, sports fans have debated who is fastest legendary player in NBA history for some time — with it generally being accepted Jordan was the quickest.
The wild card in this discussion comes buried deep inside a 2009 thread on Inside Hoops by a user who derided fellow posters for doubting Jordan’s ability, and referring to them as “kids.”
“I saw him run a 4.3 live on TV, he had a 48” vertical which he displayed live on TV, and he also threw a football over 60 yards.
It was a special event that was run by Deion Sanders. I guess a lot of you Johnny come latelys have a lot to learn.”
There is no evidence of this special existing. That’s not to say it didn’t happen, but there’s just no video of Jordan running a 40-yard dash on live TV in a way that could be referenced. A 2013 Sports Science special on ESPN mentioned Jordan’s quickness with the ball in a comparison with Bo Jackson, but didn’t allude to any 40 time being run on live TV, which surely would have been used, had it existed.
We’re left, sadly, with a big shrug. Logic tells us that the likelihood of a 4.38-second Jordan 40 is nearly impossible, but there is anecdotal and recorded evidence that it happened. There’s more to this than just Williams making up a story for radio, but not enough for us to definitively say it happened. And maybe that’s for the best. The greatest legends are sometimes those which can’t be verified. If this contributed to the mythos behind Jordan, then perhaps it’s best we don’t fully know whether it’s true.