How fast was Michael Jordan, really?

May 11, 2020

At one point in The Last Dance, North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams claimed he witnessed Michael Jordan running a 4.38-second 40-yard dash, which would be amazing today for a guy who’s at least 6-foot-5, let alone in the early ’80s. The New York Times reported a similar story back in 1983, so let’s say Jordan likely ran a hand-timed 4.3 or 4.4.

I don't believe he was that fast.

There has to be a better way to measure Jordan’s speed than anecdotes about hand-timed 40-yard dash times recounted in the service of fluffing up a great athlete’s legend. With a little digging, I think I’ve found a way to tell if Jordan was legendarily fast or if he was merely fast for an early ’80s college basketball player. (Spoiler alert: He was not legendarily fast.)

I couldn’t find any footage of him running straight-line sprints in a timed situation, and measuring footage of him on a basketball court — like, say, on a breakaway — can’t be measured against something else that’s more precise because he’d rarely be going in a straight line or in any pattern that measures his top sprint speed. However, there is one thing Jordan did in which he put in full athletic effort that allows us to start comparing his speed against precisely-measured athletes from today: baseball.

In the fall of 1994, after Jordan hit .202/.289/.266 for Class-AA Birmingham, he also played in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .255 and, according to eyewitnesses looking back, started to show real improvement and promise to be a Major League-quality outfielder. Luckily for us, Jordan hit a triple in a televised game, someone recorded that game, and that recording made its way to YouTube.

Since 2014, Major League Baseball has measured on-field player performance with Statcast, a system that uses radar and cameras to capture things like spin rate on pitches, the launch angle of balls coming off the bat, and players’ top foot speed. While there’s no easily-accessible list of top home-to-third times, has sporadically published lists of the fastest triples, and in 2016 mentioned that the MLB average home-to-third time was 12.01 seconds.

As best I can tell, the fastest triple recorded by Statcast was in 2016, when Billy Hamilton took 10.45 seconds (start video at 2:09) from the moment the ball hit his bat until he touched third base. Brett Gardner hit a triple in August 2018 in which he touched third base 10.92 seconds after contact, and, according to an writer on Twitter, that was the fastest triple by a Yankee in the Statcast era. Shohei Ohtani, who’s listed at 6-foot-4, hit a triple in 2019 and took 11.09 seconds to reach third.

Timing a player from home to third is an imperfect approximation of speed because, in many cases, a player doesn’t sprint hard out of the box. All the players listed above were hitting left-handed, too, giving them a step or two advantage over right-handed hitters. For one example of how all this works, see Kris Bryant’s triple from May 12, 2015. It turns out he took 13.77 seconds to go from home to third, which is slower than the average triple time for the 2016 season I noted above. However, his top speed on that play was actually faster than the top speed Dee Gordon achieved on another triple hit that year.

Bryant is listed at 6-foot-5, and his top foot speed in 2015 was listed at 28.6 feet per second, #73 in MLB, according to Statcast. Aaron Judge is 6-foot-7, and he came in at 28.2 feet per second in 2019. Ohtani clocked in at 28.2 feet per second this past year. Avisail Garcia and Cody Bellinger, both 6-foot-4, reached 28.8 feet per second. Those guys appear to be the fastest of the taller MLB players. The very fastest eight MLB players in 2019 reached or exceeded 30 feet per second, and none of them are listed as taller than 6-foot-2.

As you might expect, there’s plenty of overlap between the fastest top speed guys and the ones who are fastest on home-to-first runs. There were 116 MLB players with at least 10 attempts who measured out as 4.0 seconds or faster from home to first out of the right-hand box, and Judge and Avisail Garcia are among them. Bryant is just short at 4.02 seconds.

Judge is an interesting comparison to Jordan because he’s a hulking slugger who generally isn’t thought of as “fast” but is absolutely an all-around athlete. He’s hit four career triples, and the most applicable for a comparison is probably the one he hit on June 16, 2017, in Oakland against the Athletics, because it was a line drive to right-center and he did not appear to think he had a home run off the bat (start video at 2:45). He took a full swing, for sure, and did not break out of the box as fast as Jordan did, but he appeared to be sprinting the whole way.

I downloaded the video, put it in a video editor, and timed Judge’s triple by the frame. Note: This is INCREDIBLY IMPRECISE. It would be nice to see the Statcast measurement for that specific triple, but that’s not easily available, so this is my INCREDIBLY IMPRECISE next-best choice. Anyway, by my INCREDIBLY IMPRECISE reckoning, Judge reached third base 12 seconds flat after making contact with the ball. Specifically, in the 30 fps video, he made contact at 2:48 and 12 frames, then touched third at 3:00 and 12 frames.

Just as interesting for our purposes, I think, the video shows Judge touching second base at 2:56 and 25 frames, which means he went from second to third in 3 seconds and 17 frames, or VERY ROUGHLY 3.57 seconds, which, depending on how how many feet you think he actually covered between second and third, probably comes out to right about 28 feet per second, which matches up with his Statcast data.

Now, for Jordan’s triple. I downloaded the video and put it in the editor in order to get an INCREDIBLY IMPRECISE ESTIMATE of how fast he ran in a competitive situation. I also gave him every benefit of my estimates, by which I mean I wasn’t sure which of two frames (covering nearly a tenth of a second, an eternity for this exercise) showed contact with the ball, so I chose the later one.

Here’s what I saw: Jordan makes contact at 1:20 and 10 frames, and tears out of the box. The video cuts to the outfield, so we don’t see him touching first base. It cuts back to him between first and second, but cuts away before he touches second base. It gets back to him as he sprints for third, legs flailing behind him in a surprisingly wild way, and he dives into third base, touching the bag at 1:31 and 15 frames, or VERY ROUGHLY 11.17 seconds after making contact.

I want to emphasize that this is fast in not only general human terms, but athlete terms, which we knew from watching him play basketball and noting that he stole 30 bases in 127 minor league games. How does it match up against present-day Major Leaguers? Mike Trout hit a triple in 2015 that was similar to Jordan’s in that he also busted it out of the right-hand box and dove into third. Statcast measured him at 11.01 seconds from contact to touching the base. Lorenzo Cain has been one of the faster players in MLB for a while; in 2015 Statcast ranked him as the 45th-fastest player in the league by sprint speed. That August, he yanked a ball down the left-field line and reached third base 11.5 seconds later.

While it would have been nice to see Jordan touch each base, we can do an INCREDIBLY IMPRECISE estimate of his top sprint speed. Working backward from what Statcast tells us about how Major League players run the bases, plus a HUGE ASSUMPTION, it becomes a basic algebra problem.

The HUGE ASSUMPTION, which works in Jordan’s favor, is to assume he had a 4.0-second home-to-first time. Based on the video, he was probably a bit faster than that, even on this play, but, again, I’m giving him every benefit here. So, assume he ran from home to first in 4.0 seconds. That means he ran from first to third (starting from a sprint) in 7.17 seconds. Part of this INCREDIBLY IMPRECISE estimate is to make another assumption, based on how Statcast has measured MLB baserunners, that Jordan covered about 200 feet from first to third, and that he did so at basically a full sprint until he dove. That gives us 200 feet divided by 7.17 seconds for 27.9 feet per second. Kick it up to 28.0 or 28.1 or 28.2 or whatever you like because he dove — that’s faster than the MLB average, but it’s hardly elite. (Note that if we assumed the guy who blew by top perimeter defenders off the dribble from a standstill had run from home to first in 3.9 seconds, that would have dropped his top sprint speed.)

Even without knowing precisely how many feet he covered in his trek from home to third that fall night in 1994, I think it’s fair to say that at age 31, Michael Jordan would be among the faster half of today’s Major League Baseball players, and one of the four or five fastest players 6-foot-4 or taller.

You can compare that extrapolated sprint speed to players from the 2019 Statcast leaderboard, and see it matches up with guys like Jonathan Villar, Mookie Betts, Ketel Marte… and Aaron Judge and Kris Bryant. If you’re generous, you could bump Jordan up a tier so he’s there with Christian Yelich, Javy Baez and Adam Eaton. And if you’re extra generous and squint a bit, you could see him being as fast as guys like Manny Margot, Fernando Tatis, Jr., or Brett Gardner. He wasn’t nearly as fast as Trea Turner, Byron Buxton, or Billy Hamilton. Give him extra credit for being that fast 25 years ago, when he would’ve smoked guys like Jim Thome in a footrace, but at the same time I think we can be sure he would not have been among the elite fastest guys.

Which brings us back to that 4.38 40-yard dash time. Obviously, I can’t disprove it happened, but I can certainly speculate about what transpired. I’m guessing Jordan ran on a track and that it was hand-timed, both start and finish. I’m also guessing the timer(s) really did record a 4.38. But because hand timing is notorious for producing faster apparent speeds, we should probably add at least another 0.2 seconds to Jordan’s time to get a better idea of his “true” 40-yard dash time, the time that would have been recorded with electronic equipment.

Running a 4.60 40 is still fantastic! Assuming 40 yards is short enough that the final 10 yards (30 feet) would be run at full speed, someone whose top sprint speed is 30 feet per second would have to run the first 30 yards (90 feet) in 3.6 seconds.

There's another group of athletes we can check to see how likely it is Jordan ran that fast as a 20-year-old. The 2000 NFL combine is the oldest one with data on Pro Football Reference. A 4.38 time would have been the fourth-fastest that year, among all players. Plaxico Burress was the only guy listed at 6-foot-5 or taller who ran faster than 4.78, and he clocked a 4.59. Brian Urlacher also ran 4.59 in the 40. Shaun Alexander and Jamal Lewis both ran a 4.58. LaVar Arrington ran a 4.53. Keith Bulluck was the fastest linebacker with a 4.47. For his size, an athlete Jordan's height running a 4.60 would have been impressive alongside those elite athletes, and even more so given that he was transported from 17 years earlier.

Anyway, Jordan’s 40-yard sprint speed wasn’t what made him athletically superior to virtually every other NBA player of his era; it was his short-space explosiveness, tremendous balance, and leaping ability, all paired with high basketball IQ and extreme (sociopathic?) competitiveness. Being able to sprint stride for stride with Kris Bryant is absolutely not an insult in any way, shape, or form, and we don’t need to exaggerate his athleticism to have a conversation about his relative greatness.