Michael Jordan Hall of Fame | Introduction, page 2
Over the next few weeks leading up to Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame induction, Sam Smith will be recounting those wonderful, unforgettable, historic Jordan years. We’ll never see anything like him and that team again here, and maybe no one will ever anyw
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So he took home economics classes in high school because he figured he’d be single. Basketball as a living wasn’t on the radar. And we all know the famous story of being kept off the varsity high school team as a sophomore as they needed a big guy instead. He was no prodigy and it didn’t seem in the genes as older brother Larry was about 5-9 and the athletic star at home.
The ironing board, I thought, was a bit manufactured for image and color for the story, though Jordan had taken the class and had been shy. All that was long past and he was a beautiful man by then with great confidence and self assurance. Naomi Sims, the pioneering black cover girl who became known for the “black is beautiful” look, died in early August at 61. If there was a man for that title, it was Michael Jordan.
Playing by Jordan’s rules
I liked to call Jordan a “man’s man” because he was fun to be around. I was hardly a close friend, but before I wrote “The Jordan Rules” book, which distanced us afterward, I’d be around him often traveling with the team. Like his dad and best friend, James, would joke, Michael had a competition problem. Everything was a contest, so there always was a game of sort to be played. Jordan hardly needed a basketball court.
Jordan wasn’t close with a lot of his teammates back then, in part from his first group with so many drug users. Perhaps a third of the roster in Jordan’s rookie season eventually went into drug rehab. Though it long changed as his celebrity grew, Jordan then liked being around reporters. He had three buddies, two named Fred, one still with him, Fred Whitfield, and a playful con man named Adolph. When they weren’t on trips, he’d often invite the writers to hang out and play cards or ping pong or some game. My buddy from the Sun-Times, Lacy Banks, was better at those games than I was and often was in some heated battles with Jordan, who loved the trash talking and taunting throughout. Life was one big contest.
I’m often asked about writing “The Jordan Rules” and how Jordan reacted. He was pretty angry, though I thought more over the media overreaction at the time. It sold a lot of books, but made life uncomfortable with local reporters screaming it would all ruin the Bulls’ future. I recall one local Chicago anchor doing one of those live shots when they walk around in a snow storm to show you it’s snowing. He was kicking the book down a sewer. The Bulls, however, knew the story before I did, and it hardly affected anyone. The team, of course, won five more championships afterward. I’m proud of the way the book has held up and think now, as I thought then, when examined in context, it showed Jordan as a fully developed human being with positives and negatives. So what? But Jordan had been projected to have such a perfect image with the all-American companies his representatives cleverly associated him with, the fact he made fun of teammates seemed a shock. It has since been taken for granted as his competitive instincts and leadership that enabled the team to overcome so much and win.
Jordan was upset because he thought it would destroy his image. That carefully cultivated image, while profitable, also hung over Jordan like a dead weight. I remember once talking to him about things he feared, figuring he’d mention death or serious injury. He mentioned swimming since he said he couldn’t and feared the water as he’d once seen a friend drown. But he also mentioned something happening and it staining his image as a major fear. I was a bit taken aback. He talked about a recurring nightmare about having done something embarrassing or improper, like using drugs or drinking inappropriately.
“It’s a nightmare of me doing something that would destroy people’s dreams or conceptions of me,” Jordan said. “What if I make a mistake and let everyone down, change what they think if me? It’s the biggest fear I have.”
But when it became clear there was no chance of that ever occurring with the book and during and after the debate about the book the acclaim for Jordan only grew greater, there was sort of a rapprochement. Actually, it seemed no matter what he did, people found a way to love and admire him more. He blew off a team trip to the White House in 1991, saying he had a family vacation planned and, instead, going on a gambling weekend that included convicted felons and the majority of the mail I received was wondering why the media was making it such a big deal.
Leave him alone, people demanded.
They talked at times about Teflon politicians, like Ronald Reagan. But no matter what Jordan did, people wanted to love and believe in him. He made it easy with a boyish charm and athletic gifts that were unworldly.
For me with Jordan, gone was the joking and small talk I would have with him. But I always gave him credit with the professional way he dealt with me thereafter. I was hardly going to win any popularity contests or debates with Michael Jordan. But Jordan always answered me professionally in group sessions, offering full eye contact and never backing off or backing away from responding. He didn’t need to. His upbringing wouldn’t allow him to be a low life.
Avoiding the limelight
I also found—as I know after having dealt with many famous people—that the better ones don’t want to be fawned over. Jordan never did, which is one reason why he eschews so much public contact. He knows who he is and what he’s done. He doesn’t need the adoring crowds. He actually prefers the fight.
I often tell the story of how Jordan mocked Bill Cartwright because he was unhappy with the trade of his best buddy Charles Oakley for Cartwright until Cartwright stood up to Jordan and quietly offered to fight. I used to delight in telling Jordan about his missed shots or shooting slumps or who was giving him trouble on defense. He’d love to go out and beat that guy or make 10 straight shots. See, see. From the beginning, he reveled in the contest.
I remember once playing golf with Jordan. He was better than I was, though not nearly as good as he wanted to be. He actually talked about joining the senior tour one day, which touring pros doubted. But that was Jordan’s confidence. And he was pretty good. He played one summer in five tournaments in a now defunct tour set up for famous people known as the Celebrity Golf Association. Jordan averaged 79.8 per round in the five tournaments. Not senior tour stuff, but pretty good in front of a crowd.
I remember on the range him complaining about his swing being so messed up because every time he showed up to play the pro was usually so excited he’d run out to offer a tip or a lesson and Michael didn’t want to seem ungrateful. He said he had a million conflicting tips running through his head all the time. He insisted on gambling and this being the 80’s, I was making about $25,000. He was still on that rookie deal making about $1 million. I think he wanted to play for $100 a hole. Having been trained in college as an accountant, I said I couldn’t afford that since he wasn’t giving strokes. But I said I would play by a proportion of my salary to his. He offered me an editorial comment and we didn’t talk the first three holes. He hit the ball all over the place. He went into the woods and played back from everywhere, but he was really good around the greens.
Though the real joy was watching him play basketball.
With playoffs and All-Star games, Jordan played in more than 1,200 NBA games. I figure I attended and wrote about at least half. It’s difficult to identify and realize history when you are sitting through it. It is your routine, your job, your passion. Jordan played because that’s what he did, what he was best at and what he enjoyed the most. You knew you were seeing something special, but you never quite realize at the time the magnitude of what you are witnessing.
Over the next few weeks leading up to the Hall of Fame induction, I’ll be recounting those wonderful, unforgettable, historic Jordan years. Know this: We’ll never see anything like him and that team again here, and maybe no one will ever anywhere. It was a joy to experience and I’m pleased to be able to share those memories.