Part II: Prequel -- The Early Years, page 2
The conventional wisdom in 1984 was clear: You needed a center to win. Jordan was great; twice named the college player of the year. But, he wasn’t a center.
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“Olajuwon was the big surprise,” Thorn said after the draft. “We wish he were seven-feet tall, but he isn’t. There just wasn’t a center available. What can you do?”
And it’s not like Jerry Reinsdorf knew, either.
Reinsdorf knew Jordan was good. He was a baseball guy, but also a basketball fan. He loved the New York Knicks teams of the early 1970s and shared a season ticket to the Bulls games in the 1970s because his son Michael, now an alternate NBA governor for the Bulls, liked basketball.
Reinsdorf had gotten involved as a minority investor in failed efforts to purchase the San Francisco Giants and later the New York Mets. He was having lunch one day with fellow baseball owner George Steinbrenner, who happened to be one of seven major owners of the Bulls. Steinbrenner, as usual, was complaining about the mess the Bulls were and Reinsdorf said he’d be interested in owning the team. There were potential equities of scale and who knows if he’d be able to hang onto the Sox in the volatile baseball world. He wanted to remain in professional sports. “Are you serious?” Steinbrenner wondered. Reinsdorf was. He soon got a call from Bulls principal Lester Crown.
Reinsdorf put together a group of 24 investors to purchase about 60 percent of the franchise, then selling for about $16 million. Reinsdorf didn’t know that much about basketball, but he knew what he liked, that Knicks team based on defense and ball movement.
Reinsdorf used to complain to Phil Jackson about the Bulls’ relatively poor free throw shooting in those championship seasons and Jackson used to joke with him that free throw shooting was all he’d hear about from the short Jewish guys since that was all they could ever do in basketball.
Reinsdorf sealed the deal with the Bulls owners before Jordan had played his first regular season NBA game. But there had been an anti-trust suit against the team, which the owners needed to settle. So Reinsdorf didn’t officially take control until March of 1985.
Frankly, there was little reason most of his young life to believe Michael Jordan ever would play in the NBA.
Jordan was born in Brooklyn, but only because his dad, James, was attending a General Electric training school at the time in New York. It was a simple family. His mom, Deloris, was a bank teller and James a forklift operator who eventually became a supervisor.
There were five kids and older brother Larry was the one Michael idolized. Jordan wore Larry’s No. 45 when he was a junior varsity player and then switched to No. 23 when they played together, a tribute to Larry by taking approximately half his number. When Jordan returned to basketball in 1995 after a brief retirement, Jordan wore No. 45 for a time. Their father, James, would always tell Michael years later Larry really was the better player. He just stopped growing at 5-8.
Mike was mischievous, relating a story years later on the David Letterman show of chopping wood with an axe while barefoot and getting his big toe. Ouch. That little piggy was saved, though. He was the kind of kid if you told him the stove was hot, he’d feel it. He was like the old story about the guy who’d believe there were 40 billion stars but if you told him there was wet paint he’d have to touch it and check. Michael took everything as a challenge. But he was respectful and polite, always, the product of a solid upbringing. In 1993, Jordan actually received a best mannered award from the National League of Junior Cotillions. As a first grader at Ogden Elementary School he won an award for perfect attendance and at Virgo Middle School won an award for best sense of humor.
Like most kids, Jordan played ball and stuck with baseball as much as basketball through ninth grade.
Though mocked by some later when he would try professional baseball, Jordan was an awfully good baseball player as a kid and named one baseball association’s North Carolina Mr. Baseball as a 12-year-old. Once in high school as an outfielder and pitcher, he had a streak of 42 consecutive scoreless innings. Jordan threw several no-hitters and was one game shy of leading his team to the Little League World Series. He fired a two-hitter but lost 1-0 in the Eastern Regional final
When Jordan tried baseball in 1994, it was no joke. James always thought that was Michael’s best sport, but Mike loved the higher level of competition and immediacy of basketball.
And the way he could jump helped more in basketball.
There’s the famous story of Jordan not making the varsity basketball team in 10th grade. Jordan didn’t make the list of the nation’s top 300 prospects published before his senior year. In Jordan's two varsity seasons at Laney High School, his teams went 13-10 and 19-4. An upset in the regional tournament ended Jordan's senior year. Jordan buddy Buzz Peterson was invited to the prestigious Five Star basketball camp in Pittsburgh and Jordan wasn’t that senior year. Then Carolina assistant Roy Williams recommended Jordan, and Jordan got an invite. He was offered a job waiting tables for expenses. Jordan would begin to come fast as a senior and had 30 points in the McDonald’s all star game. But the key for him was that Five Star camp as he won five trophies the first week. So he was invited back for the second week amidst coaches finally taking notice and winning another four awards. Jordan has called that experience “the turning point of my life.”
Jordan, like a lot of North Carolina kids in that era, admired fabulous dunker David Thompson and wanted to attend North Carolina State. But they were in some disarray and Jordan decided on Virginia because of Ralph Sampson. They never got back to him. Jordan reluctantly decided to visit North Carolina, his mom’s choice, and by then had developed Thompson’s repertoire, which intrigued North Carolina. Jordan still was not regarded as a big time prospect, and the talk back home in Wilmington was that no one from there ever made the jump to big time Division I ball and Jordan probably would be a bench warmer for his career there.
But Michael still was challenging authority. The team had James Worthy and Sam Perkins, and Jordan was voted by the upperclassmen cockiest freshman for his trash talking. And like he would as an NBA star, Jordan began backing up his talk immediately, earning his way into the starting lineup during fall practice. He had this mix of outward bravado and interior insecurity, though he’d do things that surprised him and continued to build his confidence.
He recalled playing a pickup game when he first came to Carolina against star Al Wood and a seven-footer, Geoff Compton. Wood was defending Jordan on a drive and Compton moved to double team and cut off Jordan on the way to the basket. “I went up and thought I was trapped,” as Jordan liked to tell the story. “But I just kept going up and dunked over both of them. When I came down, I said, ‘Was that really me?’”
That story always reminded me of one of my favorite Jordan stories. It was a game in Milwaukee some years later and Jordan drove into a hard double team and missed. Having rolled to the basket, Bill Cartwright was open and would later ask Jordan why he didn’t pass because he was double teamed. “One was Fred Roberts,” Jordan explained.
He’d become so good double teams were routine.
And, as we all know, back to that freshman year at North Carolina, that season would end with the freshman taking and hitting the win shot for the 1982 NCAA championship.
It was the start. He had become Michael Jordan.
And if anyone needed a star, it was the Bulls franchise, poorly run on and off the court since the mid 1970s. The team had a wonderful run in the early 1970s with Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier, Bob Love and Chet Walker. But they never made a Finals appearance and came apart after blowing a 3-2 lead in the 1975 conference finals to eventual champion Golden State.
The franchise had become a laughingstock of losses, pathetic play and strange personnel decisions. There was the infamous “astronaut draft” when the team in 1977 picked Mike Glenn, Tate Armstrong and Steve Sheppard, none of whom would help the Bulls blast off.
There actually was a nice late run in 1977 after the Bulls got Artis Gilmore in the expansion draft and even a playoff series win in 1981 with Sloan as coach, though Sloan would be fired before the end of the following season with GM Rod Thorn coaching the last 30 games.
Sloan also is going into the Hall of Fame in the Class of ’09 and had success in Utah with the Jazz as he matured. I remember the fiery, young Sloan with the Bulls. One of my favorites was the time he tossed a chair at Larry Kenon in the locker room well before Bobby Knight thought he invented it. I’m quite sure Kenon deserved it and it was Sloan lobbying management then for free agent Bernard King, who went on to an All Star resurgence. Management opted for Kenon.
The drafts were a consistent disaster: Ronnie Lester after he blew out his knee in his final college game; Orlando Woolridge, soon to go into drug rehab, Quentin Dailey, also headed for rehab and after an assault on a student nurse.
There was the race for Olajuwon.
And then came Mr. Jordan.
Bulls attendance averaged slightly above 6,000 in the 1983-84 season. The last month the team was averaging about 4,000 per game. That was announced paid. There often were fewer than 1,000 in the building. The Bulls began an advertising campaign, “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” from the 1941 film of the boxer mistakenly going before his time. It was quickly Michael’s time.
Thorn recalls having missed the Bulls first practice that preseason. Bill Blair, then an assistant with the Bulls, called Thorn shortly afterward.
“Well,” Blair said, “you finally didn’t screw up the draft.”