Once a kid, Jordan played for the love of the game

What I remember most fondly is the kid.

There was the so-called “Love of the Game” clause in Michael Jordan’s first NBA contract, the insecurities like everyone else had and the uncertainties when he first walked into the old Angel Guardian gym on the north side with the concrete under the basketball floor, and the intense competitiveness we all came to admire and respect. Though mostly it was the joy of just playing, like he didn’t have to grow up.

Michael Jordan turns 50

Michael Jordan turns 50 | From the archives:
-- Jordan enters HOF in 2009
-- First two titles, 20 years later: 1991 & 1992

“The best time of my life,” I remember Michael Jordan telling me that rookie season in 1984-85 about life in the NBA with a not very good Bulls team and many not very upstanding teammates.

Every day, though, it was just playing, basketball and more basketball, practice and the games. Oh, the thrill of the games, and finding out he really could be as special as he hoped he might be and they said he would be. And the games never ended, the ping pong tournaments with his buddy Rod Higgins to the fierce card games well into the night with his North Carolina trio of old friends who occasionally joined him on road trips, Fred Whitfield, Fred Kerns and Adolph Shiver.

It doesn’t seem that long ago, but it sounds so much so now as Jordan Sunday turns 50 years old. Michael Jordan can get an AARP card. How about that? I’m guessing he doesn’t yet ask for the senior citizen discount at McDonald’s.

Michael Jordan

“The best time of my life,” Sam Smith remembers Michael Jordan telling him that rookie season in 1984-85 about life in the NBA with a not very good Bulls team and many not very upstanding teammates.
(NBAE/Getty Images)

Perhaps it’s best for all of us that Jordan keeps such a low profile as owner of the Charlotte Bobcats and still a famous commercial spokesman. He’s forever young in our memories with lasting images of game-winning thrills, the big shots against the Cavs and the Jazz, the mud wrestling endurance tests against the Pistons and Knicks, the tragedy, drama and controversies.

But it is the kid who doubtlessly still lives within the man that captivated us all so much with not so much a transcendent skill and drive but playful and enthusiastic love of the game, the competition and the theater of it all.

You smiled watching Jordan play not so much because of the dunks and drives and shots, but with the thrill it gave him as much as the rest of us, to deliver the act of play as performance art and children’s’ games, both innocent and appealing.

I had the good fortune to begin writing seriously about the NBA around the time Jordan came to the Bulls. In fact, before Michael’s first season started, I went out to spend an afternoon with him for a freelance feature I was writing for US magazine. I arrived at Jordan’s Northbrook townhouse, a brick two story, to find an ironing board standing in the living room to the left of the TV console. As someone whose idea of ironing was folded or hangars at the cleaners, I laughed when I saw it and asked Jordan if it was a setup for the interview.

No, he insisted innocently enough. He ironed his clothes. Saving a few bucks, I wondered?

Jordan had signed a seven-year $6.3 million rookie contract, huge for that time as I was making about $25,000 annually. Jordan explained it was something from his high school days in North Carolina. He was from a great family with strong values and would go on to the University of North Carolina, where as a celebrated freshman he wouldn’t get in the preseason Sports Illustrated picture because it was for upper classmen. There was no culture of entitlement for Jordan or most anyone then, certainly not there. It does matter.

He said he was a shy kid in high school, a good but not great athlete, a better baseball player, really. His dad, James, always dreamed of a baseball career for Mike, who was a star pitcher at age 12. Though we know he gave that a try after that first retirement in 1993, Mike and his dad, best friends as much as father and son, had talked about it through Jordan’s early seasons with the Bulls and mapped out various plans for summers with minor league teams in North Carolina. After all, there was the love of the game stuff, any game, and Mike could play wherever he wanted despite language that limited it in other NBA contracts.

But even Mike, like most of us, felt overwhelmed and unprepared with the opposite sex. He didn’t like his looks.

“I never thought anyone would want to marry me,” he said then with a shrug and a laugh.

Michael Jordan

"Jordan was a star when he came to the Bulls, owner of an NCAA game-winning shot, an Olympic gold medal, and college player of the year," writes Smith. "But this, the NBA, was his dream, too."
(University of North Carolina)

So he took some home economics courses in high school to learn to sew and iron and cook. Lots of girls in the classes, too, he pointed out.

He made you smile when you were with him. Jordan’s close friends still know that about being with him, now more through the golf games and nights gambling at the casinos and maybe even a pong match with Higgins, still with him in Charlotte. Jordan is fiercely loyal to his old friends, and many remain with him.

I likened him to “a man’s man” kind of guy. You know those guys, the leader wherever they are whether at a bar or golf course or the office, the one the others naturally look toward. Mike always made the times fun with the challenges, the so-called trash talk, the endless games and ways to step just ahead in line whether with a verbal jab or physical test.

Jordan was a star when he came to the Bulls, owner of an NCAA game-winning shot, an Olympic gold medal, and college player of the year. But this, the NBA, was his dream, too. He really didn’t know not only how good he was but if he was even good enough. He followed the pros and had his favorites and this was a dream and destination as well. Until you are there you never know.

He famously was the No. 3 pick in that 1984 draft as teams, including the Bulls, schemed to draft Hakeem Olajuwon, which resulted in the NBA establishing the draft lottery the next year to limit the conspiracies, which only continued. At the draft, Bulls general manager Rod Thorn with a history of poor top 10 draft picks was both enthusiastic and cautious. Going to be very good, Thorn assured, as we’d heard before of David Greenwood, Orlando Woolridge, Sidney Green, Ronnie Lester and Quintin Dailey, but not the kind of player to turn around a franchise alone. I loved coach Kevin Loughery’s story of the first preseason practice in which Thorn missed. Loughery called later and told Thorn he’d finally not messed up a draft.

But Jordan didn’t know, himself. These were veteran NBA players and Jordan came from a culture of celebrating seniors and waiting your turn at North Carolina. He was, as we know, great from the beginning, though I recall him telling me that year how grateful he was to Loughery. It wasn’t a harmonious team with considerable jealousy toward Jordan, who immediately was being featured by Loughery. Yes, Murph knew talent when he saw it.

Jordan in later years would talk about walking past the hotel rooms of teammates on the road and noticing the odor of marijuana. Several players from that team eventually went into drug rehabilitation. So he’d have the two Freds and Adolph come along when they could, meeting up with him as the team flew commercial back then and they’d buy their tickets to sit in the back with the rest of us, though I only traveled infrequently back then as I was not yet the regular traveling writer. Jordan still needed the games, and a foursome for cards was always better. In later years, when they couldn’t come, he’d sometimes invite me and my late beloved colleague, Lacy Banks, to his room for cards or darts or some activity. Lacy liked to gamble with Jordan and they were closer. My wife said we were saving for a house.

But even Jordan wasn’t sure he was good enough. Despite all the accomplishments and accolades in college, this was the pros, of Magic and Larry and idols like Dr. J.

But Loughery gave Michael the ball and said to go, to make the plays, to be the man.

Michael Jordan

"You smiled watching Jordan play not so much because of the dunks and drives and shots, but with the thrill it gave him as much as the rest of us, to deliver the act of play as performance art and children’s’ games, both innocent and appealing," writes Smith of Jordan.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

It never was Jordan’s role at North Carolina with the likes of James Worthy and Sam Perkins, and he really didn’t want it at first, preferring to defer to his veteran teammates who really didn’t like the kid so much. Not because he wasn’t likeable but because he was so quickly the media favorite with that endearing smile and personality, the flapping tongue, the dunks, the flair, the showmanship, and, of course, the shoes. And they knew, really knew deep down, he was the goods. He was better.

But I recall Jordan saying it was because Loughery had the confidence in him to allow him excel. Jordan always said so much of sports, of most any accomplishment in life, is about confidence and he didn’t know what would have happened if Loughery had not allowed him to relax and play the game he could play so well.

Of course, real life always intrudes, like it would in that famous supposed All-Star freeze out in his first game in 1985, in the broken foot to open his second season which kept him out three months. Jordan went back to North Carolina, and even the Bulls didn’t know as they contemplated whether to let him play again that season that he was already playing pickup games back home. Because it was about the game and the joy and passion and being a kid who simply loved, just loved to play and compete and win and lose and come back and win again.

That’s what truly made Michael Jordan the player he became and the sporting gift for so many. It’s worth remembering as we mark another passage of time.