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By Sam Smith | firstname.lastname@example.org | 08.21.09
Also: Jordan leads five as Hall of Fame announces Class of 2009Jordan to take official place in basketball immortality
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It will be a great moment in the history of basketball during enshrinement weekend Sept. 10 through 12 when Michael Jordan joins the Class of 2009 for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
This is the greatest player ever to play the game being accorded the greatest honor in the game. This is Babe Ruth going into the baseball Hall of Fame. This is Bobby Jones at the first Masters, Ali winning out over Frazier. These are the historic moments of sport, and this year’s in Springfield, Mass. is special because it is a moment in history.
Of course, being the so-called greatest player is a subjective category. There certainly is consensus about Jordan for not only his almost mythical accomplishments in the game, but for the styles and precedents he established around the game and cult like following he developed. Perhaps no one ever has had more impact for basketball on and off the basketball court.
Jordan turned sneakers from utilitarian into a fashion statement. He was the first to wear his uniform shorts baggy and long. He made bald beautiful. “Be Like Mike” became an advertising classic and a way to life for kids all over the world. ESPN, the preeminent sports network, conducted a survey of media members, current and former players, executives and officials and observers in all sports and voted Jordan the No. 1 athlete of all time ahead of Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali.
I’m fairly certain no writer has seen more Jordan games than I have. In the minutiae distinctions in Jordan’s basketball life, I believe I stand with George Koehler, the limousine driver who picked up Jordan at O’Hare airport back in 1984 before Jordan was to start playing for the Bulls, as the only ones to have witnessed in person Jordan’s three firsts and three lasts.
It’s difficult to imagine now, but Jordan then was just another first round draft pick. A good one, for sure, two-time college player of the year, but the Bulls had many No. 1 picks in the last decade who were celebrated. Then General Manager Rod Thorn lectured everyone you didn’t win with a guard. Julius Erving likened Jordan to a Sidney Moncrief type. No insult, certainly, as Moncrief was an offensive and defensive star of his era and five-time All-Star, but not in anyone’s conversation among the best ever.
A ride for Mr. Jordan
Koehler was at O’Hare to pick up a client who didn’t show. He was asked to wait for a later flight and off came Jordan, whom sports fan Koehler knew. Koehler’s client never did show and Jordan didn’t know Chicago or have a ride.
This was the bad old Bulls organization with the seedy offices on Michigan Avenue south of the Chicago River where employees were charged for coffee. It was a dysfunctional, losing operation run by a half dozen or so billionaires like George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees baseball team, but who had little interest in the Bulls. They didn’t even have a sales staff. Why? They said if someone wanted season tickets they’d call. No one thought about picking up the No. 1 pick at the airport.
Koehler said he’d take Jordan where he wanted to go for $25. George hasn’t left him yet.
We were there when it started and ended each time:
Oct. 26, 1984, Bulls vs. Washington Bullets. Game 1 of Jordan’s career, a pedestrian 16 points, seven assists and six rebounds, though Jordan did try to dunk over the then famed McNasty and McFilthy combo of Jeff Ruland and Rick Mahorn.
June 20, 1993. Bulls win third championship in Phoenix. Jordan pulled the Bulls back into the game in the fourth quarter to set up John Paxson’s game winning three and Horace Grant’s game saving block on Kevin Johnson. Jordan then announced his retirement from basketball in October.
March 19, 1995. He’s back! With his famous “I’m back” declaration, Jordan returned from his hiatus in baseball to score 19 points while shooting seven for 28 in Indianapolis. In his fifth game back, Jordan put up his famous double nickel 55 points in Madison Square Garden and then passed to Bill Wennington for the winning basket.
June 14, 1998. That should have been goodbye, Jordan’s famous game winner in Game 6 for the sixth championship in Salt Lake City with Jordan holding the pose as the final shot went in for the one point win at the buzzer.
Oct. 30, 2001. Jordan in a Washington Wizards jersey scoring 19 points in a loss in New York as Jordan stepped down from the front office to play again. It is hard to say goodbye for anyone so accomplished.
April 16, 2003. Jordan in Philadelphia playing against coach Larry Brown, an old friend from the University of North Carolina. Jordan scored 13 points and walked off an NBA floor as a player for the final time with 1:44 left in a Wizards loss.
No one knew how special
Jordan already was a pretty famous guy when I first met him. He hit the game winning shot in the 1982 NCAA title game, and as a personal aside, that was the only time in my life I won a Final Four pool, then the one in the sports department at the Chicago Tribune. Jordan always said he enriched all of us around him, and I guess it began early for me. Jordan was a college star, though not the consensus No. 1 draft pick in 1984 despite going on to lead the U.S. team to the Olympic gold medal. I remember reading the account of the coach of the team from Spain who said everyone would jump up and come down and Jordan still was up. Despite Bulls General Manager Rod Thorn saying on draft day this wasn’t the kind of player to turn a franchise around, we all knew this was a special player.
No, no one knew how special or how good.
Jordan’s influence was greater than anyone’s, in part, because so much was off the court. His involvement in endorsements and commercial activities was ground breaking. It wasn’t like athletes never had endorsed products. That had gone on for decades. But it was the combination of endorsements and corporate involvement and the kinds of companies, high level, wholesome, popular products backed by the big athletic shoe marketing that revolutionized sports business.
So Jordan was entertaining the media upon his arrival in Chicago, and I was on the list for an afternoon with him as a writer for the Tribune and doing a freelance piece for US magazine.
Jordan was living in a modest Deerfield townhouse then with a first contract of seven years for $6.3 million.
He had an ironing board out when I arrived and I wondered about it since I had no idea how to use one. He was a shy kid and had those big, jug ears and said as an adolescent he couldn’t get dates. Little known is he has a tattoo, an omega horseshoe above his left breast that he always was a bit sensitive about. He also had developed this habit of sticking his tongue out when he played ball, something his father did when he was working on cars back home, a hobby of James’. The other kids made fun of Michael for the gesture.
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