It was the summer of 1982 when John Paxson made his way to Vanderbilt’s campus in Nashville for a week of practicing as part of a select team that was coached by C.M. Newton and would play overseas.
Paxson, in between his junior and senior seasons at Notre Dame, learned of his roommate for the week upon his arrival. As fate would have it, it was none other than Michael Jordan, who just a few months prior had hit the championship-winning shot for North Carolina as a freshman.
“I knew he was really talented before that, but when I got to see him every day for a month, it was remarkable,” recalled Paxson from his Berto Center office. “You just knew that he had something special about him. He had such great physical gifts. They were a little bit raw, but his skill level was so good.”
It was Paxson’s first opportunity to see Jordan in person. Not knowing what to expect going in, he came away with a great deal of respect for him.
“He had something intangible about him; I guess now you would call it his drive to win in everything he did,” said Paxson, who witnessed first-hand Jordan’s will to win off the court as well. “When guys were playing cards, losing was not an option for Michael. It wasn’t in his mindset to lose, so when he did, it didn’t sit very well. I never would have dreamed that a few years later, I’d be a teammate of his.”
The next summer, Paxson was selected with the 19th overall pick in the NBA Draft and was off to San Antonio to play for the Spurs. In the fall of 1985, he was reunited with his old roommate in Chicago, signing with the team as a free agent on Oct. 30. He was quickly reminded of the competitive fire that existed in Jordan, who was entering his second season as a pro.
“The stories are legendary about him on the practice floor,” Paxson said. “There was something unique about what was inside of him. The challenge was always there for him, and that’s a unique trait that you don’t see in athletes too often. The great ones seem to have it.”
While Jordan played in only 18 games during Paxson’s first season with the Bulls due to a broken foot, it was an opening-round performance in the playoffs that spring that goes down as one of his greatest performances ever. Playing at the Boston Garden, against one of the great Celtics teams, Jordan unleashed a 63-point performance in Game 2 of the 1986 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
“What I remember about that game is how Boston tried to do everything to stop him,” Paxson remarked. “Stan Albeck was our coach at the time, and he was calling every play for Michael so the ball was going to be in his hands. Boston tried everything—they ran guys at him, they switched, they loaded up their defense to stop him, but he was just magnificent. He couldn’t be stopped.”
As good as Jordan was that day, it wasn’t enough for the Bulls to win the game, falling 135-131 in double-overtime, and the Celtics went on to sweep the series. But Jordan’s point was made; he was healthy again and able to excel on basketball’s biggest stage.
The following season was Jordan’s best statistically. He averaged 37.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 2.88 steals and 1.52 blocks per game.
“It was just a remarkable year given the consistency of his individual performance,” said Paxson. “It also spoke to the fact that he did have such great confidence in himself and he thought he could win all the time.
“There was always the element where maybe he didn’t trust the talent around him, but I always thought that he felt a tremendous pressure to win. He put a lot of it on himself. I know a lot of people early on said he was too much of a one-man guy and he tried to do too much, but I don’t think that was selfishness at all. It was him saying, ‘I want to win and I can do this.’”
According to Paxson, it was Phil Jackson, who came on as an assistant coach in 1987 and landed the job as head coach in 1989, that sold Jordan on the fact that he had to rely on his teammates to ultimately be in a position to win championships. Jordan understood that, yet it took him some time to truly trust his teammates, and in turn, his teammates needed to earn that trust.
“Those things don’t happen overnight,” Paxson acknowledged. “They happen over the course of an 82 game season or a number of seasons together, and eventually we got chances to make a shot or make a defensive play. He realized those were the kinds of things that were going to help us win big. Over time, that all evolved.”
Paxson described the dynamic between Jordan and Jackson as “unique,” and cited Jackson’s alternative coaching means as the prime reason he was able to connect so well with Michael and his teammates.
“Whereas a lot of us see things in black and white, Phil sees a lot of grey area,” he said. “For lack of a better definition, he understood the spiritual aspect of the game. I felt like Michael took that to heart. Phil was not afraid to talk about the spiritual aspect of the game, and I think that resonated with Michael. Phil is such a uniquely different personality as a coach. Most guys are all basketball, and Phil had other interests. He was able to talk about other things and there was some real depth there. It connected with all of us.”
Paxson also pointed out that Jordan has never been given enough credit for how intelligent of a basketball player he was, constantly aware of game and clock situations. His leadership was highly evident even when play was stopped, as he was always the most vocal player during timeouts. In addition, the communication that existed between Jordan and Pippen on the floor allowed them to talk through a lot of game situations.
Not only was it Jordan’s ability and talent that made him the best of the best, it was his desire to put it all on the line when it mattered most.
“He always wanted to take the big shot and he was never afraid of failing,” said Paxson. “If you could get into the minds of a lot of players in this league, whether they are playing now or used to play, to take on the pressure of making the big plays that count with that amount of consistency just didn’t happen very often. He just accepted it.”
When Paxson looks back on the championship seasons—he helped the Bulls to three consecutive titles in 1991, 1992 and 1993—it’s always the first that remains the most special. For Jordan, it was his seventh year in the league. Said Paxson: “He got his first, and it set the table for what was going to happen over the next eight years.”
In that first championship, Paxson scored 20 points and connected on four-of-five shots down the stretch in Game 5, as the Bulls secured victory in Los Angeles and defeated the Lakers. That Jordan was willing to defer to Paxson said it all.
“It was a culmination of the fact that we trusted each other to make shots, and that he didn’t have to step up and do it himself all the time,” Paxson said.
It was a small gesture after the game, though, that spoke volumes about Jordan. Disney World had approached Jordan to do a celebratory television advertisement following the Bulls’ victory. All Jordan had to do was say a line into the camera and enjoy his payday. It literally would have been 15 seconds of his time. However, Jordan insisted that he’d only do the ad with the other four starters. The commercial was eventually filmed in the locker room. While he certainly didn’t have to include them, he did.
Another example of Jordan’s appreciation for his teammates happened several years prior, when Chicago hosted the NBA All-Star game in 1988. Jordan’s soaring jam from the free throw line remains one of the most well-known photographic images from his career. Among his prizes, the hometown hero won $12,000 for his efforts. Jordan promptly took the money and handed each of his 12 teammates $1,000 the next time they were together.
“It is gestures like that which go unappreciated by other people,” Paxson said. “But it was his way of saying, ‘Look, you guys are important to me. It’s not all about me.’ If anyone in this game could have felt entitled to stuff, it was Michael. But he never did. He respected the game.
“How often have you heard him speak and talk about his love of the game? It is so genuine. I know it because I saw it all the time. I was one of the guys who was with him and I really respect those things about him. People tend to look for negative things about a guy like him, but he did a lot of things to include teammates. When you’re a player and you’re trying to form camaraderie amongst your teammates, when it comes from not only your best player, but the greatest player, it goes a long way.”
Paxson owns the rare distinction of not only playing with Jordan, but coaching him as well. He spent one season (1995-96) in Chicago as an assistant coach, as the Bulls stampeded to an NBA-record 72-10 mark and the 1996 NBA World Championship.
“I didn’t coach him,” Paxson said with a laugh. “I was just on the staff. It really just reinforced what I already knew about Michael. As a player, you get such access to what guys are really like and all about. You see them in all situations. Being on that staff was a lucky brake for me.”
Paxson’s desire to spend more time with his family led him to walk away from coaching after the lone season. But a few years later, he re-considered getting back in the business. When Jordan’s second comeback saw him land with the Washington Wizards in 2001, he requested that Paxson join the staff.
“You feel pretty fortunate when somebody like Michael asks you to do something like that,” admitted Paxson. “I was certainly flattered when he asked me to come and coach, but I didn’t have it in my heart. But because it came from him, I did give it some real thought.”
Paxson’s most memorable moment as a player came in 1993, when in Game 6 of the NBA Finals he sank a game- and series-winning three-pointer with 3.9 seconds left on the clock to defeat the Suns in Phoenix.
“Right place at the right time,” Paxson said. “It was a culmination of growing together as a team along the way towards that third championship. We all took pride in that. Leading up to that moment, I was most disappointed that we had let Michael down in the fourth quarter. We had kind of succumbed to the pressure of the arena and the crowd and had played very poorly. We only had nine points in that last quarter and Michael had scored them all. I always felt good when I was able to relieve some of the pressure off of him.”
Jordan and Paxson have stayed in touch over the years, although nowadays when they talk it is more on the level of being counterparts for their respective teams. Given Jordan’s role within the Charlotte Bobcats’ basketball operations department, Paxson said they often speak as the trade deadline and draft approach.
“I’m proud of Michael that he’s not afraid to stick his foot in the fire,” he said. “These are tough positions and success comes from winning. But he’s never been afraid of failing. I think he’s done a lot of good things in trying to re-make Charlotte and their future is pretty good. I’m glad he’s involved in the game, because the game is better off having the greatest player ever as part of it.”
When Jordan’s long, inevitable place in basketball’s Hall of Fame becomes official, Paxson said he’ll be watching.
“I know I’m biased because I played with him, but in my mind, he’s easily the greatest player to ever play,” he said. “I don’t know how you can match what he did on the floor or his winning. Him being inducted is obviously a given, and it’s too bad we couldn’t do something a little more for him. He’ll be humble as he approaches this because he respects the game so much.”