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Perhaps appropriately, it began in Peoria. You know the old line about whether it will “play in Peoria,” being shorthand for whether it would be accepted by America. Michael Jordan’s first professional game was in Peoria, an NBA exhibition between the Bulls and Indiana Pacers. Jordan scored 18 points in 29 minutes and the Bulls won.
There was barely a mention in the Chicago media as the Chicago Cubs were in San Diego blowing what seemed a certain World Series appearance. It would be prophetic because you could count on both for the next decade, the Cubs blowing opportunities and Jordan carrying the Bulls to victory.
The NBA spends its preseason exhibition games barnstorming mostly non-NBA cities, and Jordan immediately understood he was a show and he had a responsibility.
Groomed in the Carolina system, Jordan sought to defer to veterans. His mantra throughout the preseason was the same as he garnered all the media coverage.
"This is not going to be the Michael Jordan show," he said repeatedly. "I'm just another rookie and my job is to fit in as a part of the Bulls."
But you knew otherwise then, especially with the shoes.
That preseason, Jordan and Nike unveiled Jordan’s red and black first Air Jordans, the sneaker that, effectively, revolutionized the sports shoe industry. They were laughed at early on as no one had seen anything quite like that. Plus, it was against the rules. Players were supposed to wear sneakers of the team colors. The Bulls’ were red and white while Jordan’s sneakers were mostly red and black. The NBA warned Jordan against wearing them, though he would on occasion and be fined. But the publicity and Jordan’s spectacular play created a marketing frenzy which has gone on for more than a decade.
I remember a classic bit when Jordan made an appearance on the David Letterman show. He was asked about the shoes and the NBA’s ban. “There’s no white in them,” Jordan explained. “Just like the NBA,” Letterman retorted.
Meanwhile, back on the court, the Bulls moved on to play the Kansas City Kings, and Jordan scored 32 points in his second exhibition game.
And no matter how big he would become and how insignificant these preseason games seemed to be, Jordan always understood he was expected to be Michael Jordan, not just for himself and his family, but the game.
I thought it was appropriate when Jordan brought this up in his autobiography, ‘For the Love of the Game: My Story.’
Jordan wrote: "There is no such thing as a perfect basketball player, and I don't believe there is only one greatest player, either. Everyone plays in different eras. I built my talents on the shoulders of someone else's talent. I believe greatness is an evolutionary process that changes and evolves era to era. Without Julius Erving, David Thompson, Walter Davis, and Elgin Baylor, there would never have been a Michael Jordan. I evolved from them."
Yeah, he got Walter Davis in there. Say this, he was loyal to his friends. He could be tough on them. But he stayed with them and they stay with him. Rod Higgins, his best and first friend when he joined the Bulls in 1984, remains his closest friend in basketball and is his general manager for the Charlotte Bobcats. Charles Oakley, who was his second Bulls friend after Higgins was traded, remains Jordan’s frequent traveling, gambling and golfing partner. Fred Whitfield, one of his three friends from North Carolina who traveled with him when he joined the Bulls, is in Bobcats management.
Though Jordan’s commitment to put on a show even in those preseason games always draws a stark contrast when I see what goes on these days. I recall a game a few years back in northwestern New York—Rochester, I think—where the Cavs were playing. The rumor was LeBron James wouldn’t play because he had played the night before. James went so far as to pretend to go into the game by stripping off his warm-ups to the delight of the crowd, which rarely sees live NBA basketball. Then James walked back to the bench laughing with teammates about how he’d played a prank on the crowd. No, Jordan didn’t want to play in a lot of those games. And he had his issues. But he always understood his responsibility to the game.
And he did hate to lose.
He just couldn’t sit there and watch...
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