Michael Jordan makes a Hall of Fame address

Michael Jordan Hall of Fame

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By Sam Smith | asksam@bulls.com | 09.12.09

People always ask me what Michael Jordan really is like. Having been around him his entire playing career and, especially early in his career on several social occasions, I’m supposed to know. But I never could quite explain it exactly. I’d offer some stuff about being a man’s man and, basically, a good guy, a tough guy at times, but also with a heart.

If you want to know what Michael Jordan is like, watch his speech you can find here on Bulls.com from Friday’s Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony.

That’s what it’s like to be with Michael, and why there’s always been so much ambivalence from those around him, emotions ranging from frustration to love.

To some, it may have been a curious speech, built around a theme of competitiveness to explain his unique and spectacular basketball ability. But it also dredged up what seemed like old and forgotten feuds, and you may have thought to yourself, fleetingly, why here, why now?

Yet, that is Michael and what’s it’s like to be with Michael. He’s not perfect, and he’s long pleaded guilty to that. But he is a heck of a lot of fun to be around. It can get ugly and seem mean, but it’s often how guys are around guys when those guys are professional competitors.

There’s always a challenge. So if they aren’t on the golf course or playing cards—or, especially, if they are—there’s the taunting and the challenging and the mano a mano. Yes, it sounds like little kid stuff. It’s formalized as trash talking now. When I was a kid, some called it goofing on someone or some things less kinder. But that’s how the guys are when they are together. The gals do it as well, though as in one memorable Seinfeld line, more in the attempt to give someone an eating disorder.

The guys try to make someone the butt of the joke that everyone else throws up from laughing so hard.

It’s why everyone loves Charles Barkley. Because he can take it and laugh at himself. Michael’s much better dishing it out, so to speak.

And he served it up pretty good Friday night at the nationally televised ceremony which also honored the San Antonio Spurs David Robinson, Jerry Sloan and John Stockton of the Utah Jazz and Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer.

All, in their own way, were charming and entertaining. Stringer told heart rending stories of persevering through the death of her husband, her own cancer and the brain damage of her child, who was by her side. Sloan, the one-time Mr. Chicago Bull and head coach, choked up when relating a surprise visit from teammate Norm Van Lier last year, only later realizing, he said, that Norm had come to say goodbye. Sloan also related his extraordinary upbringing in small town Illinois and Robinson was the usual class act in tributes to his family and friends.

The usually laconic Stockton was surprisingly open, emotional and clever in thanking friends coming from as far as Alaska and Hawaii but saying they probably were there to see Jordan, anyway.

“I'd like to congratulate the class of 2009," Stockton deadpanned. "You guys represent the best that sports has to offer, extreme competitiveness, intelligence, very courageous. You made competing fun and you made sports fun to watch. Thank you. So what am I doing here?"

I love these inductions and have been to several because you usually, finally, get a real glimpse of what these icons are like. They’ve been away from the game, for the most part, at least the spotlight. They are humbled and appreciative and let down a bit of that professional shield and let the light in and the smile out. They come forward as real humans, Stockton choking up about his mother having passed away and wishing she could see this moment and even Jordan breaking down as he began his remarks in thanks to teammate Scottie Pippen and other former teammates and coaches in attendance, including Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr, John Paxson, Dennis Rodman, Bill Wennington, Charles Oakley, Ron Harper, Randy Brown and Johnny Bach.

Jordan had earlier made a point to stop by tables where teammates were sitting at the Thursday night introductory dinner to thank them for attending.

But he also couldn’t help but open the door to his personality. The public generally sees the corporate, prepared, guarded, correct Jordan. This was the Jordan his buddies know, brash, aware of every slight, real and perceived, a verbal counter attack for every parry, the guy who didn’t need the golf course to compete on a rainy Friday here in Springfield but could do it as well in conversation. You have to be sharp to be around Michael. And you have to be ready.

And away he went, as the Great One, Gleason would have said.

“I told all my friends I’m going to come up here and say thank you and walk off,” Jordan joked as he began, then choking up in referring to the video of all his highlights with Pippen always at the ready. “I’ve had a lot of questions over the last four weeks (about) why’d you pick David Thompson (from North Carolina State to accompany Jordan on stage).“

All honorees are required to have an escort who is a member of the Hall of fame. Sloan asked Barkley, which seemed surprising given their seemingly opposite natures. Though Sloan said his late wife, Bobbye, always was a big Barkley fan the way she always saw Barkley as one of the few players to engage fans. Barkley told a funny story earlier in the day about Sloan calling to ask him to do it. Barkley said he would and Sloan said “thanks” and hung up. Stockton asked Isiah Thomas, which was a surprise given some brutal battles they had, though Stockton said Isiah always was a model for him, as Jordan said Thompson was for him.

“I was an anti-Carolina guy,” Jordan said of his adolescence. “I was in love with David Thompson. Not just for the game of basketball, but what he represented. When I called him and asked him to stand up I know I shocked the (crap) out of him.”

Maybe ESPN got that word through, but I cannot get myself to try. Michael is bawdy as well.

Jordan talked fondly about his siblings, brothers Larry and James each about 5-5 (I think that was an exaggeration a bit low, but not much), of sister Roz speeding through high school so she could get into North Carolina the same time as Michael and his U.S. Army veteran brother, the boys constantly challenging him in every game and every way.

“You guys ask where my competitive nature comes from. It came from them,” he said.

And then Jordan added “people added the wood.”

He started with LeRoy Smith, the high school teammate picked over him for the varsity team.

“He’s still the same 6-7 guy. His game is probably about the same,” sneered Jordan. “He started the whole process for me. When he made the team and I didn’t, I wanted to prove not just to LeRoy Smith and not just myself, but (I wanted) the coach to make sure you understood you made a mistake.

“I first met Buzz (Peterson, college roommate). I first heard of a kid from Asheville, N.C., player of the year. I’m thinking, ‘He never played against me. How did he become player of the year?’ When I got to meet Buzz Peterson in the basketball court it wasn’t him. I didn’t think he could beat me,” said Jordan. “He became a focal point."

“Coach (Dean) Smith the day on Sports Illustrated named four starters and didn’t name me that burned me up,” Jordan remembered. “I thought I belonged on that (cover). He had this vision on giving a freshman exposure. From a basketball standpoint, I deserved to be on that cover.

“It did not stop there,” Jordan went on in thanking the Bulls at length for giving him a chance to excel and have a professional life in basketball. “I get to the pros. (Coach) Kevin Loughery used to take practice and put me in the starting five. Halfway in the game he’d put me on the losing team. I take that as competitive. Nine times out of 10 the second team would come back to win no. I appreciated Loughery giving me that challenge.

“The (Bulls) came up with this whole theory you can play seven minutes a game when I’m practicing two hours a day,” Jordan said about the time in 1985 he broke his foot and the team wanted to limit his return for fear of worsening the injury. “I didn’t agree with that math. I wanted to play. I wanted to make the playoffs. Jerry (Reinsdorf) said, ‘Let me ask if you had a headache and—there was a 10 percent chance then I’d reinjure myself--and you’ve got 10 tablets and one is coated with cyanide, would you take it?’ I looked at him and said, ‘How bad is the headache?’

Jerry looked at me and said, ‘I guess that’s a good answer you can go back and play.”

Jordan was working the room of nearly 3,000 pretty good by now, eliciting laughs and appreciative applause.

Jordan then took off after longtime foe Jerry Krause in some less than kind remarks, though still in the spirit of the moment. It’s what he would have said to Jerry if he were there.

"Jerry's not here," Jordan said of former general manager Krause. "I don't know who'd invite him. I didn't. I hope he understands it goes a long way. He's a very competitive person. I was a very competitive person. He said organizations win championships. I said, 'I didn't see organizations playing with the flu in Utah. I didn't see it playing with a bad ankle.'

Granted, I think organizations put together teams. But at the end of the day, the team's got to go out and play. I think the players win the championship, and the organization has something to do with it, don't get me wrong. But don't try to put the organization above the players."

Jordan lauded his kids and admitted they carried a ”heavy burden” and that he’d never want with their famous name. Then Jordan noted how the Hall of Fame hiked up ticket prices because of his presence.

“They charge $1,000 a ticket,” Jordan noted with that sly smile. “Used to be 200 bucks. But I paid it. I had no choice. Thank the Hall of Fame for raising ticket prices.”

He doesn’t miss a thing. And he always believes people make money from his presence. Yet, Jordan invited so many friends and relatives and quietly paid for even some former players who could not afford it, he supposedly spent more than $100,000 on tickets. He wouldn’t mention that, nor wanted anyone to know whom he’d helped.

Jordan then brought up the famous so-called All-Star game freezeout of 1985 by Thomas, Magic Johnson and George Gervin.

“You guys gave me motivation,” Jordan said. “I (felt I’ve) got to prove to them I deserve what I’ve gotten.”

Jordan recalled a chance meeting one summer on vacation in Hawaii with Pat Riley and thanked Riley for the competitiveness of his teams, though Jordan playfully noted how Riley wanted to stay longer in the hotel and they made Riley give up his suite so Jordan could have it.

Yes, he wins! Again!

Jordan noted “the little guy on your staff,” Jeff Van Gundy, who “said I conned players, befriended them, and then attacked them on the basketball court. I just happen to be a friendly guy. Thank you. You gave me the motivation I needed.”

Jordan told the old story of Bulls assistant Tex Winter needling him about scoring 20 some straight points to win the game and saying there’s “no I in team” and Jordan coming right back and saying there is one in “win.”

And there were all you “media guys” saying a scoring champion couldn’t win a title and how Magic and Larry Bird were better because they were winners.

“That kept me trying every day to be a better basketball player,” Jordan said.

And Jordan went on to end the list with the Jazz’ Bryon Russell running into him after he’d retired for the first time.

"I was in Chicago in 1994 and at this time I had no thoughts of coming back and playing the game of basketball," Jordan said. "Bryon Russell came over to me and said, 'Why'd you quit? You know I could guard you.’ When I did come back in 1995 and we played Utah in '96, I'm at the center circle and Bryon Russell is standing next to me. I said, 'You remember the [remarks] you made in 1994 about, 'I think I can guard you, I can shut you down, I would love to play against you? Well, you're about to get your chance.'"

And we all know what happened in 1998 in Game 6.

But then Jordan got serious and sentimental. And puckish once again.

“The game of basketball has been everything to me,” Jordan said as he wound down. “My place of refuge, place I’ve always gone where I needed comfort and peace. It’s been the site of intense pain and the most intense feelings of joy and satisfaction. It’s a relationship that has evolved over time, given me the greatest respect and love for the game. I hope the millions of people I’ve touched have the optimism and desire to share their goals and hard work and persevere with a positive attitude. Although I recognize this is a tremendous honor this doesn’t define the end of basketball. It’s a continuation of something I started a long time ago. One time you may look up and see me playing the game at 50.”

At which time the audience began to laugh. Nervously?

“Don’t laugh,” Jordan said. “Never say never. Limits, like fear, is often an illusion.”

It was all of Michael. Touching, Fun loving, sharing, bold, aggressive, challenging and impish. And I’d never again say he won’t play again. If you are around him, you probably have heard from him before saying he still can beat those guys today. Even at 50. You just know that’s in the back of his mind. The games and the competition and the fun never ends around Michael Jordan.

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