Part XII: Jordan retires, heads to the minor leagues

Michael Jordan Hall of Fame

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

By Sam Smith | asksam@bulls.com | 09.07.09

Sometimes you are too smart for your own good. I remember it being the case with the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune in 1989, when I was telling him as the Bulls were cruising through the playoffs that Doug Collins was in trouble with management and could be fired. I was told that if that was my read on the team I shouldn't be covering the team and they would replace me. I was told I could not write the story.

Until, of course...

So, there I was at the end of the 1992-93 season back in Chicago and saying goodbye to some of the players, who had repeated that Jordan had talked about retiring. Sure, sure, I said. Look, he hadn't basically had time off for two years with two long playoff runs sandwiched around the Olympics, the gambling controversies for two years and that darned book. He just needed some time, I assured them. No one walks away on top. Not Ali, not Ruth, not anyone. OK, Jim Brown did. But you figure he wished he hadn't. When you are the best and this has been your life, what else is there to do?

Play baseball? Right...

Actually, one thing I didn't know in the spring of 1993, as Michael Jordan talked with teammates about walking away from the game after the season was that he and his dad, James—Pops to everyone—had talked about playing professional baseball. By this time, Jordan believed he could do anything, and who would argue anymore? James always actually thought Michael would be a better baseball player. It was James' favorite sport, and Michael was really good as a kid. As I mentioned in an earlier installment, he was a nationally regarded 12-year-old who pitched his team one game from the Little League World Series. He was a much more highly regarded baseball player as a youth. But, c'mon, the guy was becoming the best player basketball we ever had seen.

It's impossible, really, to measure the true best ever among eras. But I liked one I heard once when it was noted Jordan could play at an All-Star level at four positions, basically all but center. And you wouldn't do badly with him at center. Could Wilt or Russell or Kareem do that? Not likely. Perhaps Magic, who played center in the 1980 Finals and was MVP. But Magic himself always said he was no Jordan. I remember the story of Magic, feeling good with the Dream Team and saying he'd play Jordan one-on-one, only to be warned off by Bird so he wouldn't embarrass himself.

And then July 23, James Jordan was murdered. James had attended a funeral, and while returning a week before his 57th birthday, he stopped at a rest stop on I-95 to take a nap. We've all done it. It's what they tell you to do when you are tired driving. Two teenagers shot him while he slept and stole his car and possessions. The body was found August 3 in South Carolina. The two were tracked down from calls they made with James' cell phone, arrested, tried, and sentenced to life terms.

No one quite knew what to think, though the belief then was Jordan eventually would return to the basketball court, particularly in the wake of the tragedy, because it was where he most found peace and solace. Jordan was in mourning, and only growing angrier about the media. There was speculation, primarily in the East Coast tabloids like the Boston Herald and New York Post, of Jordan's father being murdered because of Jordan's gambling. It was a horrific leap and Jordan was furious. Justifiably so. It was, to him, more reason to leave basketball behind.

I even recalled once reading about George Washington being so angry about attacks on him in the newspapers in the 1790s that it was a major reason he decided not to seek a third term in 1796. Close confidante Alexander Hamilton actually had to persuade Washington to remove the newspaper complaints from Washington's famous farewell address. This was a time it generally was assumed by the public Washington would be president for life and there was no term limit for the president. Enough can be enough, even for the Father of the Country.

I'm also still asked whether that Jordan sabbatical was NBA inspired because of gambling. I also addressed that in an earlier section, but, to reiterate, the NBA did the flimsiest of investigations, never had any interest in driving its most popular player and greatest money maker from the game, and in no way suspended Jordan. Heck, you can't keep a secret in the NBA for an hour. We're supposed to believe this one has been kept for 15 years? David Stern's worst day was when Michael Jordan left and his best day was when Michael Jordan returned.

Jordan had made up his mind. He was done. In his mind, he knew it was forever, like Jim Brown after his ninth season. I remember B.J. Armstrong, who was one of the closest to Jordan around that time as their fathers had become friendly, telling me Jordan would eventually return. I protested that Michael said he wouldn't. B.J. smiled. B.J. always seemed to know something.

Managing partner Reinsdorf had gotten a call in early October 1993 to come to Washington to meet with Jordan's agent, David Falk. It was urgent. Falk shocked Reinsdorf with the news: Michael was done playing basketball. But Michael would come meet with the Bulls one more time. The Bulls asked Phil Jackson to talk to Michael. The feeling was if anyone could talk him out of it, it was Phil. Jackson did suggest Jordan take a sabbatical, which Jordan rejected. Jordan insisted he was finished for good. Phil talked of Jordan's gift and, in some respects, a responsibility to the world. But Michael felt he'd given that and it was his time to go. He didn't want to be that guy they'd say who stayed too long, though, of course, like most everyone else, he eventually would. I never had an issue with that. I always believe if you do something well and love what you do, you should do it until they won't let you anymore.

Jackson said he'd support Jordan in whatever he decided, and Jordan went with Reinsdorf to the opener of the White Sox playoff game with the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday, Oct. 5 after meeting with Jackson. By then, the sports world was abuzz with the news, which vastly overshadowed the baseball game.

Michael Jordan had retired from basketball.

No one knew at the time, but Jordan had decided he would give professional baseball a try. Managing partner Reinsdorf also ran the White Sox, so the transition would be no problem. In fact, Jordan had already been working for months on baseball exercises with trainer Tim Grover. There would be offers, Jordan knew, but he didn't want to be a side show. Jordan had actually talked after the 1991 championship with Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn about playing baseball some day since Shinn then owned a minor league baseball team.

Reinsdorf said anything Jordan wanted he'd take care of, and Reinsdorf also told Jordan he'd continue to pay his annual $4 million salary even though he wasn't playing basketball.

Jordan began working out at then Comiskey Park just before Christmas in 1993, though the White Sox, in trying to hold off the media frenzy, said it was just to stay loose and exercise and had nothing to do with playing baseball.

Michael Jordan, the greatest of basketball players and a worldwide marketing icon, was going to Birmingham, Ala. to play professional baseball.

But a 19-year break from the sport takes something out of you. It was more difficult than Jordan imagined, and after hitting around .300 with a 12-game hitting streak for a few weeks, Jordan plummeted to around .200, where he would finish the season at .202. Jordan wouldn't hit his first home run until his 354th at bat, but he did work at it and got much better. He ended the season as one of six AA players with at least 50 runs batted in and 30 steals.

One of his great moments occurred in Chicago at Wrigley Field. Back then, the White Sox and Cubs played an annual exhibition game. Jordan started in right field for the White Sox and went 2-4, including a run scoring double. He didn't appear to be major league material anymore, but Jordan showed he still could rise to the occasion. He may have been the greatest athlete ever in pressure situations. He didn't get nervous. He produced. Consider that he was playing on the biggest stage he would have in his short baseball career before the largest crowd. So how is it that he has maybe his best day on that day in that venue? Hardly coincidence.

I remember once having played golf with Jordan. He hadn't played particularly well for him, shooting about 80. When he got to the 18th green, word had spread he was on the course and about 200 people were there. It's why in later years Jordan often would end his rounds in the Chicago area after No. 17 and get someone to sneak him off the course. But this was pre-championships. Jordan was on a par 4 green in two about 35 feet away. So he begins to make a big production about looking at the putt, a double breaker, as I recall. He walked around and lined it up several times. The way he was playing, I'd have been rushing to get off if I were him. So what do you know? He makes the putt. The guy absolutely dared pressure moments.

Jordan's bitterness with the media, though, continued for baseball as Sports Illustrated magazine did a famous cover demanding Jordan, "Bag it!" That led to a Jordan boycott of the magazine's writers for years. Even in Jordan's final press conference officially announcing his retirement, he repeatedly referred to reporters as "You guys" in an accusatory tone. He needed to get away.

But, as we all should have seen, he never could escape basketball. Which was our blessing.

Jordan would return to the Chicago Stadium for its final game, Scottie Pippen's charity game in September 1994, in which Jordan led his team over Pippen's with 52 points in a 187-150 victory. Jordan then kneeled and kissed the Bulls logo at center court. Shortly thereafter, the Bulls held a lavish televised ceremony to retire Jordan's jersey and unveil a statue on the east side of the United Center that today remains one of the great tourist attractions in Chicago. I remember Jordan that night pointing at several of the reporters gathered around and saying his jersey was being retired. Didn't that prove he was done, he asked?

Jordan then went back to the Arizona instructional league, where he finished with a respectable .252 batting average and remained determined to make the major leagues for the 1995 season even though there still was a lockout going on over the financial dispute that cancelled the World Series.