The story behind Michael Jordan's Spirit

For Omri Amrany and Julie Rotblatt Amrany of Timeless Creations in Highwood, IL, immortalizing sports icons has become a way of life

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Video by BullsTV | Story by Adam Fluck | 08.02.2011

It was 26 years ago when Omri Amrany and Julie Rotblatt first met in Pietrasanta, Italy, where the two had traveled to learn the art of marble carving.

Quarries are prevalent throughout the area, which in the early 1500s was home to Michelangelo, one of the most well-known artists from the Renaissance. They spent months in training and acquired a deep appreciation for the work discipline of some of the great Italian sculptors. And while Michelangelo’s influence would shape their understanding of art, it was another global icon that many years later would propel their careers to a new level.

It started in 1994, when the Chicago Bulls chose Omri and Julie to immortalize Michael Jordan. Located in the United Center’s east addition and among the city’s most popular tourist attractions, the statue is called “The Spirit,” and it forever changed their lives.

The winning bid and challenge to create the impossible

Jordan statue

In one variation of the design, the couple came up with a way in which a stationary hoop would have been a part of the statue as Jordan’s final destination.

Omri was born and raised in the Jordan Valley in Israel (Kibbutz Ashdot Yaacov), while Julie hails from Highland Park, IL. She traveled the world while studying art and was living in San Francisco when the two first crossed paths in Italy in 1985.

At that time, Omri and Julie worked at different studios, but it was the European culture—power literally is turned off at noon and everyone takes lunch—that led them to a local café where their relationship would begin.

Omri and Julie were married in 1987. Julie agreed to move to Israel, where their son was born in 1989, but the couple eventually relocated to Chicago and set up shop in the North Shore.

“I never had the American dream,” reflected Omri of the move during a recent visit to the Fine Art Studio of Rotblatt Amrany in Highwood, IL. “Because when you grow up in the Kibbutz with a military background, you’re very gung ho for your culture. To do a switch is a major decision that we didn’t foresee as a possibility. Coming to America was never a plan. I never thought I’d leave the Kibbutz or leave the country.”

Omri added, “When Julie and I left the Kibbutz for Chicago, people looked at me and said, ‘So you guys are going to Chicago where there was Al Capone. But maybe you can sculpt Michael Jordan.’ I said, ‘Who?’ ‘Michael Jordan, the basketball great.’ I said, ‘Sure, sure…’ So we came to Chicago and we’d sit around at dinner, saying how maybe we should call the Chicago Bulls.”

What merely began as wishful thinking would soon become a reality. In late 1993, word got out that the Bulls were in search of a sculptor to honor the game’s greatest player of all-time. Twelve artists were given an opportunity to win a bid for the Jordan statue project.

Omri was at a show in south Florida when he learned of the competition, prompting a quick trip back with a timeframe of just three days to create and submit sketches.

Omri was not optimistic about their chances of landing the project and gave up hope, leaving for a trip back to Israel shortly thereafter. During their visit, they received a phone call one morning at 7 a.m. with the news that they had won the job.

“It was quite an honor to get that project, quite a coup,” said Julie.

As Omri put it, they were tasked with “creating the impossible”—constructing a piece in which Jordan would be viewed soaring through air towards the basket. Given the challenge at hand, Omri and Julie consulted a friend of theirs with experience in steel.

They ultimately came up with a solution in which a triple-steel post that was built to hold as much as 2,000 pounds of bronze or stainless steel, thus giving Jordan the appearance of being in flight. In one variation, the couple even came up with a way in which a stationary hoop would have been a part of the statue as Jordan’s final destination.

“We worked with an architectural firm and structural engineers to design against wind and weight,” explained Julie of the process. “The steel would have created a triangle and gone up through the legs for stability. Bronze pieces are hollow. If the figure is standing there on its own, that’s fine; but if it’s suspended in space on just one point, in this case, a leg, you needed an internal structure.”

Though the final work of art does not include the basket, the sculptors have little doubt as to its strength.

Said Omri of the Jordan statue’s stability, “I think the United Center could crash down and the sculpture would still stand.”

Added Julie, “The engineers calculated they could rest a Volkswagen Beetle on the other leg and it would have held.”

Jordan played baseball while statue was created

Jordan statue

Omri Amrany and Julie Rotblatt Amrany met with Jordan on a couple of occasions during the six-time NBA champion's stint with the White Sox organization.

The Bulls’ decision to create the statue was made following Jordan’s first retirement from basketball. Following three consecutive championships and NBA Finals MVP awards, Jordan walked away from the game on October 6, 1993.

The next spring, Jordan announced his desire to play professional baseball and became a member of the Chicago White Sox organization. It was during this timeframe when Omri and Julie first visited with the Hall of Famer, in the team’s clubhouse.

They spent a good portion of the day measuring Jordan and taking photos, the beginning of an eight-month process that was to be kept quiet by all involved.

“We had to create it under secrecy,” said Omri of the Jordan statue, adding the aggressive nature of the timeframe was also a stress.

To complicate matters even more, Julie was diagnosed with breast cancer near the end of the clay process in which the subject’s likeness is created in fine detail. Thankfully, the couple had enough time to finish with that stage of the project and send the piece to the foundry for the following steps before she entered an intensive chemotherapy process. Julie has since made a full recovery.

Late in the process, when the project was still in clay, the sculptors needed to do some last minute touchups on the figure’s head, so they requested another meeting with Jordan. He obliged and Omri hit the road, loading the oversized portrait portion of the statue into the passenger’s seat of his car and driving to Nashville. The hot temperatures presented a challenge, as the clay needed to be kept cool, so Amrany’s air conditioning was put to the test. But the trip was a success and following several hours with Jordan in his hotel room, the piece was moving closer to production.

On Halloween night, October 31, 1994, the statue was installed at the United Center despite less than desirable weather conditions. Omri and Julie recalled a “miserable” day, so bad that weather played a part in the crash of American Eagle Flight 4184 in northwest Indiana.

Wrapped in plastic by the foundry so that the design specifics were kept secret until the public unveiling, the statue withstood the stormy, windy, raining conditions and settled into its permanent home.

Finally, on November 1, 1994, the statue was unveiled during a ceremony that also retired Jordan’s famed No. 23.

Shift to public art with an emphasis on sports

Jordan statue

On October 31, 1994, the statue was installed at the United Center despite less than desirable weather conditions. It was unveiled during a ceremony the next night that also retired Jordan’s famed No. 23.

For Omri Amrany and Julie Rotblatt Amrany, the Jordan statue was just the beginning. Though it took a few years, other sports projects started to roll in around 1999.

Now, about a dozen years later, statues of Chicago’s greatest sports icons can be found throughout the Windy City, many of them created at the Fine Art Studio of Rotblatt Amrany.

Jordan isn’t the only member of the Bulls family to be immortalized by Rotblatt Amrany—team legends Scottie Pippen and Johnny “Red” Kerr have busts that reside inside of the United Center as well.

Ernie Banks, Harry Caray and Billy Williams can be found on the North Side around Wrigley Field, with a likeness of the late Ron Santo set to be unveiled Aug. 10.

Surrounding U.S. Cellular Field, one can find bronze tributes to Carlton Fisk and Billy Pierce, and a monument highlighting several of the White Sox’s championship moments. A Frank Thomas piece made its debut on July 31.

This fall, statues for Blackhawks greats Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita will make their debut at the United Center.

Visitors to Soldier Field can enjoy a tribute to Bears legend George Halas.

Other sports figures that the couple has sculpted include Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Vince Lombardi and Curly Lambeau.

In total, Omri and Julie estimate their studio has produced 165 pieces since the Jordan statue unveiling, including 45 alone in 2007.

Artwork remains open to discussion

One story that comes to mind for Omri when thinking about their career is when Michelangelo visited with a group which commissioned art in Forenza, Italy sometime around the year 1500.

As the tale goes, Michelangelo brought with him a clay maquette of the Greek god Apollo to present. His desire was to sculpt a 50-foot piece out of marble, but his idea was rebuffed and he was told to come back in a week with another concept. For his next visit, Michelangelo modified his work and brought a piece of King David, which was approved. David is on display at the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence, Italy and is widely considered one of the art world’s masterpieces.

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“The point is that when you look back at artists through history, since the Greeks up until today, I would say 80-90 percent of the art projects in the world are negotiable between the artist and the community or the committee that assigned the project,” explained Omri. “There will always be a question of how much is the art, and how much is the craft or the gimmicks or whatever. It will always be open to discussion.”

And the discussion, as the sculptors know, comes with the territory when your work is viewed by the masses.

“There is no question we’re in the category of public art,” says Julie. “We’ve been able to express our creativity through these pieces. In the Jordan statue, we were able to do that. In the bottom section of the piece, you see the abstract expressionist style of the figure moving in space. That’s an element that you don’t see in a lot of sports figures. We bring a lot of motion and emotion and abstraction into figures when we can.”

After 24 years of marriage and a successful working relationship, Omri and Julie understand that often times artists are not always recognized until long after their passing.

As Omri pointed out, for example, Antoni Gaudí was a Spanish Catalan architect and artist who died in 1926. But nearly a century later, Spain continues to build his masterpiece, the Sagrada Família, a cathedral in Barcelona. Gaudí’s ideas and vision live on and continue to be fulfilled, even several decades after his passing.

Omri and Julie hope that their work and what they ultimately leave behind will have a similar effect.

“Our career probably will rise many, many years after those who have been sculpted are long gone,” said Omri.

“We will be doing artwork until the day we die, whatever medium that takes is yet to be known,” said Julie. “But it’s the good thing about doing art—you don’t retire from it; you always do it. With age, your concepts become more mature and you take in more wisdom. You begin to express it in a different way. Getting older only helps in the art world.”