Say Bonjour to the Jordan Tour

For over three decades, Kevin Haroutounian, Mathieu Delarche and several of their closest friends have devoted their lives to NBA basketball, despite watching from afar over in France. But recently, they’ve all just returned home from the journey of a lifetime in which they retraced the steps of the one who made many of them fall in love with the game in the first place.

Welcome to the Jordan Tour, a one-of-a-kind, 10-day expedition for around 30 travelers that featured multiple stopping points throughout the career of Michael Jordan, now Chairman of the Charlotte Hornets. The trip began on Wednesday, March 23 at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, then onto Emsley A. Laney High School in Wilmington, where Jordan spent his formative years. From there, the group headed west to watch the Hornets pull off a dramatic win over the Utah Jazz on Friday, March 25 at Spectrum Center.

After taking in some NCAA Tournament action over the weekend in Chicago, they crossed the country to California to watch the LA Clippers rally from 25 down to beat the Jazz, 121-115, on Tuesday evening. Finally, everybody headed back to the Windy City to witness DeMar DeRozan score a season-high 50 points in the Bulls’ 135-130 overtime victory over the Clippers two nights later before heading back to France.

[[{"fid":"150817","view_mode":"default","fields":{"format":"default","alignment":"right"},"link_text":null,"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"default","alignment":"right"},"2":{"format":"default","alignment":"right"}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-default media-wysiwyg-align-right","data-delta":"2"}}]]On top of the obvious Jordan ties to Chicago and now Charlotte, the Jazz and Clippers each respectively feature a prominent French basketball figure in three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and former-Hornet Nicolas Batum. Each of the Jordan Tour attendees received color-coordinated shirts to represent different stops on the voyage – Carolina blue for Chapel Hill, teal for Charlotte and red and black for Chicago.

The current calendar year additionally represents a few significant anniversaries in Jordan’s career that have factored into the trip’s itinerary. It’s been 40 years since Jordan led the Tar Heels to the NCAA Championship and 30 years since the Dream Team won gold at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, an event largely credited for really sparking basketball fandom in Europe. It’s also been 30 years since Jordan’s second NBA Championship over the Lakers – hence the Los Angeles tie-in – which marked the beginning of the Bulls’ 1990’s dynasty.  

“Me personally, it was 1988,” says Kevin Haroutounian (pictured above in the front row wearing the red hat), when asked about the beginnings of his basketball fandom. “It was a cool story because at that time in France, all the kids followed soccer. One day, I had trouble with my tooth and I went to the dentist. When I went into the office and waited for him, I read a book on the table and I saw Superman, a guy with a gold chain with incredible sneakers. In my mind, I didn’t understand. I said, ‘Who is this guy? They say he’s flying. He’s incredible.’”

That Superman was none other than Jordan – likely on the cover of Sports Illustrated or another magazine – and from that moment on, Kevin Haroutounian’s life completely changed, although he probably didn’t know it at the time. “I searched many, many newspapers because it was hard to see games on TV in France,” he recalls. “When I saw him play for the first time in 1989 against the Pistons, I loved everything about the basketball games. After that, I played basketball for 10 years. Of course, there was the Dream Team in 1992. It was incredible those guys all together playing. It was a revolution for basketball. We fell in love with the game because of Michael and Magic Johnson, too.” 

“I started following basketball with the Dream Team in 1992,” adds Delarche (front row left), who now rotates his time between running basketball camps in France and leading NBA-centric tours in the United States. “I started following Dominque Wilkins because of the Slam Dunk Contest. The contest [in 1988] between Wilkins and Jordan is why I’m a fan of MJ and Dominique. I played basketball semi-professionally, then became a coach with an academy in France.”

Delarche now runs the Hardwork Association and Hardwork Trips, which organized this first-of-its-kind Jordan Tour. “In 2008, I created a basketball camp called ‘No Pain, No Gain.’ The MVP of the camp won an NBA trip for one week and two NBA games,” he explains. “This was the start of big things. The second year, it was for two people and the winner brought some friends. After the third year, we had 20 people. So, I organize basketball games and at the same time, NBA trips. Every year, we have 40, 50 people.”

Planning the Jordan Tour started over two years ago, just as the COVID-19 pandemic settled in around the world. Kevin Haroutounian and Delarche had known each other beforehand through the French basketball community and began the early stages of putting together this ambitious journey. Says Delarche, “I called Kevin and asked if he’d follow me if I organized a Jordan Tour and he said, ‘Are you crazy? It’s my dream.’ Kevin has many contacts, information and history about Jordan. That’s why I asked him and for me, I have contacts with NBA franchises and in France with people who want to travel to the US.”

As for the rest of the travelers? Most of them were fans in their late 30’s, early 40’s from all different parts of France who have connected with each other via social media. “We’ve followed the NBA since the late 1980’s,” explains Kevin Haroutounian. “We are a group of old fans, so we know the league very well. Some of the guys in the group had never been to the US, so they went for the first time.”

Naturally, Kevin Haroutounian grew up and remains a die-hard Chicago Bulls fan and saw Jordan play at Chicago’s United Center and in Paris for the McDonald’s Championship in 1997. Still though, he’s made a little room in his fandom for the purple and teal. “Most of us liked the Hornets at that time because of Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning. It was a very big team for us in France, especially for the merchandising. The merchandising in France worked very well for the Hornets at that time.”

Using the term ‘fans’ in this particular situation might be selling things short, though. Right now, Kevin Haroutounian’s digital library contains about 13,000 complete NBA games and another 2,000 across high school, NCAA, Olympic and other international competitions. Jordan makes up about 10% of the collection, which also features around 100 Hornets games, as well. Kevin Haroutounian also manages a YouTube account of almost 80,000 subscribers called Clutch23 Production, where many of these videos and highlight packages are featured.

[[{"fid":"150818","view_mode":"default","fields":{"format":"default","alignment":"right"},"link_text":null,"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"default","alignment":"right"}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-default media-wysiwyg-align-right","data-delta":"3"}}]]Outside of the games and significant sites, another major focal point on this trip was sneaker shopping, with numerous stops along the way to pick up new kicks. “Everybody has rooms of shoes in their house,” explains Delarche. “I have something like 200 pairs of Jordan sneakers. Everybody coming is like me. Twenty people coming have more than 100 pairs of Jordan’s.”

Interestingly enough, Kevin Haroutounian isn’t one of these obsessive sneakerheads. “It’s crazy. It’s too expensive for me. I can’t follow that stuff,” he says. “They have 200, 300, 400 sneakers, especially Jordan 1’s. There are just too many models and it’s too hard to follow that movement. I’m not really a big fan of sneakers, but I have some. I have many, many jerseys, about 50 approximately of Shawn Kemp, Tim Hardaway, Dr. J, Magic Johnson. I have one jersey of MJ from 1992 that is signed by him. That is my biggest piece of memorabilia.”

Like nearly all NBA-crazy fans living in Europe, Kevin Haroutounian and the rest of the group have to stay up into the early hours of the morning to watch live game broadcasts because of the time difference, although League Pass has made catching up later on much more feasible. “Back in the 90’s, I went to a friend’s home late at night to see games on VHS tapes,” he says. “It was complicated at that time, but now, I can see many games on the computer or TV.”

Kevin Haroutounian admits his enthusiasm for the game is a lot heavier than most, but at this point, it’s become a part of his identity. “My wife thinks I’m crazy, but my kids love it. I have two children – one is nine, the other is four. My oldest loves my work because I make mixtapes of basketball. In my garden, I have a basketball hoop so we can play. They like my passion. They don’t understand it completely, but they like it. They know I’m a fan and I have fun, so it’s okay. For me, it’s my sport religion.”

And if NBA basketball is Kevin Haroutounian’s deity, then the Jordan Tour represents a long-awaited pilgrimage to the Holy Land, one that undoubtedly featured an abundance of unforgettable memories and moments to last a lifetime.


Main photo and jersey photo courtesy of Nico Hatron