My younger brother, Scott, worked as a computer contractor at the Pentagon when the plane hit at 9:37 a.m. ET. He was in the wrong section in the wrong place on the wrong day in the wrong year. He and thousands of others in Lower Manhattan and northern Virginia and a small field in western Pennsylvania never returned home on September 11, 2001. Nothing prepares you for the horror and the shock and definitely not the immediate aftermath of that.
How can you, for instance, deal with waiting all morning and afternoon for a sign of life that never came? Or cope with your mother’s voice cracking on the other end of the line when she gathers just enough strength to say “He didn’t make it” before hanging up? Or reaching out to family and relatives and loved ones and becoming too choked to finish a thought? Or just shaking off the numbness of it all? You can’t, not really; even 20 years later, with a bit of healing from the passage of time, the memory is a fuzzy, confusing blur.
The phone never stopped ringing that day, that night, or the next. People you didn’t know checked in, and people you did know checked in twice and three times. One was Brian McIntyre, an NBA senior vice president, calling on behalf of the league. I was then, and now, a reporter and yet, by virtue of my job on the NBA beat, I was an extension of the NBA family. The conversation was brief and somewhat clumsy, as they all were then. Before it ended, he said: “Let us know if there’s anything we can do.”
That courtesy is probably exchanged a million times a day. You’ve said it, I’ve said it, and it has become a passing comment among friends and colleagues before the good-bye. And I never took anyone up on that, for any reason, large or small … except once. Except this time.
Days turned into weeks and months, and once semi-normalcy returned to our family — obviously, nothing would ever be the same again — I asked McIntyre about that offer.
“Sure. What do you need?”
“Well, just one thing.”
“You think his kids could meet Michael Jordan?”
* * *
My brother was a basketball fan. In effort to spend time together, we’d catch a few games. He braved the polar windchill in Minneapolis when All-Star weekend was there in 1994. He lived in the Washington, D.C. area, and the Wizards were the home team, so that became a closer option. He’d ask about certain players, which wasn’t unusual; as a sportswriter, you ask questions and you also get them. He’d wonder about Jordan; again, a pretty common inquiry for me those days:
“What’s he like?”
For anyone with the misfortune of being born too late to understand the Jordan Era, well, nothing compares today. Jordan was a force of nature. I imagine it was much like Babe Ruth and perhaps Muhammad Ali, both before my time. Did you, like millions, watch “The Last Dance?” As superb as that documentary was, it barely did justice to all Jordan created.
I spent a good chunk of my career reporting on him, worked all six of his championships, worked all the near-misses before those championships when he sparred with the Detroit Pistons, spent months with him and the Chicago Bulls every spring and summer during several playoff runs, spoke to him at practices and games, met him inside the clubhouse at a minor league ballpark in Arizona when he tried baseball (he was so glad to see a familiar NBA face that he pulled up a chair), and just witnessed from point-blank range the enormity of it all. In the 1990s, I was around Jordan more than any athlete.
And so, probably the best way I can describe Jordan is this: He made people temporarily act out of character when they met him for the first time.
I’m not sure that’s true with other great American athletes of today, like Tom Brady and LeBron James. They obviously have their legion of fans and admirers and, unlike Jordan, the added magnification of social media. But at the apex of Jordan’s career, I’ve seen people turn into a puddle in his presence. There is star struck, and then there is star stuck. Grown-ups became kids. Some stood and stared, trance-like. Others stuttered. Nobody stayed normal. It was like a chemical reaction.
During the playoffs once in Detroit, I rode the hotel elevator down with Jordan and two bodyguards. Before we reached the lobby, I warned him, kiddingly: “Now look, when the doors open, there’ll be about 100 people screaming and asking for autographs. This happens to me all the time. Walk slowly, you’ll be fine.” He laughed at that.
My answer to the what’s-he-like questions about Jordan and others is pretty standard: Nobody really knows anybody anymore; you only know what someone allows you to see. That’s what you learn quickly in this business.
But I do know of him.
I knew that he knew the effect he had on folks whenever he entered a room, whenever he extended a handshake, whenever he was nervously approached by strangers. Especially with kids; a minute with Jordan became a moment forever frozen. They all had his sneakers and his poster on the bedroom wall. They all pretended to be him on the playground. They all saw “Space Jam.”
This goes with the territory when you drop 63 points on the great Larry Bird and the Celtics in a playoff game, and go six-for-six in championships, and aren’t slowed by the flu, and shrug off a string of epic 3-point shots, and play with equal passion no matter the month or the season or the game. The World That Jordan Created For Himself is the result of Spike Lee commercials and revolutionizing the sneaker business and selling Wheaties and hawking Hanes underwear.
Jordan handled that with astonishing patience, although I suppose the public crush was annoying at times. While in Washington once, the crown princess of Saudi Arabia wanted an audience with Jordan after a game, and when that was denied, Tim Hallam, the Bulls’ public relations director, contextualized the missed opportunity by famously saying: “There’s a crown princess in every city he goes to.”
Jordan was both understanding and confused by the fuss, an athlete entrapped by his own brilliance and marketing. He once said: “People expect their heroes to be flawless, never to make mistakes. No one never makes mistakes and no one ever does everything right, and I can tell you for sure no one is happy all the time. You’re not a hero when you look at yourself. You just try to do the best you can.”
He knew he could not be everything to everyone. That’s an impossible standard, and maybe society is to blame in a sense; some of us expect more from the famous than we do our teachers and doctors and mailmen, folks with a more direct impact on our daily lives.
The truest test of character, though, is how you treat the people who don’t matter to you, and Jordan by most accounts aced that test. There were too many tales, most undocumented, of Jordan using his celebrity for good, when there were no TV cameras around, when there was nothing for him to gain from the act itself. He already had all the positive publicity he’d ever need, anyway. Some of these deeds came with a firm request from Jordan: Don’t tell the world.
So do me a favor and keep this story to yourself.
* * *
My niece and nephew, desperately missing their father, didn’t say much on the ride downtown to the Wizards’ arena. Nor my daughter, who insisted on coming along — she was only three, couldn’t comprehend the reason for the trip and just wanted ice cream later.
We stood outside the doors to the practice courts. So many times in my professional life, this was standard procedure, a reporter waiting for players to finish up.
Having family around felt surreal in a sense.
Then he turned the corner and went straight to the kids: “What’s up little man” and “hey little girl” and put them at ease. Jordan still knew how to work a room.
Then, with a hug: “Hello mom, glad to see you.”
Then, to me, with a playful dig: “Why’d they bring you?”
There was small talk, handshakes, high-fives for the kids, a “sorry for your loss” and a photo op, which he insisted the adults join. The entire moment was about seven to 10 minutes long, which is all they needed. More than they expected, actually.
Jordan only played one more season, his knees finally exhausted from all the hang time, and then retreated almost totally from the public. Even as the owner of the Charlotte Hornets today, Jordan sightings are fleeting and his media appearances are few.
Although once, about five years ago, he did hold an informal chat with a dozen invited reporters. I showed up, seeing him for the first time since That Day, asked a few basketball questions, and when it was over, headed for the door.
He stopped me. He said: “Everyone good?”
* * *
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