Michael Jordan didn't leave the NBA to play baseball. He left retirement -- the first of his three retirements, actually -- to play baseball, and for a lot of his peers, that dampened the surprise and shock of Jordan's decision.
As fascinating as Jordan's dabble in the national pastime 15 years ago might have been for crossover sports fans and those of us who rotated our after-school athletics with each season, it was mostly bewildering and head-scratching for a lot of the fellas he had left behind. Less Bo Jackson as a Raider and a Royal than Joe Namath as a quarterback and an actor, or William Shatner as a star fleet commander and a crooner.
"Did it intrigue me? No,'' Kevin McHale said flatly. The current Timberwolves coach was fresh off a Hall of Fame basketball career himself at the time, a fierce competitor from the rival Boston Celtics who had seen Jordan's Bulls match his own three NBA championships. But he didn't anticipate the Chicago superstar adding any World Series rings to his trophy cases. Not even close.
"I don't remember exactly what I was thinking, but I'm sure I thought he was silly,'' McHale said. "That's just not how it works. If athletics transferred over, your best basketball player would be your best tennis player, who would be your ... it doesn't. You individually hone skills for your game, which don't translate to any other game. You can be a great, great player in our league and not be able to play football. You can be a great basketball player and be a 20-handicapper in golf. It happens all the time. In fact, I know a lot of those guys in the latter category.''
Had Jordan pursued golf, where his physiological clock wouldn't have been ticking quite the same -- at 31 in 1994 he was old for baseball, but he would have had plenty of time to target a spot on the Champions Tour -- it all might have made sense. But then, golf was something that baseball was supposed to take Jordan away from. Because of, you know, all the golfers who happen to, er, gamble.
"There were two things you thought about when you heard he was going to play baseball,'' a former NBA coach told me. "First, were three titles enough for him? There was talk that he was burned out. The other thing was, you wondered how much the league was involved in it, after all the talk about Michael and gambling and needing to step back from that. People on the outside didn't look at it that way, but those of us in the inner circle did.
"As someone who worked for one of the other teams, I was just glad he was taking time off.''
Former NBA forward Ed Pinckney was in Jordan's school class all the way through. They were born 38 days apart, so they wound up participating in the same McDonald's All-American game, attending the same Five-Star Basketball Camp and playing as teammates in the Pan American Games. Pinckney says he had no inkling of Jordan's baseball jones.
"I knew he liked golf, though,'' said Pinckney, who got to the NBA one year after Jordan, sticking around for Villanova's 1985 NCAA championship. "I remember on all of our trips -- and I wondered if they specifically tried to do this for him -- there were always these little putting greens in the hotels we stayed in. He was always on them. Guys were playing cards in their rooms, just joking and hanging out -- we're freshmen and sophomores in college -- but this guy liked to just putt.''
So when Pinckney heard that Jordan was going to chase curveballs?
"He, I guess, thought ... I don't know what he thought, to be honest with you,'' said Pinckney, who played 12 NBA seasons, was with Boston when Jordan switched sports and is currently a Timberwolves assistant coach. "Everybody else around the league thought that this guy is just heading into his prime, and to chase something that maybe's not going to happen -- he's so great -- why would he take the time, or waste the time, to do that?''
Pinckney, by the way, played baseball himself. But he grew three inches as a freshman in high school, on his way to 6-foot-9, at which point basketball pretty much selected him.
"I remember a press conference where Michael talked about Little League,'' he said, "and I'm like, 'Little League?' The pros are going to be a little different. You watched him in those first games and batting practice, that just never computed to me. It never made sense. 'I'm going to go try this, to see if I can do this.' What?''
That such a dream or brainstorm or delusion would come so far from left field, figuratively and literally, had people squinting hard at Jordan to see his motives. It drove whispers that NBA commissioner David Stern imposed the hiatus (i.e., unofficial suspension) on the game's biggest star because of his gambling habit. It raised questions about Jordan's hubris, and the cockeyed notion that he could nimbly slide over from hardwood to diamond with anything approaching proficiency. It even impressed some of his basketball buddies, considering how he set himself up to struggle and even fail in such a public way.
"Sometimes, with greatness, you get kind of bored, maybe,'' Pinckney said, like most of us, merely guessing. "You've destroyed the competition and there's kind of nowhere left to go. He never, at least I think, looked at [basketball] from just a numbers standpoint -- 'I want to get to some big total, points-wise.' His thing was, 'I just want to win championships, and I've won [three], so what else do I have left? Maybe I'll try some baseball.' ''
There was something of a multisport sweet spot in play at the time, with Jackson and Deion Sanders and one or two others trying to excel at different games. It didn't last. To Pinckney, at least, Jordan's swoosh-clad toe-dip into baseball at least encouraged other athletes to challenge themselves in new ways.
"Michael sort of set the standard, in terms of how guys think about the game off the court, with endorsements and how they're supposed to conduct themselves,'' Pinckney said. "That, I think, now spills into the summertime as well. Guys try to find different things to do, whether it be acting or whatever. But I've never heard a guy like LeBron [James] saying, 'In a couple of years, I'm going to try to be a tight end.' If he did, it might be pretty good, but ... ''
Or then again, not.
"Lester Hayes was one of the last guys who did something,'' McHale said of two-sport ambitions. Told that he probably meant Bob Hayes, the Olympic sprinter-turned-NFL Hall of Fame receiver, McHale didn't blink. "Considering they've been trying it for a long time and I have to go back to Bob Hayes to give you a name, how do you think that's working out for them?
"I just thought, if Michael Jordan can play baseball, then he's a hell of a lot better than I thought he was -- at baseball.''