Because the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, isn't it possible that Michael Jordan is not some sort of glorious phenomenon but rather a simple, shining fragment of nature, grounded in family and friends and roots from which he has never strayed? In a word, yes. If the term homeboy wasn't invented for him, surely it should have been.
Only those who have been vacationing in Baghdad for a decade do not know about the Carolina-blue shorts Jordan wears beneath his Bulls uniform to commemorate his undergraduate bliss in Chapel Hill; the "love of the game" clause in his contract, which enables him to join pickup games back on the Hill or in his hometown of Wilmington, N.C., or on the rings of Saturn or anywhere else he wishes; his friendliness and open-faced approach-ability. "Mike will come out to the park and play," says his high school teammate Leroy Smith, now a rep in Los Angeles for a sporting goods manufacturer.
Smith is not speaking in strictly basketball terms. Jordan always played, talked, schmoozed, kidded around, associated, connected with people. "Sometimes I can't believe I actually was on the same team with this guy," says Smith. "But, you know, we all were—or with somebody like him. I see him now, and he's still just...Mike."
Mike? Gatorade didn't originate the tag after all. But if this sounds like another commercial endorsement, that's because sifting through early Jordaniana elicits nothing but homilies about truth, fairness and the politically correct American Way. Through the years, Jordan has been compared with a veritable rainbow coalition of heroes, from Peter Pan to Bill Cosby. Rick Brewer, the sports information director at North Carolina, changed Jordan's name to Michael when he was a freshman only because Brewer thought it sounded better. In maturity, however, Jordan was basically a combo of Richie and the Fonz from the late, lamented TV sap-com Happy Days; if that show had featured a true minority character, he would have been like Mike.
Now, having lost most of his hair and become both a proud father and, in his dotage, one of those tedious, 19th-hole chattering golfers, Jordan hangs on to his own earlier, slap-happy days as if they were sparkling good-luck crystals. Which they may be.
As far back as his years at Trask Junior High and Laney High in the coastal town of Wilmington, Jordan wore his hair so close-cropped that the older guys would give him noogies and call him Bald Head. His dad, James, who worked his way up at the General Electric plant from mechanic to dispatcher to foreman to the coat-and-tie supervisor of three departments, also found time to build a dirt basketball court and two plywood goals out in the backyard. And Jordan's beloved golf? His college roommate, Buzz Peterson (now an assistant coach at North Carolina State), and fellow Tar Heel Davis Love III (now a veteran on the PGA Tour) introduced him to the links as a kind of therapy following the Tar Heels' 1984 NCAA tournament upset loss to Indiana, still the most devastating defeat in Jordan's (and coach Dean Smith's) career.
Memories. Crystals. Jordan ravages the NBA wearing the left-arm brace he donned in college to honor Peterson, who suffered a leg injury against Virginia in 1983 that ended his season. Jordan travels the world checking into hotels under an alias borrowed from the 6'8" fellow who beat him out for the last spot on the Laney team in '78, when Jordan was a callow sophomore, the aforementioned Leroy Smith. Jordan shares sports trivia and pool cues, business deals and advancing baldness with Adolph Shiver of Charlotte, who was recently introduced on Oprah as "Michael's best friend" and who introduced himself to Jordan on a junior high playground in '76 by talking trash with a toothpick in his mouth. When Jordan is feeling especially blue—most recently over the ordeal of Magic Johnson—he still picks up the car phone and calls David Bridgers, a short, slight Anyman who wears a baseball cap and lives in a trailer in Wilmington with his wife and baby daughter and who manages Hill's Grocery now that the local Kroger, where he used to work, has shut down.
In chronological order, relationshipswise, that's Bridgers to Shiver to Smith to Peterson; white to black to black to white. Is it any wonder that Jordan would later become known in marketing circles as sports' first multi-racial-societal crossover? Something like that.
Jordan and Bridgers have been cheering each other up since they were in the third grade, playing baseball and riding bicycles together through the woods around Weavers Acres in North Wilmington. Jordan claimed "family time" was responsible for his snubbing of President Bush in October at the Rose Garden ceremony honoring the NBA champion Bulls; in reality, he was playing golf with a passel of old buddies, including Shiver and Bridgers. "Mike told me last summer to lose my Fu Manchu mustache before Hilton Head," says the 5'9" Bridgers. "I said sure—so long as he got rid of his earring. So I shave and show up, and there he is, that ear rock glittering away. Then he has the nerve to smile and say: 'And it's staying. But David, you sure look good.' Mike? That mug is some shyster."
Jordan's mother, the former Deloris Peoples, met James Jordan (whom she calls Ray) in 1956 after a high school basketball game in Wallace, N.C., some 40 miles north of Wilmington, when she and her cousin caught a ride home with him. She was sitting in the backseat when James almost went past her house. "Oh, I didn't realize I had somebody else in here," he said. "You're pretty cute."
"You're pretty fresh," she said.
"Could be. But someday I'll marry you," he said.
She was all of 15, but someday came surely enough a few years later after Deloris, homesick at Tuskegee (Ala.) Institute, returned to the Wilmington area and to James, then on leave from the Air Force. The Jordans had "two sets of children" (Deloris's term): James Ronald, now 35, an Army sergeant working in communications at Fort Monmouth, N.J., and Deloris Chasten, 34, a homemaker in Philadelphia, compose the first set; Larry, 29, Michael, 28, and Roslyn, 27, the second.
The Jordan parents, along with Larry and Roslyn, now work for companies associated with their famous son/sib and live in Charlotte, N.C. Oddly enough, Mike was born at the Cumberland County Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., while his father was in Air Force training. Upon returning to North Carolina, the Jordans moved from tiny Wallace to Wilmington, where James built a large, split-level tan brick and clapboard house on Gordon Road with 12 acres of fields out back and the St. Paul's Missionary Baptist Church across the street. The mostly black Weavers Acres neighborhood lies about halfway between downtown and the beach, three miles away, where the Jordans used to buy fresh shellfish or just sit at night on a dock and listen to the ocean.
Jordan takes his sense of humor from his dad, who used to do work around the house with his tongue hanging out (sound familiar?), his sense of business from his mom and his work ethic from both. "The Jordans are from the old school, where education and teachers and administrators meant something to parents," says Laney High principal Kenneth McLaurin. Young Mike got in trouble in school only once, when he skipped class to go across the street for some junk food at the minimart. Suspended, Mike was made to accompany his mother to her job at the United Carolina Bank, where he studied all day. "The first year I had him, he was scared to death," recalls Janice Hardy, who taught Jordan algebra and trigonometry at Laney. "I liked that. The next year he wound up in the front row. He'd laugh at my jokes and muss my hair. I must have been a pretty good teacher—he's worth, what, a trillion a couple of times over?"
Jordan's legacy in education and finance seems to have been grasped only partly by his six-year-old nephew, Corey Peoples, who, when editorializing upon some recent problems at school, announced, "I don't have to do no work; I got the richest uncle in the world." Jordan's response was to promise Corey $20 for every A he earned—a bribe, perhaps, but one with a worthy message. Maybe this is what Mike meant when he told NBC's Maria Shriver last August that "even my mistakes have been perfect."
But, as even his mother allows, Michael hasn't always been perfect. "Way back when I came crying home from Tuskegee, my mother should have put me right back on the train," she says. "I wanted to correct that error with our kids. Mike wasn't the easiest to bring up. We had to be stern. But if I'd had to pick one of the children who would turn out this way, yes, he would have been the one."
In fact, Michael was the laziest of the Jordan offspring. "Never knew him to hold a job—or want to," says Larry, only semilaughing. Larry is the storied Jordan brother whom Mike credits with motivating him to much of his success in basketball, the 5'7" brother who teased Mike about his big ears and then fought him and dunked on him and beat him all the time in the backyard until Mike couldn't take it anymore and decided to grow nearly a foot taller.
"We grew up one-on-one," says Larry, who played in the 6'4"-and-under World Basketball League two years ago. "But the last time we competed, he just looked down at my feet, and he said, 'Remember whose name is on your shoes.' "
While the eldest Jordan brother, who's known as Ron, drove a school bus and worked at Shoney's before leaving for his life in the military, and while Larry is mechanically oriented, quiet and thrives on privacy, Mike seemed allergic to toil anywhere but on athletic fronts. He bribed his brothers and sisters to get out of doing errands. He was the ultimate jock, the social animal. "He could never be in his room by himself," says his mother. "He always had to go out, spend the night with a friend, go camping." Jordan quit his only high school job, at a Wilmington hotel, posthaste. "Mom!" he explained. "What if my friends saw me? The boss had me out on the sidewalk, sweeping!"
In high school Mike's friends ranged across the board, from ballplayers to members of the student government to debaters to guys in the band (in which he once played the trumpet).
"Laney seemed like a family back then," says Leroy Smith. "It had about a 60-40 white-to-black ratio, but it was really cool. No tension or anything. It was a new school. For there to be no real 'sides'—that was unusual. Mike being Mike, he was unusual too. We all were searching for an identity. But Mike...it was like he'd already found his."
Pre-high school, Jordan's close friend Bridgers, the son of a taxi driver, had moved to Wilmington from South Dakota. But after his parents were divorced, James Jordan became a surrogate dad to this white kid from another planet who shared with Mike a passion for baseball. The two alternated pitching and playing centerfield on a Little League team that made the district playoffs and fell one game short of making the Little League World Series (Jordan pitched a two-hitter but lost 1-0 in the last game). "Before every pitch, I'd look at Mike in center, and he'd give me thumbs-up," says Bridgers. "With him on the mound, I'd do the same."
While riding bikes one summer afternoon, they jumped into a neighbor's swimming pool. The owners weren't home, but Bridgers knew the babysitter. What he didn't know was that the owners would return right away.
"They saw Mike and threw us out," Bridgers says. "The rest of the bike ride he was very quiet. I asked him if he knew why they threw us out. He said yes. I asked if it bothered him. He said no. Then he just smiled. I'll never forget it. He said, I got cooled off enough. How about you?' Mike taught me a lot about dealing with prejudice.
"I got called nigger lover and white trash, but he showed me how to ignore it. Once when I was visiting Mike up at a party in Chapel Hill, a fight broke out along racial lines. He got me out of there quick. Mike always said, 'Don't worry about race unless somebody slaps you in the face.' He's so positive. Every time I see him, it's a natural high."
Jordan's gravest burden may have come in high school when he was compelled to handle a "situation" in which his two best friends nearly came to blows over remarks Shiver made to Bridget's girlfriend. Bridgers had gone for a stick, but Jordan stopped him from using it and went after Shiver himself. "Mike didn't exactly mediate," says a man who remembers the day. "He threw Adolph up against the wall and threatened to kill his butt if that happened again. It was the only time we'd ever seen him lose his cool."
Somehow Shiver and Bridgers both still take part in Jordan's golf outings, coexisting peacefully, perhaps out of respect for their mutual pal. But, oh, those gimmes.
Ordinarily, though, the young Jordan was reluctant to confront emotionally charged situations. While he was away at college, a high school friend named Cynthia Canty died of kidney failure. Jordan went to Wilmington to pay his respects, but he didn't go to the funeral. Likewise, when his grandmother Rosa-bell Jordan died, he couldn't bear to attend the ceremony. Last Christmas an interviewer asked Jordan what gift he would cherish most. He said one more visit with Rosabell. Says Deloris, "Mike carries a lot inside him. I read that, and I knew."
There weren't always easy times on the basketball court either. The Laney Buccaneers won 19 games in Jordan's senior season, but they were eliminated by New Hanover in the conference tournament when Jordan fouled out against the Wildcats, a team that featured Kenny Gattison (currently of the Charlotte Hornets) and Clyde Simmons (of the NFL Philadelphia Eagles).
Still to come, though, would be Jordan doing the following: nailing the basket that won the NCAA championship for the Tar Heels, receiving two college player of the year awards, leading the 1984 U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal, winning five scoring titles in the pros and ultimately carrying the Bulls to the NBA championship. Oh, yes, and appearing on the front of the Wheaties box, which Deloris says is what makes her the most proud. "How many moms can walk in the grocery store and see their son all over the cereal counter?" she asks.
There were five Jordans in the class of 1981 at Laney High, four girls—one of them Roslyn, who was able to skip a grade so she could accompany her brother to Chapel Hill—and Michael Jeffrey, whose credits in the yearbook, The Spinnaker, read in part: "Homeroom Rep 10, Spanish Club 11...New Hanover Hearing Board 12...Pep Club 10." The Spinnaker sailed into prescient waters with its parting message to the school's basketball stars, Jordan and Smith: "Laney only hopes that you...expand your talents to make others as proud of you as Laney has been. Always remember Laney as your world."
Little could The Spinnaker staff have known that soon enough those two alums would turn out to be the same man—at least in some hotels on some road trips. Or that jug-eared Michael Jeffrey Jordan, all by himself, would pull off one more flying, spinning, double reverse and turn the entire world into just another little piece of Laney.