Jordan, Michael Jeffrey ("Air")

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JORDAN, Michael Jeffrey ("Air")

(b. 17 February 1963 in Brooklyn, New York), basketball player who won a college national championship, two Olympic gold medals, and six National Basketball Association titles, making an impact that both defined and transcended his sport.

Jordan is one of the five children of Deloris Jordan and James Jordan. When Michael was still young, the family moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, where his father worked for General Electric and his mother worked for a bank. At the age of seven Jordan almost drowned in an incident that killed a friend. Otherwise Jordan's childhood was relatively typical. Nothing foreshadowed his eventual athletic exploits, although he excelled at youth baseball and played a lot of backyard basketball against his older brother Larry Jordan. "If I could beat him, I felt I could beat anybody," Michael Jordan said years later.

In time Jordan could beat his brother and just about anyone else, but not before he swallowed a dose of humility from his high school basketball coach. As a sophomore at Laney High School in Wilmington, Jordan was cut from the varsity squad. From then on his life seemingly became a quest to meet challenges and to prove himself. Jordan is quoted by Bob Greene in Hang Time (1992) as saying: "It made me know what disappointment felt like. And I knew that I didn't want to have that feeling ever again." He soon grew taller than everyone in his family, and he made the varsity team as a junior. By his senior year Jordan was almost six feet, six inches tall and was recruited by some of the country's top college basketball programs. He chose the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

For the 1981–1982 season North Carolina started four players from a team that had advanced to the national championship game the previous spring. In an uncharacteristic move, legendary coach Dean Smith made the freshman Jordan his fifth starter. The newcomer did not disappoint, averaging 13.5 points per contest and hitting the winning shot against Georgetown University in the national championship game on 29 March 1982. Jordan claimed he had dreamed about such an ending a few hours before and later said, "I think that shot really put me on the map." By the end of his junior season in 1984, he was a unanimous choice for college Player of the Year.

With Smith's blessing, Jordan decided to forgo his senior season at North Carolina to enter the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft. He was selected third overall by the Chicago Bulls, behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie. But before he began his professional career, Jordan played on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team that won a gold medal in Los Angeles, and he paced the squad in scoring. When Jordan did take to the NBA hardwood, he was dynamic. Averaging 28.2 points per game, he led the previously hapless Bulls to the playoffs in the 1984–1985 season. He was an All-Star guard and won the league's Rookie of the Year award.

As his thrilling moves, spectacular dunks, and winning personality captivated America, Jordan began to reach an audience beyond traditional basketball fans. Nike's new Air Jordan basketball shoes sold fast, and before long people used the phrase "Air Jordan" to refer to both the sneakers and the player himself. His closely cropped hair and, when he played, protruding tongue also became popular trademarks.

The phenomenon was briefly halted early in the 1985–1986 season, when Jordan broke a bone in his foot. He missed sixty-four games, and the Bulls management wanted him to sit out the entire year. But Jordan undertook a rigorous rehabilitation regimen and insisted on returning to the lineup in time for the playoffs. Once there he was unstoppable, scoring forty-nine points in the first game of Chicago's opening-round series against the Boston Celtics. He set a postseason record of sixty-three points in a double-overtime loss in game two that mesmerized a nationwide television audience. Boston swept the series, but Larry Bird of the Celtics called his opponent "God disguised as Michael Jordan."

Jordan's legend grew from there. In 1986–1987 Jordan won the first of his record number of ten scoring titles, averaging 37.1 points per game. He followed that by scoring 35 points per contest in 1987–1988 and capturing the league's Most Valuable Player (MVP) and Defensive Player of the Year honors. He also won the NBA's slam-dunk competition during both seasons and was the All-Star game MVP in the latter season. In 1988–1989, Jordan averaged 32.5 points and achieved career bests of eight rebounds and eight assists per game.

The Bulls were labeled a one-man team that could not win a championship with Jordan dominating the action. His critics said he was good enough to make Chicago a playoff team and to win a series or two, but not good enough to carry the Bulls past a deep team like the Detroit Pistons. Despite the addition of the budding stars Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, Chicago fell to Detroit in the 1988 and 1989 playoffs. The 1989 loss in the Eastern Conference finals was especially disheartening since it followed the exhilaration of a last-second, series-winning shot by Jordan that had eliminated the Cleveland Cavaliers in round one.

Surprising many, the Bulls management fired head coach Doug Collins and replaced him with Phil Jackson. Jackson installed a "triangle" offense to get other players on the team more involved. "In the beginning, I fought the triangle," Jordan admitted in his book For the Love of the Game (1998). But he soon realized its effectiveness and used it to his and the team's advantage. Jordan still averaged 33.6 points per game during the 1989–1990 season, the best of the league, and he tallied career highs of 69 points and 18 rebounds against Cleveland on 28 March 1990. However, the Bulls again lost to the Pistons in the conference finals, four games to three, and the critics remained.

The 1990–1991 season marked Chicago's breakthrough. Jordan again led the NBA in scoring, but Pippen was becoming one of the league's best players. The Bulls won sixty-one games and finally got past Detroit in the conference finals, four games to none. Playing for the championship against Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago dropped the first game of the series but won the next four to take the trophy. Jordan added the MVP honors for the finals to his second league MVP award. One shot Jordan made in game two, after switching the ball from his right hand to his left in midair, may be the most memorable moment of a career filled with the spectacular.

As defending champions, the Bulls were even better. Chicago won sixty-seven games in 1991–1992, and Jordan again took home the league and finals MVP hardware along with his customary scoring title. The Bulls victimized Clyde Drexler and the Portland Trail Blazers in the championship series this time, four games to two. Jordan's moment of glory came during game one, when he made six three-point shots in the first half and looked as surprised as the audience witnessing the outburst. "The rim seemed like a big old huge bucket," he explained afterward.

During the summer of 1992 Jordan played on the U.S. Olympic "Dream Team" in Barcelona, Spain. It was the first time American professionals were allowed to participate in the Olympics, and Jordan collected a second gold medal. Pippen was also on the squad, and when he and Jordan returned to Chicago for the 1992–1993 season, they appeared tired. Nevertheless the Bulls won their division, and after Jordan eliminated Cleveland from the playoffs with another series-winning shot and helped the team overcome a two-game deficit to defeat the New York Knicks in the conference finals, they were back playing for another title. Chicago beat the Phoenix Suns in six games to win a third consecutive championship. Jordan averaged a record forty-one points per contest in the series and again was named MVP of the finals.

Although it may have seemed like Jordan's success could go on forever, he was exhausted, both physically and mentally. His popularity was such that he could not go anywhere without being mobbed. Furthermore he was criticized in Sam Smith's controversial book The Jordan Rules (1992) for treating teammates poorly, and he did not join them at a White House championship ceremony. His gambling habits were questioned, as he reportedly lost large sums of money betting on golf matches and took a late night trip to Atlantic City with his father during the playoffs. When his father was murdered in the summer of 1993, Jordan was devastated. "He was my best friend and knew everything about me," wrote Jordan in For the Love of the Game. On 6 October 1993 Jordan retired from basketball saying he had nothing left to prove. But undoubtedly he was motivated by more than that.

A few months later Jordan decided to give professional baseball a try, something he had previously discussed with his father. He signed a contract with the Chicago White Sox, owned by Jerry Reinsdorf, who also owned the Bulls, and was assigned to the minor league Birmingham Barons. Jordan batted .202, knocked in 51 runs, and stole 30 bases in 127 games with the Barons in 1994 before joining the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .252 in 35 games. However, thirty-one-year-old rookie outfielders who have not played since their teenage years have never been in much demand in the major leagues. When a labor dispute threatened spring training games in 1995, Jordan chose to return to basketball, issuing a statement that simply said, "I'm back."

Jordan played seventeen regular-season games with the Bulls wearing uniform number 45 instead of his normal, retired number 23. Regardless, it did not take him long to shake off any rust. In his first week back he hit a shot at the buzzer to beat the Atlanta Hawks, and on 28 March 1995 he scored fifty-five points against the Knicks. However, Chicago lost its second-round playoff series to the Orlando Magic. Jordan returned to wearing number 23 and promised he would be better prepared for another championship run the next season. He went as far as to have a special basketball court set up on the Warner Brothers lot while he filmed the animated movie Space Jam (1996) over the summer.

Thus began the second act of Jordan's NBA dominance. During the off-season the Bulls acquired the rebounding ace and notorious bad boy Dennis Rodman to complement the duo of Jordan and Pippen. In 1995–1996, Chicago set a league record with seventy-two wins and defeated the Seattle Super Sonics in the finals, four games to two. Coincidentally, the series clincher occurred on Father's Day, and Jordan wept openly afterward.

In 1996–1997 the Bulls won sixty-nine more games and beat the Utah Jazz for the championship. In game one of the finals Jordan hit another winning shot at the buzzer, and in a game five victory he scored thirty-eight points while noticeably weakened by a stomach virus. "There were times in the third and fourth quarters that I felt like I was going to pass out," recalled Jordan. Utah was again victimized in the finals the next season. In the closing moments of game six Jordan stripped the ball from the Jazz star Karl Malone and subsequently swished a jump shot to win the series. "It was like I was watching everything unfold in slow motion on television," described Jordan. "I had no intention of passing the ball under any circumstances. I figured I stole the ball and it was my opportunity to win or lose the game."

When the ball went through the net, it was also Jordan's opportunity to leave basketball in storybook fashion. On 13 January 1999, after an NBA labor dispute was settled, the thirty-five-year-old did just that, announcing his retirement for a second time. His return had produced three more scoring titles, NBA championships, and finals MVP awards and two more league and All-Star MVP trophies. That gave him career totals of ten scoring titles, six NBA championships, six finals MVP awards, five league MVP trophies, three All-Star MVP trophies, two Olympic gold medals, and one college national championship. In December 1999 ESPN-TV named Jordan the greatest North American athlete of the twentieth century. No one else was pictured on as many Sports Illustrated magazine covers.

In terms of societal impact, Jordan single-handedly boosted television ratings and the sales of the products he promoted. He made hundreds of millions from basketball and endorsements, yet few accused him of being overpaid because he generated far more. Despite occasional criticism that Jordan has not used his money and influence to effect needed social change, he is more often praised for his charitable endeavors and traditional values. He returned to North Carolina and earned his degree in geography in 1986. On 2 September 1989 he married Juanita Vanoy; they have three children.

Contradicting earlier claims he was not interested in owning a team, Jordan became a part owner of the NBA's Washington Wizards in 2000. In 2001 he relinquished his ownership to return to court for the Wizards at the age of thirty-eight, despite having said he was 99.9 percent sure he would never play again when he retired in 1999. From his hobby of golf to his vocation of basketball, the ultimate competitor still seeks challenges. "To compete to win, that's all I live for really."

Jordan wrote Rare Air (1993) and For the Love of the Game (1998). Information about Jordan's career is in Bob Greene's biography Hang Time (1992). Sam Smith criticized him in The Jordan Rules (1992). Quotes and career highlights are in NBA videos about Jordan, including Come Fly with Me (1990), On and Off the Court (1993), Above and Beyond (1996), and His Airness (1999). Other details are in the Jordan career retrospective at <>.

Jack Styczynski

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Jordan, Michael Jeffrey ("Air")

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