Jordan, Michael (1963—)

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Jordan, Michael (1963—)

The most successful and skilled player in the history of professional basketball, Michael Jordan came into the public eye in the mid-1980s. He went on to win six NBA (National Basketball Association) scoring championships (1990/91, 1991/92, 1992/93, 1995/96, 1996/ 97, 1997/98) and five Most Valuable Player awards (1987/88, 1990/ 91, 1991/92, 1995/96, 1997/98). An international sports icon and a role model for youth and adults alike, Jordan helped redefine the male athlete as a figure of sublime grace, technical skill, and ferocious athleticism. His determination, diligence, and fiercely competitive attitude also enhanced the public perception of black masculinity during the 1980s and 1990s. Aside from his professional prowess, as a commercially valuable endorser and an entrepreneur, Michael Jordan became one of the highest paid sportsmen of his era and announced his final retirement from basketball in 1999 while at the top of his game.

Michael Jordan was born on February 17, 1963, in Brooklyn, New York. His father, James Jordan, was a General Electric employee, and his mother Delores worked as a supervisor at a local bank. Soon after Michael's birth, the family relocated to Wallace, North Carolina, and then to Wilmington, where the young Jordan was raised. In early childhood as well as adolescence, Michael showed exceptional skill in all areas of sports, including baseball and football. When he suffered a minor injury while playing football in high school, his parents encouraged him to pursue basketball. Jordan did not initially make the starting squad for his high school basketball team, but made the lineup in his junior year, having shot up to six-foot-three in height. (He would eventually reach his maximum height of six-foot-six-inches). Much of his early skill and training in basketball was derived from playing with his brother Larry in the backyard at home; in his formative years he also idolized and patterned himself after the legendary Julius Erving (a.k.a. Dr. J.), one of the great players of the 1970s.

After high school, Jordan settled on attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he would play on the basketball team under coach Dean Smith. Although Smith by reputation rarely played his freshmen, Jordan's unique abilities guaranteed him time on the court. The young athlete quickly became known for his incredible agility and dexterity on the court, as well as for his ability to think instinctively and create innovative shots. For his efforts, Jordan was voted ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) Rookie of the Year. After bringing his team to the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) championships, he won nearly every major individual award in college basketball, including the Wooden Award, the Naismith Award, and the Rupp Trophy. He was also voted College Basketball Player of the Year by The Sporting News. In 1984, at 21 years of age, Jordan made the United States Olympic Games basketball team under coach Bobby Knight. Averaging a remarkable 17 points a game, Jordan led the team to a gold medal in eight straight wins. The Olympic win brought Jordan to high visibility in basketball circles and made him a household name in America.

After announcing his decision to leave school early and enter the NBA draft in 1984, Jordan was selected by the Chicago Bulls in the first round (third pick overall). Wearing jersey No. 23 in his rookie professional season, he averaged 28.2 points a game, third highest in the league. With his outstanding leaping ability and uncanny grace in the air, Jordan seemed to defy the laws of gravity. His spectacular individual efforts were fodder for latenight sports highlight programs and quickly fed his growing legend. For the combination of his high scoring abilities and his stylish acrobatics, the handsome, soft-spoken player was voted Rookie of the Year and was rapidly becoming America's best-loved sports star. The (at that time struggling) Nike shoe company took advantage of Jordan's popularity and signed him to a lucrative endorsement deal that resulted in the Air Jordan shoe, which quickly became the most successful product in sports marketing history. The high sales of the product marked the beginning of a long and commercially rewarding relationship between Nike and Jordan.

Throughout his 1985/86 season, Jordan continued soaring to new heights. When he fractured his ankle early in the season, the dedicated star ignored doctors' orders and went back to regular play, despite the danger of doing more serious damage. By the end of the season, however, he had led his team to the playoffs against the Boston Celtics. On May 20, 1986, Jordan established a NBA Playoffs record by scoring 63 points in a single game against the Celtics. He continued his high scoring rate through the 1987/88 season and became the first player to win both the Defensive Player of the Year award and the NBA scoring title in the same year. He also took home the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in the All-Star game. Although he again won the scoring title in the 1988/89 season, Jordan remained personally unsatisfied that he had not yet managed to lead the Bulls past Eastern Conference power (and hated rivals) Detroit and into the NBA finals.

In the 1990/91 season, his seventh in the NBA and under new coach Phil Jackson, Jordan received increased on-court support from his gifted teammate Scottie Pippen. As a result, the Bulls finally advanced past Detroit to an NBA finals showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers. In the much publicized on-court match-up between Jordan and the Lakers' legendary Magic Johnson, the Bulls finally prevailed, and Jordan received the title he had so long fought for. In the following 1991/92 season, he took home his third consecutive MVP award and his sixth straight NBA scoring title with a 30.1 point average per game. In the playoffs that year, the Bulls repeated as champions against the Portland Trailblazers by bouncing back from an 81-78 deficit in the final game. Jordan scored 12 of the Bulls' final 19 points to clinch a 97-93 victory.

The successes continued to rack up for Michael Jordan over the forthcoming seasons. In 1992, he once again joined the U.S. team for the Olympic Games. Supported by Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and others, the American "Dream Team" won their games by an average of 44 points, securing the Gold Medal. In the 1992/1993 NBA season, Jordan took home his seventh straight scoring title and won the championship against Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns. Jordan averaged 41 points per game in the six-game final series.

By this time, Jordan's success had brought him international superstardom, yet his most important role was, perhaps, behind the scenes. In 1990, he had married Juanita Vanoy. Together, the couple would raise three children (Jeffrey, Marcus and Jasmine) in the Highland Park suburb of Illinois, and the sports star would eventually bring home $45 million a year from endorsement deals that ranged from breakfast cereal to his own line of cologne products. He also purchased a restaurant in Chicago, Michael Jordan's Steak House, which instantly became a popular tourist stop. His profile had risen to such an extent that he even hosted an episode of NBC television's Saturday Night Live in 1991.

Although Jordan, well-known for his charity work, was widely recognized as an admirable role model, there were persistent rumors that he had become addicted to gambling, and some began to criticize him for overly aggressive behavior on the court. In 1993, his father was shot to death in South Carolina by two local youths who were attempting to steal his automobile. On October 6th of the same year, in the midst of the tragedy surrounding his father, Jordan shocked the world by announcing his retirement from basketball. He was only 30 and at the peak of his game and popularity. Speculation persisted that Jordan's "retirement" was actually a league-ordered suspension of the NBA's brightest star amid substantiated stories that Jordan was wagering hundreds of thousands of dollars on golf games.

Again to the surprise of the public, Jordan took advantage of his retirement to pursue one of his long lost dreams: he signed with the Chicago White Sox to play minor league baseball, with the swaggering declaration that his ultimate goal was to make the major leagues. Although numerous onlookers took this new career move to be a publicity stunt or a way to stay competitively sharp during his "suspension," many of his fans were intrigued by his daring. Jordan rode the team bus, shared small locker rooms, and received a pittance in comparison to his salary during his tenure with the Bulls. Unfortunately, in contrast to his performance on the basketball court, Jordan's abilities on the baseball field were limited even on a minor-league standard. Yet, his courage to try and his humility on the baseball field made the larger-than-life sports star seem more human and more vulnerable, further endearing him to his already loyal fans. In the meantime, the Chicago Bulls were suffering without their star player and were quickly eliminated from the playoffs. The NBA as a whole also suffered; sorely missing Jordan's star appeal, the playoffs in 1993 between the New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets drew an uncharacteristically low television audience.

Providence intervened for Jordan fans. On March 18, 1995, due to a baseball strike, Jordan returned from his 18-month hiatus from the court to rejoin the Bulls. In his return game—against the Indiana Pacers—Jordan posted 19 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals in 43 minutes of play. Eventually, however, the Bulls were defeated in the playoffs by the Orlando Magic, who were bolstered by the presence of young and versatile players like Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway. In the 1995/96 season, Jordan and the Bulls were joined by the outrageous Dennis Rodman, ironically their longtime nemesis from the Detroit Pistons' Bad Boys days.. Along with Rodman and Pippen, Jordan once again led the Bulls to the NBA title, their fourth in six years. The star also picked up his eighth scoring championship with a 30.4 points per game average, as well as another MVP award; that year he also claimed Sport Magazine's award as the top athlete of the last half of the twentieth century. In 1996, Jordan made his film debut in the half-animation, half-live action star vehicle Space Jam, which was a box office hit.

In the 1997/98 season, Jordan was given a $30 million contract for one year's play, and also earned his fifth MVP Award. He became the first player in history to be selected to the NBA All Defensive First Team nine times, beating Bobby Jones's previous record of eight. Jordan was named MVP of the 1998 All-Star Game, and won his sixth NBA championship after leading the Bulls past the Utah Jazz in the playoffs.

On January 13, 1999, aged 35 and at the top of his game, Michael Jordan again announced his retirement, this time on the heels of a protracted labor dispute which saw the league lock-out the players over a dispute in their collective bargaining agreement. It seemed the proper time for perhaps the greatest player ever to step down. In just 14 years, Jordan had risen not only to a certain place in the basketball Hall of Fame, but also to the highest level of status and achievement in global popular sports culture. Throughout his professional career, he had been a shining symbol of the American Dream, expanding the very possibilities of human achievement in his field. In the June 1998 issue of Hoop magazine, one writer described Jordan professional career as the new "universal measuring device in appraising greatness."

—Jason King

Further Reading:

Halberstam, David. Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made. New York, Random House, 1999.

Jordan, Michael. For the Love of the Game: My Story. New York, Crown Publishers, 1998.

Jordan, Michael. Rare Air: Michael on Michael. San Francisco, Collins Publishers.

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Jordan, Michael (1963—)

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