People this week are scrambling to come up with highlights and doing interviews about the man that changed the NBA on the court and in the world of endorsements. He transcended a sport from the hard court in the U.S. to become an international showcase. Some of us were on the journey early on and throughout his career in Chicago.
For me, it was a great ride because the Bulls were fortunate to grab him as the third overall pick, since Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie went one and two. NBA basketball in Chicago would never be the same, the rafters at the United Center are filled with six NBA Championship banners and jersey #23 is retired because of Michael.
Everyone knows about the games he played and his stellar career. There are plenty of stories to tell. From the beginning of his time with the Bulls until his first retirement, Jordan was the most accessible player to the media. He would talk to every single member of the Chicago media before and after games. At the various practice facilities, Angel Guardian, the Multi-Plex and finally the Berto Center, he granted countless opportunities to talk to him.
I have done several one-on-one interviews with him, as well as the group encounters. The best time was night training camp sessions, sometimes I would be the only media member and we would have great chats. We would also talk before games about everything, on and off the record. That is how he told me about his love for baseball and eventually, it opened the door for me to be part of breaking the story of his efforts to play for the White Sox.
When Michael was in Sarasota working out at the Sox spring training camp, I continue to cover him there. He was up early at the batting cages trying to convert to baseball but he was unable to master that sport.
There were rumblings that Jordan was finished with the baseball diamond when I was at the Berto with a different set of reporters that were now covering the Bulls. The curtain was closed, but I knew the sound was from the days when Jordan practiced. After a few phone calls, the pieces had started to fit together. Michael was working out with the Bulls. After the few media members left (the coverage was so minimal at this point) I made some inquires with great sources and found out I was right. MJ was making a comeback. We broke the story on AM 1000 and waited for his official word on a press release "I'm back" a few days later.
Jordan returned to the team, but he had changed with the media. He would talk after games, but he was wary about the coverage during his retirement/baseball period. Fortunately, he still gave me and some other reporters the opportunity to still sit down for one-on-one sessions. It is not as though we were great friends, it was a very respectful and professional rapport we had for each other.
And here's the story about Jordan and his birthday in 1986. That of course was the season MJ had broken his foot at Golden State and missed the majority of the season. It was also the year the station I was working for-WMAQ-AM and it had received the radio broadcast rights for the Bulls games. Before the injury, the station was so excited to have the NBA “Rookie of the Year” and was crest-fallen once he got hurt. Like this year, the city has the big Auto Show during this week.
Jordan was a spokesperson for Chevrolet and since he wasn’t playing he was asked to come by WMAQ’s booth to sign autographs. MJ was planning to drive to North Carolina for his birthday the next day to continue his rehab, but agreed to make the unscheduled appearance. There were a few of us from the station there and I told our promotions manager that it was Michael’s birthday.
They had a basketball cake made and he was surprised that I knew it was his birthday. It was simple, from the day Jordan was drafted and I saw his birthday, it was the first connection we would have. That day is also my birthday.
The craziest thing about that appearance was an announcement was made that Michael Jordan was by our booth with Chevrolet, it seemed every person that was at McCormick Place headed to see the Bulls star. That is when it really hit me: Jordan’s popularity was huge. And that was just the beginning.
There is more to tell, we’ll leave that for another occasion. Happy Birthday, Michael! (But it was mine first.)