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O'Hare International Airport

George Koehler was cussing to himself.

It was late September in 1984 and Koehler, who owned a limousine service, was at his usual post at O'Hare Airport, holding up a sign for a customer. But as the flight emptied, no one approached him.

"I had just spent 45 minutes parking the car, not to mention paying for parking," Koehler recalled. "Finally, the pilots got off the plane and I asked one of them if there was anyone else aboard and he said, 'Just one more guy. He'll be off in a minute.'

AP Photo/FileIt wasn't long after MJ stepped off the plane at O'Hare that he met his first friend in Chicago.

"I waited a few more minutes and then down the tunnel walks Michael."

A Bulls fan, Koehler, then 29 years old, recognized the skinny 21-year-old top draft pick from North Carolina who had lagged behind to sign autographs for the flight crew. Well, almost recognized him.

"I was excited because I knew who he was and I thought, 'Holy smokes, it's Larry Jordan,' " Koehler said. "I played four years in high school with a guy named Larry Jordan so that name was stuck in my memory bank.

When I saw Michael, I said, 'Larry Jordan.'

"He turned to me and said, 'How do you know my brother?' Obviously, I didn't know he had any siblings, much less one named Larry."

Once they cleared that up, Jordan told Koehler he was going to look for a taxi.

"I just wanted to pay for my parking," Koehler said, "so I said, 'I have a limo. I'll take you anywhere you want to go for 25 bucks.' "

Koehler sensed that his passenger was a little uneasy. "I looked in the rearview mirror and I couldn't even see him because he was scrunched down like a little kid," he remembered. "I don't know if he'd been in a stretch limo before; he didn't know anyone in Chicago, I was a stranger and he was obviously a bit nervous that I could drop him off in an alley somewhere."

Instead, Koehler dropped him off at his destination, the famous purple Lincolnwood Hyatt House, not far from where the Bulls practiced at Angel Guardian Gym. Jordan gave him 50 dollars and told him to keep the change, and Koehler gave him his card.

"I told him, 'If you need to know of any places to live, restaurants to eat, you want to go out for a beer, you've got a friend in Chicago. And oh, by the way, congratulations on your gold medal.'"

Two weeks later, Koehler's phone rang.

"I heard, "Georgie, my boy,'" Koehler recalled. "I'm going, 'Who's this?' and he says, 'It's MJ.' I said, 'I don't know any MJ.' And he says, 'Yes, you do.' And I'm like, 'I'm not going to argue, I don't know who this is."

"And he's like, "Dumb [expletive delete], it's Michael Jordan.' I could hear him grinning."

Jordan asked Koehler to pick his parents up from the airport the next day for his first game and the two struck a handshake deal with Koehler taking him back and forth to O'Hare for road trips all season, after which they would return to Jordan's townhouse in Northbrook, where they would spend hours talking.

"We became friends that way," Koehler said. "And 25 years later I don't drive the limo for him, but we're still really close friends. I've met just about everyone under the sun through Michael. If you picked up a book about Michael's life, it would be my life, just Michael's name on the cover. I don't know if you believe in fate, but I obviously do. My whole life could've been different if my customer had showed up that day.

"Michael likes to tell the story and say, 'George was the first person I ever met in Chicago. He gave me a ride and has taken me for a ride ever since.'"

-- Melissa Isaacson


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