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The Life


ESPN The Magazine: Flinch First? Not Me
ESPN The Magazine

You see him this morning at his glass and polished-metal desk, framed between the large windows that look off through the rare air of highrise Michigan Avenue, and you think: Nobody has ever looked better in an Italian suit. Michael Jordan is tailored as only a man who is built like a 6'6" panther can be. This is the corporate headquarters for Jordan's Jump Inc., and this is the president, and he's pulling in about $75 million this year from all his ventures. Rumor is Michael once turned down 50 million dollars worth of deals proffered by his agent in a single meeting.

Less than 16 hours ago, Jordan wore a much different uniform as he scored 35 points in a 90-84 win in Indianapolis. The loss was devastating for the Pacers, essentially knocking them out of contention for the Eastern Conference crown. Did Jordan feel for the victims of the pain? Not a whit. He knows real pain. That occurred when his father, James, was murdered five years ago. And it comes now from not knowing if the team for which he has won five NBA championships even wants to sign him for another year. And it comes from having his favorite bodyguard, a veteran Chicago cop, ensconced in a nearby hospital battling cancer.

But Michael Jordan bounces back from everything. One of his pet sayings is, "I'll get over it." Jordan has an aura that spreads around him, a vapor of intensity and majesty, and a certain dangerous innocence that makes people near him pay attention, gawk even. Jordan sits forward in his chair now and talks freely, confidently. It strikes one that seldom has a star been so comfortable with his station as Jordan is with his. He will talk, through phone rings and secretary memos, on a wide range of subjects until his wife, Juanita, and driver/pal George Kohler arrive and the three leave to visit Jordan's ailing buddy. -- R.T.

***

People wonder what it's like being rich, making a lot of money. But I never look at it in that vein. I never look at it as how much do I make, how much do I have in my pocket. I look at it as, I know I can enjoy life. The money allows me to make the decisions I want.

I like business, sometimes. I can't say I love it every day. It intrigues me, but it doesn't control me. But I'm in pretty deep now. Still, if everything I'm in went belly up, it wouldn't bother me. It would just indicate that the public has taken a whole different turn in how it thinks about the persona of Michael Jordan. I don't want to fail, but I'm not afraid to.

Which is how I was when I tried professional baseball back in 1993. Business is basically the same thing. If it doesn't work, I can take it as a learning experience and move on. But honestly, I think I would have been a major league player if I'd played baseball all along.

That's the problem I still have with Sports Illustrated. I haven't talked to them since they had that cover ["Bag It, Michael! Jordan and the White Sox are Embarrassing Baseball"], and I'm going to hold to it. What they said was totally wrong. Totally wrong. They didn't even have an understanding of the situation. I mean, if they would have at least investigated things, they would have known what I was doing. But they made their own assumption. I mean, isn't America all about trying? The other day I saw Garth Brooks trying to play baseball. And he's older than me, isn't he?

That reminds me of the celebrities who come out when we play in New York. Springsteen came to the last Knicks game, the one everybody said could be my last in the city. I don't know Bruce, but I know his accomplishments. Him being there was pretty big. I always feel pumped in New York, because I see the respect people pay when they come to the games. And that pumps more blood into me.

When I'm playing at the Garden, I try not to gaze into the crowd. But I can see certain people, like Spike Lee, of course. But the last game, you know who I saw? Earl the Pearl Monroe. Now that was a big pump. He's sitting by Spike and he sees some of the trash-talking I was doing with Spike, and he starts laughing, because he understands. A big pump.

Old Earl. Our general manager Jerry Krause always brags that he found Earl Monroe. I always say to Krause, "What pick did you take him for the Bullets? No. 2, right? You don't think someone would have found him at No. 3 or 4? Doesn't sound like you found damn Earl Monroe." But Krause, he lives for that stuff.

Actually, right now he's keeping a low profile. And I'm glad. I think it's good that he's not around, especially for the guys who rely on his decisions for their careers. I can operate with or without Krause, but when we walk past each other, we never speak. I guess you could say I don't agree with his business decisions. We give up Jason Caffey, there's no logic to it. The lousiest decisions are stumbled on. Getting some second-round picks in return? I can't even think of a second-round pick in the league.

But forget Krause and next year and all that. Can we win it again this year? Yes. I feel really good about it. Look at what we've done with injuries and the other things we've been through. Look at how we're playing now that Luc Longley is out, our big stabilizer in the middle. We're not missing a beat. Defensively we're quick, we're moving the ball. It's a championship team that can do what we're doing -- maintaining the edge with a key player out, winning on the road. I don't see why we can't win our sixth title.

People say if I hadn't played baseball for a year and a half, we would be going for our eighth championship in a row. But I don't think so. After our three-peat. the atmosphere on the team wasn't the same.

On this team we love each other. No jealousies, no animosities, no nothing. Is there another team like that? Maybe Utah. But after what Karl Malone said about Greg Ostertag ["When you talk about dominant centers, I look at Ostertag and I don't think he has the commitment"], I don't know how long that will last. On our team, everybody gets along with everybody, everybody can go out with everybody. And we're not afraid to criticize each other.

But I don't think this is our best Bulls team. Our first three title teams were more balanced, younger, more agile. And the desire was a lot stronger. It's strong now, but back then we had a lot of guys who had never won anything. Now it's easy for complacency to set in. It's human nature. It happened to me. I stopped working out for about 3 1/2 weeks this season. I got used to sleeping in, taking short cuts. And it affected me on the court. Human nature. You don't even know you've done anything until you see signs in your game. I told Phil Jackson one morning, "I've been taking short cuts, yet I'm expecting the same results. It can't happen that way." So I went back to working out, doing the things necessary. And I feel better physically, and I feel good about me as a person. I'm getting up at eight every day instead of nine. I'm not getting soft.

You can't get soft in this league. The young guys will run you right out of the gym. It took me some time to evaluate my game, to see that, hey, we're losing games we shouldn't, that I wasn't doing my job in the fourth quarter. We never should have lost to Indiana there, to Utah twice, to Portland here. We were soft in the third quarter and the third quarter used to be our quarter. We used to kill teams. And now we've gotten that back. The way we've been playing since the All-Star break, that's how we used to play.

I know we lost to the Dallas Mavericks down there. But we were up 15 points, then 10 points with less than a minute to play. We just forgot, we were looking forward to our day off. We go through a game like that once a year. It wakes us up. That game is the only blemish on our road record since the break.

The main reason we do so well is Phil. I like him because of the atmosphere he creates. Sometimes he can say one word, one sentence, and shake you up, make you think. Like Dean Smith did. Instead of yelling at you, criticizing you, Dean would say something like, "Would you make that play if you were in high school?" It's not a curse, but you get the point. At a crucial point in a game Phil might call a timeout after one of us took a bad three-pointer, and he'll say, "You must be really hot, aren't you?" Or "Toni, he's on a roll." Instead of saying, "That was a dumb shot." It makes you think.

And we all need to be checked and criticized to some degree. Old Luc, he's always the main conversation at film sessions. He's so smart, and he has an explanation for every move, every mistake. Assistant coach Tex Winter loves Luc, jumps on him more than anybody. "If you know so much about the game," he'll say, "why don't you play the game right?"

Me, I've never had an IQ test, or if I have I don't want to know my score. I know I'm good at math. I was a math major at North Carolina, until I missed too many classes because of basketball. My sophomore year I switched to geography. But I'm good with numbers. If I study math principles, I can remember them.

Other physical tests, I don't know. I think I have good hand-eye coordination. I always felt I could be a wide receiver in football. I ran a 4.3 40 back in college. Of course, it was with the school's watch. In all sports I've always wanted to play the position where you can dictate the outcome of the game -- pitcher, a base stealer, quarterback. I can throw a football about 60 yards. But it's my knowledge of basketball that is really high. I know every facet of the game, every trick of the trade, every little motivation, every little technique. But mostly I know how to attack people. Over time I've learned how to beat double teams, to see them coming and exploit them. A double team is a very familiar situation for me. The other night against the Pacers when I made that three before the quarter ended, I saw Reggie Miller coming from behind me and Antonio Davis in front of me, so I moved to the right and hit the shot, and it was all instinctive. I do it because I've been there before. Now, at certain times, things move in slow motion for me. I can see the picture, see it being painted.

I don't really dislike anybody in the league, but playing Reggie Miller drives me nuts. It's like chicken-fighting with a woman. His game is all this flopping-type thing. He weighs only 185 pounds, so you have to be careful, don't touch him, or it's a foul. On offense I use all my 215 pounds and just move him out. But he has his hands on you all the time, like a woman holding your waist. I just want to beat his hands off because it's illegal. It irritates me.

Of course, our guy Dennis Rodman can be irritating. But he used to guard me when he was with Detroit, and I didn't let him get to me. I didn't get irritated by any of the Pistons, because that was their tactic, to get into your head. Dennis gets into Alonzo Mourning's head now. Alonzo's weak in the mind. He has to know how to be tough and overlook those types of things. Alonzo's an intimidator, but sometimes the intimidator can be intimidated. The bully can be bullied.

It helps so much having Phil as our coach. He goes around and burns sage in front of our lockers, and when we're playing bad in practice he'll beat on a war drum to wake us up. You laugh, but that stuff is a part of him. He believes it, the Zen, the poise. It comes from his meditating, gaining the ability to stay in touch with your body and your inner self, calming yourself when tension is all around.

That is something I've learned from Phil. Calming the body. No matter how much pressure there is in a game, I think to myself: It's still just a game. I don't meditate, but I know what he's getting at. He's teaching about peacefulness and living in the moment, but not losing the aggressive attitude. Not being reckless, but strategic. What I do is I challenge myself in big games. I try to find a quiet center within me, because there's so much hype out there and I don't want to fall into it. I don't want to rush. I'll start off rebounding or getting everybody else involved, until I get an easy shot, a layup or a free throw or something, then boom, I'm off and running. I will have controlled my emotions and not gotten over-hyped or lost my focus. These are things Phil has taught me. And I'll tell you, it all works, in big games more so than anything. It works when I'm sick, like in the Finals against Utah last year. I try not to focus on the sickness, just on being part of the situation. I am the situation. I have a game within a game. I will not expend great energy until I can find out where I fit in the scheme. That is a game in itself. It keeps me sharp.

I'm not really into stats, either, except if they can help maintain the drive for me. For instance, scoring championships. Sure, I know what it takes to win one. I can average 32 points a game and know I'll win. Eight points a quarter. Three baskets, two free throws. It's as easy as that. I'm down four, I get can 12 the next quarter. But I don't let anything like that take away from what the team is trying to do. I can sense my points. I can tell early when it's going to be a big night or average or when it's just not clicking.

If it came down to me needing a basket to win the scoring title, I would only take it if the team was where it needed to be. I would never go to Phil and say, "I want to do this." Like Nykesha Sales and that basket they gave her so she could get the record, I would take the opposite approach. If some team gave me an open lane for a layup for the scoring title, I'd pass the ball. I wouldn't want it. Things like that happen to me a lot in the fourth quarter. Phil puts me in to give me an opportunity to get my scoring up, but if the game's decided, I look to do other things.

Everybody wants to know if this is my last year. Let me say this again: I won't play for another coach. If Reinsdorf and the other owners don't like it, sell the team. Let somebody else come in. The Bulls are worth a couple hundred million. Reinsdorf put in $13 million, so that's a hell of a profit.

The question is, who's going to take a step back? Who's going to flinch? Not me. Even if it means I don't play anymore. Even that.

You say it will break people's hearts. Well, their hearts are going to break someday. They can't expect me to play forever. I never wanted to limp out of the game. But I know there are people who would love to see me do that, because then they would know I was finished. I could play a lot more. But when I quit, I want those same people to know I could still play for two or three more years.

People swear I won't have challenges after basketball, but I disagree. There are a lot of things I haven't done that I want to do. I want to ride a motorcycle. I want to ski. A lot of things. I can enjoy the rest of my life without any problems.

As for responsibility to the game, I've done a lot for basketball. And if this year happens to be the end for me, well, I've given 13 years of my heart and my love to the game and 13 years of entertainment to the people. That can't be erased. The funny thing is most sports organizations try to achieve championships. Most. But what are the Bulls doing? You want odds on me coming back? Okay. 70-30. Which way? Whichever way you want.

I'll tell you this, though, I'm not coming back as a player-coach. No, never. There won't be any coaching for me at all. And going to another team? No. Miami? No. Phoenix? No. Charlotte? No way. I grew up in North Carolina, but I like the life I have started elsewhere. I will never leave Chicago. Indianapolis? No. The Lakers? No, no. New York? I'd love to go to the Knicks. But I can't uproot my family and take them to New York. I love the city, but I still need to play for Phil. I mean, I won't play unless it's for Phil.

I know I get criticized for things off the court, like the Nike stuff and the way the shoes are made. People think it's just Nike putting me up to things, to keep their critics away, but I want to go to Southeast Asia to see the Nike plants for myself. I really do. I plan on doing it. Should I have done it earlier? No, because I wasn't at the stage in my career where I could make decisions like that away from the game. I really think that when I'm done I will take a bigger stand in social and political things. I look at someone like Jackie Robinson, and I see that he became a lot more outspoken after he left the game. Same with Hank Aaron. Because you have more time and energy to devote to causes.

I anticipate that happening to me, too. For me to make social decisions while I'm totally focused on doing my job, to make decisions based on what I've heard and not what I've investigated or tried to understand, I can't do that. I can, though, when basketball is done. I want to do that. But don't criticize me now.

One thing is for sure, money won't keep me in the game. Never. Just change ownership. And you know what I'd consider a change in ownership? Change the GM. Let Phil be general manager and coach. Krause? I don't want to start a war around here. I'll just say that sometimes it's tough working for an organization that doesn't show the same type of loyalty toward you as you show it.

I've heard people say I'm the Babe Ruth of this half of the 20th century. I don't know. Most recognized athlete? It seems that way. But, man, it's lasted a lot longer than I anticipated. I never thought it would go on like this. I'll tell you, to remain a positive model in the public eye for so long, it takes a toll, it takes a big chunk of you. You want it to die out, but now it's so deep, it's a big responsibility that just goes on and on. I see other players, other NBA stars, who can take some of the responsibility. Grant Hill. Kobe Bryant, to some degree. But still, a lot of that burden is on me.

I think about the fact that Grant, Kobe and I had strong fathers. I know people are concerned about the behavior of some young players, but it starts at home. I've always said that. I wish some of the other guys in the league could have had fathers at home, just to see what it's like, just to see how much better people they could be. Some of the background for the decisions, the evaluations, the choices you have to make, come from when you were at home growing up. Two-parent homes aren't as prevalent anymore.

Single-parent, either way, you're missing the opposite influence of the missing parent. I had both parents. It helped my decisionmaking immensely. Especially now that I am a father, making choices like a father, talking to my kids. Like my father did with me.

My three kids are terrific, Marcus, Jeffrey and Jasmine. I see more of me in the younger boy, Marcus. Jeffrey is a combination of myself and Juanita. But Marcus, I see him sneaking around getting candy, with that sweet tooth, going to mommy when daddy says no. He's cute, I love watching him. He's not working refs yet, but he can play. Both boys can. They're pretty good. But they love the game, that's the important thing.

I want to have some influence on all of them, but it's hard. And when I talk to my kids sometimes, I can hear my own dad, the lessons he taught me. And a smile comes to my face, because, you know what? I sound like him.

This article appears in the April 6, 1998 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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