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MICHAEL'S BRUSH WITH DEATH

Worried about losing MJ? Hey, it alsmost happened once- for real

Folks spend a lot of time contemplating the prospect of life without Michael Jordan, but they donOt know what losing him would really be like. One day a long time ago, he was nearly gone for real ...

Early in the spring of O82, when he was a skinny freshman at North CarolinaNbefore he had enough fans to start his own religionNMichael was largely unknown outside the state. So when Dallas evangelist Bill Glass was planning a Carolina stop for his prison ministry tour that summer, Michael Jordan was not the guy Glass had in mind when he called Dean Smith looking to line up a basketball player to beef up the act. Jimmy Black. Sam Perkins. Those were the kinds of names Glass, a former NFL lineman, wanted. Not available, Smith told him. Previous engagements. Glass couldnOt even get Matt Doherty.

When Smith offered up this unknown freshman, Glass was gracious, but dubious. Jordan was certainly better than nothing. But part of the idea behind GlassO Weekend of Champions ministry was to have a bigname athlete take part in the witnessing programs. Aside from their rap sheets, what was to separate Michael Jordan from these men doing time? Without the fame, how would they identify upward?

Then Jordan hit a certain championship-winning shot in March, and when that summerOs ministry rolled through RaleighOs Triangle Correctional Facility, the inmates warmly welcomed him to the exercise yard. And Jordan, decked out in his fresh U.S. All-Stars warmups, got enthusiastic props for thoroughly schooling a cell block all-star. Glass was relieved. Those who didnOt receive salvation would at least have something to write home about.

But the Weekend of Champions was about much more than behind-bars basketball. In the past, the tour had featured inspirational athletes like catcher Jim Sundberg and pitcher Frank Tanana, as well as men of faith from professional coaching and the world of pro wrestling. This time, before Glass hit Oem with the Good Word, a martial arts expert from Tennessee named Mike Crain was invited to ratchet up the yardOs emotion. Jordan stuck around to see the show. And when it came time for Crain to do his crowd-pleasing samurai sword show, he asked for a volunteer.

History gets a little murky after that. Glass remembers that Michael willingly climbed onstage. Crain remembers it differently. See, the sword trick calls for Crain to chop a full-grown watermelon in half while it rests on the volunteerOs stomach. Most everyone who winds up as the fruit platter declines to do so at first, especially after watching Crain, a burly Southerner decked out in an all-white martial arts suitaccented with his black belt, slice the air with cold steel for a few minutes.

But Jordan was more skittish than mostNand emphatically said ONo.O Crain wasnOt fazed. He worked the thrill-hungry crowd of inmates to his advantage, and when he began hinting to Jordan that maybe he wasnOt quite man enough to handle the job of human cutting board, the 19-year-old responded to the challenge just the way youOd expect. He climbed up the wooden platform and laid himself back on a weight-training bench that had been used in an earlier act. And Crain placed the melon on MikeOs belly.

As Crain produced another black sash and began blindfolding himself, a panicky Jordan started to get up. Crain held him down lightly between the produce and the bench. In a scene that looked like a jailhouse staging of Shirley JacksonOs The Lottery, the brothers in the yard inched closer to the stage. Crain told Jordan to shield his eyes so that stray rind and seed wouldnOt blind him, but MJOs eyes were already shut tight enough to secure a home.

Crain drew back his swordNand slashed into the juicy green melon. But his blade traveled too far south, and the rail-thin JordanOs protruding right hip slowed the blow. The watermelon was torn, not severed. The crowd was now hypnotized, and drew even closer to the laidout Jordan.

Down came the blade a second time, and now shards of watermelon went flying into the sky and across the stage. Crain knew from his audienceOs reaction that heOd succeeded in dividing the fruit, but he had the queasy feeling that he might have gone too far. This whack was in the right place, but Crain had misjudged the amount of give in MichaelOs lean belly. After pulling off his blindfold, he checked to make sure his volunteer was okay. When he and Glass wiped away the juice, melon and seed that covered the front of JordanOs white jersey, Michael spotted a tear in the fabric.

Dude was irate. OLook whatcha did!O he screamed at Crain. The warmups were MJOs reward from his first international tournament. But the guy who had driven Jordan to the prison was concerned about more than the jersey. He suggested Michael check to see if he had been wounded by the blade. Still heated about the shirt, Michael wouldnOt look until they were back in the car and the driver insisted. Then they both looked down and spotted a gash near JordanOs navel. Since he hadnOt felt the wound, Michael was hardly concerned, even after doctors at a nearby emergency room needed three stitches to close him up. He did harbor a small grudgeNbut not about the injury. That would heal in days. Warmups like this U.S. All-Stars gear, though, were one of a kind.

Bill Glass, now 63, still runs his Weekend of Champions tour every year. But after the Jordan snafu, he took Mike Crain out of the evangelical rotation. Crain, now in his mid-50s, is president of the National Association of Christian Athletes. He estimates that heOs performed the watermelon trick 1,750 times and has cut 16 people. OThatOs not a lot,O Crain jokes. OHeOs missed over 70 gamewinning shots. Only mine are more costly.O

Michael didnOt much speak about the incident after he returned to his UNC dormitory. His dorm mates thought him such an unlikely candidate to have volunteered for something like this that he had to show them the stitches to convince them the story wasnOt a prank. Everyone marveled over this uncharacteristically bizarre thing heOd done. And legend has it that Jordan turned deeply spiritual when he came to realize how close he might have come to becoming prime footage on a Faces of Death video.

So the next time you moan about the lockout, or about our obsession with MJ and the Bulls, remember this: Once upon a time, Michael Jordan was only a rotten rind away from being half the player he is now.