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Touching Home

David Bridgers' best pal for 28 years has been a kid he started calling MJ

David Bridgers is wearing the general trappings of precisely what he is: a good ol' Cah-lihna boy at parade rest. Ball cap, T-shirt, Mountain Dew bottle lodged semi-permanently between his sunburned lips. He is not wearing his NBA championship replica ring, though. This is because 1) it is locked away in a safe-deposit box with five other replica rings, and 2) his gnarled hands are burned all over from spreading marble rock around another septic-tank ditch under the sweltering summer sun near Wrightsville Beach, N.C. "Hot, you bet," says Bridgers. "Wore gloves. Sweat like hell. Serious pain. I'm not worried, though. Aloe cream will clear this mess up fast." O It seems a long time gone from the sandlots of Bridgers' youth, when he hit baseballs and shot basketballs and rode bikes and poured out this same kind of sweat with his grade school pal. A guy with whom he traded cards, revealed secrets and experienced racism-white and black together. The guy who would share with him all those rings, specially made for the inner circle. The guy who remains his best friend on earth, who dubbed Bridgers "DB" and whom Bridgers called in turn-long before all the world became the famous man's stage-"MJ." But that time has never really disappeared. Indeed, the same idyllic childhood era in the old Confederate port of Wilmington, N.C., never has seemed far removed from the hardwoods and boardrooms and global celebrity chaos of Michael Jordan's very existence. Not when His Airness still travels the world checking into hotels under the alias Leroy Smith, borrowed from the 6'8" sophomore who beat him out for the last spot on the Laney High team in 1978. Not when Jordan still shares dinners and golf and card games with another local fellow-a second Laney teammate named Todd Parker who aided the icon's star turn in the cinema classic Space Jam by feeding Jordan a chest pass for a dunk amid early footage of their high school careers. "I'm still waiting for royalties," laughs Parker, these days an inveterate beach dude. And surely not evidenced by Jordan's sincere friendship with good ol' DB, a closerthan- brothers thing that traces back to early Little League, not basketball. If Jordan became the nearly Ruthian YouDaMan of the World, Bridgers grew up to be a charming, laid-back, drawling Joe Sixpack who lives in a trailer with his wife and two kids-the youngest, 5-year-old David Michael (named for guess who). He is a guy who manages a grocery store and wouldn't put on an air even if he knew there was such a thing.

Consider Bridgers one of those lucky souls with exquisite timing. A few weeks before he burned up his hands laboring in that ditch (a favor for Parker), Bridgers was playing the full 18 at La Costa-in Jordan's game room, of course. That was between Games 5 and 6 of last June's NBA Finals, barely 24 hours before MJ's finale.

Says DB: "MJ kept saying, 'Come on up for the playoffs.' But I told him I couldn't get away from Food Folks [the grocery store where he works] until Game 5 of the Finals. Mike says, 'That's okay. That's when we'll clinch it. But the thing is, I'm packed.' That meant his house was full. So I stayed at a hotel.

"Then the Bulls go and lose! Damn! No celebration. No parties. I don't get to see much of Mike 'til the next day. Yeah, the travel day when he goes to Utah. We're ready to play golf anyway, me and Mike and some other guys like Eric Martin, a football player from the Saints. But before we go out to the course, Mike shows me that golf machine he has in his house. The thing must cost 50 thousand. I think the Bulls got it for him when he retired the first time. You can play any course in the world. One of Mike's favorites is La Costa.

"So he says, 'I got a treat for you.' And up comes La Costa. We play the course. I'm a 12-handicap, but I'm all over the place, in the sand, everywhere on the track. Shot 92. Damn, it was great!"

Bridgers, the son of a taxi driver, was 7 when his family moved from South Dakota to Wilmington, and he met Jordan on a local sandlot. After Bridgers' parents divorced, James Jordan became a surrogate dad to the white kid who shared Michael's passion for baseball. The two alternated at pitcher and centerfield on a team that fell one game short of the Little League World Series. "Before every pitch, I'd look at Mike in center and he'd give me thumbs-up," says Bridgers. "With him on the mound, I'd do the same." Jordan actually pitched a two-hitter in the last game, but lost 1-0 to a team from Texas.

They did everything together. One afternoon after riding bikes, Bridgers and Jordan jumped into a neighbor's swimming pool, joining a passel of other kids. When the owners saw Michael, however, they ordered everybody out. "The rest of the bike ride, Mike was very quiet," Bridgers says. "I asked him if he knew why they threw us out. He said yes. I asked if it bothered him. He said no. Then he smiled. I'll never forget it. He said, 'I got cooled off enough. How about you?'

"Mike taught me a lot about dealing with prejudice. I got called nigger-lover and white trash. But he showed me how to ignore it. Up at Chapel Hill one time, I was visiting Mike and a fight broke out along racial lines. He got me out of there quick. He always said, 'Don't worry about race unless somebody slaps you in the face.' He's always been so positive. Every time I see him it's a natural high."

Like the time the friends returned from a baseball tournament in Tennessee where Jordan met his idol, David Thompson of North Carolina State. "We were always N.C. State fans," says Bridgers. "We pretended we were Thompson and Monte Towe. Mike was so in awe of David. He seemed so tall to him. When we got back, Mike actually tried exercises to stretch himself and get taller. He saw it on The Brady Bunch or somewhere."

Or like the time Jordan skipped a White House ceremony at which President George Bush honored the Bulls. MJ claimed "family time" kept him away. Actually, he was hosting a bachelor golf outing at Hilton Head that included, as always, Bridgers. "MJ told me to lose my Fu Manchu before coming, so I said sure, as long as he got rid of his earring," says Bridgers. "I show up shaved as a whistle. But he's got that diamond ear rock glittering away. Then he has the nerve to say, 'And it's staying. But you sure do look good, DB.' "

Or like the time during Jordan's baseball hiatus. "Me and Todd Parker went down to Birmingham to meet Mike," says Bridgers. "He was really struggling. I always knew when he was angry. He would never show it, but he gets very quiet. His dad was gone. There were all the gambling rumors. He was very frustrated. He knew he wasn't going to be Barry Bonds, he just wanted to try. But baseball wasn't going to work. Mike was just a different guy in basketball and in baseball. "So we were sitting around. He says, 'You know, I could go back [to the NBA] if I wanted.' A few months later, he came to Wilmington. He made several phone calls and basketball shoes just appeared. We were headed to the gym. He looked at me and said, 'It's on.'

"Man, you talk about chills."

Bridgers has watched his friend blossom, from the shot that beat Patrick Ewing and Georgetown to the one that took care of Karl Malone and Utah. From boyhood friend to the world's most popular athlete. And Bridgers has been there, on the edges. MJ's pal. Jordan has his life, Bridgers has his. The intersection is their friendship. "He always told me, 'If I ever get it made, you're gonna get it made, too.' But I like this side of him. I don't want to be on the business side. I would never work for Mike."

Bridgers has seen the pressure the world puts on his friend. "Fifteen, 20 telephone messages every hour. We come in from golf, he listens to all of them," Bridgers says. "Then we'll leave to do something else. I asked him, 'How can I get ahold of you?' Mike said, if I ever need something, just leave on the message that it's an emergency. I've only done that once."

Last December, Bridgers' father- from whom he had long been estranged-suffered a heart attack. "I was broken up," DB says. "We hadn't spoken in a long time. I didn't know what to do. So I called Mike. Not a half hour later he was back to me. He said, 'Do yourself a favor, call your dad and tell him you love him. What's past is past. Forget about it and try to start over.'

"I did what Mike suggested. I called my dad and we talked for some time. Then I called Mike back. He answered right away. I told him that talking to my dad gave me such peace of mind. 'That's what I wanted for you,' Mike told me.

"Look, this guy could have left Laney High and Wilmington and never looked back. He's worldwide, what, with Ali, the Pope. Who else? The thing is, he's still the kid, still only Mike, still MJ.

"That's all he really is."

Way back, when Mike's high school math teacher, the fearsome Janice Hardy, first got him in class, she liked to say, "I thought I was getting a basket weaver." By the time Jordan had finished Laney, however, the yearbook was parting the waters, sending off the school's 1981 hoops stars with this: "Laney only hopes that you expand your talents to make others as proud of you as Laney has been. Always remember Laney as your world."

From the evidence, from his actions, his words and the testimony of his fondest friend, it's obvious Jordan has never forgotten. And, oh yeah, Ms. Hardy got it half right. The kid called MJ weaved more than baskets. He conjured hopes and dreams and moments of pure magic the world will always remember.