10.04.99
10.4.99
David Burnett


Face Time
by Gene Wojciechowski

"Next!"

That's what Michael Jordan says that morning in Vegas. Says it like a guy who slices deli meat for a living. Says it like a guy working the counter at the DMV. No emotion. No nothing. Just an indifferent "Next!"

 Michael Jordan
Who says guarding MJ's a fantasy?
It is 8:10 a.m. There is a sheen of sweat on the world's most famous shaved head. A silver earring hangs from his left lobe. He wears Carolina-blue shorts and Carolina-blue shoes, but no shirt. With the exception of some 12-ounce curls and foot-long cigars, he says he hasn't lifted a weight since The Last Shot. But his shoulders are still as wide as a backboard, his waist as thin as Jerry Krause's smile, his arms as thick as Webster's Unabridged. To watch him pace the court is to stand near the paddock as Secretariat moves by. His sleek calf muscles bob up and down and his veins are visible with each step.

There's a list somewhere of the 20 things you should do before you die. Most of it is crap: See the sunrise on the ruins at Machu Picchu ... attend an opera at La Scala ... take a hot-air balloon ride over the Serengeti Desert. Helloooooo -- I eat Beefaroni for dinner. But at the very end of the list, much too low for anyone with a pulse, is this little doozy: Play Michael Jordan in a game of hoops. And so it comes to pass on Court 1 in the Bally's Casino Events Center in Vegas on a Labor Day Weekend. Shirts vs. Skins. Four on four. Me on MJ.

After a nearly two-year wait and a $15,000 check, it is about to happen. Jordan stands near the top of the key, hands on hips, face impassive. Before handing him the ball, I consider saying, "This one's for Bryon Russell," or "The Southern League called; they need you for another strikeout."

And then I remember what John Paxson, Jordan's former Bulls teammate, told me a few days earlier. "I wouldn't talk to him," said Paxson between laughs. "It was always the guys who talked trash to him that got him fired up. If you're going to go down, go down quietly."

I underhand the ball to him; Russell will live. Anyway, I have my own problems, starting with the fact that I could use some Depends. After all, the guy's only won six NBA championships, five league MVPs, 10 scoring titles, one Defensive Player of the Year award and two Olympic gold medals, and on top of that, he wears really nice-smelling cologne. I'm 42, lasted one day on my high school team, and have what Utah coach Rick Majerus once called a "negative first step" and the vertical jump of a mastodon. Is that any good?

The game is to five. I settle into my stance, just like the one in Howard Garfinkel's Five-Star Basketball Drills instruction book. Feet spread to shoulder width. Knees bent. Back relatively straight. Head up. Hands cupped and out. Shuffle and slide, baby. The greatest 10 minutes of my athletic life is under way.

All I need now are grandchildren.

THURSDAY
A pair of limo service reps are waiting at the United Airlines gate. This is all part of what the $15,000 fee gets you at Michael Jordan's Senior Flight School: limo rides to and from the hotel ... "Yes, sir," "No, sir," "Can I get your bags, sir?" ... lush leather seats ... chilled drinks ... TV, if you want it. There are four of us campers in the luxury limo bus, along with assorted wives, children and friends (every camper gets to bring one guest). Jim Clary, Ken-doll handsome, introduces himself and his knockout wife, Sheila Casserly. This is his second Flight School.

"Any advice?" I ask.

"Well, these guys take it pretty seriously," he says. "I played on Mike Montgomery and Hubie Brown's team last year. Hubie's intense -- great guy, but intense. During a game, he got about two inches from my face and started yelling at me for not fronting a guy the right way. He really let me have it."

"I don't think I want to play for Hubie," I say.

"The important thing is to stay healthy," he says. "Last year, there was a doctor from Hawaii who tore his Achilles tendon about two minutes into the camp. He's back this year. They gave him a freebie."

I laugh uneasily. It didn't say anything about seeing Hubie Brown's tonsils in the brochure. And I don't recall any mention of torn tendons.

There is no official itinerary for Thursday night, so I eat dinner in the hotel and then wait until almost midnight to sneak a peek at the basketball courts. The Events Center is locked, but I follow a security guard through a door, wait until he disappears and then tip-toe to the makeshift arena.

There they are: four grayish-blue courts made from interlocking plastic modular tiles. Scorer's tables have been set up. Shot clocks sit at each end of the courts. Music blares from the Events Center speakers. The Three Dog Night lyrics speak to me. "Mama told me not to come ... "

FRIDAY
The average age of the 80 Flight School campers is 44 years, 4 months (Jordan is only 36), and occupations range from software CEO to venture capitalist, homebuilder, lawyer, golf course developer, environmental consultant and San Diego Padres owner.

As best as anyone can tell -- and believe me, the Flight School organizers don't offer any financial details -- Jordan isn't in this for the money. Seventy-nine campers (remember the Achilles freebie) multiplied by $15,000 equals $1.185 million. But that's before Jordan writes a check for the hotel rooms, the lavish food and beverage spreads (champagne, the works), the banquets, the 20 All-Star coaches (low five figures), the game officials and referees, the support and training room staffs, the courts, trophies, championship rings, photos, uniforms, equipment, Events Center rental, insurance, courtesy limos and whatever incidentals I'm forgetting.

Camp organizers say that Jordan donates a chunk of whatever is left to Colin Powell's America's Promise charitable foundation. And last year, an artist's rendering of MJ -- a one-time series of drawings approved by Jordan -- was auctioned off at one of the Flight School banquets. It went for $32,500, and the money was immediately presented to camper Ross Deutsch, whose 7-year-old son had died of a brain tumor. Deutsch had mentioned the Rory David Deutsch Foundation to Jordan, but says the donation was completely unexpected. Who says Jordan doesn't have rabbit ears?

Each camper gets a two-bedroom suite, which would be great if I had brought the cast of Party of Five. But I flew solo, wanting to stay completely focused on whupping Jordan. There's a sunken whirlpool tub, two toilets, a bidet (or water fountain, I can never tell for sure), marble floors, king-size beds, 25-inch TVs, a computer terminal, VIP service and a view of Flamingo Road.

I'm up by 6:30 a.m. In a pathetic, last-ditch effort to approximate physical fitness, I do 30 push-ups, 50 sit-ups and curls with my computer bag. That kills about a half hour. Breakfast awaits. Then lunch. I walk through the lobby and see more campers. Very few have pot bellies. I count at least five players who are easily 6'6" or 6'7". There are no 6'7" guys in my Wheaton (Ill.) SportsCenter noon game. I'll be giving up four inches when I face Mike.

Registration officially begins at 2:30. I get to the table at 2, where camp co-director Ed Janka tells me Majerus has returned to Salt Lake City because of a bad back. Upon hearing the news, a local steakhouse and two Italian restaurants shut down. Camper favorite Majerus had promised to draft me, providing a nurturing cocoon of basketball love. Now I might get picked by Hubie. I fear Hubie.

Each camper receives an information packet and a pair of travel bags filled with various MJ riches. You need a weight belt to lug the stuff back to the room. The goodies list:

A Jordan beer glass, a Jordan leather wardrobe bag, a Jordan gym bag, a Christmas tree ornament featuring the Jordan Jump Man, a 120-minute phone card, three $100 dinner vouchers for the hotel restaurants, a leather legal pad binder, a Jordan beret, Jordan boxer shorts, Jordan golf tees, a Jordan video tape, Jordan sunglasses, Jordan cologne spray, a Jordan plastic figurine, an NBA computer game, a Be Like Mike sweatshirt, two Jordan golf shirts, two Jordan T-shirts, two Jordan warm-up shirts, a Jordan sweatshirt, a pair of Jordan sweatpants, two pairs of Jordan basketball shorts, a Jordan key ring, six pairs of Jordan basketball socks, a dozen golf balls with the Jordan insignia, a plastic-encased Jordan trading card, two pairs of Flight School basketball shorts, a pair of Air Jordans and two Flight School basketball jerseys, complete with my last name stenciled on the back. I've been issued No. 73, which is like wearing a plastic pocket protector. Seriously, 73? What kind of basketball number is that?

Trainers are available at 3. I have a slight foot problem, but decide only wusses visit a fantasy camp trainers room. I'll gut it out. The Events Center slowly fills with campers in full Flight School attire. I grab a ball and head for a near-empty court. Few campers are talking. I shoot and miss everything.

We are ordered to our seats. The roll call of camp coaches begins: Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Stanford's Montgomery, Purdue's Gene Keady, Kentucky's Tubby Smith, TNT's Brown, former Cavaliers coach Mike Fratello, former Georgetown coach John Thompson, UNLV's Billy Bayno, Cincinnati's Bob Huggins, Kansas' Roy Williams, the 76ers' Larry Brown, the Hawks' Lenny Wilkens, Arizona's Lute Olson, Georgia Tech's Bobby Cremins, Oklahoma State's Eddie Sutton, former Trail Blazers coach and ESPN analyst Dr. Jack Ramsay, former Minnesota coach Clem Haskins and former Marquette coach Al McGuire. All told, that's seven NCAA championships, 27 Final Fours, two NBA championships, three Hall of Famers. My hands hurt from clapping.

Jordan isn't in attendance, but he never is during afternoon orientation. Bill Frieder, the former Michigan and Arizona State coach, outlines the team profiles: eight teams in camp, 10 players per team. "And don't forget, there's a 5 a.m. bedcheck," he says. Scattered laughter. Frieder has used that one before. We are divided into groups of about 25, sent to three different courts, stretched for 15 minutes by the trainers and then told to wait for the coaches' observation period to begin. Imagine Einstein peering over your shoulder as you explain the theory of relativity. Imagine Eric Clapton listening in as you strum a guitar. This is what the 75-minute coaches' observation period is like. I was less nervous on my wedding day.

Player rosters in hand, some of the greatest coaches in the world walk from court to court as you clang a lefthanded layup off the bottom of the rim, or hit the side of the backboard on a baseline three-pointer. I airball a 15-footer as Krzyzewski watches. I hit three in a row as Montgomery and Smith walk slowly by. I make a sweet little no-look pass under the basket during a five-on-five game. Cremins jots something down in his notebook. Larry Brown and Williams stop by during my stay on the bench. I immediately start cheering because that's what they teach at Carolina, where Williams was an assistant to Dean Smith, and Brown a player and assistant. I notice Olson as I reenter the game. He's there just in time to see me get beat on a screen-and-roll. He doesn't bother to pull out his pen.

A horn blows. The coaches head to a nearby meeting room for the player draft. I duck into the trainers room, where UNLV's Dave Tomchek is plopping a bag of ice on someone's knee and then Saran-wrapping it in place.

"Two of those, please," I say, no longer concerned about being a wuss.

Tomchek chews on an unlit cigar as he works.

"Any injuries?" I ask.

"So far, so good," he says, without looking up. "This is the one-year anniversary of the torn Achilles. But what I'm really worried about is someone not being, uh, cardiovascularly ready."

Translation: someone dropping dead on the court.

A cocktail party is scheduled for 6:45 p.m. on the 26th floor. I get to the elevator at the exact same moment as Jordan, who looks as if he has just left a fashion shoot. Brown suit. Black-and-white shoes. Monogrammed shirt. Slightly tinted glasses. Cool personified. I squeeze into the corner of the elevator.

"How do you like retirement?" asks one of the campers.

"I can't tell you how much I love it," Jordan says. "I'm having a great time. Now I just want to get fat."

The campers line up for individual photos with the man. I have time for a handshake and a quick thank you. "Are you kidding?" he says. "You'll have a great time. Thanks for coming." Click. I pat him on the back and move along.

David Falk is in attendance. He eats sushi with chopsticks. Vancouver guard and Falk client Mike Bibby and a small entourage sit at the same table. A video of last year's Flight School fills a giant screen. The dinner buffet features lobsters the size of laptops, rack of lamb, salmon, beef galore, desserts of every kind. Nero's kind of place.

Jordan is introduced to the audience of about 300. He is gracious and warm and implores us, "Please don't die on my watch. Utilize the trainers." Then he takes a few minutes to skewer friend Charles Barkley, who sits at a nearby table. He asks the crowd to congratulate Barkley on his new contract -- "one year," says Jordan dryly. Jordan then recites the financial details of the deal and adds something about a weight clause and a curfew clause.

Later, during the ring ceremony for last year's camp championship team (the rings are made by the firm that designed the Spurs' NBA title rings), Jordan playfully tells Barkley to report to the podium. Jordan is holding one of the camp rings. "This will be the only ring you'll ever win," says Jordan, as Barkley buries his head in his hands.

The coaches are called to the podium to announce their teams. Without fail, each coach pays homage to Michael. The truth is, they'd probably work the camp for free, such is the brand name and appeal of Jordan. One of the first questions the injured Majerus asked Janka was, "You'll still let me coach next year, won't you?" And it isn't unusual for the camp's college coaches to feature photos with Jordan in their media guides. Recruits notice those things.

My name isn't mentioned as Fratello and Hubie Brown read their Celtics lineup. Same goes for Keady and Smith's Cavaliers. And Krzyzewski and Montgomery's Bulls. And Wilkens and Ramsay's Hawks. And Huggins and Bayno's Jazz. And Williams and Olson's Pacers. And Haskins, Thompson and Larry Brown's 76ers. Not until Cremins and Sutton sputter through the remaining players do I hear my name called. I'm a Laker.

SATURDAY
A daily newsletter is distributed during breakfast, replete with box scores of the camp games. Afterward, there's an 8:30 a.m. individual photo session with Jordan, followed by a Lakers team photo with Jordan.

We aren't much to look at. Our first-round pick is Junior Johnson, a 36-year-old blond point guard who says he played at Cincinnati from 1979 to 1983. A high roller, his 15 large is picked up by Bally's. We also have a hedge fund manager who used to be president of the Cleveland Cavaliers, a platinum jewelry designer, a real estate CEO, a marketing firm executive, a McDonald's VP, an orthodontist, a commodities trader and camp legend Brooks Bernard. Bernard, 37, is CEO of a Lafayette, La., company that services oil derricks. He has been to all three camps, and his accent is as thick as gumbo. Bernard checks in at 5'5", 225 pounds, which is why during his photo op with Jordan, MJ reaches down and pats the Louisianan's tummy. "Rubbing Buddha," Jordan says. And then there's me, the hack.

Jordan gives an early-morning lecture on free throw shooting. He says to think positive thoughts, shoot with the fingertips, find the nail imbedded on every free throw line and use it as a centering piece. He shoots with his eyes open. Swish. He shoots with his eyes closed. Swish. He shoots against campers. Swish. He offers tips to Shaq (listen to Phil's Zen). He says Scottie Pippen was the best at talking trash on the free throw line (Pippen to Karl Malone in 1998 Finals: "You know, the Mailman doesn't deliver on Sunday." Malone bricks. Bulls win). He says he never said a peep to anyone at the line.

We stretch for 10 minutes and then report to the first of four instructional stations. Hubie and Fratello conduct an intense (surprise) 15-minute series of shooting drills. Ramsay and Wilkens are much calmer, but no less precise on one-on-one defense. Keady and Smith teach us the art of screening. Williams and Olson demonstrate how to read a defense. We have a brief team practice, followed by a game against the Bulls, which we lose by 16. I score exactly one field goal, which is one more than our celebrated first-round pick. Sutton calls us together. "Look, when we picked this team, we spent a lot of time putting you guys together," he says. "We think we have a team that can win a championship."

"Oh, yeah?" says Scott Kay, the jeweler. "Then why is Bobby here smiling?"

After lunch -- and a question-and-answer session with the coaches, stretching, a team one-on-one contest, a team free throw shooting contest and a lecture by Williams -- we assemble for another team practice. Junior is a no-show. Turns out he has declared free agency and wants to play for his buddy Huggins. But that means someone from Huggins' team would have to join us, and no one is willing to move. So Junior bolted camp.

It's game time and we're down by 20 to Keady and Smith's Cavs with less than six minutes left to play. "We're slow motion out there," fumes Sutton. Frieder races up to our bench. "If you can hold on for a minute, I think I've got you another player." Sutton calls time out. We form a semicircle around him and Cremins. That's when I feel someone brush next to me. It's Jordan.

"You four rebound," says His Airness. "I'll shoot."

Duh.

Jordan scores 18 of our next 22 points. Monster jams. Three-pointers. Free throws. Baby hooks. He blocks a pair of shots. Adds a couple of assists and rebounds. We nearly hug Jordan to death after he ties the score, 62-62, at the end of regulation. The other campers and guests are lined up two, three deep near the sideline and baseline. Hell, who needs Junior?

Better yet, the referees, seven who work the ACC and two who do Pac-10 games during the regular season, don't dare call a foul on Jordan. The first guy who calls traveling on Jordan is going to be sitting at home next summer wondering how the post office lost his Flight School invitation.

Jordan, who is barely breathing hard, takes control of the huddle. "I didn't come back all this way to lose," he says. We nod, as if we had anything to do with the turnaround. But somehow we lose the tip, foul a Cav and then watch in disbelief as the guy hits a free throw to beat us in sudden death.

"Good job, Gene," says Cremins during the postgame handshakes.

"Thanks," I say.

"No," he says, "I meant Gene Keady."

SUNDAY
The trainers room is busy before Jordan's 9 a.m. lecture. One guy is already down and out: another torn Achilles. He has a free invite for next year. There's a guy with a heating pad on his back. Says he can't breathe. Another guy has a swollen right calf the size of a cantaloupe. Another guy complains of sore ribs, bad ankles and some sort of vomiting problem. I inch away as I get my ankles taped and foot blister attended to. "You guys tired?" says Jordan before the lecture.

He is there to talk about one-on-one moves. Try to get the defensive player off balance. Anger him. Test his toughness by leaning your shoulder into a defender's rib cage. Perfect the jab step, the crossover step, the rocker step. Assess a defender's weakness.

It sounds and looks so simple as Jordan plucks campers out of the crowd and plays them to three. Every time it looks as if a camper is going to win, Jordan cuts a gap from 2-0 to 2-1 to 2-2 to 2-3. Game over.

"Get that," he says to a camper as the ball leaves his fingers. Nothing but net.

"I'll tell you right now -- I'm gonna dunk," he says. He dunks.

"Sit down," he says a nanosecond after releasing a three-pointer. Swish.

He finishes the session 15-0. No camper has ever beaten him in three years. "Once again I've successfully defended myself against minor competition," Jordan says smiling. There is a brief Q&A period. That's when Jordan is asked about regrets. He doesn't hesitate. "That we didn't get a chance for a seventh [championship]," he says. "If they would have kept the team intact ... With the shortened season, I think we could have easily won it."

More stretching. More instructional stations, including an illegal practice session by Cremins and Sutton. The two coaches cut short our passing drills to install a four-man motion offense. "It's simple," says Cremins. "I'm telling you, this will work. It saved my team one season."

The four-man motion offense lasts exactly one play. Cremins watches in horror as the jeweler collides with the hedge fund manager, the sportswriter collides with the real estate CEO and the commodities trader tries to make sense of it all. We lose by 24. "Where's Cremins?" someone asks.

"He went to noon Mass," says Sutton. "He went to pray for us."

At 6:15, we meet for another round of questions for Jordan. A summary: He plays golf whenever he doesn't have a business or family obligation ... he would consider ownership of a team, "but if it doesn't [happen], I won't lose any sleep" ... he doesn't watch much basketball because "I don't want to get any urges" ... his retirement is final ... and no, he's not going to try the PGA Tour ... if he did un-retire, "I'm pretty sure I could get a job today if I choose to."

Jordan is then taken to another room where he autographs two items apiece for every camper and coach. One camper brings an actual Bulls sweat suit.

MONDAY
Janka got married Sunday night, but still reports for duty first thing in the morning. He sits at a breakfast table and is soon joined by Sutton, who has suffered more than any other coach in the camp's three years. This time he endures the Lakers, but previously he coached the single worst player in camp history. The nationality doesn't matter, but the player was an electronics exec from the Far East who paid his $15,000 in cash. He spoke no English. Because the rules require that every camper play, Sutton had to send him into a game. "I look up, and he's guarding one of our own people on offense," Sutton says. We lose, 42-9, in our Monday morning game. Not even Jordan could have saved us as we miss 42 of 43 shots from the field. Sutton slumps in his chair as we blow shot after shot.

"I've never seen a team miss 16 shots in a row. We're 1 of 17 ... no, 1 of 18 ... oh, my God, 1 of 19 ... 20 ... 21."

Says Cremins: "This is my fault."

Before moving to Court 3 for our game against the Cavs, Cremins asks what we should do with Junior's set of team and individual photos. In one of our few perfectly executed moves, we dump the photos in the nearest trash can. Then we drop a 14-point thriller to the Keady and Smith team. At one point, Sutton sneaks seven of us onto the court. We botch the play. "We can't even score with seven players," he says.

I finish 0-for-Monday. My legs feel like anvils. My knees throb. I've got bruises on elbows, nail scratches on my forearm, a small cut on the face, but a smile as big as Jordan's size 13.

EPILOGUE
So we finished 0-6. But what you remember is the way Hubie and Fratello worked their station. Or the way Williams and Olson shook your hand after a game. Or how Keady congratulated you for diving for a ball. Or how Krzyzewski and Montgomery really wanted you to play better D. Or how Larry Brown and Haskins answered every question. Or how Sutton and Cremins could still smile.

And then there was Jordan, who I swear wanted to win every silly little game as badly as he wanted to win a sixth championship.

Which brings us back to that morning in Vegas. Me and MJ. History in the making. Except that I airball my first two shots, get dunked on and then hear another camper yell, "Guard that guy!"

Guard that guy? It's frickin' Michael Jordan.

I use a little drop-step move that usually works in Wheaton. Jordan slaps it into the casino.

"I had to try it," I say.

"I know you did," he says.

I finally hit a short jumper, but Jordan takes the ball, steps behind the three-point line and casually splashes the ball into the net for the game-winner.

"I had to try it," he says, grinning.

"I know you did," I say.

Before I reach my seat, I hear Jordan.

"Next!"

For information on Michael Jordan's Senior Flight School: (503) 402-8688

This article appears in the October 4, 1999 issue of ESPN The Magazine.




Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories






ESPN The Magazine goes daily!
Visit ESPNMAG.com for original spin, plus our Site Lines menu of today's top links.

Get your free fleece
Subscribe to ESPN The Magazine and get a free fleece pullover.