I am not Walter Iooss Jr. I am not Tinker Hatfield. I am not David Falk. I am not Bob Greene or Sam Smith or Michael Leahy.
I did not photograph Michael Jordan's entire career. I did not spend years with him designing iconic footwear that would change the sneaker game forever. I was not his agent. I did not spend enough time with him to write a book. I wasn't that privileged.
But what I have been for almost half of the 50 years of Michael Jordan's life is something more than a spectator. One of the few who was both in the Superdome to see him hit that shot in New Orleans (while he and I were both freshmen in college, albeit at different schools) that was his introduction to the world and at his true introduction to Chicago before his rookie year when he played in summer league uniforms sponsored by Schlitz Malt Liquor.
I was at the Chevy Blazer commercial shoot when he shot the ball thru the sunroof of the SUV. I was on the set of the iconic Jordan "Failure" commercial. I've been to pickup games when he has pulled up in his yellow Aston Martin wearing white/yellow Jordans to match just to mess with everyone's heads. I've been to some of those Saturday runs at Foster Park deep on the South Side of Chicago where he'd do things (and say things) on the court that made some of the things he did and said in the League seem lame.
I've watched him turn total strangers into friends for life. I've watched him end friendships (or what people felt was a friendship) so instantly the people never got the chance to ask "why?"
I covered him without being assigned. And it wasn't until a few years ago that it was brought to my attention that, while many watched him grow, I actually grew with him.
I am not Charles Oakley, Patrick Ewing, Rod Higgins, Howard White, Charles Barkley, Ahmad Rashad or Tiger Woods.
I am not one of his boys, members of his ride-or-die crew, his inner circle of friends that has had and will always have his back regardless of circumstance. I'm not that lucky.
But I have been lucky enough to have Jordan moments in my life that not many in my position or profession have been able to have. Moments that don't hit you or register until someone says something to you or asks you about them; until someone turns 50 and a commemorative issue of Sports Illustrated shares airport newsstand space with Kate Upton.
In a crew of media that always surrounded him, I guess I stood out. A little, faux Spike Lee-looking black kid wearing oversized "Shoot Hoops, Not Guns" T-shirts and Jordans. He knew who I was from the beginning. He knew what I was trying to do with the magazine we upstarted right before his first retirement. He knew he could make or break Slam. I think he felt sorry for me.
And that led to something. There was always something different with him and me. Very subliminal. Very minimal. I never tried to get in his way or crowd his lane. Never asked him to do something that was absurd or lock up time I knew he really didn't have. We became cool by default because I would ask him different questions. Questions that had to do with the game of basketball, not just his game. I'd ask him about why he and Scottie Pippen never played each other in one-on-ones. I'd ask about the culture of the game as opposed to what it felt like to be like Mike.
I was there when he stopped listening to Kool Moe Dee and started listening to Anita Baker.
I witnessed him lose in an experimental, defense-focused one-on-one to five to then-college freshman Chris Jackson at the Nike All-American Camp. I was with him every game during the trial of his father's murderers in early 2006. It was unreal to sit back and watch other writers -- with no regard for his emotional well-being --- "hawk" him and ask him the most insensitive questions about what was going on at the trial, about the police photos of his father's body, about how he felt about how the suspects might have killed his father.
I just sat back and said nothing to him. Watched as he often bit his bottom lip and answered the questions. I never understood how he did that, how he didn't snap. I remember walking up to him during that time and whispering in his ear, "You are a better man than I'll ever be." All he could say back was, "Thanks." I saw what no one else in the media seemed to see or cared to see.
What I also saw within Jordan that I think alot of other journalists didn't (even the ones that who were personally much closer to him than me) was a true sense of the impact he really had on the people he was directly affecting. The kids in and on the streets of Chicago who were literally living in and often under his shadow. The ones who never knew him, never met him, but because they saw him and heard his name every day he became a father figure or the only constant male figure they had in their lives.
I used the flexibility of not having daily deadlines to make it easy on him to talk. Even when he wouldn't "talk" on the record to any member of the media.
One time I was trying to get a one-on-one with him during the playoffs, but the real self-imposed "Jordan rules" were in effect. (MJ had certain rules, especially during playoff runs. "$" wasn't doing solos.) "If I give you [an interview], I gotta give everyone one," he said to me. I said, "OK, how about this " And over a three-week period, he and I patched together an interview (Q&A) that went as far as his taking the questions on the road with him (during the playoffs) and faxing me back handwritten answers.
(Once I asked him one question a day for 10 days in a row to put together another story -- in the glorious days of magazine deadlines. Sometimes I'd leave him questions in his locker and wait for a call or a message from him or the media director of the Bulls with the answers. It was guerrilla journalism. But the beauty in it was that he went along with it. Something that I'm almost 200 percent sure no superstar athlete would do for anyone today.)
But it wasn't just the media stuff. Being from Chicago and being in Chicago helped. Being privy to every game. E-v-e-r-y game. Not many in the national media had that. I wasn't stuck with just the games on NBC; I lived with access to games that didn't even come on WGN, games no one else around the country got to see. I'm talking games that came on what seemed like Chicago's version of cable-access. Games that didn't matter, games no one cared about. Games where there was no voice of Marv Albert to make a highlight more dramatic.
This luxury gave me an insight. It allowed me to be connected to him in ways most weren't.
Playground legend Brian "King" Leach asked me to ask Jordan the next time I saw him whether he could beat him. I would see Jordan on his motorcycle way past the midnight hour on Lake Shore Drive getting his adrenaline fix fixed. I knew how deep his "for the love of the game" clause in his contract ran because I'd hear the stories about the places he would show up to play ball (or to gamble) because I fortunately (and unfortunately) knew damn near all of those cats he'd wind up balling against or winning money from. Sometimes my phone would ring while he was still there: "Your boy is here, and he's killin' em."
I was the one Jordan singled out when a select group of us were given limited-edition laser-autographed AJ1s and he said, looking directly at me, "And I better not see any of these on eBay." He was the one I went to when I needed career advice, and he ended up giving me the best personal advice I ever heard about the role loyalty should play when making decisions about business.
Yet, through all of this, it wasn't until I read what Ben Osborne wrote a few years ago in the Slam special issue on Jordan as he entered the HOF that I realized the rare air I was in.
There was the devotion to MJ as a player and shoe salesman that led previous Eds. Tony Gervino and Russ Bengtson to give Mike his props in SLAM whenever warranted, which was often. There was also the inside knowledge, relationship skills and unique voice that Scoop Jackson brought to SLAM . Re-reading all his amazing stories in this issue reminds me how Scoop, during his SLAM days, might have been tighter with Mike than any other member of the media .
Yeah, it's been a ride. One that I can reflect on and know that not many have had the "luck" to have. One that I know he's not even thinking about or could care less about.
Which is the way it should be because I'm not Michael Wilbon or Mark Vancil or Spike Lee. I'm not the media go-to-guy; I didn't chronicle his life like "Driven From Within" or shoot legendary commercials with him. Instead, for a little more than 20 years, I was the "right place, right time" guy when it came to Michael Jordan.
And now that he's turning 50, I'm realizing that, when it comes to his life and his career, I might have actually had a different experience with him than anyone. Even those that rode shotgun with him.