Excerpted from the book MICHAEL JORDAN: THE LIFE by Roland Lazenby. Copyright © 2014 by Roland Lazenby. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.
By Roland Lazenby
Steve Kerr arrived in Chicago not long before the Bulls opened their training camp in 1993. A free-agent guard with slow feet, a shock of blond hair and a deadly shot, he brought a mix of eagerness and concern to the task of making the roster. He'd heard all the stories circulating around the NBA about how difficult it was to be Michael Jordan's teammate. But within a week of signing his contract, Kerr saw the Jordan factor mysteriously disappear.
Instead, his only MJ connection over the coming weeks would be a glimpse of Jordan when he slipped in to observe the practices of the team he had just deserted. The void Jordan left was profound. He had long hinted at his departure; now, soon after his retirement announcement, he was back, as if to ascertain exactly what his absence looked like, in hopes that the finality of it might actually help him find his way. By his own admission, the newfound family time that he could now embrace did nothing to ease his mental state. He was still grieving -- something his public and the media had failed to recognize -- and trying to formulate a direction for his new life.
"He came every once in a while," Kerr remembered. "He would just come in and watch practice. I think he just wanted to see the guys and stuff. So we saw him a few times. He came to some games that year, sat in a suite at the United Center." Even this silent specter on the sidelines at practice seemed intimidating, a reminder of how the team was about to evolve.
"I think it really sort of became [Phil Jackson's] team at that point," Kerr observed. "Even though I wasn't there before that, I'm sure Phil was dominant and his presence was felt before that, but it really became Phil's team after Michael retired because it had to be. He was the dominant presence. The characters, the egos we had on the team ... we had some great players. But, you know, Scottie [Pippen] was never a guy who was going to seize control of a team from a leadership standpoint. He was everybody's favorite teammate, but one of the reasons for that was he was vulnerable. And Phil was not vulnerable."
Some observers had underestimated Jackson, suggesting that his success was a function of Jordan's ability, but they had failed to grasp just how dominant a personality the coach presented. That became essential on a team whose best player was beset by insecurity and was battling management over his pay. A few years earlier, Pippen had insisted on a long-term contract that quickly became obsolete as the league's salaries grew. Although the team did agree to return money that he had deferred, owner Jerry Reinsdorf was not going to renegotiate.
"I think Scottie was vulnerable because he was human," Kerr explained. "It's the reason everybody loved him. You know, he signed that long contract. He was clearly underpaid. It was tough for him to live with that. He felt like he wasn't appreciated. All the feelings that are associated with almost every human being, that was Scottie, and that's why we all really appreciated him, because we felt we were more like him, even though we weren't physically. We were all more like him emotionally than like Michael. Michael didn't even seem human, he was so confident and so strong."
Jordan would quickly begin to appear considerably less superhuman. He had been lost since his father's murder in August, and each succeeding account of the details served to intensify his grief, as he would acknowledge later. Yet he was also drawn to it, pausing whatever he was doing whenever another story about his father and the subsequent arrests popped up on television.
Jordan had rarely projected frailty or weakness, but now he was privately in search of relief. Word began to circulate that fall that, with Reinsdorf's blessing, he had been showing up at the White Sox training facilities at Comiskey Park to take batting practice on the sly. In typical Jordan fashion, he was there five days a week, sorting out a game he hadn't played in more than a decade, with the help of White Sox players Frank Thomas, Mike Huff, Dan Pasqua and Julio Franco. He had his sights set on returning to the game his father had loved dearly and had continued to talk about, even as Jordan had come to rule basketball.
"It was really his father's dream that he play baseball," Phil Jackson observed months later. "His father wanted to play pro ball and did play semi-pro. When his father passed away, I think Michael was kind of living out his father's dream. That's one of the things I thought when I heard it. 'Jeez, this guy wants to go play baseball in the major leagues?' But then I realized basketball players are always fantasizing that they could play baseball."
Jordan revealed his plans to Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene, with whom he had worked on the book Hang Time. They were driving past Comiskey Park one day when Jordan indicated that might be a place he would soon be working. The ride itself was revelatory to the columnist because of the often manic behavior of people they encountered all over the city -- grown men stopping their cars in traffic and jumping out, or rapping on his Corvette window to get Jordan to sign a piece of paper. Greene was amazed to see that Jordan had more or less come to accept these sometimes alarming intrusions as part of his daily routine. No wonder he spent so much time in hotel rooms with the door double-bolted, the columnist thought.
But by now the star was used to offering up just about every shred of his privacy to the hungry god of his public being. He had made a trip to California, where he was riding bicycles along the beach with a friend when they encountered a pickup game in a park. Jordan wanted to join them, and when his friend approached the players they thought he was kidding until they saw His Airness in the flesh standing nearby. He then jumped in and regained a bit of that old joy with the game. But a huge crowd gathered in an amazingly short time, and he had to leave before it turned crazier. Jordan told Greene he was thinking about using the scene for a new commercial, and the columnist couldn't tell if he was joking.
Greene kept the baseball news to himself, but others in Jordan's circle were beginning to process the idea. Sonny Vaccaro, now working for one of Nike's competitors, remembered Jordan calling him about the decision. "He said here's what I'm thinking of doing and he convinced me. He told me he was going to do it. I never heard anybody suggest he do it. He said, 'I'm going to try the baseball.' He always thought he was a baseball player. He said that's how he was going to deal with it .... And it was easy for him to do because he relished that challenge."
Vaccaro was struck that with Jordan's decision to play baseball, the issue of his gambling would just go away for the NBA. "It wasn't easy for Michael, but he realized he'd made some poor decisions, and he apologized to the people affected and he moved on," agent David Falk later said, giving the conspiracy theorists a new morsel on which to feed. "It took a lot of guts to retire when he did. It took a lot of guts to go play baseball and run the risk of failure after being incredibly successful at something else. But Michael is fearless."
Jordan phoned Bob Greene in January to break the story officially. He had continued working at the Comiskey training facility for weeks with the plan of going to spring training with the White Sox in Sarasota, Florida. This was not a "fantasy baseball" scenario, Jordan told Greene. This was to be the real deal. There would be plenty of doubters, but he had always been driven by those betting against him. For many, the question became: Was it a penance, or a pilgrimage? Or both?
He arrived in Sarasota just days before his 31st birthday, along with Greene, who was working on another book. The first day was telling. There were the White Sox in T-shirts and shorts, ready for calisthenics, and at his locker was Jordan, fully dressed in his game uniform, No. 45, like a youngster waiting for Little League to start.
"All of a sudden I felt like a kid again," he had said earlier, of the anticipation. The only difference was the legendary approach, which would prompt White Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak to describe him as "one hardworking motherf-----." And when you told him something, he listened, Hriniak would marvel.
Not that either of those things would make it easy to turn him into a big league player. He hadn't played organized baseball since he quit the Laney High School team in March 1981. But in his determination to learn to hit big league pitching, Jordan came early and stayed late each day at spring training. Still, the futility was obvious almost from the start.
Much of it had to do with the sheer size of his legend. Anticipating his big moment, thousands of fans had descended upon Sarasota. Team officials had erected barriers around Ed Smith Stadium just to handle the crowds. Spring training had always been a sleepy affair, but now there were extra security and PR people everywhere and escorts to and from the team bus. And the press was out in force.
Crowds of people pressed against the chain-link fences, all of them wanting autographs, which Jordan dutifully tried to oblige, another problem in that it again contrasted with his teammates' habit. Players had refused to sign for years, citing their union agreements, which had long left Reinsdorf shaking his head in disgust. But here was Jordan obliging crowds of autograph hunters and conducting press conferences, threatening to widen the gulf with his new teammates, some of whom treated him coolly from the start.
Jordan's escape from all this was the house he had rented in a nearby gated community. There, he could sit on the back deck at night, gazing up at the stars with awe and wonder. He sensed his father's presence with him everywhere he went, whenever some little detail of the game struck a chord of memory of James Jordan pitching the ball to him in the backyard.
Jordan would tell himself, "We're doing this together, you and I, Pops."
He longed for the friendly encouragement that James had brought him every day of his basketball life. Although he would never show it or relent from the task, soon enough the challenge began to wear on him, as it did on his thousands of fans, who had come to Florida looking for the magnificent athlete who had thrilled them in hoops, only to find an awkward, hesitant figure, so clearly out of place.
After years as the alpha male in basketball, as Phil Jackson liked to call him, here he was just hoping to make the team. He found himself looking at the manager's lineup each day, something he hadn't had to do since that fateful day at Laney. His new teammates did have to concede at least one thing: The dude was not afraid to look bad. He laid it all out there, trying to beat it down to first base to turn his dinky grounders into hits. He came close several times but rolled hitless through his first 10 at-bats. He was too tall, some said, and presented too big a strike zone. Even he agreed. "Look at these arms," he said, comparing his long limbs with those of his teammates.
Among the many media who came to witness the spectacle was Steve Wulf of Sports Illustrated, who filed a derisive account that his editors made into the infamous cover that declared: "Bag It, Michael! Jordan and the White Sox Are Embarrassing Baseball." "He had better tie his Air Jordans real tight if I pitch to him," Seattle Mariner fireballer Randy Johnson told Wulf. "I'd like to see how much air time he'd get on one of my inside pitches." Not everyone commenting in the piece was as brazen, and some sought to be quoted anonymously. George Brett, a former third baseman who had moved into the front office of the Kansas City Royals, was frank: "I know a lot of players don't want to see him make it, because it will be a slap in the face to them."
Bob Greene would later note that this was the same magazine that had used Jordan's image on its cover dozens of times to increase newsstand sales, and in TV ads promising readers all sorts of Jordan-related goodies if they would subscribe. Deeply wounded, Jordan vowed never again to speak to a representative of the magazine, and he never did, despite all that would come after.
As always, such humiliation only stoked his fire. "I'm really trying to learn this game," he told those around him.
A half-dozen games into the preseason schedule, he finally reached base on a fielder's choice. His fielding was becoming slightly less of an adventure as well. In his first night game, played against the Twins, he made a nice play in the sixth inning in right field, then later hit the ball down the third base line for a single. Right behind him, Dann Howitt knocked a home run, and like that, Michael Jordan had scored a run, and was later mobbed by his teammates in the clubhouse.
But there was no way he was going to be among the 25 who made the big league roster that season. A week before spring training broke, he was assigned to the Birmingham Barons, in Alabama, in the Double-A Southern League, a "prospects league" mostly for young talent. He spent the final week in Florida working with the other minor leaguers, a 31-year-old hopeful among pimply teenagers.
Sweet Home, Chicago
On April 7, Jordan returned to Chicago to play in the Windy City Classic, a big league exhibition game between the White Sox and Cubs at Wrigley. At first, Sox manager Gene Lamont wasn't going to start him, but 35,000 fans showed up to see him play. To their roaring delight, Jordan walked out in the first inning, his shades artfully resting over the bill on his cap. He went 2-for-5, with two RBIs in a game that was called a 4-4 tie after 10 innings. His able play in right field and his work at the plate drew standing ovations, so rare for baseball, from the happy crowd.
"What a day for Michael Jordan," declared Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray. Before the contest, Caray had interviewed Jordan, who made no effort to contain his broad, boyish smile. Jordan was doing just what every kid dreamed of doing, Caray acknowledged. But, he wanted to know, would he be upset if he made all of this effort only to discover he couldn't hit big league pitching?
No, Jordan replied, that "would simply be a credit to the game of baseball." He was there to see if he could do it and to have fun trying, he explained.
His associates would later remark that it was easily the happiest day of his baseball life, if not the happiest ever. The game, broadcast on superstation WGN, served notice to viewers nationwide that perhaps this Jordan baseball thing wasn't so silly after all.
The next day he arrived in Birmingham to find the place aswarm with thousands of fans. They had come from all over the country, a great Jordan tide that would continue to wash over minor league baseball in the coming weeks, setting attendance records and strip- ping the souvenir booths of every available item.
J. A. Adande traveled to Birmingham to do a story about the phenomenon for the Washington Post. "I remember going down there and just sitting there and looking at him out in the outfield and it just seemed surreal," he recalled. "This is Michael Jordan and he's sitting here in this ballpark, a minor league ballpark, in Birmingham, Alabama. How is this possible?"
Bob Greene, too, was struck by the spectacle of thousands of people sitting for hours one night in a downpour during a rain delay, just for the hope of seeing him play. Jordan had been profoundly embarrassed during spring training at the spontaneous outbreak of fans chanting, "I want to be like Mike." That kind of fervor was unheard of in major league spring training, but this was the minors, the backwater of baseball, and still they came and ogled and chanted.
He rewarded them with seven strikeouts in his first nine at-bats on the opening weekend of the season in Birmingham. He connected twice, one a pop fly, the other a ground out.
The press corps, with many familiar faces from his basketball days, was startled by the absence of that old sparkle of supreme confidence in his eyes.
"It's been embarrassing, it's been frustrating -- it can make you mad," he told longtime hoops writer Ira Berkow of The New York Times. "I don't remember the last time I had all those feelings at once. And I've been working too hard at this to make myself look like a fool. For the last nine years, I lived in a situation where I had the world at my feet. Now I'm just another minor leaguer in the clubhouse here trying to make it to the major leagues."
He explained that the seed was planted way back in 1990, before he had hoisted a championship trophy. "It began as my father's idea," he said. "We had seen Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders try two sports, and my father had said that he felt I could have made it in baseball, too. He said, 'You've got the skills.' He thought I had proved everything I could in basketball, and that I might want to give baseball a shot. I told him, 'No, I haven't done everything. I haven't won a championship.' Then I won it, and we talked about baseball on occasion, and then we won two more championships. And then he was killed."
He didn't hesitate to speak of his father's presence with him as he went about the business of realizing that dream. "I talk to him more in the subconscious than actual words," he said that first weekend, talking as he sat in front of his new locker in the Barons' spacious clubhouse. " 'Keep doing what you're doing,' he'd tell me. 'Keep trying to make it happen. You can't be afraid to fail. Don't give a damn about the media.' Then he'd say something funny -- or recall something about when I was a boy, when we'd be in the back- yard playing catch together like we did all the time."
Word quickly got out that Jordan was buying an expensive new bus so that he could travel the back roads of the South in luxury with his new teammates. It wasn't true. He didn't even rent the bus, as he had offered. The Barons' regular bus supplier had simply decided to provide the team with a deluxe bus, complete with reclining chairs and a lounge in the back to help ease the boredom of those long stretches between Nashville and Raleigh and Greenville and Orlando.
Jordan explained that the nicer bus gave him room to stretch out, but he admitted there was another reason. "I don't want to have a bus break down at one o'clock at night in the South," he said. "You don't know who's going to be following you. I don't want to be caught in a predicament like that. I think about what happened to my dad."
Those same thoughts had prompted him to purchase two firearms, which he kept in his suburban Chicago home. Always aware of his surroundings, he had become even more watchful in the wake of his father's murder.
There was talk of him bonding with all the minor leaguers around him, and he did play dominos in a back area of the clubhouse for light cash, which gave his teammates the opportunity to peer into his wallet fat with bills. But often he kept to himself, sitting alone during the long bus rides.
That was the same emotional barrier that had existed on every team he had ever played on since he was 6 years old. Back in Chicago, he had confided to Johnny Bach the alienation he felt for years as a kid in baseball, as the only black on a team of whites. Those earliest experiences in baseball had also shaped him. Much of Phil Jackson's work as a coach had focused on breaking down the barriers between Jordan and the rest of the team.
This spin through the minor leagues brought back those early moments with his dad, as well as the old alienation. So the distance between Jordan and his minor-league teammates wasn't surprising. He wasn't rude or ugly or arrogant, not in baseball. But he did keep to himself and his entourage, which had shrunk to just George Koehler. His wife, Juanita, would visit and bring the kids on some weekends. But most of the time it was Jordan, Koehler and his grief. Jack McCallum had pushed Jordan to talk about the experience in 2011, which prompted a somewhat testy reply. "It was baseball," he said. "The Barons. There were a lot of lonely nights out there, just me and George, on the road talking. And I'd think about my father, and how he loved baseball and how we always talked about it. And I knew he was up there watching me, and that made him happy. And that made me happy, too."
Having grown up in North Carolina, Jordan found Alabama no great culture shock. He settled into a rented house in Birmingham with a basketball goal that allowed him to engage the neighborhood kids. He found the area's best golf courses and rib joints and pool halls. Soon enough, a relaxed Jordan produced a 12e-game hitting streak that pushed his average up over .300. But then he struggled through a prolonged slump as the season stretched into the dog days of summer.
"He is attempting to compete with hitters who have seen 350,000 fastballs in their baseball lives and 204,000 breaking balls," Rangers pitching instructor Tom House would say of Jordan that season. "Baseball is a function of repetition. If Michael had pursued baseball out of high school, I don't doubt he would have wound up making as much money in baseball as in basketball. But he's not exactly tearing up Double-A, and that's light years from the big leagues."
When Jordan had announced his retirement the previous October, Lacy Banks had written a column the next day predicting that he would one day return to basketball. With his batting average sinking, Banks came to Birmingham for three days to push him on the issue. But Jordan denied it.
"I still don't buy it," Banks wrote in the Sun-Times. "And his recent batting slump is our ally."
Sitting at his locker, Jordan laughed when Banks asked him about a "glorious return" to the NBA.
"You make it sound like some kind of religious event or some- thing," Jordan snickered.
"Jordan was very adamant that his basketball days were behind him," recalled J. A. Adande, who had worked with Banks at the Sun-Times. "And Lacy goes back and asks him, 'Is there even a teeny-weeny chance?' And Michael said something like, 'There's always a chance, but right now it's real teeny and real weeny.' "
Even with that dismal slump, Barons manager Terry Francona could see that Jordan was making dramatic improvement. At his lowest point, he had stayed after a game one night to ask what the manager really thought about his future in the game. Jordan would admit later that the talk had come just as he had begun to entertain thoughts of giving up. He didn't want to go on as a joke and, worse, to take the place of a younger prospect who had a better chance. But Francona pointed out that progress was typically slow in baseball development and that he was starting to see substantial gains for Jordan. The effort had been extraordinary and unfathomable to people who knew baseball.
Over the last month of the season, he batted .260, which lifted his average to a measly .202. In 436 at bats, he had managed 88 hits, including 17 doubles and a triple. He had stolen 30 bases and scored 46 runs. Such steady improvement earned him a promotion. He was assigned to the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League. It seemed to represent a victory, although few beyond Terry Francona and some White Sox executives saw it that way.
For Jordan himself, it represented a murky window to his future. His once magnificent confidence was now in tatters all around him, yet he remained cautiously steadfast. He was driven by emotions that few if any understood. He had arrived at this point in his life so completely wrapped in silent fury that even he failed to recognize it. This blinding yet unarticulated rage would play out in incongruous ways over the coming years, until the central question of his life became: Would he ever be rid of it?
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