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TELANDER: Michael Jordan changed my life

Michael Jordan was always center attentiduring his playing days. | Eric Gay~AP

Michael Jordan was always the center of attention during his playing days. | Eric Gay~AP

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Updated: March 18, 2013 7:02AM



So what has Michael Jordan meant to your life?

I’ll tell you what he has meant to mine. Quite simply, he’s where I am. Let’s do some dates:

1983. Jordan, 20, playing for North Carolina against Duke, tracks down a breakaway layup by Johnny Dawkins and rises so high that he hits his head on the backboard.

He doesn’t just nick the glass; he hits the cushioning and the backboard so hard with the side of his head that it nearly knocks him out. The slender young man sits for a while on the floor until a trainer helps him to the bench and gets a bag of ice for Jordan to put on his head.

I have calculated that the 6-6 Jordan covered about 16 feet on his jump; that seven feet into it his head was almost 10 feet in the air; and that the effect of the backboard might have taken another two feet off his leap, which, of course, he wasn’t performing as a long jump.

All told, he easily could have traveled over a small car lengthwise. I was hooked.

1986. Jordan is starting his third season with the Bulls, back from his broken foot the season before, and he is on fire. I am writing a cover story for Sports Illustrated about Jordan, who has averaged 39.4 points to lead the upstart Bulls to a 4-1 record. Some of his dunks have been jaw-dropping wonders.

‘‘I always spread my legs when I jump high,’’ he tells me, ‘‘and it seems like I’ve opened a parachute that slowly brings me back to the floor.’’

I started the piece: ‘‘Why do we love Michael Jordan? For the same reason we love Peter Pan. Because he can fly. Because he is a kid and always will be.’’

OK, I was more than hooked.

1990. Around the country, punks are shooting kids for their basketball shoes. Spike Lee, in his Mars Blackmon persona, has been hollering: ‘‘Is it the shoes? . . . Money, it’s gotta be the shoes!’’

I’m writing another cover story for SI, this one a little less giddy. Across the front of the magazine, over the painting of a black male reaching toward shoes strung over an athlete’s shoulder, a revolver in the player’s back, are the words: ‘‘YOUR SNEAKERS OR YOUR LIFE.’’

A lot of the shoes being hijacked are Air Jordans, which can retail for $100 or more. Certain Reeboks go for $170, but Air Jordans are starting to become the gold standard in cool. I talk with Jordan about this. He seems genuinely concerned, certainly not happy.

‘‘I’d rather eliminate the product than know drug dealers are providing funds for me,’’ he said.

But practice is starting at the old Multiplex in Deerfield. He’s gotta go.

His wealth is only beginning.

1994. Mid-March. SI prints a cover showing Jordan swinging a bat while wearing a White Sox uniform in spring training, missing the pitch by a mile, with the headline: ‘‘BAG IT, MICHAEL! Jordan and the White Sox Embarrass Baseball.’’ Inside, the headline was: ‘‘Err Jordan.’’

Noooo! Not that! None of it! You don’t ridicule this guy! Do you editors in New York know that Jordan is not like other athletes, not a forgiving, run-of-the-mill, shrug-the-shoulders superstar? The dude is a madman, a killer, a looming force of nature.

I was a senior writer for SI then, in my 13th year, and I was stunned at what I had read. Of course, Jordan never forgot. I don’t think he has spoken one-on-one or sat for a private photo op with SI again.

He had been SI’s Sportsman of the Year in 1991, sitting for a session that turned into a smiling hologram for the cover of the magazine. At the awards dinner, a private event for advertisers and other bigwigs held at the Hotel Nikko in Chicago, Jordan, clad in a glorious business suit from Bigsby & Kruthers, worked the room like the greatest greeter alive.

I couldn’t live with this as a journalist residing in Chicago. Jordan hadn’t even made his comeback to basketball yet. He hadn’t won three more NBA titles, earned a million more honors, made a billion kids’ dreams.

Early in 1995, I left SI to become a columnist for the Sun-Times. There were many factors involved, and my love for the magazine and the sports people at the Time & Life Building in New York hasn’t faded (that headline notwithstanding). But I couldn’t enter my prime as a man and a journalist and have no access to the greatest athlete of the 20th century. Who lived just a few miles away!

It didn’t matter if I liked Jordan. (Which I did — do still — though I have been critical and even snide toward him at times.) It was about freedom. It was about making my own mistakes, not being punished for others’.

The world found out about the vicious, cold-blooded competitor Jordan was when he made that taunting, almost cruel speech at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame 31/2 years ago. You get it now, SI? Everybody?

So I guess you could say I do what I do because of MJ. And it doesn’t look like he ever is going away.



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