Mid-jump, Michael Jordan appears as though he can actually take flight. From his famous basket shots that earned him the nickname ‘Air’ Jordan, to the millions of fans who emulate him, Michael Jordan transcended the sport of basketball to become one of the twentieth century’s greatest global icons.
The forces that shaped Michael’s extraordinary talent began at an early age. He was born into a middle-class black family in Brooklyn, New York that moved to Wilmington, North Carolina later that year. The Jordan family was very disciplined. Michael learned at an early age to abide by his parents’ rules. His father and mother, James and Deloris Jordan, taught their children to work hard and not waste their talent. Michael’s father was a military man with a strong sense of order, and he pushed his sons hard in athletics. Michael’s parents continually raised their expectations for their children.
Michael’s relationship with his older brother, Larry Jordan, was a key force in his early years. Larry was also a great athlete. He had the same strength, athletic ability and ambition as Michael, but Larry didn’t have the build to excel in sports. Michael competed ferociously to win against his older brother when the two of them played against each other. Every day, the Jordan backyard saw some form of athletic combat between the two brothers. Larry’s domination over his younger brother pushed Michael’s determination to catch up and win – and finally, one day he did. David Hart, a North Carolina team manager said, “Michael really loved Larry and talked about him all the time–he really revered him. But if Michael had gone far beyond Larry as an athlete, he never let it affect his feelings for his brother–his emotional connection and his respect for his brother were very strong. When [Larry] was around, [Michael] dropped all his mounting fame and his accomplishments and became nothing more than a loving, adoring younger brother.”
Michael displayed the first signs of his athletic ability in baseball, pitching well for a Wilmington Little League team. Although basketball attracted him from an early age, his small stature made the sport seem like a distant dream. Like his brother Larry, Michael was also short and skinny when he was young. He was reportedly frustrated about his height and started hanging from a chin-up bar to stretch his body.
The worst day of Michael’s young life occurred when he found out he hadn’t made the cut for his high school’s basketball team–although he was a good player and quick, he was still too short. But Michael didn’t give up. He became even more competitive and determined. Finally, in his late high-school years, Michael began to grow–much taller than anyone else in his family (and most people in general). He began to excel at basketball.
Michael went to college at North Carolina’s Chapel Hill. He played for the Chapel Hill team for three seasons and was named College Player of the Year in 1984. In his junior year, Michael declared that he was eligible for the NBA draft. Before he went on to the NBA, he went to Los Angeles, where he was co-captain and star of the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic basketball team in 1984.
After the Olympic win, Michael was chosen to play for the Chicago Bulls as a third overall draft pick. (Houston drafted Hakeem Olajuwon with the first pick and Portland drafted Sam Bowie with the second pick.) Although the decision by Houston and Portland to overlook Michael was the worst draft decision in the history of the NBA, it helped launch Michael into stardom. Michael could have played equally well in either place, but his rise to stardom would not have been as swift as it was in Chicago. Back then, Chicago was starved for success, but the Bulls were a bad team. Michael had to use every ounce of his talent and push himself harder than ever to win. He completely and quickly took over the Bulls. His rise brought admiration for his moves on court and scoring ability, but it wasn’t until the Bulls started to win, and win big, that his basketball genius was truly appreciated. Michael led the Bulls to three World Championships in 1991, 1992 and 1993 before he announced his first retirement.
Michael’s life off the courts had been going well–he married Juanita Vanoy in Las Vegas on September 2, 1989. They had three children, Jeffrey Michael, Marcus James and Jasmine Mickael. But things began to fall apart just before Michael announced his first retirement. His father, James Jordan, was murdered while driving home from a friend’s funeral. The grief of his father’s death left Michael with little motivation. Tired of the intense scrutiny, Michael left the NBA in 1993 to play professional baseball.
The world applauded when Michael returned to the NBA in March 1995. It was time for a comeback. Although his first season was shaky, even his critics had to admit Michael’s talent shone through. He had been away from the game for 18 months. After that first season, Michael knew he was going to have to work extra hard to get back into his previous basketball shape. By the time Chicago opened the regular season, Michael was prepared. He had trimmed his six foot six inch frame to 216 pounds with only four percent body fat. He had also rekindled the fire that drove him on court. He guided Chicago to the best regular-season record in NBA history. He was named the league’s MVP for the 4th time and brought the team to their 4th World Championship in six years. Michael was rewarded with the largest one-year contract in the history of professional sports. He had become one of the most high profile celebrities on the planet.
Nike, Coca-Cola and McDonalds courted Michael for lucrative product endorsements. He was even approached by Air Jordan, the national airline of the country of Jordan, to appear in a commercial for the airline. Although he turned hundreds of deals down, he did follow fellow NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal to the silver screen. They appeared together in several Nike commercials and the Warner Brothers cartoon comedy Space Jam. Michael’s rising fame converged with the explosion of sports media in print, broadcasting and advertising in the early 1990’s. The popularity of sports celebrities in the media and the marketing genius of companies like Nike transformed Michael into a superstar.
Throughout his life, Michael displayed an amazing capacity to improve himself through practice. He was driven and he was always the hardest-working player on the team in drills. If his teammates were not working hard enough, he got on them, himself, to work harder, and pushed the coaches to expect more from the team. His coach, Phil Jackson, says Michael never took his talent for granted. He put in gym time in the off-season, shooting hundreds of shots each day. He studied his opponents, learned their moves and dedicated himself to mastering the techniques necessary to stop them.
Michael ended his athletic career on January 13, 1999 when he announced his final retirement from basketball. While some athletes play beyond their best years for financial reasons, Michael was moving from one lucrative career to another–as CEO of his JORDAN brand. He expanded his JORDAN clothing line from basketball gear to lifestyle wear. As of May 1999, the JORDAN brand was showcased in its own retail concept shops with plans for up to 50 outlets by the end of the year 2000. Michael’s extensive business prospects earned him the number one spot in The Sporting News‘ annual list of the most powerful people in sports. This distinction is normally reserved for media moguls whose influence extends to multiple sports. Naming Michael identifies him as an athlete who touches multiple industries and nations.
But Michael’s real legacy is that he showed that true greatness comes from within. He was aware of his success, but he never stopped trying to be better. As superstar Magic Johnson said, “There’s Michael, then there’s all the rest of us.”
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