Reference Entry

Jordan, Michael Jeffrey (born 1963), Basketball Player, Celebrity

David F. Smydra

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Jordan, Michael Jeffrey (born 1963), Basketball Player, Celebrity

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basketball player, was born Michael Jeffrey Jordan in Brooklyn, New York, the fourth of five children of James Jordan and Deloris Peoples. The family soon relocated to Wilmington in the parents' home state, North Carolina, where Jordan's father rose to supervisor in a General Electric plant and his mother worked as a bank teller. James Jordan's air force pension boosted the family into the middle class, and they instilled in their children a solid work ethic with an emphasis on loyalty and commitment.Like his brothers and sisters, Jordan was a relatively short child—but exceptionally quick. He preferred baseball to basketball and pitched several no-hitters in Little League. Although he was initially a lazy child who bribed his siblings to do his chores, Jordan was invigorated by athletic competition. Regular one-on-one basketball games against his older brother Larry fueled a fiery competitiveness in him, since Larry was acknowledged to be more talented. When Michael entered Laney Wilmington High School in 1979 he was five feet eight inches tall and determined to play varsity basketball. Following a year on the freshman team, the varsity coaches encouraged him to try out as a sophomore and then cut him. He was devastated, cried in his bedroom that afternoon, and then averaged twenty-five points per game on the junior varsity team. He made varsity the next year; grew to six feet two inches tall and during his senior season at Laney, Jordan led the Buccaneers to a 19-4 record before matriculating at Chapel Hill in the fall of 1981. He had previously earned an invitation to summer camps at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the prestigious Five-Star Camp in Pittsburgh. At Chapel Hill he got his first exposure to “the system,” Coach Dean Smith's storied method of running a high-caliber basketball program; Smith and his assistants were immediately impressed not only with Jordan's athleticism but also with his determination to sneak into scrimmages when it was not his turn.Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls dunks during the slam-dunk competition at the NBA All-Star weekend in Chicago, Illinois, 6 February 1988. Jordan narrowly won the competition, edging out Dominique Wilkins of the Atlantic Hawks on the final dunk. He would go on to lead the Bulls to six championships in eight years during the 1990s, helping cement his status as the greatest basketball player of all time. (AP Images.)Much of Smith's system involved teaching teamwork and humility. Although Jordan became increasingly cocky about his abilities, the system was the perfect antidote for his good-natured though occasionally abrasive attitude. The Tar Heel upperclassmen did not appreciate the fast-talking, bright-eyed freshman who detailed how he would dunk on them in practice—and they harbored no small amount of spite when he quickly made good on his word. But they could take some solace in seeing Jordan fetch loose balls during practice and lug the film projector on road trips—and in winning more games. The Tar Heels went 32-2 and won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament; a few weeks later, Jordan hit a seventeen-foot jumper to clinch the National Collegiate Athletic Association championship. At his full height of six feet six inches, Jordan won Player of the Year honors for the next two seasons; after consulting his parents and Smith, he bypassed his senior year to enter the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft. In the interim, Jordan led the U.S. basketball team to the 1984 Olympic gold medal.The ailing Chicago Bulls signed Jordan for five years at $800,000 per year. During his first two seasons Jordan became a phenomenon, boosting the Bulls' ticket sales by almost 90 percent and triggering a similar spike in attendance at road games. He played all eighty-two games and averaged 28.2 points, almost six assists, and more than six rebounds per contest, securing Rookie of the Year honors. During All-Star weekend, Jordan competed for the first time in the popular Slam Dunk Contest. Donning a gold chain and his trademark baggy shorts (which allowed him to wear his North Carolina shorts underneath), Jordan electrified the crowd with a combination of tremendous leaping ability and graceful aerial control.Early in the 1985–1986 campaign, Jordan broke his foot. Doctors advised him to sacrifice the rest of the season for treatment, but he returned with more than a dozen games remaining and drove the Bulls into the play-offs against the powerful Boston Celtics. Although the Celtics swept the Bulls, Jordan averaged 43.7 points for the series, scoring a record 63 in the second game, and prompted the Celtic star Larry Bird to quip that he had played against “God disguised as Michael Jordan.”Jordan's dramatic performances—such as scoring more than fifty points in eight separate games during the 1986–1987 season—catapulted him into the NBA's highest echelon, and he signed lucrative endorsement deals for Wheaties cereal, McDonald's restaurants, and, most important, Nike sportswear. These companies quickly realized that Jordan's gracious public persona and clean-cut looks transcended the potential obstacle of his skin color; teenagers and children of all classes and races idolized him. Jordan hence became a crucial figure in the escalation of sports marketing into a multibillion-dollar industry. The only compensation he wanted when he originally signed with Nike was a car; in 1987 his contract guaranteed him $18 million over seven years, plus royalties from such products as the Air Jordan basketball shoe, thought to be more than $20 million per year by the mid-1990s. In 1998 Forbes magazine estimated that Jordan had generated more than $10 billion in overall revenue for the NBA during his career.The quintessential slow-motion image of Jordan came from the clinching dunk in the 1987 Slam Dunk Contest. Jordan ran from beyond half-court, leaped from the free-throw line, and glided through the air in a seemingly effortless manner—lifting the ball and then lowering it, contracting his legs and then spreading and extending them—finally dunking the ball fifteen feet later. His rumored forty-four-inch vertical leap was impressive, though by no means unprecedented; the mythical quality of his dunks derived more from the way he seemed to hang in midair as if through sheer will. Primarily known for his offensive abilities, Jordan relied on his defense to catalyze the rest of his game; crowds would anxiously anticipate the inevitable moment when he would intercept a pass, streak downcourt, and take flight for a beautifully thunderous dunk.Despite regular appearances in television and print advertisements, as well as his 1989 marriage to Juanita Vanoy (with whom he had three children), Jordan did not allow any distractions to hinder his and the Bulls' steady progress. For a half dozen seasons, Jordan had systematically improved every area of his game, becoming one of the most versatile players in the history of basketball. In 1988 Jordan won the first of five Most Valuable Player awards, as well as Defensive Player of the Year, becoming the first to win both in a single season. He would lead the NBA in scoring for ten seasons and was selected for the All-Defensive Team a record nine times. Originally considered a player who slashed toward the hoop and fired the occasional midrange jump shot, Jordan developed a deadly post game and extended his shooting range, increasing his three-point percentage by .100 to .376 in 1990. The determination reflected in these accomplishments appeared finally to inspire his teammates, and the Bulls defeated Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers for the 1991 NBA championship.Later that year a Chicago sportswriter published The Jordan Rules, an exposé of the Bulls' championship season, which portrayed Jordan as being mean-spirited toward his teammates in order to elicit better play. Nevertheless, the Bulls won their second championship in 1992, and Jordan and his teammate Scottie Pippen traveled to Barcelona, Spain, to play on the first U.S. Olympic basketball team to include professional players. This Dream Team won the gold medal with unprecedented ease.As the Bulls hurtled toward their third consecutive championship in 1993, hints surfaced that Jordan routinely gambled enormous sums of money. A year earlier Jordan had weathered the first of such murmurings when a murdered man was found in possession of three checks, all written by Jordan and totaling $108,000, one of them made out to a convicted cocaine dealer. Jordan claimed the checks were gambling debts from golfing, a longtime hobby. When another purported gambling golfer asserted that Jordan owed him more than $1 million, an NBA investigation ensued. Jordan was absolved of any violation, and on the heels of winning a third consecutive NBA title that spring, he decided to retire.He was not, however, retiring from sports altogether; in 1994 he signed a free-agency baseball contract with the Chicago White Sox. The previous August, his father, James Jordan, had been found murdered in his car, and many reporters interpreted Jordan's actions as a means of realizing the childhood dreams he had shared with his father of someday playing major league baseball. After one lackluster season in Chicago's farm system with the AA Birmingham Barons (Jordan batted .202), and with a strike imminent for the 1995 baseball season, Jordan decided to rejoin the Bulls. He played a handful of games in the regular season and averaged more than thirty points in the play-offs before the Bulls lost in the second round. Again motivated by the sour taste of losing, he embarked upon a strict training regimen and bolstered his offensive arsenal with a fade-away jumper that he fired with amazing precision and that was nearly impossible to block.The Bulls marched to three more consecutive NBA championships from 1996 to 1998, and Jordan never missed a game. His play-off performances were particularly memorable, as he continued to exhibit an uncanny ability to elevate his play during especially tense situations. He started every play-off game of his career, played more minutes in each game than in the regular season, grabbed more rebounds, gave more assists, and averaged 33.4 points per game—three points above his career regular season average. In the 1997 finals against the Utah Jazz, Jordan had a fever of one hundred degrees and severe nausea before the fifth game. But he scored thirty-eight points—fifteen in the final period—and the Bulls came from behind to win. The next year Jordan sparked another comeback and made the series-clinching shot from twenty feet away to win his final championship.The next season, after an NBA labor dispute was settled in January 1999, Jordan again retired, cagily asserting that he was “99.9 percent certain” he was retiring permanently. He assumed an executive position with the Washington Wizards a year later. In November 2001 Jordan once again took to the court, playing for the Wizards against the New York Knicks. Jordan had a chance to tie the game with a three-point shot in the waning seconds, but he missed. Although he averaged more than twenty points with Washington and was twice voted to the All-Star team, the Wizards failed to make the play-offs both seasons.In April 2003 Jordan was summarily dismissed from the Wizards' front office. After a short break from basketball, Jordan returned in 2006 as part owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. In 2009, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. With his obsessive drive for personal success, Michael Jordan established himself as the most influential African American in athletics since Muhammad Ali. Both men were unparalleled masters of their respective crafts; where Ali's career brought energy and a sense of pride to blacks during the civil rights era, Jordan's avoided politics but brought the world of sports to Wall Street.

Reference Entry.  1999 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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