Commentary

Portrait of a legend

Jordan described by his family as combative, but affectionate

Originally Published: September 9, 2009
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

James Jordan always claimed that his son Larry had the real basketball talent in the family.

Michael Jordan
Wilmington Star-NewsDeloris Jordan always kept a close eye on Michael, including making him read in her car while she watched him from her job in a bank.

Deloris Jordan said their eldest son James Jr. (or Ronnie, as the family calls him) possesses the true leadership ability.

Jordan's oldest sister, Delois, now she was the creative one. And Roslyn was the writer.

The family's youngest boy was encouraged and appreciated too, but he was the one who would stand over the engine of the latest car his father and brothers were fixing, not wanting to get his hands greasy.

"I remember one time," said Larry, "my father told Michael, 'Go get my 9/16 wrench,' and Michael said, 'What's that?' And my father just sent him in: 'Go back inside with the women.' Michael was fine with that. It just wasn't in his DNA."

For a while, Michael Jordan's DNA was not so clear-cut.

At age 12, there was the day he was suspended from school for fighting. It wasn't the first time he had gotten into a fight in school, and his mother was darned sure she was not going to let the child lay around the house all day, watching TV.

"He tells me it would be considered child abuse today," Deloris said of her punishment, with a laugh. "But it was a tough age and I knew I had to set the precedent. I took him to work and made him stay in the car all day and read. I could see him from the bank window. I wanted him to know I was always watching him. We went to lunch, and then after dinner, I knew a lady at the library, so he stayed there and read some more. ...

"We didn't have any more trouble from him after that."

On the threshold of his enshrinement on Friday into the Basketball Hall of Fame, the man acknowledged by many as the greatest player in the history of the game may be remembered as a somewhat combative child. But Michael Jordan was also the most affectionate one in the family, the one who would wrap his arms around his mother while she was cooking and tell her how badly he wanted to be tall.

At 15 years old and a sophomore in high school, he was 5-foot-10 and watched as his best friend, LeRoy Smith, at 6-foot-4, was moved up to the varsity squad while he stayed behind.

"Mom, I really want to be tall," Michael would beg.

"Go put salt in your shoes and pray," his mother would tell him, the basis of the story that became a best-selling children's book, which she wrote with daughter Roslyn.

"He would tell me I was being silly, but I had to pacify him so I could finish dinner," she said with a laugh. "Then his dad would walk in and he'd tell him he wanted to be tall. We'd say, 'You have it in your heart. The tallness is within you. You can be as tall as you want to be in your thinking.'"

Fortunately for Michael, the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Chicago Bulls, the tallness would not restrict itself to his thinking, and he would grow 5 inches between his sophomore and junior years.

Jordan
Getty ImagesAfter Russia beat the U.S. in the Munich Olympics, nine-year-old Michael promised his mother Deloris that he would win gold one day. He kept that promise.

Until then, Larry Jordan (who is 5-foot-8 and 11 months older than Michael) enjoyed a competitive advantage over his younger brother. The two would often invent games in their vast backyard -- about five acres of land, and 13 acres beyond that owned by their mother and uncle.

"We had this barbecue pit that we'd use as the backstop and we'd play baseball with a tennis ball, and we had numerous battles," Larry recalled. "If I lost, I had to keep playing until I won. That's why, more often than not, it would end in a fight."

Michael competed in whichever sport was in season, playing quarterback and wide receiver in Pop Warner and through his freshman year of high school. The Jordan kids also had an older cousin who, at 6-foot-7, clearly shared Michael's tall genes and lived with the family briefly while he was in high school, working on basketball with the younger boys.

But the brothers' first love was baseball.

"I was the guy who would go for base hits and Michael would go for home runs," Larry said. "He always had that little glamour about him."

At 12, Michael was named MVP when he represented his team in a state tournament.

"For his prize, he got to go to Mickey Owens baseball camp," Larry said. "Then, when I was 13 and Michael was 12, our Little League baseball coach got us involved on our first organized basketball team."

But the one-on-one battles continued.

"I won most of them until he started to outgrow me," said Larry, "and then that was the end of that."

Still, Larry insisted there was no resentment as his little brother soared past him.

"We played one year of varsity basketball together when I was a senior and Michael was a junior, and that's when his play just went to another level," he said. "Even though there were five guys on the floor, he pretty much played all five positions. His level of play was just so much higher than the rest of us. People ask me all the time if it bothered me, but I can honestly say no, because I had the opportunity to see him grow. I knew how hard he worked."

Deloris and James made sure their kids attended each other's activities -- the girls going to their brothers' basketball games and the boys showing up at softball.

"That was a family rule," Larry said. "We had to go out and support each other, so there was never any jealousy on my part. I felt he earned everything. But I don't think he or anyone else had any vision that he would be the player he turned out to be. As a matter of fact, we thought he'd play baseball. That was his dream."

Deloris Jordan's credo was simple.

"I always told my children, 'Each one of you has special gifts, it's how you use them,'" she said. "Each one had a talent, but how they approached it was different from the others. Michael might have skills for basketball, but Larry built things with his hands, and our oldest son was in ROTC and such a leader."

Ronnie Jordan, who is six years older than Michael, graduated high school on a Friday and enlisted in the Army that Sunday.

"It was like somebody in the house had died," Deloris said of her eldest son's absence. "I couldn't go into his room for many, many years. He was the first to leave."

Jordan
Doug Collier/AFP/Getty ImagesMichael had talked to his father James about wanting to play baseball, which is why he briefly pursued the sport.

Ronnie Jordan served for 31 years, had three tours of duty in Iraq, and reached the rank of command sergeant major in the Army's XVIII Airborne Corps, making headlines in 2004 when he announced that he was staying in Iraq even though his mandatory retirement date had passed.

When Sgt. Major Jordan, married with three children, retired from the service three years ago, there was a three-day celebration at Fort Bragg, N.C., in ceremonies that included tributes from President George W. Bush, former President Bill Clinton, former colonels of Jordan's and 3,200 troops.

"You want to talk about my proudest moment?" said his mother, "I was so emotional, I could not take it. Hearing from all the young recruits and how he kept them focused. That's what it's about -- how you affect other people's lives."

Michael was to join the family, but upon his mother's request not until the second day of festivities.

"I wanted Ronnie to have his day," she said, aware of the distraction her younger son's presence would cause. "Then Michael called and said his car broke down [which, they later joked, he could not fix himself, of course] and I secretly thought, 'Good, Ronnie will have the acknowledgement and attention he deserves.'"

Michael had already had plenty of moments his family could savor, including six NBA titles. But his mother points to two occasions in particular.

"When it came time for him [to leave Chapel Hill, after his junior year], Coach [Dean] Smith said he had grown so much with his skill level that he was ready [to enter the NBA draft]," Deloris Jordan said. "Of course, his father agreed with Coach Smith, but I said, 'What about his degree?' He said, 'Mom, don't worry.' But I said, 'I'm not pushing for me but for you.'

"He said, 'I realize that,' and I never mentioned it again. It took him two seasons, but to see him march in with his cap and gown, knowing that was a goal and that he had met it, was one of my proudest moments."

Her second moment came at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

"I remember Michael walking into the kitchen [at age 9]," Deloris recalled, "and saying that Russia had won [the gold medal in basketball over Doug Collins' U.S. team in Munich, the ensuing dispute over a last-second ruling one of the most controversial in Olympic history]. He said, 'I'm going to be in the Olympics one day and I'm going to make sure we win.' I smiled to myself and said, 'Honey, that takes a lot to win the gold medal.' But he never lost that dream."

When he finally did make it, commitments with their other children almost kept Deloris and James from attending the Games in person, but at the last minute, they were able to fly in for the gold-medal game.

"Mr. Jordan kept sending notes to the security guard to let Michael know we made it," she said. "But we weren't sure he knew. Then, after the game, he ran up, picked me up off the floor, put me up on a chair, put the gold medal around my neck and said, 'Mama, this is a dream come true.'"

Following the family rule, Michael's siblings often took turns visiting him in his first few years with the Bulls, his parents also alternating so that one of them was with him in Chicago almost nonstop.

"Just for love and support, to let him know we cared," said Deloris, now a grandmother of 11 and great-grandmother of two. "We told him, 'Just until people know who you are and you learn the city and discipline yourself.' That rookie year, no matter who else was or wasn't hollering in the stands for him, he knew, you have two parents cheering for you. Even when you make mistakes, we still love you for who you are."

Larry came to Chicago and also travelled a bit to road games back then, and still makes it to Michael's home in Highland Park for Thanksgiving with the rest of the family each year.

"He has a gym there, and it's really fun for his kids [Jeffrey, 20, Marcus, 18, and Jasmine, 16] and my kids [Alexis, 16, and Justin, 14] to see how we compete at 21 or even a board game," Larry Jordan said. "And when we play basketball, my chances are better now than over the last 20 years."

Larry Jordan sees his brother as only a brother can. He knew before anyone else, for example, that Michael would erupt on young LaBradford Smith. It was late in the '93 season, in the second game of a back-to-back, home-and-away series for the Bulls against the Washington Bullets. In the first game, Smith, a second-year guard carrying an 8.5 points per game scoring average, scored 33 points in three quarters and 37 for the night against Jordan at Chicago Stadium.

"I think LaBradford said 'good game' to him, and that's all it takes to get him going," Larry said. "I knew right then."

Michael made his first eight shots against Smith the following night in Washington, scoring 19 points in the first quarter, 36 by halftime and 47 when he took a seat on the bench at the end of three quarters.

"A couple other things happened in the course of his career I knew," Larry said. "Like after the ['85] NBA All-Star Game with Isiah [Thomas], and Michael being frozen out. Guess who played him the next game? He got 49 against [Thomas'] Detroit [Pistons] the first game after the All-Star break [which the Bulls won in overtime]. He's got this killer instinct that's hard to explain and a will to win like I've never seen before."

He paused, then corrected himself.

"Yeah," said Larry sheepishly. "I guess I had seen it before."

Now a regional sales manager for Upper Deck with a passion for restoring classic cars, Larry Jordan said the murder of their father James during a carjacking and robbery on the side of a road near Lumberton, N.C., in the summer of '93, hit the family understandably hard.

Jordan
John Ruthroff/AFP/Getty ImagesMichael's brother Larry noticed something strange during Michael's first game back from retirement in 1995. His shorts were on backward.

"But we all had to draw from that," said Larry, who owned a sportswear company with his father at the time of his death. "We knew what he wanted us to do. For me, the last conversation I had in person with him was right after the '93 Finals. My daughter was born two weeks before [the Bulls' third championship] so I didn't go. But when my dad came back, he came to see the baby and that was my last visit with him. That experience, the fact that he came by, and our conversation, was enough to get me through the hard times.

"For Michael [who had recently purchased the Lexus SC400 Coupe that James was driving when the attack occurred], he had spoken to my dad about wanting to play baseball. That's the reason why he took the path he ended up taking." Michael retired from basketball (for the first time) just months after his father's death and pursued a career in baseball with the Chicago White Sox Double-A team.

"My dad always told us, 'Don't put yourself in the situation where you ask yourself, 'What if?' Give [Michael] credit. He did what he wanted to do. He got heavily criticized and I knew it upset him. But if you're not breaking any laws, why not try to pursue your dream? I don't think he had any regrets about that. I think he's at peace with all of it."

Families are bonded in all sorts of ways. And there are some things brothers don't ever forget. Even when you wish they would. Like Michael's first game back in the NBA a year and a half later.

"A lot of people don't know this," Larry said with a laugh, "but in that first game back against Indiana, I'm watching, and all of a sudden I realized he had his shorts on backwards. I never asked him about that. I keep forgetting. But I remember I was watching the game at a sports bar with one of my friends and I started laughing and said, 'My brother has his shorts on backwards.' I'm sure he was probably nervous being away from the game for almost two years. And I'm sure no one else noticed. But I did."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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