Michael Jordan: An oral history

He's considered the greatest ever; let the people who know him best explain why

Updated: September 11, 2009, 3:01 PM ET

Wilmington Star-News

The following accounts are excerpted from ESPN The Magazine's Michael Jordan Hall of Fame Collector's Issue. For the full stories from people who knew, covered and played with Michael (people like Phil Jackson, Rick Telander, Terry Francona, Ric Bucher and more), you can read the full issue here -- if you're an Insider.

The first time I saw him, the summer before his freshman year, we were playing pickup games on campus. We all knew about him, but I'm from New York, and he looked like a scrawny country bumpkin from North Carolina.
-- Sam Perkins, Jordan's UNC teammate

When people ask me if I knew Michael would become a Hall of Fame player when I recruited him to play at North Carolina, I laugh and say, "Who did?" He was an exceptionally quick athlete who improved every year ... Of course, he made the game-winner against Georgetown as a freshman to help us win the national championship, but he didn't become a confident shooter until years later after he worked so hard on that part of his game. To be sure, one of the things that made him such a great player is his competitive fire.
-- Dean Smith, UNC coach

I was reminded recently that when it came time for me to announce the No. 3 selection, I simply said, "The Chicago Bulls pick Michael Jordan, University of North Carolina." That's it. Shame on me. Did I have any idea how good he would become? None at all.
-- David Stern, NBA commissioner

Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images

When Michael Jordan came to the Chicago Bulls as the third pick in the 1984 NBA draft, he was not a superstar. Oh, he had some nice credentials: first-team All-American at North Carolina, member of the Tar Hells' NCAA championship team, started on the 1984 U.S. Olympic gold medal team. Crazy hops. Big smile. Easy demeanor. But he was not "himself" or "His Airness." He was not the man whose image instantly came to mind when the name Michael -- perhaps the most common English male name on the planet -- was spoken by anyone anywhere on the globe. In fact, when the 21-year-old from Wilmington, N.C., first landed at O'Hare Airport to join the Bulls, there was no one to pick him up. A limo driver and crazy sports fan named George Koehler spotted Jordan searching for a cab and offered him a ride.
-- Rick Telander, columnist for the Chicago Tribune during Jordan's Bulls tenure

What I saw was a guy who could play at an extremely high level in back-to-back games. I'd been on the Knicks with Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe, and they scored a lot at certain times. But this was new: A guy that good night after night.
-- Phil Jackson, Bulls head coach 1989-1998

I was assigned by the LA paper to cover the Bulls-Celtics even though that series was unmistakably Lakers-free. Air Jordan was back. He's missed all but 18 games due to his having broken a small bone (navicular tarsal, for you CSI fans) in his left foot. Without him , the Bulls ended up a sorry-ass 3-52. Yet freakishly, they qualified for the playoffs. And for a visit to the Garden, where the Celts had a 40-1 record on the termite-invested parquet. [Owner Jerry] Reinsdorf wasn't sure MJ should go. I remember this: A doctor had told Jordan he had a 10% chance of recracking his foot if he did. Reinsdorf hypothesized something like, "What if you had a headache, but one of every 10 aspirin in a bottle contained poison? Would you still take it? Jordan laughed and said his head didn't ache.
-- Mike Downey, columnist for the Los Angeles Times during the 86' playoffs when Jordan scored 63 points during Game 2

Andrew D. Berstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Way back at the start of the 1986-1987 season, Jordan -- not one for false modesty -- had recognized and even been amazed by his still-blooming skills. "I wish I could show you a dunk I had in Milwaukee," he told me in November '86. "It's in slow motion, and it looks like I'm taking off, like somebody put wings on me, I get chills when I see it." Everybody got chills when the Bulls blew past the Knicks, the 76ers and the two-time defending champion Pistons by a combined marks of 11-1 before crushing the Magic Johnson-led Lakers 4-1 in the 1990-91 Finals. Jordan -- who average 31.1 points in the playoffs and switched hands in midair making that famous layup in Game 2 of the Finals -- was named Finals MVP, All-NBA first team, All-NBA Defensive first team and MVP of the league. If there had been a scepter, he would have accepted it.
-- Rick Telander

The pleasant little intrasquad scrimmage [between the '92 Dream Team] suddenly became raw and physical, all about territory and ego. Michael's territory. Michael's ego. Jordan took over, driving to the basket every time he got his hands on the ball, hounding Magic on defense, stepping into the passing lanes for steals, rebounding, screaming at opponents and teammates alike, pushing himself. There was one stretch in which he made at least 12 points in a row. When a call went against Magic's team, Johnson yelled, "What is this, Chicago Stadium? Are you going to get all the calls here, too?"

"I'll tell you what it is," Jordan shouted back. "It's the '90s, not the '80s."
-- David Halberstam, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist

For all of Michael Jordan's supernatural abilities, one thing he could not do was talk to dead people. When his father was senselessly murdered in the summer of 1993, Jordan decided to fill that hole in his game. Even if that meant leaving the game itself.
-- Ric Bucher, senior writer, ESPN The Magazine

Andrew D. Berstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Some guys would try to plunk him. Toward the end, guys were taking shots at him because it was like their one claim to fame. Somebody would hit in the back, then want him to sign the ball after the game ... I thought he handled himself great. I thought he recognized right away that it was hard. He said a couple of times, "I'm the last guy on this roster, and I know that." But as long as he liked trying to get better, I had no problem with it. Ever. I didn't think he was doing it for the wrong reasons or for disingenuous reasons. He was getting better. In all fairness, unless he wanted to play about three years, you can't even begin to say if he's going to make it. I do know this: If you tell him "No," he'd make the answer, "Yes."
-- Terry Francona, manager of the White Sox's Birmingham minor-league team on which Jordan played

US Presswire

Seventy-two regular season wins? All that drama from the adoration of Jordan and curiosity about Rodman, was just business. The fact was that these guys liked working together. If I had them do 15 minutes of meditation, they did it. They were like a magnifying glass focusing light on something until it burst into flames.
-- Phil Jackson on their 72-win 1995-96 season that still holds the record for most wins in a season.

Those who weren't there to see Babe Ruth call his home run at Wrigley Field or on hand to see Muhammad Ali's phantom punch take out Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine, might swear both ways that these moments happened or didn't, but those at the Delta Center couldn't deny that night. This was Kirk Gibson turning on Dennis Eckersley's fastball, but again and again and again, for 44 minutes.
-- Bernie Lincicome, columnist for the Chicago Tribune on Jordan's 38-point performance with a stomach virus in Game 5 of the 1997 Finals.

In that first season in Washington, limited as he was to 60 games because of a knee injury, Jordan averaged 22.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists -- low numbers by his sky-high standards but remarkable for just about anyone else. The following and final season, during which he turned 40 years old, he averaged 20 points 6.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists while playing every single game. Though he had twice failed to lift the Wizards to the playoffs, his game remained beyond that of a mere mortal ... What wasn't impressive was Jordan's work in the front office.
-- Chris Broussard, senior writer, ESPN The Magazine

If you had a dollar for every time someone uttered the phrase "the next Michael Jordan," you'd own Maui and Dubai, pay cash for Air Force One and replace Bill Gates as the richest human in America ... Miner, Hardaway, Stackhouse, Carter, Hill, McGrady, transcend nothing. James has a chance. Bryant, while dominant, doesn't produce the "it" that Jordan had. Not his fault, though. Nobody has been able to duplicate Jordan. Jordan stepped on other teams' throats and made it look charming.
-- Gene Wojciechowski, senior writer, ESPN The Magazine

Closing argument: We have a here a player who dominated the most basic statistical category of his sports like no one else in major pro sports history; who lead his team to dominate the league, both in the regular season and in the postseason; and who lifted the visibility of his sports to heights previously unattained. No, the issue goes beyond Jordan and Chamberlain; the only argument I'll listen to is one between Jordan and Ruth.
-- Steve Hirdt, executive vice-president of the Elias Sports Bureau

Bill Smith

I guess I collect memories, and of my favorites is Game 1 of the 1992 Finals when the Trail Blazers were in Chicago, when it seemed like Michael hit 30 threes in a row in the first half ( I know he actually had six in the half). After the sixth he was backpedaling down the court, and he turns to Magic, who was at the microphone broadcasting for NBA, and shrugs his shoulders as if to say, "I have no idea how those are going in." It was a precious moment, so natural.
-- David Stern

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