THE FIRST COMING
“Will it play in Peoria?” is a popular figure of speech to measure whether something, a person, product or perhaps play will appeal to the American public. It has come to supposedly represent mainstream America, sort of the center of the Heartland – the heart of the land – where if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. The phrase originated in youth novels back in the late nineteenth century. But Peoria, IL, also became a popular place for politicians and artists to test out themselves or their vision. Or buy a farm tractor, as the Caterpillar company is headquartered there.
It’s also where Michael Jordan, 30 years ago, on Oct. 5, 1984, began his NBA career in a preseason game, the Bulls winning 102-98 as Jordan scored 18 points in 29 minutes.
The NBA was more so then, and even today in a sense – though with much more sophisticated international locales – a barnstorming league. It wasn’t unusual even in the 1960s for teams to seek out the fans, as opposed to fans flocking to the arenas. It’s how the most famous game ever, Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points, was played in Hershey, PA. The Celtics played for many years into the 1990s in Hartford, CT. In the Bulls’ early years, they often played “home” games in Evansville, IN, the Jerry Sloan connection. The preseason thus became a way to sell the game beyond regular NBA cities and remains so now, though the NBA travels the world more often these days than only the surrounding cities.
But what Jordan understood immediately, even before he became an NBA star, was that players who were viewed as special owed an obligation to the fans, the community and the game. In many respects, it’s what also made Jordan like Babe Ruth. True, like Ruth, Jordan enjoyed being an entertainer. He was proud of his abilities and eager to if not necessarily show them off to simply put them on display. Like Ruth, whose feats became prodigious and generic home runs of a long distance became Ruthian, it’s similar with Jordan. Jordan would mirror Ruth in many ways with a strong affection for children. Where Ruth, an orphan, would famously visit orphanages, to the point that there would be the myth of promising ill children home runs, Jordan is the greatest ever wish-giver in the Make-A-Wish program for children with illnesses. To see him in that setting speaking to the kids and not down to kids is to see him at his true best.
Jordan’s appetites for life, like Ruth, also became infamous, though more publicized in Jordan’s era, especially Jordan’s prodigious gambling habits. A book was written by a golf hustler about matches for hundreds of thousands of dollars; Jordan famously skipped a team trip to meet the president in 1991 for a sports and cards gambling weekend. Though condemned in the era’s morality play, it also placed Jordan with the likes of Ruth and Ali, willing to defy society’s norms and conventions and yet become accepted and celebrated. It was an American trait of independence back to the Revolutionary spirit, after all, that endeared him as well to those who wondered what they thought in Peoria. Sure, go for it Mike!
Similarly, Jordan understood his responsibility not only to these people, but to the game as well. With great talent comes great responsibility.
John Paxson: “When I think back on it, you think about how he was just an ordinary guy in so many ways. We used to travel with you [media] guys. He’d be sitting playing cards in the airport. I do think he always had a sense of what was important. I say this with all sincerity: The thing I respect most about Michael is that he understood that people were coming to see him. He took it seriously. I can remember certain exhibition games: We’re in Lincoln, Nebraska. He accepted that people were there to come see him play. He played and he wouldn’t beg off of it. I don’t always see it in the game today, where guys say that these fans are here to see me.”
Jordan’s first Bulls team in 1984-85 had high enough quality players with Jordan averaging 28.2 points per game, third in the league, and almost a half dozen top 10 draft picks. But they weren’t even a .500 team, as virtually every team was led by Hall of Famers: Boston with Bird, McHale and Parish, Atlanta with Dominique Wilkins, Detroit with Isiah Thomas, Philadelphia with Moses Malone and Dr. J. Even lesser teams would have multiple All-Stars, like New Jersey with Otis Birdsong, Buck Williams and Michael Ray Richardson, New York with Bernard King, the Bucks with Terry Cummings, Sidney Moncrief and Paul Pressey. But Jordan would begin to elbow to the front of the line.
Regular season Game 1, for the record, was in the old Chicago Stadium, October 26, 1984. Jordan scored 16 points on five of 16 shooting. The Bulls won 109-93 as Orlando Woolridge scored 28 points and Quintin Dailey 25. Jordan was the story, but Chicago, having endured too much Bulls misery since 1966, wasn’t yet convinced. It wasn’t close to a sellout with 13,913, and in three of the Bulls next five home games they failed to draw 10,000. The two games they did draw were in that stretch against Boston with Bird, and Philadelphia with Dr. J. Fans still were coming to see the other guys. But the other guys were seeing something in Jordan.
The Bulls lost Jordan’s Game 2 in Milwaukee, and there was symbolism in that one as well. Remember Kobe Bryant hurling up those series of air balls in Utah in the 1997 playoffs? Many said it would break him to fail like that as a rookie. But Bryant was only doing what Jordan did, showing that you can fail because you tried.
There’s this quote Jordan is famous for which summarizes the situation: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
So there it is, Game 2 of his pro career, the Bucks leading 108-106 and Jordan shooting for the tie. Air ball! Game over. No miracles yet. Two nights later, the Bucks played the Bulls in Chicago. Jordan scored 37 points on 13 of 24 shooting with five assists and six steals. He scored 20 of the Bulls’ last 26 points.
Rod Thorn: “Milwaukee, they had the defensive player of the year, Sidney Moncrief. They double teamed him in the second half from the midcourt line in and couldn’t stop him. They had Moncrief, Pressey, Junior Bridgeman, and Don Nelson was a defensive guru at the time, believe it or not. He didn’t play anything like he played when he got to Golden State. Whatever they did, he scored. In the fourth quarter, he must have scored 15, 16, 17 points, just won the game by himself, and I was thinking, ‘Wow, we’ve really got ourselves a player here.’”
The Bulls, 27–55 the previous season, opened with six of eight on the road and went 6–2. In the team’s ninth game, Jordan scored 45 points against the San Antonio Spurs along with grabbing 10 rebounds. The Bulls cooled off after that hot start when they went out west. Yes, that darn circus chasing the team out of Chicago back then, too. They fell to 8-9 heading into Los Angeles. Jordan wowed L.A., home of stars, with the tying and go-ahead baskets in the last minute to beat the Clippers. Then, there was a one point win over the Lakers, though Dailey was the star with 28 points. And then it was back home for the first Chicago game winner, a 20-footer with five seconds left to beat the Knicks. You know how it goes. Millions will say they were there. Paid attendance was just over 8,000. But Jordan was in the NBA and headed to the All-Star game and loving it.
He ate at McDonald’s pretty much whenever he wanted and caught up on TV soap operas – a college favorite – without class getting in the way. He wasn’t the fashion model Jordan we came to know, but a college kid enjoying his dream. He mostly dressed casually in sweat outfits back then, and was happy for a post-practice game of cards or pool. I remember chatting with Jordan early that season and asking him casually how it was going.
“The best time of my life,” he enthused.
The low point of that season for Jordan was the All-Star game, something Jordan had looked forward to. Late in college, he actually talked about his professional goal of being an All-Star once in his career. Some of his buddies agreed. After all, he wasn’t averaging 20 points in his college career. How would he do in the NBA?
Jordan truly wanted just to just fit in, given all the publicity that had been coming his way. He was a fan, too, and he’d be with Bird, Dr. J, Isiah and Bernard King against Magic, Gervin, Hakeem, and Kareem. It was a dream, and his history, like at the McDonald’s game, was to try to become one of the guys. He didn’t want to attract attention, but Nike didn’t help. Nike wanted some advertising and asked Jordan to wear logo stuff to the slam dunk contest. Jordan appeared, to some, to be boasting about endorsements they couldn’t get, despite being bigger stars in the league. Plus, Jordan’s intent in trying not to monopolize the media looked like aloofness to some. It’s much the same label that gets attached often to Phil Jackson, like Jordan inherently shy as a youngster, despite their later fame.
The story that came out afterward, following Jordan’s two for nine shooting and seven points, was All-Stars on both sides, led by Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson, conspired to embarrass Jordan into a poor game by denying him the ball and allowing friends of theirs like Gervin to make him look bad on defense. Jordan just said he was nervous for the game, and the supposed principals have long denied any such effort.
Sidney Green: “At Michael’s first All-Star game, a reporter went in and asked George Gervin, ‘how are you going to defend against Michael Jordan?’ and George sent the reporter back into the East All-Star locker room and said, ‘Ask Jordan how would he like defending the Ice Man?’ Michael was livid [after that game]. He came back and was livid. They were jealous of the attention. He was the new face on the NBA bringing something that those guys really brought, but Michael was taking it to a higher level. I remember when he came back he said, ‘Every time I play against them I’m gonna kick their ass.’ Gervin was in on that, Isiah Thomas and a few other players. But I remember it was Isiah and Gervin Michael emphasized. And he was right. He followed through on it. Every time he played against them he really took it to them.”
It so happened the Bulls’ first game after the All-Star break was back in Chicago, against the Pistons. You can guess what happened. The Bulls won in overtime as Jordan scored a season-high 49 points with 15 rebounds and four steals. Take that! We’d see that act again. Thomas had just 19 points and claimed to be bothered by a bruised thigh. Before the game, Jordan was saying to friends, he “won’t forget what happened to me” at the All-Star game. It was no coincidence he scored a then career-high. And Jordan did it with style, scoring 12 of the Bulls 16 overtime points and earlier in the game getting a three-point play when he blew past Thomas and switched hands from right to left at the basket and scored banking the ball in and was fouled. It would be the less-remembered cousin of his famous switch hands layup in the 1991 Finals.
The Bulls would win 11 more games than the previous season and make the playoffs. But it still was losing to Jordan. Frankly, it was amazing they won as many as they did, with a starting lineup of Steve Johnson, Orlando Woolridge, Caldwell Jones, Ennis Whatley and Jordan. That was when the East was perhaps at its zenith with Boston, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee all winning at least 58 games and Detroit beginning its run.
Rod Thorn: “Michael would pick out things. He needed an edge and whatever little edge he could pick up, whatever it was, somebody said something or in the paper from two months before, ‘This guy, I’m going to kill him tonight.’ Or, ‘They think this guy’s better than me. We’ll see who’s better.’ He just made up shit. In the season, we were playing OK, and he said to me one time in Washington we lost a close game, and I go in after the game and he played really well in the game, and I said, ‘Tough loss,’ and he said, ‘Tough loss my ass, we gotta get some fucking players in here.’ Just like that. He was so upset. We made a bunch of mistakes down the stretch and lost the game.”
In March, Dailey failed a drug test and was suspended. Jerry Reinsdorf’s purchase of the team was finalized. He fired GM Thorn and replaced him with Jerry Krause. The Bulls still weren’t drawing that well at home – fewer than 10,000 during some games in March and April against losing teams. The Bulls did win a playoff game as Jordan had 35 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and four steals in a 109-107 win in Chicago over Milwaukee. Jordan shot 16 free-throws in that game, and 20 in Game 4 in what already was becoming an issue around the NBA. Some veterans were complaining of a rookie getting so many foul calls, though it was proving impossible to stay in front of Jordan on defense. His shooting range was limited as he was just nine of 52 on threes. His game was to attack the basket with a ferocity and explosion that hasn’t been seen before or since. The Bucks closed the Bulls out in four games, and Loughery was fired shortly thereafter and replaced by Stan Albeck.
Jordan had been selected an All-Star starter as a rookie, and was rookie of the year over Olajuwon. He led the Bulls in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals, and he set a franchise record for points. Yes, that was just the beginning.
Excerpted from There Is No Next by Sam Smith. Copyright © 2014 by Sam Smith. Excerpted by permission of Diversion Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.