Michael Jordan’s adopted hometown was a big—and happy—part of his ascension.
That Jordan was a freak of nature was apparent from the get-go. Family photos showed him dwarfing his dad and 5-8 older brother, Larry, his unearthly ability to jump seemingly unimpeded by gravitational forces.
“A lot of times I’m in awe of myself,” he said. He spoke of floating through mid-air and having no idea what he was going to do until he did it. He could single-pump, double-pump, triple-pump and still get a shot off. He could seemingly hover like a cottonwood seed, waiting until less buoyant spores returned to earth to do his thing. And his hands were as big as Frisbees. He talked about a contest dunk he had been pondering.
“I’d need three basketballs,” he told me. “I’d palm one, put one under my arm, and then palm the other. I’d leave from half court and when I got close I’d throw the one ball up, then I’d snatch the ball from under my arm and dunk it, dunk the other ball, and then dunk the third as it’s coming down. I think it could be done. You’d need perfect timing. But even if I missed, I should get an 11 or 12.”
He said this with that infectious, all-inclusive smile of his. But there was no false modesty here. Not a speck. And people liked that. He had shown up at O’Hare Airport that rookie season, and he didn’t have anyone—official or otherwise—waiting for him. While searching for a cab, he met limo driver George Kohler, who drove Jordan to his hotel and became his lifelong friend and employee in the process.
But Jordan, entourage or not, had the stones to shoot the ball often and well, to attack like a guard dog, to do almost anything he wanted on the court, and that made it seem anything was possible for him. Nike certainly felt that way. In March of ’85, the shoe company launched the Air Jordan line, selling more than $110 million worth of footwear by the start of the ’86 season, as well as $18 million more on a Jordan line of sports apparel. “He turned the entire shoe industry upside down by himself,” his agent David Falk told SI. “He outsold entire companies across the board.”
“That first generation of Michael’s shoes were basically Hula-Hoops,” Nike spokesman Kevin Brown said. Unique and irresistible, like the man himself.
Jordan packed fans into the old Chicago Stadium, a small, dark, high-beamed den without amenities, a blue vapor of cigarette smoke holding at the top and the acoustics of an insane asylum. To get to the locker rooms, teams had to descend a narrow staircase behind one basket, holding the railing with one hand, holding the other hand above their heads to prevent scalping themselves on the projecting ceiling. Jordan loved the place, played like he was in a school gym back home. When the Stadium was scheduled to be torn down and replaced by the gleaming United Center in ’94, Jordan knelt and kissed the blood-horned bull at center court.
He had already long before kissed the fans. In that rookie season of ’84, Jordan was the only player in the NBA to score in double figures in all 82 games. He hit 20 or more points 74 times, 30 or more in 33 games. Critics had said he didn’t have a jumpshot? His 51.5 shooting percentage didn’t come just from dunks. “The name of the game is to force a player to do the one thing he can’t do real well,” said Spurs center Artis Gilmore. “But as far as I can tell, Jordan doesn’t have that one thing.”
Getting a ticket to see Jordan play was suddenly the cool thing to do in Chicago. Basketball had moved up to football-baseball level. It was way past hockey. When the Bears won the Super Bowl the next season—in January of ’86—Chicago felt blessed, charmed for once, at last. Jordan missed 64 games that second season because of his broken foot, but when he came back full-tilt for those ’86 Playoffs he was a man out of control with fury. In the first two Playoff games against the Celtics Jordan scored 49 and 63 points. Celtics guard and an eight-time All-Defensive team member Dennis Johnson summed it up, “As you can see, no one can guard him.”
The only question was whether Jordan could elevate an entire team, lift all ships along with his. By 1991, as the Bulls string of six NBA championships began, the question was laid to rest forever. “It’s hard to describe,” teammate John Paxson said of what it was like to play with Jordan. “He’s so likable. How can you dislike him? Everybody’s thought is to play like him—in their backyards or their dreams.”
In that rookie year, the furrow was plowed, the seed was sewn, and hoops in Chicago bloomed like a bouquet. Forget Al Capone. The town was Mike’s.