Crossing Jordan

by Irv Soonachan

I have a nasty cold, and right now I wouldn’t be welcomed in any NBA locker room. Instead of being at a Warriors game I found myself at the drug store, killing time at the magazine rack. There were only two hoops magazines there: both special edition publications (one from SLAM) about Michael Jordan.

I’m not surprised that 12 years after his last title, there is an Elvis-like market for anything related to Jordan. The best ever is always destined to be supplanted by another best ever, but Jordan was more than that. I crossed paths with him briefly, but caught enough starlight to develop a theory to explain why.

It was January 2000, after he bought a piece of the Wizards and became team president. I was living in DC, and had only been covering the NBA for a year. Being a local reporter, I knew my way around the MCI Center, so after his first game in the owner’s box I placed myself near the door from which I suspected he’d emerge. Sure enough, Jordan swung through, saw me with a notepad, and walked up.

All systems were go for a short interview — until I froze. Right before the game I’d seen a commercial in which he was speaking to Tweety Bird, and for some reason that image was blocking out whatever I had to say.

He’d seen that look before, and responded by helping me out. He offered a nice introduction, and asked if I’d like to ask him a few questions – giving me just enough time to recover. The conversation that followed wasn’t profound. We discussed the Wizards’ long-term prospects (which were non-existent).

I noticed a few reporters gathering around me, but they seemed content to stick their mikes up and get Jordan soundbites off my questions – which is not normal reporter protocol, but I didn’t care. So we kept talking. Within a couple minutes, I was surrounded by more than 30 reporters, with no way out. I thanked Jordan for his time. He kept eye contact until the end of the interview, despite the growing – and very pushy — crowd of reporters, cameras and boom mikes.

I needed quotes from Jordan for another story not long after that, but despite being the team president, he was never at the arena. Every game brought another disappointment. I got my hopes up when the Wizards played the Bulls, because I didn’t think Jordan would miss a chance to enjoy a victory against his old team.

I arrived early, a little before the rest of the media. Trying my best to be both stealthy and relaxed, I cruised towards the door of a former executive’s office, hoping it might be the one Jordan took over. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t there, and right as I was about to walk past, I was intercepted by a member of the team’s PR staff.

Without mentioning why I was there, I asked (as if it was no big deal), “Hey… uh… do you think I might get a quote from Michael before the game today?”

“I don’t know where he is,” she responded.

I couldn’t tell if she was being honest or just didn’t want to give me a few minutes with Jordan. I suspected the latter, and told her she could level with me if she didn’t want to put me on the docket, so I wouldn’t waste my time trying.

“It’s true,” she insisted. “I have absolutely no idea where he is.”

“But he’s the team president.”

“I know, but he’s disappeared. I have a huge stack of interview requests, and I haven’t heard from him at all.”

“Not even an IM?”

“No, not even an IM,” she said, her face getting a little flushed with frustration. “If this is what he thinks it takes to run a basketball team, then he doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into.”

Then a light went on from inside the office. The door opened, and there was Jordan, in a crumpled black Nike sweat suit. His eyes were bloodshot. He looked as though he’d just flown in from wherever in the world he’d been all that time.

Jordan’s eyes were slow to adjust to the bright lights of the hallway as he ambled over to us. He rested his hand on the publicist’s shoulder, casually leaned over and asked, “So, did you miss me?”

I had to laugh. The publicist was smiling, too, but was also so embarrassed that her eyes were closed. He exited the door opposite where I was standing, towards the showers. Right before leaving, he turned around and winked, grinning as though he had a cigar in his mouth.

It hit me that day why Jordan was so huge. Were he not a basketball player, he’d still be the kind of guy other people want to be around – fun to hang out with, can talk his way out of anything, devil-may-care but kind to strangers.

He’s also unafraid to show his heart. The whole country once saw him lay on a locker room floor and start sobbing. We like to see the vulnerability of our icons, too.

Just as Elvis’ popularity was more than being a great performer with a great band, Jordan’s was more than being the best player ever. The next best player ever will have a hard act to follow.

Seeing Jordan in an unscripted moment was a great experience, but I still didn’t have my quote. So before a game not long after that, I walked over to the same office. The publicist was already standing outside.

“Is Jordan in there?”

“He is,” she said. “He’s interviewing a journalist.”

I waited by the door a while longer, but then the locker room opened, and I needed some pre-game quotes from the players. I ran over to take care of it, and when I went back to Jordan’s office, the publicist was still waiting outside.

“Did I miss my chance?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “He’s still in with the same writer.”

“How long have they been in there?”

“Half an hour.”

Jordan didn’t give a half hour to just any journalist, I thought. This must be big. I asked who it was.

“He’s a middle school student,” she said.

I looked at her quizzically.

“He’s terminally ill. His dream is to be a journalist and interview Michael.”

I left the scene.

Jordan didn’t bother changing out of his sweats and into a suit that day, as was his habit then (when he showed up, at least). He watched most of the game from an empty luxury box, sunk into his chair with a bowl of popcorn, absent-mindedly munching at it while bits and pieces rolled down his dark top, settling on his stomach. It was a more compelling sight than anything happening on the court.

I never did get that follow-up interview. The next season I was covering Golden State. But I would like another shot, because next time I’ll have better questions.

Game Notes

— The Warriors’ Anthony Morrow is likely to be in the NBA for a long time. He went undrafted last year, because he’s not a spectacular athlete –just a great shooter. A lot of teams passed on Jeff Hornacek and Michael Redd for the same reasons.

— Hamed Haddadi, subject of a recent column in S-O-B, was in the news recently.

— Monta Ellis is playing very well for the Warriors, but he’s also logging extraordinary minutes. Last six games: 46, 40, 48, 48, 44 and 35 (in a blowout). How long can he keep it up?

— The Bucks’ strong start this year is due in large part to Brandon Jennings, but don’t overlook forward Ersan Ilyasova, a good rebounder with a nice outside touch. The 22-year-old Turk, back in the NBA after two years in Europe, has solidified their frontcourt. His reason for returning to the NBA? He met a Wisconsin girl.