Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, turns 50 years old this Sunday. We kicked off the celebration yesterday with this MJ-Scoop Jackson Q+A from ’96, and now we have a feature from the first SLAM Presents JORDAN issue (published in November ’97), in which then-SLAM editors Tony Gervino and Russ Bengtson spoke at length with the G.O.A.T. about…well, everything. Enjoy.—Ed.
by Tony Gervino and Russ Bengtson
“I’m happy to come in and do a lot better than most people expected. It’s all been a lot of fun, and I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment. Maybe I’ll never have another season like this with all the hype and all the attention on my career.”
Michael Jordan said those words in ’85, shortly after receiving the Rookie of the Year award. A dozen years later, the hype and the attention have grown at an alarming rate, and Mike, true to his word, hasn’t had another season like that first one. They’ve all been better.
The next season, ’85-86, was the catalyst. After breaking his foot early in the season, he sat out for months. Came back for the Playoffs. Dropped 63 on the Celtics, in Boston. He would go on to miss one game over the next four seasons and average 34.5 points. But still people questioned his ability—not to score, but to lead. He was no Magic Johnson, no Larry Bird. After all, what had his team won?
Today, Michael Jordan owns five NBA Championship rings: as many as Magic, two more than Bird. He’s earned five Finals MVPs, four NBA MVPs, eight NBA All-Defensive team spots and nine scoring titles. His 26,920 career points place him fifth all-time. All of the questions have been answered. Well, almost…
Summertime in Chicago. Even at 11 a.m., it’s smoldering hot. Humid, too. Still, a crowd is gathered around in front of Michael Jordan’s Restaurant. The restaurant is air-conditioned, but the new Ferrari 550 Maranello out front has captured everyone’s attention. Mike’s here.
Which, of course, is why we are. The meeting takes place in Mike’s private dining room on the second floor. Blinds shield the small room from prying eyes. Mike sits at the head of a long table. Chillin’. “Slaaaam,” is his first word. It’s also the only one we don’t get on tape. The rest? Here you are…
SLAM: So Mike, have your kids started playing ball yet?
Michael Jordan: Sure.
SLAM: Are they getting recruiting mail yet?
MJ: No. My kids are still enjoying the game and trying to love the game. I have yet to instruct them, or try to teach them, or whatever. They just love the game for the game. And because their daddy plays it. They know that I play the game and my impact on the game, but they play the game strictly because they love to play. And I haven’t pushed them at all.
SLAM: Is that the way you started with basketball?
MJ: I was a baseball fanatic. My father got me started in baseball; I played basketball as an alternate sport.
SLAM: Who was your baseball hero as a kid?
MJ: Roberto Clemente.
SLAM: In other words, growing up as a kid, if you could have been one professional athlete…
MJ: Roberto Clemente. At the time, when I was playing baseball. My father loved Roberto Clemente, and we all did, too.
SLAM: We heard about the “breakfast club” last year—I don’t think any of our readers know about that.
MJ: The breakfast club. [Stares daggers at us, then at Nike rep across the room.] Did you tell them about the breakfast club?
Nike: It wasn’t me.
MJ: The breakfast club, I mean [laughs]…actually, it was a situation where I could help Scottie Pippen and Ron Harper be more dedicated—we all felt more dedicated to being fit and getting prepared to play the game. A lot of players had their own workout regimens, who they worked out with. I had mine with Tim Grover. Scottie wanted to be a part of that. And then Harp became a part of it. Every morning, we’d work out—before games, practice—and we motivated each other on days when we didn’t want to work out. We would motivate each other to go and do that.
I had a cook, a chef, who actually would fix breakfast, which was the ultimate motivation for Scottie and Ron for coming over [laughs]—we’d work out in the basement and then have a good breakfast and then go practice. So that whole routine became a routine, and it was one that we lived through the course of the year.
SLAM: How’d that change since the beginning—what were your workouts like earlier on?
MJ: Well, it’s more dedicated now. It’s much more important now, to keep me prepared and fit to play. You know, I’ve been able to play 82 games each and every year. Scottie and I played 82 games [last season], and Harp was right there, with 81 for the last two years. So, physically, it’s given us a longevity in our careers and kept us in tune to play the game of basketball.
SLAM: Do you think you’re in as good shape now as you’ve ever been?
MJ: I think so. Physically I think so.
SLAM: What do you do in the off-season—do you work harder now than you do during the season?
MJ: I have a lot of endorsement obligations. I don’t start my workout regimen until the middle of September. But up until the end, it’s just getting away from the game. I have to fulfill a lot of obligations to some of my friends. Their basketball camps, their golf tournaments. And some endorsement stuff.
SLAM: Do you still play ball in the off-season?
MJ: A little, not much.
MJ: When I go back; every now and then, I go back and play.
SLAM: Surprise people?
MJ: [Smiles] Sometimes, sometimes.
SLAM: How much longer are you gonna play?
MJ: I don’t know. Right now I’m without a contract, as you know. So I’m just taking it year by year.
SLAM: You’re a free agent.
MJ: Yeah, I’m a free agent [smiles]. I’ma take it year by year. As long as we keep winning, and they want to continue to be a winning organization, instead of rebuilding—then I’ll play. But as soon as they wanna start rebuilding, then it’s time for me to go in other directions.
SLAM: So at this point, you really…Scottie’s up in the air…
MJ: And so am I then. I’m up in the air.
SLAM: Scottie and Phil—they’re the key pieces, obviously…
MJ: Sure. To maintaining our success. I’d like to see Dennis there, but I don’t know what’s going to happen with Dennis.
SLAM: You think he’s coming back?
MJ: Sure, I think so. I think he can’t make any other money anywhere else [laughs]. Even if he plays for free in Chicago.
SLAM: Would you ever want to own a team?
MJ: No. I just think that to get into that business was easier 10 years ago than now. Now you’ve gotta overpay to get a team, and then you gotta really overpay to get the players. I could go broke trying to own a team. I’m not enthused about that.
SLAM: What sort of job would you want to have with the NBA after you retire?
MJ: As an alum. That’s it [laughs]. That’s all I want.
SLAM: Not interested in coaching?
MJ: No, no. Not at this particular time, no.
SLAM: How do you think Larry Bird’s going to do?
MJ: That’s a great question. I don’t know. If he sustains the change in the attitudes of some of the players, and if he gets them motivated as a coach, I think he’ll be around for a while. But if he succumbs to some of the frustrations that a lot of the player-coaches go through, with the players not taking the same approach as they once did, then it will be very difficult.
SLAM: As a player, is it hard to find teammates who take practice as seriously as you do?
MJ: Very. For sure.
SLAM: And have you been able to help people take practice more seriously?
MJ: Sure. I do that, too, but it’s hard to find people who look at practice the way I look at practice—so that when the game comes, it’s easier than the practice. Or be as competitive in the practice as you would be competitive in the game. I don’t mind voicing that opinion now; I used to just lead by example, and now I voice it.
SLAM: And people follow that lead?
MJ: Sure, and I’ve got help with Scottie—Scottie’s the same way. So I mean, we both get on you.
SLAM: Is that something that Scottie had when he came to the Bulls?
MJ: I think that he’s grown [into] that attitude about the way we approach practice, just competing against each other in practice.
SLAM: How valuable do you think it was for Scottie’s game when you retired?
MJ: I think it exposed him to a lot of the sheltering that I gave him. So I think he had a better understanding about the game. He became better, once I came back. And we became better as a tandem, once I came back.
SLAM: How hard was it to watch the Playoffs when you were retired?
MJ: Very hard. Because I knew that [Scottie] wasn’t getting the fullness out of his players, and he was carrying a lot of the load. It reminded me so much of me when I was there, earlier in my career…
SLAM: Were you ever tempted to pick up the phone and say, “Hey, if you guys need some help…”
MJ: Yeah, sure. You know, but I was constantly busy with the baseball thing, so I mean, it was a temptation, but it wasn’t that long.