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Michael Jordan: Wary megastar

Read the Sun-Times’ 1989 feature on Jordan adjusting to life as a global superstar.

Michael Jordan watches from the bench in the final moments of the game.
AP

Originally published May 21, 1989.

“Sometimes I wish I could be Michael Jackson, but just for a day. Just for a day to see how much worse it could get.”

These words belong to the OTHER Michael - pro basketball megastar Michael Jordan.

”It hasn’t gotten to the extreme where I can’t go out in the public at all,” Jordan said. “It’s just that whenever I go out, I have to always be extremely careful that I carry myself in a positive manner because that is the way people are going to view me.

”Michael Jackson can’t even go out unless he disguises himself. I haven’t gotten to that point yet.”

Not yet. But one wonders if it will come to that. His fans not only stop him in public more and more, but make uninvited visits to his hotel rooms and his new five-bedroom, $800,000 house in Highland Park.

”I’ll sign autographs anywhere except my house,” Jordan said. “Neighbors and other people are starting to come to my house just for autographs. I’ve got to have some peace and privacy in my own home. I tell ‘em `no’ at the door.”

There’s no question that Jordan, alias “MJ,” “Jump 23” and “Air,” is the the hottest sports attraction around.

Association with Jordan guarantees the increased sales of Nike gym shoes, Chevrolet vehicles, McDonald burgers, Wilson basketballs, Johnson’s hair care products (even though MJ almost shaves his head), CBS-Fox videos, Coca-Colas, T-shirts, caps and assorted other merchandise. For those endorsements, Jordan will be paid roughly $4 million this year.

In the open court, he breaks like a flash of lightning and slam dunks with the power of thunder. On the road, fans boo their own players for fouling Jordan and robbing them of a Jordan jam.

See him on your kid’s box of Wheaties on the breakfast table. Check him out on assorted videotapes, including his new biography, “Come Fly With Me.” Hear the new song about him titled “Jordan,” sung to the tune and beat of that old soul hit “Cool Jerk” by the Capitols. Read of his latest feats in your newspapers. Find him on the covers of GQ, Sports Illustrated, Chicago and assorted other national magazines. Catch his latest aerial thrills on the evening news. See him displayed on people’s chests.

”Sporting goods and novelty store owners tell me they can’t keep enough of T-shirts, pennants, caps and anything else with the name Michael Jordan or the Bulls on them,” said Steve Schanwald, Bulls vice president of marketing and broadcasting. “Michaelmania is here!”

Has success spoiled Jordan?

There is no evidence of it in his seemingly ceaseless zeal for signing autographs.

Some sports figures now charge $10, $15, $20 and up to sign an autograph for a fan. “I don’t think I could ever charge fans for my autograph,” Jordan said. “For one thing, I don’t ever think I’ll be that hard up for money.”

Every now and then, Jordan gets that special bonus for his graceful play and gracious personality. Recently, as Jordan was relaxing in the airport, a 4-year-old girl, accompanied by her mother, walked up to him.

”Go ahead,” the mother beckoned. “Tell him what you said you were going to tell him.” The girl shyly ambled up to Jordan, twisting a finger in her mouth, and said with the ceremonial tenderness of a kid reciting her Easter piece in church: “My father thinks the world of you. He is your No. 1 fan. And I think you are great, too.”

Jordan smiled, thanked his little fan and signed an autograph.

”He’s a man who just can’t say `no,’ “ said close friend and Nike PR representative Howard White. “He loves people. People love him.”

”Often people who don’t have a pen or even a piece of paper come up to him asking for autographs,” said George Koehler, another friend and part-time chauffeur. “But he just smiles and still tries to accommodate them.”

”Success has matured him but not spoiled him,” said Jordan’s older brother, Larry. If his parents, James and Deloris Jordan, can help it, they’ll never let success spoil Jordan’s proper family affiliation.

”Y’all look at Michael as the star,” said James, who with his wife manages many of Jordan’s business deals.

”When I see him, I see him as one of five children that I have. Sure, he has special talents. Each child does. It’s just that there’s a great demand for his. But I try to treat all my children equally.”

Jordan wears only the finest clothes. He has some 100 suits custom-tailored, by the likes of Bigsby and Kruthers, Barbara Bates, Davis for Men and Richard Dent’s clothing store.

And Jordan gets his nails manicured weekly by Linda Woohlner.

”Michael is extremely conscious of his looks,” Woohlner said. “Especially his hands. He plays basketball with them. He shakes his fans’ hands. He wants everything about him to be first class. I have about 100 regular customers. By far, his hands are the biggest. They are soft, but very lean. No body fat. The gift was given to the right person.”

Jordan has his own barber in Oak Park and occasionally hires a maid and baby-sitter to care for his 7-month-old son, Jeffrey Michael, when he has to run an errand. But most of the time, Jordan now will cut his own hair, cook for himself and clean house.

Jordan owns and drives the finest cars. He owns a Blazer, a Mercedes-Benz, a Porsche, a BMW 750IL and has access to a Ferrari Testarossa as part of a promotional arrangement.

Success certainly hasn’t stopped him from being thrifty. He frequently tips with complimentary game tickets.

”The most expensive cars I don’t pay for because I drive as part of a promotion,” Jordan said. “That way, I live the fantasy without paying the bill. The cars I own I also drive for a year and then give to certain members of my family.”

Jordan’s house is out in the open. “I don’t have any high fences or bodyguards always around,” Jordan said. “I don’t want to seperate myself from the people.”

Born in Brooklyn, Jordan, 26, considers North Carolina home because he was reared in Wilmington, N.C. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina, where he led the Tar Heels to the 1982 NCAA championship.

But since Jordan can’t go home as much as he wants, he brings home to him. On certain Bulls road trips, he’ll fly in old home buddies like Adolph Shivers, a real estate agent in Charlotte; Fred Whitmore, an attorney in Raleigh; Fred Glover, an insurance claims adjuster in Fayetteville, N.C.; White, or Fred Kerns.

”I like having them around for sanity’s sake,” Jordan said. “They help keep my life straight. They are part of my roots and I never want to forget where I came from.

”Financially, I’ve been able to secure my family and help others. And because I share my wealth I believe God intends for me to continue to improve and reach higher heights. I believe in giving. I feel fortunate to receive at the same time.”

Bulls coach Doug Collins believes Jordan’s generosity and friendliness simply magnify the admiration people have for his play.

”People are driven to Michael because, like Dr. J (Julius Erving), Michael flashes that smile that tells people, `You can come up to me and say `hi.’ I’m not going to bite you. I like you.’ They don’t get that frown that says, `Keep away from me. I don’t want to be bothered.’ Both men handle their success like true champions.”

Jordan is starting to feel the weight, though. With his leadership, the Bulls are playing better than ever. The league is also prospering because of him.

”And I see myself cutting back starting this summer,” Jordan said. “Presently, I intend to renegotiate all my contracts. But within a year or two, I plan to start cutting back. I need more time for me, more time to be with my family.”

More time to enjoy his five-bedroom home complete with giant sunken Jacuzzi, pool table, indoor miniature putting green and audio-video system custom-installed throughout the house.

More time to raise his son, whom he loves dearly and proudly displays in public. Occasionally during games, fans can see the child’s mother, Juanita Vanoy (Jordan’s former fiancee, with whom he still remains very close), or Jordan’s mother holding the baby up in Jordan’s special section.

Jordan still won’t talk about his son and personal life for publication. “That’s part of my private life that I reserve for myself and family,” he says.

But to see Michael with little Jeffrey is to see a man at peace with the world. And to see that is to conclude that success is not spoiling Michael. It’s simply becoming him.