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Jordan earns his wings — a 7-year lesson in fame, fortune and fans

Read the Sun-Times’ 1991 feature on the Bulls star – months before he’d lead the team to its first championship.

Michael Jordan tumbles over the leg of Pistons forward Dennis Rodman in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals.
AP

Originally published April 28, 1991.

It hasn’t been a hard life - not with all the tossed glitter and the millions of bucks, more millions than even his accountants can count.

Not hard to take the adoring gaze of millions of fans, too, as he leads the Chicago Bulls into the

NBA playoffs, with high hopes finally of taking it all.

But it hasn’t been easy, either.

You try being Michael Jordan.

Try being 6-foot-6 1/2 plus a mile tall, living your life larger than life - forward, point guard, center

of attention, with everybody in the world pulling you every which way.

OK, OK. Maybe you’d still like to give it a try.

But know this much: You’ll have some tough lessons to learn.

You’ll need years of wising up

before you get it down.

So here is Michael Jordan, nobody better at what he does, five straight National Basketball Association scoring titles and a second Most Valuable Player award due next month, riding high as the Bulls finish the regular season 61-21 and begin the run for the trophy.

Then there’s the hoopla away from the hoops - the Air Jordans and McJordans, the fur coats and gold chains. This isn’t just another all-star. This is Elvis in high-tops.

And that’s where the first lesson was learned. Jordan, of all people, now knows he needs to blend in - or at least give it a try.

The first signs came as early as the 1985 NBA All-Star Game. Jordan, just a week short of his 22nd birthday, went to Indianapolis, as grand and fancy about it as he could be.

He was loving it. He didn’t love it for long.

The game couldn’t have gone worse. He went 2-for-9 shooting, burned on defense by George Gervin.

But what Jordan really noticed was that his teammates didn’t bust their straps to help him out. And that got him to thinking.

”When I came in the league, I did things a lot of players had a chance to do but never seemed to have the courage to do,” Jordan told the Sun-Times this month.

”My shoe deal started everything. To come in the league and have your own shoe and clothing line - it had been done before but not with the type of force Nike put into it.

”But I never thought some people would get jealous and have different feelings toward you. You don’t think about those things.

”When you first come into the league, you think it’s a business - so everyone will take advantage of all the business opportunities presented to them.

”I really didn’t get the impact of how people perceived that - especially my peers - until that first All-Star Game. I thought I was doing everything most NBA players would want to do. Then, when I saw a couple players (led by Detroit’s Isiah Thomas) get upset with the things I was, it really bothered me.”

Jordan’s voice drifted off. He tried to explain it again.

”One of the first things I did was buy a fur coat,” he said. “I said to myself, `If I make the All-Star Game, this is how I’ll reward myself.’ I saw a lot of Bulls players had fur coats and other players had fur coats. Plus, it was cold.

”So I did it, but I never knew how it was perceived: the young guy in a big fur coat or the gold chain I used to wear around my neck. It was like, `The first year in the league he has all these things that some of the guys who have been in the league five or six years don’t have.’

”So I backed up. I don’t wear any more chains. I don’t wear any more fur coats. I still try to be my own person, but I’m more aware of my perception by my peers. That means a lot to me.

”I altered my life to a certain extent.”

And his game, too. Jordan, 28, is no longer a one-man, get-outta-my-way show. Forwards Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen have come a long way, thank you, and Jordan is the first to admit it’s a team effort that makes assistant coach John Bach’s defense work.

He may have won another scoring title this year - but he did it with 31.5 points a game, the lowest title numbers in his career.

He did it his way, but somewhat more within the system.

Go back further, to Jordan’s first Bulls camp in 1984.

It took Jordan an instant to wise up back then. That was when he learned leadership’s first lesson: He would have to know, before anything else, how to set his

own rules and lead his own life.

The Bulls had just finished an exhibition game in Peoria. Jordan, a two-time College Player of the Year, a junior who jumped from North Carolina to the pros, an Olympian with a gold medal in his fancy baggage, was still just a rookie kid in the candy store.

He headed for a party in the team’s hotel and saw there was a towel under the door. He knocked again and again before a teammate let him in.

What he saw was some of his teammates drunk, stoned and coked out. What he did was turn around and walk away.

Important decision.

”The idea of playing professional basketball after leaving college - you don’t have to worry about school anymore, you’re starting your life,” Jordan said. “Then I walked in that room. It was an uncomfortable environment for me. I had to get away from it.

”I didn’t want to get associated with something I heard talked about many times. But it gave me a good outlook on the business. This is not college anymore. This is not where you’re going to be pampered and the coach is going to know everything that is going on.”

And now, with that pattern set and after seven years in the NBA, he feels ready to lead others.

”Now, at this stage of my career, if I saw something like that, I could go to that particular person, knowing that I’ve been through this level of leadership, and express my opinion of how it is going to hurt the team,” Jordan said. “But that had to come over a period of time.”

San Antonio Spurs head coach Larry Brown recognized Jordan’s new stature - walking in the footsteps of Julius Erving as the league’s statesman - last summer. It was at a golf match that Brown asked Jordan for some advice.

What should he tell his new star, David Robinson, about the demands of the media and public?

”I like Michael and what he stands for,” Brown said. “What Michael’s gone through, David is just starting to experience. It’s not easy and I understand that.”

Jordan’s advice: Robinson has to be true to himself.

”I told Larry that David is going to have to be able to set his own standards, his own expectations and live up to those,” Jordan said. “The expectations and pressure of the media and the public are far greater than what he will be able to accomplish.”

Set your own goals. Do your best. And take what comes.

Nothing will be harder to take than leaving the game - and the spotlight he enjoys as a sunflower enjoys the sun.

But he knows it’s going to happen, as he flies down the court, as he flies through time. He’s preparing for it now.

Sometimes Jordan thinks about life in the shade.

”When I leave the game, I want to leave when I’m still at my peak,” he said. “And I can see that coming up pretty quickly. I’ve been in the league seven years now.

”I feel I can still play at the level I play at for another four or five years. Then my talents will start to decrease or other talents will start to pass me.

”I don’t think mentally I can deal with that.”

And he has set his goals for the years he has left.

”I know that every year someone is going to come in and try to take something I’ve had for the last six or seven years,” he said. “But the challenge comes to me to make sure he doesn’t get it while I’m playing the game of basketball. That’s the challenge to me for the rest of my career.”

And maybe an NBA championship? Maybe.

”In terms of myself, I really feel I’m going to win a world championship here. And if I don’t? I’m not going to look back and say I had a disappointing career. I will look at it and say it wasn’t meant to be at a particular time when I was at my peak. No matter what, I don’t want to play past that.”

Jordan is known for high-powering his game in the post-season. He is the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring leader with a 35.8-point average in 53 games. Jerry West is second at 29.1 points in 153 games.

”We’ll ask him to do a bulk of the offense, because he is the scorer and we have to use him to the best of what he can do for us,” said head coach Phil Jackson. “But this year we will pick and choose the opportunities.”

Jordan hopes for the best. He watches for the shade.

”When you first get in the league you feel you can play forever until you get that injury or something to open your eyes a little bit ... “

But there is still the business of basketball and endless big business on the side, and Jordan stays

busier than ever in the middle of it all.

The Bulls pay him $3 million a year. He makes $10 million to $15 million more selling his name to CBS-Fox Video, Coca-Cola, Chicago Chevrolet dealers, McDonald’s, Wheaties and Nike - not to mention Amurol “Hang Time” gum and a new line of tuxedos.

There is the Michael Jordan Foundation, raising money for scholarships and medical research and children’s charities.

There is his family in Highland Park, away from the spotlight. He and his wife, Juanita, have two sons, Jeffrey Michael, 2, and Marcus James, born last Christmas Eve. He likes to keep it private. His family isn’t a line of shoes.

Through it all, finally, it can be said: Jordan is at ease with his life.

”When you do something for a while, the first few times you do it, it’s a thrill,” he said. “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime and you never think you’ll have a chance to do it again.

”Then you build yourself a routine. Somehow you’re able to operate through that routine. The relationship I have with the media and the public - it’s all a routine now.”

You live and you learn. Michael Jordan, after all these years, seems to have got it down.

Contributing: Zay N. Smith