Originally published June 3, 1992.
It started with a championship. It might end with a championship. But those shiny bookends might be the only things holding together the soap-opera saga of Michael Jordan’s last 12 months.
The NBA title last year, well, it doesn’t get any better than that. Seven years of frustration, seven years of hard work, seven years of sacrifice. Then, finally, the jackpot. Tears of joy rained down his face, washing away stinging criticism that the Bulls were a one-man team, that he was that one man and that he’d never win the big one.
Then again, maybe it does get better, because here they are again, with another invitation to the NBA’s most exclusive dance, putting Jordan and the Bulls in a position to prompt talk of how they stack up against the best of all time.
But in between, well, where to start? The Olympics controversy with Detroit’s Isiah Thomas? The no-show at the White House? The unflattering book? Lawsuits and $100,000-plus in checks reportedly for gambling debts?
Each month, seemingly, we viewed another twist to “As the Jordan Turns.”
”This has been my most difficult year,” Jordan said. “But at the same time, it’s been my most educational and maturing one. I made some mistakes. I learned more about the importance of how I, as a role model, must be even more cautious about what I do and with whom I associate.”
You would have had to spend private time with Jordan to appreciate his dedication to the game and understand how a difficult life under the best of circumstances grew wildly more difficult.
Jordan lived the life of a hermit on the road, watching the same old movies again and again. Eating the bland room-service fare. Disconnecting his phone to get rest.
His teammates could wander out and browse the malls, catch the latest movies and enjoy a wider variety of menus in restaurants with minimum intrusion.
But not Jordan. He curls up in a bed watching TV. He plays cards with Adolph Shiver, Fred Kearns, Fred Whitfield, Ahmad Rashad and other friends. He chats with his dad, James. He debates some political, moral or philosophical issue as aggressively as he’d post up Craig Ehlo. On rare days off, he catches a day of golf with close friends or he spends quiet time with his wife and children.
These make up a boring agenda for those of us who can bathe in all the sunshine we want and enjoy public anonymity. But seclusion is part of the price Jordan pays to be everybody’s star, every child’s hero, every man’s alter ego and every woman’s dream.
For outside those hotel doors await the siren songs of substance abuse, or flim-flam artists smiling and swearing “I’m your greatest fan,” or some curvacious woman who starts off by cooing, “All I really want is your autograph.”
Many would-be champions have lost their titles in the streets of pleasure, running deep into the heat of naughty nights. When they took the court, they had nothing left.
For seven years, Jordan dedicated his energies to being the best player in the world, capable of single-handedly determining a game’s outcome.
So when he and the Bulls had done away with Magic Johnson and the Lakers in last year’s finals, Jordan was so happy he cried convulsively.
The Sporting News thought so much of that sensitive scene — Superman in tears — the publication put Andrew Bernstein’s photo of it on the cover of this year’s NBA Guide — Jordan hugging the golden trophy as sweat and tears fused down his face.
Adding to his highs were his third league MVP award, tying him with Johnson and Larry Bird, his seventh first-team All-Star selection, the finals MVP Jeep and trophy and his sixth scoring title.
Hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans cheered him and his teammates in Grant Park a couple of days after the finals. He could testify that the championship was worth the sacrifice.
But not even championships can protect one from scorn. In fact, they sometimes invite more criticism. The Jordan who was socially detached during seven years of secluded sacrifice was no less secluded as a champion.
The second-guessers converged on him. Former football great Jim Brown and baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron ripped Jordan in national publications.
They charged him with being insensitive to the plight of fellow blacks, for not taking stands and giving more money to black causes.
“He’s more interested in his image for his shoe deals than he is in helping his own people,” Brown charged.
Aaron agreed, adding that as a black athlete who really has made it, Jordan owed it to the black community to reach back and help others more.
“I try to help everybody, regardless of race,” said Jordan, admittedly hurt by the charges. “But here I am trying to be a positive role model for kids, black and white, and I’m attacked. I help a lot of black causes. I contribute to the United Negro College Fund and the Thurgood Marshall Foundation. My Michael Jordan Foundation gives scholarships to black students. But the problem may be that I don’t do it for publicity.”
Thus began a string of image setbacks for Jordan, some his fault, some not.
He got caught in a reported sniping contest involving the 1992 Olympic basketball team — choose between him and the Pistons’ Thomas, the party line said. Jordan denied it.
Then, he skipped the team’s Oct. 1 visit to the White House, saying he was vacationing with family and friends in Hilton Head, S.C.
When he reported to training camp late, he was greeted by teammate Horace Grant, charging Jordan with “destroying the team with a double standard where there is one set of rules for him and another set for everybody else. Jordan’s our leader. But he’s destroying the team.”
Jordan was the beneficiary of double standards no more than Magic, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain before him. Certainly, he’s in that class.
Asked where he had been before reporting, Jordan told a reporter, “None of your business. You’re not my father. I had my own schedule that I was trying to fulfill ... but everyone knew where I was. They knew what I was doing.”
Jordan and Grant met behind closed doors and reportedly resolved their differences.
Then came the book, “The Jordan Rules,” written by veteran Tribune beat writer Sam Smith. It simply amplified Grant’s charges and portrayed Jordan as selfish and mean. It said Jordan was the chief source of brewing dissension that he feuded and fought with teammates.
Jordan denied the book’s implications. Teammates supported him.
“This is the greatest book of fiction since Mother Goose,” said reserve center Stacey King.
Despite the off-court problems, Jordan and the Bulls made good things happen. They won 14 consecutive games early in the season and were on a torrid pace to win an NBA-record 70.
A losing road trip forced the Bulls to settle for dominating the league with a 67-15 record, best in club history.
But controversy still dogged Jordan. Just before he and teammate Scottie Pippen were selected as starters on the East All-Star team, a Chicago lawyer announced he was suing Jordan for unpaid fees for representing Jordan’s wife, Juanita, in a paternity suit that never materialized because they got married.
Then came the biggest scandal.
First, a known gambler and convicted cocaine dealer, James ”Slim” Bouler, 41, of Monroe, N.C., was caught trying to cash a $57,000 check from Jordan, who claimed it was a loan to help Bouler build a driving range. Federal authorities claimed it was a gambling debt.
In February, photocopies of three more Jordan checks totaling $107,000 surfaced from the stainless steel briefcase of a slain Gastonia, N.C., bail bondsman Eddie Dow, a friend of Jordan’s. Martin Gheen, Dow’s lawyer, said the checks were for gambling debts.
Though Jordan was neither charged with any crime nor investigated, his involvement in high-stakes gambling with people of questionable backgrounds rocked his image and resulted in a private reprimand by the NBA.
Jordan admitted that he gambled, but never on NBA games. He also apologized for “poor judgment” and “naivete” in his associations.
“This whole thing came about through third-party associations,” Jordan said. “Since then, I’ve been shocked by what I found out about the backgrounds of these people.
“I definitely will be more careful in the future.”
Jordan asked that people not condemn him for one mistake. It would be hard to do given Jordan’s play and relatively positive image that have endeared him to millions.
Jordan laughs at other rumors — that he and Juanita were having marital problems and contemplating divorce; or that he was an informant for the FBI; or that he was set up by gangsters. Such is the cost of stardom.
“I never asked to be put on a pedestal,” Jordan said. “I just happened to be blessed with God-given talent and people placed me here. I’d love to be perfect. But I’m not. I’m human. I’ve made mistakes. But I like to feel I’m learning from those mistakes. And I’ll be a better person for the experience.
“I just thank and appreciate my fans for understanding and supporting me.”
As Jordan and the Bulls prepare for the Portland Trail Blazers in an attempt to win their second consecutive NBA championship, one thing is certain: It’s been a difficult year to be like Mike.