Illinois' Jeff Jordan has learned to live in his iconic father's shadow
Jeff Jordan briefly quit the team, but like his father, he couldn't stay away
As a junior, Jordan has become a key bench player for the streaking Illini
All things considered, Jordan appears to be comfortable in his own skin on court
If the name on the back of his jersey doesn't blow his cover, his tongue most certainly will. When the action on the court gets intense, subconsciously his tongue creeps out of his mouth, just like his father's did. When your dad is the greatest basketball player of all time (and one of the most famous athletes in the world), there is no place for you to hide on a basketball court. Such is the life of Illinois junior guard Jeff Jordan, the oldest son of Michael and Juanita Jordan.
Jeff Jordan is not the second coming of his father. But, then again, who really is? The difference is Jeff Jordan was expected to be the heir Jordan to his dad's throne.
"The pressure I pretty much got used to over time," Jeff said. "I don't think there's any pressure anymore. I think it's always going to come at me from different areas, but I've learned how to deal with it and my parents have done a great job with teaching me how to deal with it as it comes. It's not even as big of a factor as it was maybe when I was younger, when I first started out. It's good having good parents to help me out with that."
It also helps that Jordan is getting a chance to show people what type of player he is (i.e. NOT his father) this season with the Illini, who have won five straight to move into a first-place tie with Michigan State and Ohio State in the Big Ten. Jeff spurned scholarship offers from mid-majors coming out of high school to walk on at Illinois. After playing sparingly his first two seasons in Champaign, Jordan is enjoying a breakout junior season, doubling his minutes (16.6 per game) and ranking third on the team in assists (2.1).
"More than anything I think coach just wanted me to go in there and bring energy," Jordan said of his role on the 17-8 Illini. "I think that's why (there is) the increase in minutes. Whenever I go in there I just try to do the best I can and just play as hard as I can."
Luckily, Jordan and Illini coach Bruce Weber have similar views of his role on the squad. "He brings energy and stability," Weber said. "He plays a very valuable role, coming in off the bench, running the point and moving the basketball, creating scoring opportunities, and guarding the point on defense. Jeff has a good understanding of the game and is a solid, steady player you can count on to get the job done when he's in there."
While the added minutes have helped him escape his father's shadow a bit, it also has allowed opposing fans to unleash their wrath on him at away games. "I've always got that whenever I've got in a game or whenever I've got more minutes," Jordan said of the heckling. "It's definitely increased more now that I'm playing more minutes. Last year we were at Michigan State, they had a cardboard cutout of my father in an Izzo shirt!"
But his steady performance this season almost never happened -- because his junior season almost never happened. Jordan quit the team at the end of last season to concentrate on his academics (he's a psychology major with a business minor). But, like his dad, he decided he couldn't live without basketball and he returned to the team before this season. So, he shares basketball indecisiveness with his father. But what else? Definitely not the scoring (Jeff averages less than two points a game) or the size.
"Obviously he's 6-6. It's a little different for me (at 6-1) bringing the ball up and seeing over people as it was for him," Jordan said. "Other than that, I think our greatest similarity is probably basketball IQ -- he taught me everything I know about knowing the game and learning it and being a student of it. I can remember staying at home and watching NBA games with him and him telling me about different stuff and different things and different offenses. Stuff I didn't even know about and I was only in middle school. So it definitely helped me out on the floor and definitely outweighed the pressures of having him as my dad."
Michael also used to take a hands-on approach to his son's basketball apprenticeship, in the form of heated one-on-one battles on the family's court. While other players his age were playing pickup games at the park, Jeff was scrimmaging with His Airness, Carmelo Anthony and whatever other NBA stars decided to drop by. "It used to get real heated, real competitive, real trash talking and everything," Jeff remembered. "But those games were always fun and I think that's what helped me improve. And I think [my dad] knew that at the time -- at the time I didn't know that the competitiveness of play is what makes you get better -- but he knew and it definitely improved my game and my brother's, as well."
Jeff's brother, Marcus, a freshman player for Central Florida, was embroiled in a national controversy this fall when he insisted on wearing Air Jordans on the court rather than the school-sponsored Adidas (the spat caused Adidas to cease its sponsorship of UCF). "I think he handled it very maturely and I'm real proud of him for that," Jeff said.
But Marcus' dispute just further illuminates the fact that being Michael Jordan's son and a basketball player is a unique challenge. If their dad was just a Hall of Fame basketball player it would be hard enough, but when you add in the fact that he is a huge cultural figure you realize he overshadows everything they do, on and off the court. However, this isn't necessarily a bad thing.
"It's been a positive thing, especially for our players," Weber said. "I remember the first time Michael came to one of Jeff's games, we were in Maui, and all our players crammed in to Jeff's hotel room to hang out with him and his dad, just to be around him and hear his stories. You're talking about the greatest to ever play the game -- any exposure our players can have to him is a great thing."
All things considered, Jeff Jordan appears to be as comfortable in his own skin as he is in his Air Jordans. He even plans on working at the company business -- Nike's Jordan Brand -- once he graduates from Illinois. "Definitely. I want to focus on playing here and helping this team out as much as possible, then after that maybe going to Portland and see what I can do at Nike," he said. "I would love to do that -- get more into the business field of things and hopefully work my way up there."
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