Michael Jordan eyed the 17-foot pole suspiciously, as if it might suddenly spring to life and jab him with an elbow.
"Where do you hold it, Sergei?"
"Almost at the top," said Sergei Bubka. He jumped to his feet, took the pole from Jordan and grasped it at the end. "Like this."
"Man, it's long," said Jordan. "Hey, maybe we could use it for the dunk contest. Give it some spice." He hefted it. "Must be heavy to run with," he said. "You ever break one when you were vaulting?"
"Oh, several times," said Bubka, nodding his head.
"You get hurt?" Jordan asked.
"Well, when you do it well, nothing will go wrong," said Bubka.
Jordan smiled. "I can tell you this, Sergei," he said. "That's not true in basketball."
Bubka the pole vaulter and Jordan the basketball player had this discussion a few months ago when Bubka stopped in Chicago between flights en route from a track meet in California to Berlin, where he now lives part-time. The rendezvous brought together two special athletes, each of whom defies gravity in his own way. It was East and West, amateur (relatively speaking) and professional, 1984 Olympic gold medalist ( Jordan) and 1988 Olympic gold medalist (Bubka). A meeting between a U.S. superstar and one from the former Soviet Union seems natural in this, an Olympic year in which political and eligibility barriers have crumbled, especially since both Bubka and Jordan are independent men who defy barriers in more ways than one.
They were tentative around each other at first, which was to be expected if only because of the language barrier ( Jordan's Russian is nonexistent and Bubka's English is only fair). But they were curious, too, searching for common ground. One thing they understood clearly about each other was that they share a high-stakes place in the Nike hierarchy. Bubka wore brand-new Air Jordans over a pair of Jordan 23 socks, while Jordan was impressed by the fact that in Europe, Bubka is famous enough to be marketed as a kind of Bo Jackson athletic machine who cycles, lifts weights, runs and uses gymnastics in his training. Bubka and Jordan share a playful nature, too, one that masks deep competitiveness. It would be fascinating, for example, to see them matched in a "friendly" game of tennis, which both play for recreation. Sports has been their life, and they will likely pass that passion on to their sons—Vitaliy and Sergei Bubka are seven and five, respectively; Jeffrey Michael and Marcus Jordan are four and two. Their fathers are also known for parting with a buck to indulge their passions, though Bubka is not a golfer and cannot match Jordan's well-publicized gambling losses on the course. On a recent supermarket sweep through the employee store at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., however, Bubka did spend more than $6,000 on apparel for himself, his wife, Liliyana, and his sons.