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Because the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, isn't it possible that Michael Jordan is not some sort of glorious phenomenon but rather a simple, shining fragment of nature, grounded in family and friends and roots from which he has never strayed? In a word, yes. If the term homeboy wasn't invented for him, surely it should have been.
Only those who have been vacationing in Baghdad for a decade do not know about the Carolina-blue shorts Jordan wears beneath his Bulls uniform to commemorate his undergraduate bliss in Chapel Hill; the "love of the game" clause in his contract, which enables him to join pickup games back on the Hill or in his hometown of Wilmington, N.C., or on the rings of Saturn or anywhere else he wishes; his friendliness and open-faced approach-ability. "Mike will come out to the park and play," says his high school teammate Leroy Smith, now a rep in Los Angeles for a sporting goods manufacturer.
Smith is not speaking in strictly basketball terms. Jordan always played, talked, schmoozed, kidded around, associated, connected with people. "Sometimes I can't believe I actually was on the same team with this guy," says Smith. "But, you know, we all were—or with somebody like him. I see him now, and he's still just...Mike."
Mike? Gatorade didn't originate the tag after all. But if this sounds like another commercial endorsement, that's because sifting through early Jordaniana elicits nothing but homilies about truth, fairness and the politically correct American Way. Through the years, Jordan has been compared with a veritable rainbow coalition of heroes, from Peter Pan to Bill Cosby. Rick Brewer, the sports information director at North Carolina, changed Jordan's name to Michael when he was a freshman only because Brewer thought it sounded better. In maturity, however, Jordan was basically a combo of Richie and the Fonz from the late, lamented TV sap-com Happy Days; if that show had featured a true minority character, he would have been like Mike.
Now, having lost most of his hair and become both a proud father and, in his dotage, one of those tedious, 19th-hole chattering golfers, Jordan hangs on to his own earlier, slap-happy days as if they were sparkling good-luck crystals. Which they may be.
As far back as his years at Trask Junior High and Laney High in the coastal town of Wilmington, Jordan wore his hair so close-cropped that the older guys would give him noogies and call him Bald Head. His dad, James, who worked his way up at the General Electric plant from mechanic to dispatcher to foreman to the coat-and-tie supervisor of three departments, also found time to build a dirt basketball court and two plywood goals out in the backyard. And Jordan's beloved golf? His college roommate, Buzz Peterson (now an assistant coach at North Carolina State), and fellow Tar Heel Davis Love III (now a veteran on the PGA Tour) introduced him to the links as a kind of therapy following the Tar Heels' 1984 NCAA tournament upset loss to Indiana, still the most devastating defeat in Jordan's (and coach Dean Smith's) career.
Memories. Crystals. Jordan ravages the NBA wearing the left-arm brace he donned in college to honor Peterson, who suffered a leg injury against Virginia in 1983 that ended his season. Jordan travels the world checking into hotels under an alias borrowed from the 6'8" fellow who beat him out for the last spot on the Laney team in '78, when Jordan was a callow sophomore, the aforementioned Leroy Smith. Jordan shares sports trivia and pool cues, business deals and advancing baldness with Adolph Shiver of Charlotte, who was recently introduced on Oprah as "Michael's best friend" and who introduced himself to Jordan on a junior high playground in '76 by talking trash with a toothpick in his mouth. When Jordan is feeling especially blue—most recently over the ordeal of Magic Johnson—he still picks up the car phone and calls David Bridgers, a short, slight Anyman who wears a baseball cap and lives in a trailer in Wilmington with his wife and baby daughter and who manages Hill's Grocery now that the local Kroger, where he used to work, has shut down.
In chronological order, relationshipswise, that's Bridgers to Shiver to Smith to Peterson; white to black to black to white. Is it any wonder that Jordan would later become known in marketing circles as sports' first multi-racial-societal crossover? Something like that.
Jordan and Bridgers have been cheering each other up since they were in the third grade, playing baseball and riding bicycles together through the woods around Weavers Acres in North Wilmington. Jordan claimed "family time" was responsible for his snubbing of President Bush in October at the Rose Garden ceremony honoring the NBA champion Bulls; in reality, he was playing golf with a passel of old buddies, including Shiver and Bridgers. "Mike told me last summer to lose my Fu Manchu mustache before Hilton Head," says the 5'9" Bridgers. "I said sure—so long as he got rid of his earring. So I shave and show up, and there he is, that ear rock glittering away. Then he has the nerve to smile and say: 'And it's staying. But David, you sure look good.' Mike? That mug is some shyster."
Jordan's mother, the former Deloris Peoples, met James Jordan (whom she calls Ray) in 1956 after a high school basketball game in Wallace, N.C., some 40 miles north of Wilmington, when she and her cousin caught a ride home with him. She was sitting in the backseat when James almost went past her house. "Oh, I didn't realize I had somebody else in here," he said. "You're pretty cute."