One-on-One with Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan sits down for an exclusive interview with Marvin R. Shanken, Editor and Publisher of Cigar Aficionado.
Marvin R. Shanken
From the Print Edition:
Michael Jordan, July/August 2005
(continued from page 8)
Michael Jordan may be the greatest basketball player in history. He led the Chicago Bulls to six National Basketball Association championships, twice doing it in three consecutive years. His season scoring average of 30.1 points per game is the highest in the league's history. And he won five Most Valuable Player awards, as well as making the all-league defensive team in nine of his 15 seasons. But Michael Jordan has become much more than a basketball player. Today, he is a sport icon, one of the best-known athletes in the world. His fame has transcended his sport and transformed him into a marketing mega-power. His Brand Jordan with Nike is approaching a $500-million-a-year business worldwide.
But now, two years after leaving the NBA and his final stint as a player with the Washington Wizards, Jordan has decided to speak out, not just about basketball, but his business goals, his personal pleasures and, most of all, his private life. He sat down in his Chicago-area home for a one-on-one interview with Cigar Aficionado editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken to discuss his life, his achievements, his passions and dreams.
Michael Jordan: That's a good question. I would say it was for the Tar Heels. No one knew me until then. That's when the notoriety and everything began with Michael Jordan. By the time I got to Chicago, I was drafted three, so everybody knew I was at least decent.
But at North Carolina, when they recruited me and asked me to attend the university, it was an opportunity to prove myself. Up to that point, everybody had heard that this kid is pretty good, but we don't know how good. He came from a small town. He wasn't preseason All-American. He wasn't in the Top 100 High School kids. He didn't attend AAU games, and he was not a ranked player in the nation.
The University of North Carolina really gave me the foundation that it took to become a basketball player. Up to then, I hadn't been spoiled by the media spotlight. I was still raw. As a result, I had an appetite to prove to everybody that I was a decent basketball player, or a good enough basketball player to be at North Carolina. That was by far the purest experience for me, and the most satisfying.
MRS: Did you ever regret missing your senior year?
JORDAN: Yeah, because I had a great time in college. It was the first time I'd been away from home. I'd met new people and made new friends. It was an exciting time. It was just fun.
MRS: What was the rush to jump out early?
JORDAN: It was Coach [Dean] Smith's call. I relied so much on his knowledge. The NBA was an area where I wasn't too knowledgeable. My parents weren't knowledgeable about it, either. And it was a great opportunity. Coach Smith felt that it would be the best opportunity for me to make it in professional basketball. Once he researched the situation to find out where I would go in the draft, then I started weighing the pros and cons.
MRS: Wasn't that pretty unselfish of him, because it meant he would lose you the next season?
JORDAN: That was totally unselfish. It's the kind of person that he was. He could have said, "You should stay for your senior year. We have a great team with some great new recruits." Kenny Smith and Brad Daugherty were coming on. Our team was going to be really good. But he felt like for me, personally, going to the NBA was the best thing, and it was the best opportunity.
MRS: How exciting was it, going back this year, and watching North Carolina win the NCAA championship again?
JORDAN: I only went to one game in almost 21 years. One game at Notre Dame that I drove down for from Chicago in my second or third season with the Bulls. Other than that, I'd never been to a Carolina basketball game. To go there and see the tradition and see that everything was still the same was great. The camaraderie. The sport. The former players. The executives. Everything was the same. It was good for me to go back, and it was good for my kids to see. That's one of the reasons I went, was for my kids.
MRS: How did the fans treat you?
JORDAN: Well, it was a little different because of Illinois playing in the finals. I live in Illinois. It was the first time [Illinois] had been to a title game in so many years. But my true heart was with Carolina. And I think the fans understood that. They weren't bitter that I was supporting Carolina or that I was wearing the Carolina blue.
MRS: I read that almost the entire starting team of North Carolina has opted to go into the NBA draft, including three juniors [Rashad McCants, Raymond Felton and Sean May] as well as freshman Marvin Williams. Is this good for the players?
JORDAN: Is that good? I can be biased from the outside looking in. I'm very supportive of the university, and I would like to see them have the opportunity to defend the championship. In that respect, I think the players should have stayed in school. Just from a selfish aspect, I wanted to cheer for my university. But I don't have the understanding of what the family situations were for these players, or what motivates them. Sometimes you have to follow your dream. Their decision also depends on what Coach [Roy] Williams advised them, and about what pick they would be. That team had accomplished a lot in winning a championship. That's the ultimate prize. I think what my mother would have told me, as long as you go back and get that degree, then I can understand the sacrifice that you make to leave school. [Editor's note: Jordan, who left college in 1984, received his degree from North Carolina in 1986.]
MRS: Are these early exits from college good or bad for the NBA?
JORDAN: That depends, too. I'm a firm believer that a player should be 20 years old or older before going to the pros. Anything less than that is potentially bad. You've got a lot of things you have to take into consideration. The lifestyle. Just the mental and physical demands of the NBA that these kids are going to be dealing with are tough. And their whole maturity level, not only for basketball but on the personal side, too, has to be taken into account. If I had been a freshman or even a sophomore, no matter how good I was, I don't know if I would have been ready for what I had to deal with in the professional ranks. But you got more and more young guys doing it. I am a firm believer that something is affected by leaving college early, or not going to college at all.
As an NBA executive, if you have to invest in a player, you want to see more of the product that you are going to invest in. Since you aren't going to see as many games [of those leaving school early] to be able to gauge the maturity of these guys' basketball talent, you're rolling the dice. You are gambling. If you don't gamble right, you're going to be set back two or three years.
Now how does it affect the colleges? Look at North Carolina. You have to rebuild that team. You've almost got to start up again with all new players.
But the impact is even spreading down into the high school ranks. Kids there are not really looking at academics. They just want to get good. If they can't get into a college, the first thing they're going to say is, Well, I'm going to go pro. That may not be the best thing for them. So this trend trickles down all the way into high school.
JORDAN: That's exactly what I'm saying. I'm a firm believer in that. You can argue a lot of different situations, from social to financial. Maybe there has to be some type of arrangements, or agreement between the NCAA and the NBA, for those kids who are not financially stable. For them, there will always be pressure for going to the pros, to take care of their families.
MRS: What about players like Kevin Garnett? Kobe Bryant? LeBron James?
JORDAN: But you're talking about one player, LeBron James, who's been very successful in his first two years. Kobe [Bryant], Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal—all those guys took at least three years before they adapted to what they had to do as professional basketball players.
MRS: They probably don't know what they missed, but you knew because you experienced college. What's important about staying in college?
JORDAN: You get the chance to mature in college. They get a chance to deal with a lot of issues in college. There's the education aspect, too. College teaches you a lot. It teaches you about being on your own, making decisions and even handling bank accounts. Eventually, you're going to have to deal with those things anyway.
MRS: You mentioned Dean Smith in a very positive way. I've wanted to ask what influence Dean Smith had on you as a young player.
JORDAN: He taught me a lot about the game. Not just about the athleticism required to play it. I'm a firm believer that when you come out of high school, you are strictly athletic. You've got a lot of athletic talents. Very few players are taught the game the right way in high school. When you go into these college programs, which was the best thing that happened to me, they are going to teach you all aspects of the game of basketball so you can apply that to your athletic skills and develop them. Once you leave college, you are a complete basketball player. Athletically, you are complete. And you know how to utilize that athleticism, and you know how to play the game within the team concept. You got a lot of these kids coming out of high school who never really had the right coaching. They think they can get by with just athleticism. It's not that way. There is very little teaching in the pros. You don't have time to teach. You've got 82 games in a season.
MRS: Where did you learn your work ethic?
JORDAN: My parents.
MRS: People say that nobody practiced harder, and you worked as hard in practice as you did in a game. There were no two different levels. Is that true?
JORDAN: I was taught to do it that way by my parents, and by the way they approached their daily activities. It wasn't half-assed. So I practiced like I played. So when I played, playing was fun. Practice is work. You're working on the idiosyncrasies of what your game needs, so when the game comes, you showcase it and you utilize it. You build your game on it. Practice wasn't just a place to take time off. You work on things in practice. On shooting, on going left or on using your left hand—those types of things that help you get better.
MRS: You were drafted number three. Did you have any idea before the draft where you were going to go? Were you surprised? Were you disappointed?
JORDAN: At the time I committed to go pro, because of Coach Smith's research, I was projected to go to Philly because Philly was in the third spot. Back in those days, the draft was based on wins and losses. So at the time, Philly was in the third slot. Billy Cunningham was the coach, and he was a Carolina guy. He said based on where we are right now in the third slot, Michael won't go less than three because we'll take him at three. Coach Smith knew that plan. But Chicago started losing games. In those days, if you lost games, you could move up in the draft. So once Chicago moved into third place, Philly moved to fifth because Dallas was coming in as an expansion team and they had the fourth pick. I could have easily gone back to the fifth pick. But then we got assurance from Houston that if they lost the coin flip to Portland, they'd take me—it was a coin flip between the top two teams to determine the first pick. But if Houston won the coin flip, they said they were going to take Hakeem Olajuwon. And that's exactly what happened. Hakeem Olajuwon went to Houston, and Portland went to its fallback pick, which was Sam Bowie. If Portland had won the coin flip, they would have taken Hakeem, and I would have ended up in Houston. But the coin flip came up Houston, and that put me back to third with Chicago.
MRS: Did you have a preference for which city you wanted to play in?
JORDAN: Not really. At that time, I just wanted to be drafted.
MRS: You were born in Brooklyn, New York. I just want to remind you. [Lots of laughter]
JORDAN: I don't think New York was in the picture. I don't think they had a pick that year. But at that time, you just want to get in the league. I didn't watch much pro basketball until I got into college, so I just wanted to play in the NBA.
MRS: What was your original deal in Chicago?
JORDAN: Financially? People are going to love this. It was a seven-year deal. I averaged about $850,000 a year. The first year's compensation was $650,000. There was no signing bonus. We tried to get an attendance clause. They were averaging 6,000 people a game. So we thought, OK, we're going to ask for an attendance clause. At the time, Jonathan Kovler was the owner. My agent, David Falk, went in and asked for that. Kovler said, We're not going to give him an attendance clause because if we draft him at the three spot, he'd better put people in the seats. So they never gave us an attendance clause.
JORDAN: Nope, that was my deal.
MRS: Were you unhappy about that?
JORDAN: No, I wasn't unhappy. Money didn't drive me at that time, so I wasn't worried about it. Once I signed my contract, I felt like, Let's go out and earn the money. And, I was the highest-paid rookie at the time.
MRS: Do you have a happiest memory or a peak moment when you were playing with the Chicago Bulls?
JORDAN: My happiest moment? There were so many. Do you want me to start early in my career? Making the playoffs the first time was the biggest thing for me because that franchise hadn't experienced the playoffs in a long, long time. The fans' attitude was "wait until next year, wait till next year."
In the third game of my career, we were playing Milwaukee and we were down 16 points going into the fourth quarter. People started to leave. That was their whole attitude. The game was over. I'd never experienced people leaving a game like that. It was something new. Everybody at North Carolina stayed until the end of the game, out of respect to the team.
Most of my teammates in Chicago had adapted to the fans leaving and just figured, The game must be over. I'm saying, No, it's not over until there are triple zeros on the scoreboard. I got a burst of energy and started to lead the charge. I got the opportunity to prove it's never really over. We came from 16 points down to win the game. That's when the city of Chicago started to say, OK, something's starting to happen, something is changing. There's no give-up in this kid, no matter what. He's going to keep fighting and fighting and fighting until we win or lose. That's how my first season went. That was the biggest plus for me when we made the playoffs that year.
MRS: When you were playing for the Bulls, did you, as a player or as a team, ever have any real rivalries, or was it all hype?
JORDAN: No, we had some rivalries. Early on, it was Milwaukee. We couldn't beat Milwaukee. They were just 45 minutes to an hour away. They were a strong team and they constantly kept beating us. Even when we got in the playoffs, they kept beating us. Then we got to a point where we started beating them. Then the rivalry went from Milwaukee to Detroit. And that was brutal. Isiah [Thomas] was from Chicago, and he wanted to come back and show he still dominated Chicago. I was the new guy in Chicago, and people were supporting the team. It became a dogfight between us. There was some real hatred there. On the floor, it was that whole physicality of the game, and that's what was happening on the basketball court. Anybody going into the paint was going to get knocked down. If you got stitches, you got stitches. Those are the types of games we had. But once we overcame them, then we knew we could do anything. There was no one else beating us, or having that kind of rivalry with us.
MRS: Your biggest rival was Detroit. Where did the Knicks fit in?
JORDAN: The Knicks came later.
MRS: Because as New Yorkers, we hated Michael Jordan. You single-handedly took us down more times than I want to remember. Every time in the playoffs when we thought we could reach the top, you nailed us.
JORDAN: Once we started winning and got past Detroit, the Knicks became our biggest rivals. They were trying to get where we were. We were trying to maintain what we were. Every battle was magnified. Patrick [Ewing] was a good friend. Charles Oakley used to be in Chicago. John Starks, Charles Smith, Anthony Mason—all these guys. When Detroit was winning, everybody had adopted the physical type of game. New York became that way, too. You go in the middle, you're going to get hit. Patrick was a fierce intimidator.
MRS: What was this rumor about Jordan coming to New York? We always heard that Michael Jordan was coming to the Knicks. We hated you, but on the other hand, we wanted you.
JORDAN: It was truly a rumor. We had one occasion when there was a dialogue. It must have been in 1996 or 1997 because of my contract situation in Chicago. But nothing ever really materialized.
MRS: But you told me recently that had a phone call come at the right time, you would have been a New York Knick.
JORDAN: If Chicago had not made a significant offer, New York was next. We actually had a dialogue with New York. If a phone call didn't come in 30 minutes from Chicago, we had already given assurances that we would have gone to the Knicks for less money.
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Ron Comrie — Lakewood Ranch, Florida, United States, — December 26, 2012 1:49pm ET
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