Retirement Part I

I thought it was just fatigue talking. But the weariness Michael Jordan described in late January, 1993 was more than the dog days of another NBA season. More than the weariness of defending back-to-back titles and in Michael’s case, even more than seeing his shooting percentage dip to its lowest point in the previous six seasons and his clutch ability showing some uncharacteristic chinks.

These last few weeks have allowed me, forced me at times, to read, talk and remember what happened nearly 30 years ago. Sometimes, even the smallest details come rushing back unexpectedly, like when Teddy Greenstein, an old friend from the Tribune, asked me for my recollections of Michael’s retirement press conference for a story that ran in today.

I did not remember with the clarity of longtime Chicago sportscaster Mark Giangreco, some of the details from that day. But I did flash back to months before that day.

We were in Houston, Michael was getting ready to face the trash-talking guard Vernon Maxwell and while this would normally be fun for him, he was out of sorts.

“I may just lose my temper,” he said.

The Bulls were a ragged 28-15 going into this game and in a recent loss to Orlando, Jordan had attempted 49 shots, a career-high and seven more than the rest of the starting lineup combined (I looked that part up, obviously! But I do remember that trip and that talk with Michael).

There he goes again, the grumbling began amongst some of his teammates, flashing back to the days of “Jordan and the Jordanaires.” Michael said it was just a case of trying to maintain the  Bulls’ standard, which he had obviously played a major part in building. But his teammates didn’t understand that, he said that night, and he didn’t like what he was feeling.

I had gotten Michael alone in Houston’s visiting lockerroom and with no access to players the next couple of days, I was able to sit on the story until we got home, when it ran in that Sunday’s paper.

“It’s human nature that when success comes around, everybody’s fat and everybody’s independent, when before everyone was supportive and connected and tight,” Jordan had said. “All championship teams go that way.

“But that’s going to be the ultimate destruction of this team.”

But it was more than that. And it wasn’t until I spoke to him in the Birmingham Barons’ clubhouse a year later, that I realized the full extent of what had been happening.

Guys were tired, he said of that mid-season rut. They were getting treatment and sitting out and practice “lost the fun.” He had become bored.

“I knew halfway through the season, that was it,” he told me in the summer of ‘94. “I didn’t have anything left to prove. Even if we wouldn’t have won a third title, that was it. But I did want to finish off on a good note. I thought maybe my decision would help me focus a little harder, especially when the playoffs came. But the regular season was a drag for me. It was tough for me to motivate myself because I knew you don’t get anything until the playoffs.”

Jordan said he tried to tell his teammates at the time.

“And not just one night,” he said. “We’d have a couple of beers after the game and they’d be complaining about this or that, pointing fingers as they liked to do, and I’d say ‘Man, you don’t know how good you have it. You watch, I’m not going to be around here much longer. I think this is going to be my last year.’ And they’d say ‘Sure MJ, sure.’ And I’d say ‘I’m not kidding, man. I don’t think I’m going to play next year.’

“I told them all and they all shrugged it off. I kept saying it. Not once, not twice but three or four times. I could sense they didn’t believe me. ‘Sure MJ, you’re either pissed off or you’ve been drinking.’”

At the press conference announcing his retirement in Oct. of ’93, Michael said his father wanted him to consider retirement after the Bulls’ first title. After James Jordan was shot and killed that summer, it became that much clearer. In his heart, Michael didn’t want to play another game of basketball if his father wasn’t around to see it (it was the reason he changed to his high school No. 45 for a short time when he came back. His dad had seen his last game as No. 23, he reasoned).

Bulls coach Phil Jackson had asked him if he wanted to take a year off to find himself again. A sabbatical, like a college professor. But Michael didn’t want to move on with “loose ends,” he said. And in the months after his retirement, he found joy in unusual places. For an entire day, he told me, he rode around Chicago on a motorcycle, something his Bulls contract had forbidden him to do.

That winter, he and a group of family and friends went to Aspen on a four-day ski trip, Jordan giggling as he described starting on the “bunny hill” and then finally progressing to the blue (intermediate) runs.

“My scariest adventure was the same day I learned the hockey stop,” he recalled. “I’m coming down the hill headed straight for this tree. I couldn’t do the snowplow. The only way I could stop was to do the hockey stop. It was the greatest. I loved it. From that point on, I knew I could do it. I enjoyed it immensely. It was a lot of fun.”

Well, except for one thing.

“I fell about 10 times [off the chairlift],” he said. “I’d get off too late most of the time. And just as I got off, the next chair would come around and whooomph, push me down.”

Michael has always had a great laugh. It’s infectious and when he gets going, as he was this time, he was gasping for breath as he was telling the story. “I looked like a yard sale – skis here, poles there,” he gasped. “I’d come around and yell ‘Look out below, I’m going to wipe someone out.’

“It was beautiful and quiet, but here’s this big, tall black guy on skis. It was pretty tough to hide. Then again, it was just as tough for anyone to bother me as I was flying around.”

He loved the solitude. But he loved basketball more. The first time he started going to the Berto Center again was early in the ’93-’94 season, not long after his retirement announcement, ostensibly just to visit.  He hadn’t planned on playing as he stood and watched, but Jackson complained the team looked terrible.

“No continuity, no rhythm, no nothing,” Michael remembered Phil grumbling.

Jordan couldn’t help himself, he said.

“I said, ‘Do you mind if I come in and try to get some competition back into practice, just to get them flowing somehow?’”

“I don’t know,” Phil replied. “We’ll see.”

Already, there were rumors that this was just a break from basketball and that Jordan would be back at the end of the season. “Never say never,” he had answered when asked if he would ever consider it, and he had to convince Phil that wasn’t his intention.

It didn’t take much convincing and after a quick drive back home to get his shorts and a shirt since his locker had been cleaned out, Jordan was back on the Bulls practice court.

Jackson told the team Michael was going to practice and “Right then,” Jordan recalled, “I could sense the competition. Scottie and Horace started talking shit: ‘If you’re on the red [non-starting] team, you’re going to get treated like it.’ And I’m like OK, maybe I can help this team. These were the guys [newcomers like Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr, Pete Myers and Bill Wennington] who didn’t know the offense, so I had to do a little more.

“I wasn’t in shape, my wind was short, but I could still do certain things.”

One of the first things was to get Kukoc involved. Pippen was guarding him tough and suddenly Michael was Toni’s protector, baiting Scottie to move over and guard him instead.

“So he’d make a basket and talk some shit and I’d make a basket and say ‘I retired myself, nobody retired me.’ So we’re going back and forth and it was great. That was the atmosphere that I remembered, and I think they kind of forgot.”

By then, almost immediately after announcing his retirement, Jordan had started frequenting Comiskey Park. He’d get there by 8:30-9 every morning and be out by noon, he said, sneaking through the empty TV entrance and parking his car out of sight, just in case.

“I wanted to be able to walk away without anybody knowing, in case I didn’t have the skills to play,” he said later in Birmingham. “But I loved it and that’s when I really developed an appetite for the game.”

Baseball had been a bond between father and son. They watched Atlanta Braves games together when Michael was growing up because that was the closest team to them, but James loved Roberto Clemente, the legendary rightfielder for the Pirates and so Michael did as well, playing rightfield for the Double-A Barons.

When I interviewed him in Birmingham in July of 1994, it was approaching the one-year anniversary of his father’s murder and what would have been James’ 58th birthday.

The trial had not yet been scheduled but Michael knew he wouldn’t be there.

“The damage has been done,” he said. “Whatever they do to those guys is not enough. So I’ve blocked it off. My father died because of something stupid, and I won’t let that hurt me again by going through it again. Justice may prevail, but there’s no justice when there’s no life.”

While his family sought closure, “to me,” Michael said, “the end was when he was taken.”

“I keep him alive with what I’m doing,” he said, then motioned to the locker stall beside his. “I feel him standing next to me all the time. It’s hard to explain, but I just know he’s close by.”

I started and stopped this blog a bunch of times over the last week because I never knew how and when to end it. I wrote about him still wearing his Carolina blue shorts under his uniform as he always did under his Bulls uniform. And about how he played pick-up basketball on beaches and in parks, games that would start like any other and end with crowds ringing the court as people came running as soon as word got out.

I wrote about the sincere affection I felt his Barons’ teammates had for him. One player, outfielder Scott Tedder, a Division III basketball player, wore the same size baseball cleats – 13 – as Michael, and thus was the beneficiary of dozens of shoes that Jordan gave him. Several other players shared a new Mustang, which Michael had been given by a local dealer but didn’t need. Jordan would also help the Barons find a $350,000 bus and he paid the lease so he and his team could travel around the Southern League in style.

Another player, Rogelio Nunez, a back-up catcher from the Dominican Republic, had been trying to learn English when his new teammate came up with an idea. Every day, Michael would give Nunez a word related to baseball and if Nunez spelled it correctly, Michael gave him $100.

Like I said, I didn’t know how to end. So I’ll do it here, awkwardly. Maybe I’ll pick it up when he came back to basketball. Not sure yet. Waiting for those memories to come rushing back again.

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