Riding on Air again

Melissa Isaacson, Tribune staff reporter CHICAGO TRIBUNE

May 1, 2005  FONTANA | CALF.

His favorite time was always 10 at night until 3 in the morning, when the streets were quiet and the summer air cool and he could open it up a little.

Well, a lot.

He rode during the day, too, sometimes with his nephews but more often alone, hiding beneath his helmet and cruising through the city, enjoying the solitude and reliving his youth, when he and his brothers would jump ditches and pop wheelies and try to keep their more risky dirt-bike escapades from their mother.

One summer day two years ago he ended up downtown, at the BP station across from the Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s on LaSalle and Ontario, where bikers seemed to congregate and, oddly, no one rushed him when he dismounted his Ducati and took off his helmet.

Off-duty Chicago cop and motorcycle enthusiast Noble Williams saw Michael Jordan get off his bike, but more than that he saw a guy in a nylon jogging suit and Air Jordans.

“I saw him come in and I walked over to him and said, `You’re doing this all wrong,'” Williams recalls. “He kind of looked at me like, `Who the heck are you?’ I said, `You need to wear jeans out here and you need a jacket and gloves and some boots.’ Then I gave him my card and said, `If you want to ride tomorrow, we’ll ride, but you need to get this equipment.’

“He called next day and we rode and had a good time.”

Suddenly, Michael Jordan was in his element, with guys who liked speed and control and could teach him some things. Before he knew it, he was introduced to a talented young black rider, Montez Stewart, who taught him how to ride, how to really ride, and took him to a track where he could learn how to corner and downshift and look for his points of reference.

Two years later, the young man is on the Jordan Suzuki racing team and Jordan is a player in the American Motorcycle Association. And on this day, a gorgeous Saturday in the shadow of the San Bernardino Mountains, one of the greatest players to grace a basketball court is in all his glory at the California Speedway.

Dallas and Houston have just grinded their way to an exciting finish in the NBA playoffs, but as far as Jordan is concerned, a first-round series can’t touch the AMA Superbike Championship, where reigning champion Matt Mladin blew his clutch and Ben Spies edged out Aaron Yates in the last lap.

Jordan’s rider, Steve Rapp, finished eighth, a good result considering he was the top racer among the non-factory teams.

Above the Speedway, with a cigar in one hand and a Corona in the other, Michael Jordan lets out a whoop as Rapp whizzes by.

No pep talks needed

This is not a guy who looks like he is bored or misses basketball. He talks to Bulls general manager John Paxson on a fairly regular basis, and has frequent conversations with Ben Gordon. But when the question of pep talks to his former team comes up, the man who is as closely associated with victory as any athlete in history knew he couldn’t win.

“If I’m around, I’m stealing the spotlight, and if I’m not I’m deserting them,” Jordan says. “They’re doing a great job. Why would I go and interfere now? No one gave us a pep talk. They have a different makeup, this team. The city is happy and I’m happy. But now that they’re winning, I’m not going to say, `Wait, I’ll come in and give you a pep talk.’

“Pax tells me I’m welcome and I appreciate that. But I’m so busy. Ben calls me and I tell him, `Relax, give a pump fake once in a while.’ He’s a great kid. But most fans have moved on. The kids remember me more from `Space Jam.’ And I’m as close as I want to be to the game. I’m enjoying my life, I’m enjoying my kids. I’m not bothering anybody. I go to Cubs games and Sox games. I’m not sure what else anyone wants me to do.”

He’ll show up at a second-round game, he says, confident the Bulls will prevail over Washington. If he is not scarred by his experience in Washington, where he was effectively fired before he could resume his role as the Wizards‘ president of basketball operations, he was clearly wounded.

“I’m mad at myself more than anything,” Jordan says of the experience. “At the end of the day, my biggest mistake was going down and playing again [for the Wizards for two years]. I thought it would help me evaluate talent better for when I went back upstairs, but in doing that I put trust in someone who I shouldn’t have and that’s the most disappointing thing. I’m not sure how anyone can say I failed them when they were $35 million in debt when I got there and profitable two years later.

“But I’ve gotten over it and moved on. I still talk to some of the players and I’ve learned from the whole experience.”

He is content now, he says, and it doesn’t take a hard sell to believe him. Earlier Saturday he’d gone down to Turn 1 so he could see the riders close up, where the scream of their engines is loudest and you can see their knees scrape the track. Jordan’s smile brightens as he leans against the fence and absorbs the vibration.

“Man, I’m hooked,” he says. “I wish they had 20 races a year [rather than a dozen], that’s how much I love it. It’s amazing how I missed this so long.”

Fascinated by speed

He grew up a NASCAR fan. His father James was a Richard Petty guy and he would take his children to Rockingham and Talladega and Charlotte, his youngest son transfixed by the speed and the sounds and the danger, and he’d go home and get his fix jumping dirt bikes around their home in Wilmington, N.C.

At North Carolina, coach Dean Smith would have killed him if he got near a motorcycle, and once he signed with the Bulls his contract prohibited any dangerous activities. His next time on a bike was after his first retirement from the Bulls in ’94, when he bought a BMW Cruiser. In ’98 he got on again and has rarely been off since.

The racing team began as a rather simple pursuit, supporting Montez Stewart. “I could tell it was his dream,” Jordan says, “and I said, `Let’s see what I can do for him.'”

In February 2004 they debuted Jordan’s team with Stewart as the only rider. Today, with the collaboration of Clear Channel (which bought out AFX, Jordan’s management group), Suzuki and Gemini Racing, Jordan’s team has three riders, Rapp and Jason Pridmore having joined Stewart. And with Jordan’s leverage, sponsors like Gatorade, Upper Deck and Oakley have come on board, companies not associated with the sport before.

“Nobody took us seriously at first,” said James Casmay, Jordan Suzuki’s business manager, a former amateur racer who first met Jordan at the BP. “One of the only companies who would sponsor us at first was a leather-goods company. But what people saw right away and what allows average guys like us get to know and work with him is that we’re all sharing a passion.”

After some initial skepticism, Jordan impressed people with his genuine interest and desire to learn the sport. “I wasn’t sure if his goal was to sell more clothing and shoes or to win races,” says Kenny Abbott, general manager of Jordan Suzuki. “But it’s clear he wants to be competitive, and with his exposure and his help I think we’ve already changed this industry.”

Jordan is the only African-American owner and Stewart one of a few black racers, and the team hopes it can reach a broader demographic. “If you look on the street, there are a lot of black guys riding motorcycles,” Jordan says.

Abbott believes the Jordan name has already made a difference. “I’ve been involved with this sport since 1987 and not until last year did I see people showing up at the racetrack in head-to-toe [Jordan] racing gear,” he says.

Jordan is contractually committed to racing through 2006, but he doesn’t see his association ending then, even if he accomplishes his goal of owning an NBA team.

“So far there’s nothing close, but I’m still investigating,” he says. “I have the capital, but if I’m going to pay $375 million, can I make money and can it sustain itself? Once I see a situation where it can, I’ll jump into it. But I don’t see getting out of this. I want to continue to grow this.”

One of the biggest upsides to Jordan’s investment in competitive racing–an $850,000 investment last year–is the opportunity to grow his Jordan brand of shoes and apparel, as he has done in boxing with Roy Jones Jr. and in baseball with Derek Jeter. To that end, based on Jordan’s suggestion, the team has changed its colors each year, from Carolina blue in 2004 to this year’s strange combination of black, red and yellow.

“When Nike first came to me with the black and red shoes, I said, `I’m not wearing that,'” Jordan recalls with a laugh. “And when I told these guys my idea, they said, `It looks like the bikes have been pieced together with spare parts.’ But that’s what I like about it. It’s wild. Nobody else ever changes. If you look in the paddock, we’re who everyone comes to see.”

His involvement with his team is a daily matter and it covers all areas, including the actual racing. “We have a lot of conversations,” he says of his relationship with his riders. “If they’re not confident on the track, they’re more susceptible to injury. I try to give the mental preparation for battle.”

Says Rapp: “He’s very involved. He’s pretty laid-back but he wants to know everything–how the bikes are running, how the tires are doing, what the lap times are like. He likes to know what’s going on.”

Tries to keep low profile

Down in pit road, Jordan is just another guy, but when he ventures into the paddock there are fans and sponsors and friends of sponsors and there is invariably a small mob.

He signs autographs and poses for pictures but generally tries to keep as low a profile as possible. “He really wants to keep the focus on the team,” says Abbott. “He honestly believes his time was in the NBA and this is their arena, their time to shine. He really just wants to learn the industry inside and out.”

He has become one of its biggest salesmen. “This is so much more exciting than auto racing,” he says. “Unlike NASCAR, you can see the drivers. The races are shorter. It’s not like sitting in the stands watching for three hours.”

His sons Jeffrey, 16, and Marcus, 14, both ride dirt bikes as well as excel at basketball, and their father shakes his head as he talks about what they’re doing to his lawn.

Despite the objections of his longtime friend and assistant George Koehler, who was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident while riding with a friend 10 years ago, Jordan clearly loves riding. He confines his riding to the track these days and has been clocked at 170 m.p.h.

He regularly attends Jason Pridmore’s racing school, though Pridmore, who finished third at Daytona in March, was injured in a race last weekend in Birmingham and just released from the hospital after surgery to remove his spleen and repair a lacerated kidney. Jordan himself has totaled three bikes but has never suffered anything more serious than some scrapes. “It’s still a lot safer than riding around the city,” he says.

Still a taut 228 pounds, Jordan marvels at the hand-eye coordination of the racers. “These are top athletes, make no mistake,” he says. “I live vicariously through these guys.”

His Carolina blue bike travels with the team, and Jordan goes to almost every race.

Now he climbs on, puts on his helmet, pulls on his gloves and zips up his leather jacket. He is wearing jeans. But some habits are tough to break–he is also wearing Air Jordans.

He pops a wheelie. And with a wave and a smile, he is gone.

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