As one of the most recognizable people in the world, Michael Jordan has transcended sports and pop culture, where he still inspires new generations of basketball players and fans even though he hasn’t played basketball since 2003.
Jordan rose to prominence in 1982, when as a freshman on the North Carolina Tarheels, he hit the game-winning shot to capture the NCAA Title. Due to his one of a kind talent, marketability, and sometimes polarizing nature, he became a household name across the entire world and has continued to be relevant for almost four decades.
Jordan made his name throughout the eighties and nineties, breaking basketball records and being the face of what winning meant.
But how many people know the whole story about Michael Jordan?
Jordan’s Early Life
Childhood and Family Life
Michael Jeffrey Jordan was born on February 17th, 1963 in Brooklyn, NY to his parents, James and Deloris. Michael, the fourth of five children, came from a stable middle-class family who preached the importance of always doing the right thing and Jordan’s father, James, was very adamant that his children would stay away from the temptation of street life. Both of Jordan’s parents worked, his father as a plant supervisor and his mother in a bank.
The Jordan family only spent a short amount of time before moving to Wilmington, NC due to a job relocation for his father, who worked at General Electric. Jordan’s father always preached the importance of hard work and moved his way up from a maintenance worker to a management role with the company.
Jordan’s first athletic love was baseball. As a young boy, Jordan had aspirations in playing baseball in the major leagues and showed promise from an early age. Jordan’s introduction to basketball came as a youth when his father built a court on the family property.
Jordan attended Emsley A. Laney High School in Wilmington where he was a three-sport athlete, playing baseball, basketball, and football. He was still a baseball standout and loved basketball, but his height – he was only 5’10” as a high school sophomore – hindered any real notoriety on the basketball court.
The Tryout: The Real Story
As a high school sophomore, Jordan tried out for the high school team and was “cut” by his high school coach. Jordan was actually not cut but left off the varsity team as it was a rare occurrence that a sophomore makes the team.
He did make the junior varsity (JV) team where he starred for the team and caught the attention of the varsity coaches. There are also rumors that Jordan was moved up to the varsity team at the end of the year during playoffs, as teams often bring up players from the JV team to fill out their roster and get younger players some experience in practice with the upper-classmen.
A Sports Illustrated interview with Jordan’s high school basketball coach, Clifton Herring, made his justification of not bringing Jordan seem like the right move at the time, and it called to a few of Jordan’s drawbacks: he was still young, he wasn’t as skilled then as he grew to be and he was only 5’10”. He also wasn’t a great shooter or ball-handler yet according to Jordan’s coach.
After Jordan didn’t make varsity his sophomore year, he made a vow to himself that he was going to work harder than anyone else and make the varsity team the following year. He would also grow six inches over the summer.
Once Jordan made his varsity team, the rest was history. He averaged over 25 points per game for his high school career and started to gain the attention of college programs across the country.
During his senior season, Jordan averaged 27 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 assists per game. He was named a McDonalds High School All American and invited to play in the prestigious McDonalds High School All American game with the nation’s top high school players. Jordan proved to be the cream of the crop at the game, scoring 30 points and making the game-winning free throw for the East All-American team.
Jordan was recruited by big-time college programs like Duke, North Carolina, South Carolina, Syracuse, and Virginia coming out of high school but eventually signed with the North Carolina Tarheels led by legendary head coach Dean Smith.
His freshman year at North Carolina was a relative success. The Tarheels coach, Dean Smith, coached the game with an old school team-first approach and understood the importance of the greater good of the team if all members were involved. Jordan still managed to average 13.4 points and earned ACC Freshman of the Year honors.
The biggest moment of his freshman year, both on an individual and team level, was hitting the game-winning shot for the Tarheels in the 1982 NCAA National Championship. They played Georgetown in the finals who was led by the phenomenal freshman Patrick Ewing.
The game was hotly contested throughout and North Carolina stalled for one of the final possessions of the game with the Tarheels down one 62-61. The Tarheel’s final possession ended with a pass to the corner that found Jordan open for a shot that he made.
After Jordan hit the game-winner, Georgetown had a chance to win but Fred Brown inexplicably threw the ball directly to a player on North Carolina, future NBA Hall of Famer James Worthy, and the game was over.
Not only was Michael Jordan looked upon as a promising freshman for the Tarheels, but he would now enter into the annals of Tarheel history with one of the program’s most famous shots. The shot also earned future Hall of Fame coach Dean Smith his first of two national titles, which would begin to cement him as one of the most successful coaches in college basketball history.
Jordan built off his successful freshman year as the Tarheels entered the 1982-83 season looking to capitalize off of the previous season. They finished the ‘82-83 season 28-8 and placed first in the ACC. Jordan had a stellar sophomore campaign, averaging 20 points per game, winning ACC Player of the Year and being named Sporting News Player of the Year for all of college basketball.
The NBA buzz was picking up, however, leaving college early to go play in the pros was not common before the mid-nineties. Plus, one of Jordan’s top priorities, on top of playing in the NBA, was to finish school and earn his degree. A feat he would eventually succeed in, graduating with a Bachelor’s in Geography in 1986.
Jordan’s and the Tarheels’ season ended on a low note as they fell to Georgia 82-77 in the Elite Eight.
Jordan entered his junior season as one of the best players in the college game, and one of the early favorites to win the Naismith Award, the most prestigious individual award given to college basketball’s best player. Needless to say, the expectations placed on Jordan had never been higher. And he didn’t disappoint.
Not only were Jordan’s expectations high, but so were his North Carolina Tarheel team expectations, coming off a relatively successful past two seasons with Jordan, star forwards Sam Perkins and Matt Doherty, and newcomer Brad Daugherty, as their team leaders. North Carolina finished 28-3 in the regular season with an undefeated record in ACC play.
Despite being upset by arch-rival Duke in the ACC Tournament, the Tarheels were awarded a 1-seed for the 1984 NCAA Tournament. Although Dean Smith called Jordan’s 1984 UNC team one of the most talented teams he had ever coached, the ending of the season and Jordan’s college career came at the hands of an upset loss to the Indiana Hoosiers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Based on his enormously successful college career, and the rumors that Jordan would be one of the top picks in the draft that year, he decided to forego his senior year at North Carolina and enter an already loaded 1984 NBA Draft.
1984 NBA Draft
Despite what we now know about his NBA success, Jordan had his critics entering the 1984 Draft. Many believed that even though he won the Naismith Award the previous season, he wasn’t the best prospect coming out of college.
The Chicago Bulls had the third pick in the draft that year and stated in pre-draft interviews that they would select Jordan based on his impressive workout with the team. The Houston Rockets had the first pick, followed by the Portland Trailblazers.
The Rockets drafted Akeen Olajuwon with the first pick, a great selection that paid off for the franchise. While Jordan ended up being arguably the best player ever, Olajuwon went on to have a Hall of Fame career and entered the shortlist of one of the best centers to ever play the game.
The second pick of the Draft, however, will go down in history as one of the biggest misses in NBA history. Even though some had Jordan valued higher on their scouting report, the pick was not initially scrutinized as the Trailblazers needed to add size to their roster and Sam Bowie, a skilled center from Kentucky, was the best option after Olajuwon was off the board. Bowie went on to have an injury-plagued career that fizzled after a couple of years in the league.
Chicago Bulls’ Rookie Year: The Birth of Air Jordan
Jordan began his professional career with one of the most statistically impressive rookie campaigns in NBA history. Jordan waited for all of 9 games before his first-ever 40-point game. He scored more than twenty points in sixteen of his first twenty games and ended the year averaging 28.2 points per game average, good for third place in the entire league, behind only Bernard King and Larry Bird.
Jordan won Rookie of the Year easily in his first year and was unanimously voted by fans to be a starter in the NBA All-Star game in his rookie year. While Jordan had already won the favor of basketball fans, he saw jealousy and pushback from some of his NBA peers.
There was a group of players, led by veteran Isaiah Thomas, that discussed freezing Jordan out of possessions during the game because they were not pleased with the amount of attention the young rookie was receiving from the league. While Jordan was never the friendliest player the league had seen, he would win over the respect of every single NBA player throughout his NBA career.
Not only was Jordan statistically impressing his peers and the league, but also culturally changing the way people viewed him. It took him less than two months to make the cover of Sports Illustrated, the most prestigious sports publication of the time, and the cover read “A Star is Born.” To say that Jordan’s career started off with a bang was truly an understatement.
Jordan’s rookie year helped set the stage for what was to come from the young superstar, however the hype would take a brief hiatus in his second year when he broke his foot just three games into the season. He ended up only playing 18 regular season games but the real myth of MJ began in the 1985-86 playoffs when the Bulls faced off against the dynasty Boston Celtics. The Bulls were swept in the series but Jordan excelled, especially in Game 2 where he set an NBA record of scoring 63 points; a record that still stands today.
Jordan’s 1986-87 year was one of the most impressive in league history becoming the first player since Wilt Chamberlain to score 3,000 points in a season and going on to average a staggering 37 points per game.
Jordan also began impressing on the defensive end of the court, recording over 200 steals and 100 blocks during the season. His Bulls won 40 games and made it to the playoffs only to be swept by the Celtics for the third year in a row. He also took home the 1987 Slam Dunk Contest crown after his iconic foul line dunk.
Despite his record-breaking season, the league awarded Magic Johnson the MVP award. Jordan’s offensive ability was never in question, but the league started questioning his ability to lead a team to a championship. The next phase of his career would see that he was a great leader as one of the most physically and mentally demanding rivalries of his career was about to begin.
1988-1990: Playing the “Bad Boys”
Jordan’s regular-season dominance continued and he also began deliberately working on becoming a more complete player. In 1987-88, he put up arguably his most complete stat line: 35 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.9 apg, 3.2 spg, and 1.6 bpg.
He won both league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year and the Bulls rode that momentum into the playoffs. They would run into a more complete team in the Detroit Pistons, dubbed the “Bad Boys” due to their extremely physical play. The Pistons physically wore Jordan and the Bulls down towards a 4-1 series win.
In 1988-89, Jordan again continued to dominate the league during the regular season. He averaged 32 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists on his way to his second consecutive MVP award. The league was beginning to recognize the talents of Jordan and was starting to respect just how good, and popular among the fans, he was.
Unfortunately, the Bulls met the Detroit Pistons again in the playoffs, this time in the Eastern Conference Finals. Jordan’s toughness and resolve were improving and the Bulls learned how to compete with the Pistons. It was glaring that, no matter how much Jordan could do individually, he needed more help from his team. He averaged 30 points in the series and his team took the Pistons to 6 games this time, but they lost and were sent home by them for a second straight year.
After two straight years of losing to the Pistons, the Bulls front office made a coaching change that would change the fortune of the Bulls for the next decade, replacing Doug Collins with former NBA Champion Phil Jackson. The change helped the Bulls click like they hadn’t yet and Jordan had another statistically historic season averaging almost 34 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 steals.
The Bulls won 55 games, and handily beat both the Bucks and 76ers en route to a third consecutive meeting with the Detroit Pistons. Even though the Bulls began getting Jordan some offensive and defensive help in young talent like Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen, the Pistons were still the better team. Jordan averaged 32 points in the series and the Bulls pushed the Pistons to seven games, but still fell short.
The big question among the media was whether or not Jordan would ever get past the Pistons, or if his legacy would always be that of a great player without the leadership and championship pedigree necessary to win a title. That narrative would be ridiculed for the rest of Jordan’s career after the eight-year run he was about to rip off.
In 1990-91 Jordan won his third MVP, after Magic Johnson won the previous two, and the Bulls won a franchise-record 61 games, good enough for first place in the Eastern Conference. They handily took care of the Knicks and 76ers in the first two rounds, which set up another matchup between them and the Pistons.
The Bulls swept the Pistons in four games behind the play of Jordan and newly established All-Star Scottie Pippen. The win closed a somewhat long circle for Jordan as Pistons star point guard Isaiah Thomas led the Eastern Conference veterans in freezing the then-rookie out in the 1984 All-Star game. Isaiah was not pleased with the superstar as he led the Pistons to walk out of their Game 4 loss without shaking the hands of the Bulls players. Jordan and Thomas’ relationship was always a rocky one and their animosity towards each other would not end until well after their playing careers.
The Bulls entered the NBA Finals against the Lakers with great momentum. They had lost only one game so far in the playoffs and had just come off sweeping their longtime rival Pistons. That momentum would not end with the Pistons as the Bulls completed their most successful season in franchise history with a sweep of the Lakers on the way to winning their first-ever NBA Championship. This victory was also a personal one for Jordan as Magic Johnson and he had traded MVP awards back and forth for the last five years while Jordan, and many others in and around the league, believed he was the best player in the league each year.
Once the Bulls had gotten the Pistons monkey off their backs they were unstoppable for the next two years. They won 67 and 57 games respectively in the next two years and dominated playoff play towards their next two trips to the NBA Finals.
In 1992, the Bulls faced off against the Portland Trailblazers in the NBA Finals. The Trailblazers were led by Clyde Drexler, an All-Star who, several times during his career, was compared to Jordan due to them playing the same position and Drexler’s stellar athletic ability.
The ultra-competitive Jordan, always looking for a new grudge to hold, was not pleased with the comparison to Drexler, and torched the Blazers. He scored 35 points in the first half of Game 1, hitting 6 three-pointers, on the way to a rout of the Blazers. The Blazers hung tough with the Bulls, winning Game 2 and Game 4, but were overmatched in the series. Jordan won Finals MVP averaging 36 points for the series.
The Bulls found themselves in the NBA Finals again in 1993, against the Phoenix Suns led by newly acquired Charles Barkley. The Suns had the best record in the NBA in 1993 and the Bulls were coming off a pedestrian 57-win season and fatigue of the past five seasons had begun to show during the regular season. The Bulls, however, showed their Finals experience, beating the Suns in Game 1 and 2. The Suns won Game 3 but were never truly in the series and the Bulls capped off their three-peat in six games.
The Dream Team
In 1988, the US Men’s Basketball Team lost to the USSR and finished third in the Olympics, their worst finish ever. Shortly after their poor showing, the Olympic Committee ruled that allowing only amateur players play for the US, while the rest of the world was allowed to field teams with professional players, was unfair. The 1992 Olympics would allow NBA players to play and the first name on everyone’s list for the team was Michael Jordan.
He was joined by some of the game’s most accomplished players, including Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, and Patrick Ewing, to name a few. The media dubbed them “The Dream Team” due to the unbelievable talent that was comprised.
Once the Olympics began in Barcelona, Spain, Jordan and the rest of the Dream Team became stars. Every team they played and beat badly, asked the Dream Team players for pictures and autographs after each game. They didn’t care that they had just been beaten by double digits. They wanted to meet the Dream Team.
After the 1992 Olympics, Michael Jordan was at the top of the world. He had reached a level very few professional athletes had, winning two straight championships – a third would come the following year – and two Olympic gold medals (he won one in 1984 as an amateur). He was also named Finals MVP in each, averaging over 30 points in every series. Jordan and the Bulls looked like they couldn’t be beaten and many wondered what the ceiling was for his success. This would all change in the blink of an eye.
1993-95: The Death of Jordan’s father and the Baseball Years
Shortly after the Bulls captured their third straight championship, Michael Jordan received news that would shift the direction of his career. On July 23rd, 1993, Michael Jordan’s father was murdered in a random robbery attempt in North Carolina.
Three short months after his father’s death, Michael Jordan retired from the game of basketball, citing a loss of desire to play the game and the death of his father as the two main factors.
Ever the competitor, Jordan announced in early 1994 that he was going to try his hand at baseball, the game he and his father both grew up loving. He signed with the Chicago White Sox organization and began training with their minor league organization in March of 1994. Jordan’s baseball stint, while not deemed successful in the eyes of the baseball world, went much better than his critics expected. As someone who hadn’t played competitive baseball since high school, Jordan finished his Double-A season batting .202, with 3 HRs and 51 RBI.
During his time away from the game of basketball, the Bulls achieved moderate success, winning 55 games in the 1993-94 season and eventually losing to the New York Knicks in the second round of the playoffs. The next year the Bulls were a .500 team when a familiar face decided to rejoin the team for the rest of the season.
1995-1998: He’s Back, Another Three-Peat
Jordan returned with twenty games remaining in the 1994-95 season. He would show flashes of greatness, most notably dropping 55 points on the Knicks in the fifth game of the season, but the new Jordan showed some rust from his time away. The Bulls would lose to the Orlando Magic in six games in the second round of the playoffs.
1995-96 saw a refreshed Jordan refocused on the task of reaching the top again. The Bulls added Dennis Rodman, a familiar foe from their Detroit Pistons rivalry, and started the season with a 41-3 record. They finished the regular season with a 72-10 record and blew through their opponents in the playoffs losing just one game in the first three rounds. They faced the Seattle Supersonics in the Finals and won the series four games to two behind a solid, but not legendary, performance from Jordan.
But the new-look Bulls didn’t necessarily need Jordan to save them each night as they added depth in some key roles. Jordan still averaged 27 points per game in the victory and was named the Finals MVP for the fourth time in his career. One of the most famous images of Jordan was after he had won the Finals and returned back to the locker room. He got very emotional, falling to the floor and breaking down crying for several minutes. It had been a tough time since the passing of his father and all of the built-up emotion was coming out in that locker room.
1996-97 was another successful regular season for the Bulls as they went 69-13, missing out on their second consecutive 70 win season by one game. Jordan had another out of this world season, averaging 29.6 ppg but missing out on another MVP award as it was given to Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz. Many around the league thought Jordan should have won but the voters had seen enough of him winning the award and wanted to reward another player who had an MVP-level year. Jordan was excited to redeem himself against Malone when the Bulls were set to play the Jazz in the NBA Finals.
Jordan won the first game on a buzzer-beater, had a heroic Game 5 – known as “the flu game” due to him being horribly sick during the game – scoring 38 points and scoring the go-ahead bucket with under a minute left, and averaged 32 points for the series and securing his fifth Finals MVP award.
1997-98 was business as usual for the Bulls as they went 62-20 in the regular season and Jordan averaged 28 points and again won the regular-season MVP award for the fifth time. Although their on-court performance was similar to the previous few years, there was an heir of uncertainty among the team as the rumors of Jordan’s retirement began circulating across the league. Although he was potentially retiring, his play showed no signs of slowing down. Jordan not only averaged 28 points but played all 82 games and averaged almost 40 minutes per game.
The first two rounds of the 1998 playoffs were owned by the Bulls but they ran into a scrappy team in the Indiana Pacers during the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pacers, led by sharpshooter Reggie Miller, took the Bulls to seven games but the Bulls prevailed, which set up their Finals rematch with the Utah Jazz.
The Jazz won Game 1, lost the next three and won Game 5. The Bulls were up 3-2 when the series went back to Utah, one of the toughest arenas to play as a visiting team. The Bulls and Jazz played a classic game. The Jazz were led by Karl Malone who ended the game with 31 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 assists.
The final sequence, however, was owned by Jordan. With under a minute to play the Bulls were down by two scores. Jordan burst into the lane for a layup and got a key steal from Malone on the defensive end. The last possession was taken by Jordan and he hit the game-win over Byron Russell and held his shot pose for an extra second. This image was thought to be the last shot of Jordan in competitive play.
The Second Comeback
The NBA was set to begin a lockout before the 1999 season and Jordan was ready to call it quits. After weighing his decision for six months, Jordan retired on January 13, 1999. That lasted all of two years, when he announced that he was returning, this time with a different team, the Washington Wizards.
Jordan’s time with Washington had its share of ups and downs. Being away from the game and two years older added some rust to Jordan that fans had never witnessed on the court. He was also playing with a young team without the championship aspirations he had with the Bulls. He was a legend and acted as a mentor for many of the younger players, like Richard Hamilton and Kwame Brown, that looked up to him when they were kids.
Jordan put up quality numbers in his two years with the Wizards. He averaged 23 points in 2001-02 and 20 points in 2002-03. He even showed flashes of the Jordan of old, scoring 51 points on the Charlotte Hornets in 2001, and added some more “wow” highlights to his career arsenal. He was also named an All-Star in both Wizards seasons.
Ultimately, however, the Jordan mystique was never recaptured in his two years back in the league. Jordan decided his career was over before the 2002-03 season and the final game was a fitting farewell. The Wizards played the 76ers for their final game and at the end of regulation the 76er fans, knowing this was Jordan’s final game, gave him a three-minute standing ovation.
The years after Jordan retired from the NBA saw him enjoying life outside of the game of basketball. He played golf, relaxed with his family, and created Michael Jordan Motorsports, a motorcycle road racing team.
2006: Charlotte Bobcats
Jordan re-entered the NBA becoming a minority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, formerly the Charlotte Hornets, in 2006.
After four years of minority ownership Jordan, looking for a larger stake in the team, Jordan’s submission was accepted by the NBA making him not only a majority owner of an NBA team but also the league’s only African American majority owner.
The Bobcats changed their name back to the Hornets in 2014, however, the name change hasn’t done much to change the team’s poor fortunes as a franchise since Jordan bought the team in 2010. Charlotte earned one of the league’s worst records in NBA history in 2011-12 going 7-59.
Hall of Fame Induction
In 2009, Michael Jordan was inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA. Although his induction speech showed signs of the ultra-competitive side of his nature and may have rubbed some people who were on the other end of some of the shrapnel from the speech, everyone agreed that Michael Jordan belonged in Springfield and would be remembered as one of the greatest players, and winners, ever.
Even though Jordan’s post-playing career hasn’t seen the successes his playing days did, he is still widely known as the greatest basketball player ever. It actually makes sense that his ownership tenure isn’t as impressive. Being an owner involves many hands in the cookie jar to build a successful organization and Jordan has always been an individually great talent.
Yes, he has shown skills of being a great teammate at times, but he also has a reputation for being an extremely difficult player to play with. Jordan has always wanted things done his way and for most of his career, his way was the best.
Jordan has earned his place in basketball lore and will always be the gold standard to which the next best players will always be compared.
Jordan: List of Awards
- Most Valuable Player: 1988, 1991, 1992, 1996, 1998
- NBA Finals MVP: 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998
- NBA Champion: 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998
- 10-Time Scoring Champ: 1987-1993, 1996-1998
- 14-Time All-Star: 1985-1993, 1996-1998, 2002, 2003
- NBA Rookie of the Year: 1984
- Defensive Player of the Year: 1998
- 9-Time All-Defense First-Team: 1988-1993, 1996-1998
- 2-Time Olympic Gold Medalist: 1984, 1992