[Editor’s Note:* By 1992, Michael Jordan had established himself as perhaps the best the game had ever seen. Off the court he changed to way athletes were marketed and perceived. He was at once a villain and a hero for his peers, envied for his success and ability but praised for the doors he opened to mainstream marketing. Playboy caught up with his Airness in 1992, just before the Dream Team would go on to win Gold in the Summer Olympics. The full interview is below.] *
“Here we are striving for equality and yet people are going to say I’m not black enough? At a time when actually I thought I was trying to be equal? Don’t knock me off the pedestal that you wanted me to get onto.”
“The Pistons were throwing punches, throwing guys at you, talking shit. So I’m saying, Well, these guys talk trash all the damn time to everybody. Let’s see if they can handle some trash-talking back to them.”
“Magic has never played in an Olympic game. Never had that gold medal. He probably would take that risk knowing that he might give up a day or two of his life. If I were in his position, I probably would do it, too.”
At the age of 29, Michael Jeffrey Jordan is almost certainly more popular than Jesus. What’s more, he has better endorsement deals. Of course, Jordan, unlike John Lennon, would never say anything so imprudent. It’s not in his nature. Then, too, the estimated $21,000,000 he’ll earn in 1992 from product endorsements is dependent on his image as the quintessential gentleman, consummate sportsman, clean-living family man and modest, down-to-earth levitating demigod. He maintains that image effortlessly, perhaps because it’s not an image.
It’s hard to resist calling Jordan the greatest basketball player the world has ever seen, but he does have his detractors. Over the past year, his greatest achievements–leading the Chicago Bulls to their first N.B.A. championship and being named to the United State’s first pro Olympic basketball team–were counter-balanced by the first widely publicized criticisms of Jordan, superstar and citizen.
They began when Jordan waffled over whether or not he would play in the 1992 summer Olympics. First he said he didn’t think he would because he needed to rest in the off-season; then he said he hadn’t made up his mind. A rumor began to circulate that the real reason for his indecision was his likely Olympic teammate, Detroit Pistons guard Isiah Thomas, who is probably the nearest thing to an enemy Jordan has in the N.B.A. Although Jordan denied wielding the power of his immense popularity to blackball Thomas, not everyone believed him. In the end, and for whatever reasons, Thomas was not initially extended an invitation to be a member of the team and Jordan, of course, was. He accepted graciously. But it was about that time that he began to sense, as sportswriter Jack McCallum put it, “a backlash against his fame, a subtle dissatisfaction with the whole idea of Michael Jordan.”
It didn’t help that Jordan elected not to join the rest of the Bulls at the White House to meet President Bush (for which he received a mild rebuke from Bulls teammate Horace Grant), or that N.F.L. Hall-of-Famer Jim Brown slammed him for not doing enough to help black youth. But the unkindest cut of all came from the best-selling book The Jordan Rules, in which Chicago Tribune sportswriter Sam Smith depicted Jordan as a sometimes tyrannical and fractious presence among his teammates as they made their championship drive.
Despite these cracks in his image, Jordan’s mystique and popularity have remained intact. The pleasure, delight and sheer wonderment he has brought to millions of basketball fans (as well as to patrons of all the products he so engagingly endorses) far outweigh any criticisms thus far leveled against him. Most of us would rather remember the thrills (and cool sneakers) he’s given us.
A collection of great Jordan moments would have to begin with the 1982 N.C.A.A. championship game, when his jump shot at the buzzer lifted the North Carolina Tar Heels to a one-point victory over the Georgetown Hoyas. Then came his stellar performance at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. And since being drafted by the Bulls after his junior year (he later went back to earn his degree), Jordan’s career has been one long highlight film. Most fans will never forget the 1986 play-offs in which he utterly befuddled the Boston Celtics with 49- and 63-point games; or the 1986-87 season, when he led the league in scoring with 37.1 points per game, had more 50-point games than any other player except Wilt Chamberlain and became the second player in N.B.A. history–after Chamberlain–to score 3000 points in a season. In the process, he was transforming a franchise worth less than $20,000,000 in his rookie season into one with a current estimated worth of $150,000,000.
That estimate, of course, factors in last season’s drive to the championship, in which Jordan proved once and for all that, contrary to his image as a selfish shooter, he’s probably the most complete player in the game today, capable of providing his team with the best shooting, passing and defense in the league, as well as those intangibles of leadership and inspiration. And it is from last year that we retain perhaps the most unforgettable moment: Jordan on the floor of the Bull’s locker room, tears streaming from his eyes, as he pressed the N.B.A. championship trophy against his cheek. As long as videotape continues to spin in VCRs, Jordan will have a lasting memorial to his play.
Jordan’s private side, of course, is not usually that accessible. After nearly being trampled by 5000 autograph seekers, Jordan has become cautious about being seen anywhere but on the basketball court. He lives his off days by special appointment: eating at restaurants after they’ve closed, getting what’s left of his hair cut after the barbershop has locked up for the evening, shopping in stores after usual business hours. It is ironic that 30 years after the end of segregation in public places, one of the most famous black Americans often has to use the back entrance.
Even if the private Mike has been fast-breaking out of the public eye, the public Jordan plays a commanding in-your-face game. He once told NBC’s Maria Shriver, “Even my mistakes have been perfect,” and that seems to be the case. Take the Jordan backlash, for instance. Nearly all the newspaper columnists who questioned his hesitation to go to the Olympics also mentioned how Isiah Thomas led his humiliated Detroit Pistons teammates off the floor in last year’s Eastern Conference play-offs without shaking hands with the victorious Bulls. For many sports fans, such unsportsmanlike conduct was reason enough for Thomas to be excluded from the Olympic team, whether or not Jordan liked him. When Jim Brown accused Jordan of not doing enough for black youth, the press came to Jordan’s defense, emphasizing the work of the Michael Jordan Foundation (which raises money for 25 youth-oriented charities) along with his efforts to fulfill the 75 requests per week he receives from sick children who want to sit beside him on the Bulls bench. (Some children receive the shoes Jordan wore during the game; one boy who died of leukemia was buried in his.)
Although his White House no-show wasn’t popular in the major media, it received plaudits in the black press, which interpreted it as Jordan’s way of protesting Bush’s stands on civil rights issues. Then, finally, there was The Jordan Rules, which was supposed to play havoc with the Bulls' team chemistry this season. On the contrary, it seemed to make the team tougher and more cohesive. Meanwhile, America continues to admire Michael Jordan.
“Going to a Bulls game is like going to a temple,” says Arthur Droge, associate professor of New Testament at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. “There’s definitely a religious component about it and Jordan is the demigod of the moment.”
Or, as Larry Bird put it in 1986, “He is God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
To track down Jordan, we enlisted sportswriter Mark Vancil, whose rookie season covering the Bulls for the Chicago Sun Times coincided with Michael Jordan’s first year in the N.B.A. As a press-section veteran of innumerable games and championship seasons, Vancil has seen a lot of winners. None, in his opinion, matches Michael Jordan.
“Faster than most of us, Michael seems to have realized that money buys things, but it can’t buy time. The Bulls public-relations department usually dismisses interview requests out of hand. Although Jordan will answer anything inside the walls of a locker room before or after a game, his time, particularly in Chicago, is generally off-limits to everyone but family, friends and contractual obligations.
"With that in mind, I suggested we talk on the road. He agreed and we arranged to meet during an extended early-season road trip that started in Oakland and moved through Seattle, Denver, Los Angeles, Portland and Sacramento. The first session was on Thanksgiving in Portland.
"He talked for almost 90 minutes, and another session was scheduled for game day the following afternoon. The Bulls had won three straight on the trip and ten in a row overall, but Portland would be a test. With the game less than six hours away, Jordan seemed anxious. He talked about the Smith book, citing specifics that other writers had asked him about. I should go to Sacramento, he said. ‘I don’t know anybody there. We’ll be able to finish up in my room.’
"After a grueling double-overtime victory over Portland, Jordan didn’t appear capable of getting to his room. Back spasms left him sprawled on a table, the pain so intense that Jordan, still in uniform more than 40 minutes after the game, had to be helped to the team bus while his clothes were packed.
"He called at four P.M. the next day. ‘Come on up,’ he said. ‘I’ve got about thirty minutes.’ Once I reached his suite, a huge pregame meal arrived: a steak, potato skins, a pitcher of orange juice, water and a salad. Jordan was moving without hesitation. As evidenced by his appearance in 234 straight games, he has always been able to fight through pain. A full day of therapy had eliminated the back spasms, and in an apparently effortless performance that night, Jordan scored 30 points. The Bulls coasted through the final paces of a perfect road trip. An hour after the game, Jordan called and agreed to one last session.
"We began our conversation with a topic much on the minds of the basketball world: Magic Johnson.”
Playboy: How did you get the news about Magic?
Jordan: His agent, Lon Rosen, left me a message at practice and he said it’s an emergency, he’s got to talk to me. When I called him back, he told me, “Magic’s having a press conference today. He’s going to retire. He tested positive for HIV.”
Playboy: Where were you when he told you?
Jordan: I was driving home. I almost drove off the road. I said, “This has to be some kind of sick joke.” He said, “Well, Earvin wants to talk to you.” So he gave me Earvin’s number and I called him at home. He was as calm as you and I. I said to him, “Damn, you’re calmer than I am. I’m about to drive off the road.” He said, “I just want you to continue on with your life. I’m going to be fine, my baby’s going to be fine, my wife is fine.”
Playboy: Before Magic’s announcement, did players ever talk about AIDS?
Jordan: We were aware of it, but most guys never thought of it happening to heterosexuals. It was always gays, drug users and people who got it from transfusions. But it slapped me right in the face. From all angles, it slapped me.
Playboy: Have you been tested?
Jordan: I’ve been tested for the last two years.
Jordan: Because I’ve had insurance policies that demanded it.
Playboy: Would it surprise you if there were other sports figures who tested positive?
Playboy: Would it have surprised you before Magic’s announcement?
Jordan: One of your prime personalities has gone public and said he got it through promiscuity. He wasn’t the only promiscuous athlete. I’m pretty sure he won’t be the last.
Playboy: Tell us about life on the road in the N.B.A.
Jordan: There are a lot of things being said about the opportunities you have on the road. Sure, you have opportunities, you have opportunities everywhere. After the game, you see different women. Players have always been knowledgeable about that, to say who’s who and what’s what. If you don’t listen, then you’re putting yourself at risk.
Playboy: And there are guys who don’t think or listen.
Jordan: Magic said it himself: You never think it can happen to you. Next thing you know, you’re stung by a bee.
Playboy: Are guys really going to learn this lesson, or is it just a passing concern?
Jordan: It’s going to cut down some of the playing around. But I also think it’s going to allow for both men and women to be more open-minded about safe sex. I think Magic is going to make players say, Hey, don’t be afraid to ask this person. Now it’s a given: You have to talk about it.
Playboy: It used to be that a player’s primary concern was not getting someone pregnant—-
Jordan: Or getting V.D. or herpes. Now you pray for that.
Playboy: What was your relationship with Magic early on in your career?
Jordan: I liked him when I was in high school. They used to call me Magic Jordan. My first car had a license plate with Magic Jordan on it. It was a 1976 Grand Prix.
Playboy: Things were pretty strained between you when you first got into the league, weren’t they?
Jordan: There was a little bit of envy because of the way I came into the league. Magic came in with even more flair and even more success. And he should have been even bigger than I was in terms of endorsements and business opportunities. But he wasn’t marketed that way. And I was fortunate to have good people. So there was some envy.
Playboy: How did the two of you get over it?
Jordan: During my third year, he invited me out to play in his summer charity game. We ironed out our differences in private in the locker room and we began a relationship.
Playboy: There are some differences you haven’t ironed out. What’s the story with you and Isiah Thomas and the alleged Jordan freeze-out at the 1985 N.B.A. All-Star game? Do you think they were really denying you the ball?
Jordan: If you go back and look at the film, you can see that Isiah was actually doing that. Once it started getting around that he was freezing me out, that’s when the ill feelings started to grow between us.
Playboy: There were some problems even before the game, weren’t there?
Jordan: That was my first All-Star game. I stayed in my room most of the time because I didn’t know what to do. None of my teammates were there. I didn’t want to be out in a situation that I wasn’t comfortable with. The one time I did go out, I got on an elevator with Isiah Thomas to go downstairs for a league meeting. That was the first time I met him. And I said, “Hello, how ya doin'?” That’s all I said. I was really intimidated because I didn’t know him and I didn’t want to get on his nerves. I didn’t want to seem like a rookie. You know, to just be so stupid. So I was quiet. I stayed in the corner. When I went down in the room for the meeting, I still didn’t say anything. After the weekend was over, it got back to me that I was arrogant and cocky and I wouldn’t even speak to Isiah on the elevator, that I gave him the cold shoulder. And I’m saying Isiah Thomas initiated it all.
Playboy: How did that make you feel?
Jordan: I was really disappointed and upset because I never wanted to step on anybody’s toes. When I came into the league, I considered myself the lowest on the totem pole. I’m a rookie, now let me work my way up. When I started with the Bulls, they wanted me to be a vocal leader, but I told coach Kevin Loughery that I didn’t feel comfortable doing that. We had all these guys with six or seven years in the league and I was in my first year. How could I tell these guys this and that? The best way I could do it was just to go out and play hard. And that’s the way I’ve always treated it. They took that as disrespect and misinterpreted that whole weekend.
Playboy: The next game after the All-Star break was at home against Detroit. How did you react?
Jordan: Normally, I would smile and enjoy myself, but I was serious the whole game. It was a grudge game from my standpoint. And the next day, the headlines read Jordan Gets His Revenge, Scores 49. That’s all Isiah needed to see. It was a competition from that point. I always tried to respect him and be kind, but I always would hear talk that he was saying things about me behind my back. I just said, Well, I’m gonna stop trying to be nice. Screw it. Just play basketball. We don’t have to be best of friends.
Playboy: Was that experience ultimately good for you?
Jordan: Well, it taught me about the jealousy that you deal with on this level. But at the same time, this is a business. I’m going to take advantage of all the opportunities. If they were in my shoes, they would do the exact same thing.
Playboy: Other players were jealous of your success in endorsements and business dealings?
Jordan: Right. But why must I squander my opportunities because those guys never got that opportunity? They don’t want me to have it and they’re going to be pissed at me if I do it? Screw that. And some people may view that as wrong. I see people writing letters to the editor: “I’m tired of seeing Michael Jordan’s face everywhere.” Who are you? Because if you were where I am, you’d be doing the same thing. I’m not going to let that bother me. This is a business. I want to take advantage of my opportunities and walk away from the game financially set. I’m not doing anything that anybody else in my position wouldn’t do.
Playboy: When did you adjust to being a celebrity?
Jordan: My fourth year.
Playboy: Not until then?
Jordan: I was really liking it up until about my fourth year. But that’s when you start getting tired. Your moods start to change. People start taking advantage of your niceness. And you want more time for yourself. You change your whole attitude. I’m starting to be more open about everything. Before I was hesitant about saying how I feel.
Playboy: What do you mean?
Jordan: I’ll tell you if I don’t like something. Before I would just keep it to myself. Now I’m becoming a little more opinionated because people have become more opinionated about me.
Playboy: Let’s talk a little about your public image. Why didn’t you go to the White House when President Bush invited the team?
Jordan: I didn’t want to go. I had something else to do. Before I would have said, “Well, I had my reasons.” I’d do it in a very respectful way. But that’s none of your business. The Bulls knew I wasn’t going, so why must I tell you? Go ask them why I didn’t go. They knew. I make my stand now because it’s easy for people to take advantage of me and become more opinionated about things that I choose to do. I may not be in agreement with what people want me to do. Who gives a damn? They don’t live the life that I try to live. Do I ask them why they go to the bathroom?
Playboy: They don’t have to deal with what you deal with.
Jordan: Right, they don’t. People say they wish they were Michael Jordan. OK, do it for a year. Do it for two years. Do it for five years. When you get past the fun part, then go do the part where you get into cities at three A.M. and you have fifteen people waiting for autographs when you’re as tired as hell. Your knees are sore, back’s sore, your body’s sore, and yet you have to sign fifteen autographs at three in the morning.
Playboy: What happens if you don’t?
Jordan: Somebody will take a shot, saying, “Oh, look at him.” On one road trip, we got into Denver at three in the morning and there were people sitting in the hotel lobby. I was tired. I said, “I’m sorry, please, I’m tired.” Then I heard, “I guess that’s the Jordan rules.” I just kept on walking. One of these days I’m going to say, “Go screw yourself.” Maybe when I’m walking out of the league.
Playboy: Tell us about your championship season. Was it as turbulent as it was described in The Jordan Rules?
Jordan: I haven’t read it.
Playboy: In the book, Sam Smith remarked on all the tickets you got to a sold-out game in last year’s finals. The implication was that you were being afforded preferential treatment. Are your Bulls tickets free?
Jordan: I buy every damn ticket. Ain’t nobody giving me tickets. I pay for all those fifty-dollar box-seat tickets I give to little kids. For all the loose tickets that I may have after a game that I do not use and I give to [Bulls forward] Scottie Pippen, give to [Bulls forward] Horace Grant, give to people, I pay for them all. I don’t ask them to pay me back. I spent one hundred thousand dollars on tickets last year that I didn’t get back. That’s money that I paid the Bulls and other teams. So don’t bitch at me about all the tickets I spread around.
Playboy: Another anecdote, which presumably shows you as a selfish scorer, had Bulls center Bill Cartwright talking about a game against New Jersey. According to Cartwright, you were complaining that coach Phil Jackson took you out of the game to keep you from scoring more.
Jordan: Sam Smith says Cartwright said I was bitching about not getting fifty points and that everyone could have scored twenty instead. That’s the biggest lie in America. The whole offense is set for Cartwright to score as many points as he can. If he can’t score, that’s his damn problem. All I can do is throw him the ball. I can’t make him move.
Playboy: What about the charge that you want only to score?
Jordan: I don’t go out and just try to score. I score because there is an opportunity to score. It doesn’t matter who scores. If you have an opportunity to score, you score. And we win. Smith made it seem like I was selfish in that sense, that all I thought about was getting my points when actually I wasn’t worried about that. I was worried about winning. Who cares what happens with the points?
Playboy: The scoring title doesn’t mean anything to you?
Jordan: It doesn’t even faze me anymore. If I win the scoring title this year, I win it. If I don’t, I don’t. I know I could win it if I wanted to. But I just don’t try to chase it anymore. I let whatever happens happen.
Playboy: What was your contact with the author?
Jordan: [Bulls vice president of operations Jerry] Krause and I are the most criticized people in the book, but we’re the only two that didn’t go to lunch with this dude. It’s like he was planning to kill us anyway, so why take us to lunch?
Playboy: Did you expect that this sort of thing would happen to you one day?
Jordan: I knew people were going to start taking shots at me. You get to a point where people are going to get tired of seeing you on a pedestal, all clean and polished. They say, Let’s see if there’s any dirt around this person. But I never expected it to come from inside. Sam tried to make it seem like he was a friend of the family for eight months. But the family talked about all this hatred they have for me. I mean, if they had so much hatred for me, how could they play with me? Why didn’t they go to [Bulls owner] Jerry Reinsdorf and ask him to trade me? I don’t know how we won if there was so much hatred among all of us. It looked like we all got along so well.
Playboy: Do you look at your teammates and wonder to yourself if they really said that stuff?
Jordan: I can imagine some of the things being said from anger of jealousy or disappointment. But I could see Sam Smith actually manipulating, putting words in their mouths, to get his meaning from the situation. Let’s say Horace Grant was upset for one game about not getting enough shots and maybe I had a lot more shots than anybody else. Sam can sense that anger, get over there and ask him all kinds of questions. In the book, Sam makes it appear to be a problem all season long. Actually, it’s just one game.
Playboy: Anything else bug you about it?
Jordan: He really exploits certain things. I’ve heard there was a story about how Pippen, Grant and I were talking about our sons' penises. He said we spent thirty minutes debating whose son had the biggest penis. What’s the purpose of that being in the book? You know it’s kidding, so what?
Playboy: Let’s get back to the championship drive. You seem to feel that it wasn’t enough to win the N.B.A. title, you had to do it the right way.
Jordan: When we were beating Philly in the play-offs last year and Detroit was going against Boston, everyone was saying, “I hope Boston wins.” I said, No way. If we’re going to go, we have to go the hardest route, or else as a team, we’re going to get criticized for it. First of all, Scottie Pippen would never redeem himself from having those three headaches, or whatever he had, in the final 1990 conference championship game against the Pistons. As a team we would never live it down because we always faltered under Detroit’s pressure. No one really gained respect from Detroit players.
Playboy: It would have reflected badly on you, too.
Jordan: All of that would have been right on my shoulders. Yeah, you won a championship, people would have said, but you didn’t go through Detroit to do it. I didn’t want that crap to happen. I wanted to go the hardest route.
Playboy: There was also the matter of how you compared to Magic and Larry Bird,
Jordan: When it came to comparisons, this is what always knocked me out of the top two players: People would always say, “All these great plays and he’s never taken his team to a championship.” So I wanted to go through one of those two. It worked out perfect.
Playboy: Magic made his teammates better. That’s something you’ve been accused of failing to do.
Jordan: The championship was my opportunity to show I’m not just a scorer. That was the challenge when everyone tried to make it a one-on-one situation, Magic versus Michael. I realized that. But you know, I told people that if we got to the Finals, we were going to win, if I have anything to do with it. I might never get this opportunity again. And when I got to the Finals, all I tried to do was plug holes–scoring, passing, rebounding, whatever–just as they had portrayed Magic as doing.
Playboy: Was there a particular moment in the year when you thought, Maybe we can go all the way?
Jordan: When we beat Detroit before the All-Star game.
Playboy: That early?
Jordan: We beat them in Detroit. We hadn’t beaten them in Detroit for about ten games, and once we did, it gave us confidence. We needed to know that we could beat them on their court. In the conference championship series the year before, we had defended our home court well. But we went up there and got stomped in game seven.
Playboy: Let’s talk about the Detroit series in last year’s play-offs. You blew through New York and Philadelphia, and then came the Pistons.
Jordan: We were waiting for this. We had the home-court advantage. And we defended our home court the last six or seven times. The first game was a key because you knew they were going to throw shit at us. Pippen knew what Dennis Rodman was going to do. He couldn’t let him get into his head. Just play, turn your face and keep going. We won both games in Chicago, so we went up to Detroit and said, Let’s sweep them.
Playboy: Could you see the fear in their eyes?
Jordan: Yeah. They couldn’t rattle us. They tried everything to rattle our confidence.
Playboy: Such as?
Jordan: Throwing punches, throwing guys at you, talking shit. So I’m saying, Well, these guys talk trash all the damn time to everybody. Let’s see if they can handle some trash-talking back to them. So I started talking it to ‘em. With Mark Aguirre, I said, “This is not your home. You’re not in Chicago anymore. You live in Detroit. This is our home.” Rodman, I said, “Rodman, best defensive player? Jump your ass over here if you think you’re the best defensive player in the league.” And that irritated the hell out of him. Every time he’d go past me, boom, knee me in the corner, knee me in the back. He was trying to frustrate me. And I was trying to do exactly what he would do. I’m trying to knock the hell out of Rodman. I’m telling Scottie to bring him off the screen–boom, I knock him. Rodman got pissed off because we were doing the same shit that he would do. I knew I was getting to him.
Playboy: How about Isiah?
Jordan: He was really passive. I think that he was so confident that they had something on us that, in a sense, he wasn’t needed to win. He was just going to be the director instead of being the aggressor. Once he tried to be aggressive, it was too late.
Playboy: Have Pistons players tried to hurt you?
Jordan: Laimbeer has. The first time it happened, I thought it was just an initiation into the league. And then the crap started happening every time on the break, he and I angling off at the break. He doesn’t even try to block the shot. His whole body is coming at me. And I’m going up in the air, I can lose control, anything can happen. I’m irritated by it but I handle it. I’m waiting for my last year.
Playboy: Is Laimbeer worse than the rest of them, even Rodman?
Jordan: No, I think Rodman and Laimbeer are just alike. They try to live up to their image of being assholes.
Playboy: The Detroit series was a remarkably thorough beating.
Jordan: That’s why they walked off the court. We embarrassed them. To sweep them four-zip, it was embarrassing. Defending champions, embarrassing. It was like good overriding evil.
Playboy: What do you mean by “evil”?
Jordan: It was their style of basketball. If you knock a person down on a hard foul, you pick that man up and say, “Are you all right?” The Pistons will knock you down, then, if possible, kick you. They try to use that crap as an intimidator. The evil came out of their attitude, the unsportsmanlike actions. That bad-boy image brought them some gold, but it also brought them a lot of shame.
Playboy: It drives Detroit nuts to hear you say things like that. They feel you don’t give them any respect.
Jordan: Respect for what?
Playboy: All their success.
Jordan: It’s true. Everybody knows it. They were smart enough to utilize their image and win. They didn’t win just off brute force. They had talent enough to win. But they could still have that talent without the brutality.
Playboy: Did it surprise you during the last game when they walked off the floor before time had expired?
Jordan: Yeah, it really did. Isiah Thomas is the president of our players association and yet he is going to orchestrate that unsportsmanlike conduct? Three years in a row, I pushed myself to shake their hands and wish them luck and told them to bring the championship back to the Eastern Conference.
Playboy: That had to be hard to swallow.
Jordan: Hard to swallow, but out of sportsmanship, this is what you’re supposed to do.
Playboy: When did you realize that the N.B.A. title was within your grasp?
Jordan: In the first game against the Lakers. They played their asses off, we played terrible, but we still had a chance to win down the stretch. That’s all we needed from that point on. That gave us our confidence. It was a moral victory for us in the first game. Then in the second game, we went right back and pounded them. Gave us that confidence back that we lost.
Playboy: Most people looked at it from the standpoint that the Lakers got a game in Chicago.
Jordan: Yeah, but the momentum changed. It’s not like it just changed hands, we grabbed it.
Playboy: What were the emotions like before game five against the Lakers?
Jordan: We were just determined.
Playboy: Were you scared?
Jordan: Nope, I wasn’t scared. We had three chances to win one, right? I wasn’t nervous. We went in there relaxed.
Playboy: When did it hit you that the championship was yours?
Jordan: When [guard] John Paxson started knocking down shots. He was measuring them, boom, he was just knocking them down. I missed some of the excitement by not doing it in Chicago. If we had done it in Chicago, we probably wouldn’t have lived, because the fans would have killed us. But it was nearly as bad in L.A.
Playboy: What happened in the locker room after the final game? It looked like you were overwhelmed with emotion.
Jordan: I tried to fight it, but I couldn’t. I suppressed a lot of disappointment over the years. When we won it all, I became more emotional than I have ever been. I don’t regret it. It was something I had to let out.
Playboy: Is there going to be any challenge to the Olympics?
Jordan: You know, it’s one of those situations where the challenge is going to be playing together as a team. When you look at the talent and the teams we’re supposed to play against, it’s a massacre. It should never be close. We taught them the game of basketball. We’ve got people who have the ability and the height. We’re talking about the greatest players that play the game now and the team is the best team that’s ever been put together. Who’s going to beat us? The Japanese? The Chinese? They can’t match up to the athleticism we’re going to have on this team. Not to mention the mental advantage we’re going to have here with Magic, or whoever’s gonna play the point. You have Stockton, Barkley, me, Robinson, Bird…come on. These are the people that the Europeans look up to, so how can they beat us? If any game is even close, it will be a moral victory for Europe.
Playboy: What will you do if Bill Laimbeer or Isiah Thomas makes the Olympic team?
Jordan: I would respect them as team-mates and we would play as a team.
Playboy: You still would do it?
Jordan: If I walk off now, you think there’s not going to be a controversy? I would do it to avoid all the publicity and feelings between us. Americans shouldn’t be that way when they’re representing the country. You just have to do it.
Playboy: Why do you think Magic wants to play in the Olympics? What does it matter, given what he’s accomplished?
Jordan: He has accomplished everything possible in terms of basketball except for one thing: He’s never played in an Olympic game. Never had that gold medal. And that can be eating at him. He probably would take that risk knowing that he might give up a day or two of his life. You know what? If I were in his position, I probably would do it, too. I’m going to be in his corner all the way. It adds something to your life when you win a gold medal. You hear the whole world cheering for you. That’s far greater than any other cheering you’re going to hear in basketball.
Playboy: Even greater than the N.B.A. title?
Jordan: Yeah. The title is for Chicago and the Bulls fans around the United States, but the Olympics are for everybody in the United States and then some.
Playboy: For all the credit, respect, celebrity and money that have come to you in your career, you remain a black man in a country dominated by white corporate structures. Recently, you have even taken shots from black writers who suggest you’re not black enough.
Jordan: I realize that I’m black, but I like to be viewed as a person, and that’s everybody’s wish. That’s what Martin Luther King fought for, that everybody could be treated equal and be viewed as a person. In some ways I can’t understand it, because here we are striving for equality and yet people are going to say I’m not black enough? At a time when actually I thought I was trying to be equal? I try to be a role model for black kids, white kids, yellow kids, green kids. This is what I felt was good about my personality. Don’t knock me off the pedestal that you wanted me to get onto. I get criticized about not giving back to the community–well, that’s not true. I do. I just don’t go out and try to seek publicity from it. I could hold a press conference on everything that I do for the black community. But I don’t choose to do that, so people are not aware of it.
Playboy: Does the accusation sting?
Jordan: Yeah, it’s really unfair. Because they ask for more black role models, yet they’re stabbing me when I’m up here trying to be a very positive black role model.
Playboy: You don’t seem like a very political person.
Jordan: I always keep my political views to myself.
Playboy: But there are others who want you to be more up-front.
Jordan: Look at what happened in North Carolina. I got criticized for not endorsing Harvey Gantt, the black guy who was running for the Senate against Jesse Helms in North Carolina. I chose not to because I didn’t know of his achievements, I didn’t know if he had some negative things against him. Before I put myself on the line, at least I wanted to know who this guy was. And I didn’t, but I knew of Jesse Helms and I wasn’t in favor of him. So I sent Gantt some money as a contribution. But that was never publicized. It was just that I didn’t come out publicly and do an endorsement.
Playboy: How do you handle pressure from Jesse Jackson and other activists?
Jordan: I never bow to that pressure because I always keep my opinions to myself. I avoid those types of endorsements from a political standpoint. That’s just me. That’s my prerogative to do so. If you don’t like it, lump it.
Playboy: How did you react when Operation PUSH called for a boycott of Nike?
Jordan: It was a valid point. But if you’re going to take that stand about having blacks in more controlling or executive positions, do it with every shoe company. Don’t pick the one on top and say, Hey, there aren’t enough blacks involved. Because you’re targeting Nike while Reebok and all these others are going to gain from us being attacked. That’s not fair. Say the whole shoe industry does not have enough blacks in powerful executive positions. OK, I’m with you. Maybe we have to change that. I’m saying, come to the black people involved and ask us, Well, are blacks being promoted in higher positions? We could have said yes. John Thompson is on the Nike board of directors. I hope I can be put on the advisory board, and we’re starting to move up. Naturally, you still want to have more. I think PUSH helped get more blacks involved in the business side. But they approached it from a bad angle.
Playboy: You like to play golf, but there’s no sport with a richer history of exclusion. Do you think that has irritated some in the black community, that you play at exclusive clubs in spite of their policies?
Jordan: I think I’m opening the door for blacks to be involved. I was getting more opportunities to go to these clubs. Sam Smith wrote in his book that I would have been declined membership at a Jewish golf course, but that’s not true. I never applied. The only golf courses that I applied to, I got accepted. He had me saying that if I won the lottery, I’d go out and buy a golf course and keep out all the Jews. Well, why would I have to win the lottery? I could go buy one now.
Playboy: Where are you a member?
Jordan: I’m a member in Chicago at Wynstone, at Wexford in Hilton Head, and in Rancho Sante Fe at a place called the Farms. I’m a member at the Governor’s Club in Chapel Hill.
Playboy: Do you pay the regular members’ dues and fees?
Jordan: Yeah, I pay. I went through the normal procedures of getting in. I never want it to be a privilege. I don’t want to be a token.
Playboy: When was the first time you ever had to deal with racism?
Jordan: When I threw a soda at a girl for calling me a nigger. It was when Roots was on television.
Playboy: How old were you?
Jordan: I was fifteen. It was a very tough year. I was really rebelling. I considered myself a racist at that time. Basically, I was against all white people.
Jordan: It was hundreds of years of pain that they put us through, and for the first time, I saw it from watching Roots. I was very ignorant about it initially, but I really opened my eyes about my ancestors and the things that they had to deal with.
Playboy: How long did it take you to get over that?
Jordan: A whole year. The education came from my parents. You have to be able to say, OK, that happened back then. Now let’s take it from here and see what happens. It would be very easy to hate people for the rest of your life, and some people have done that. You’ve got to deal with what’s happening now and try to make things better.
Playboy: What did you think you’d be when you grew up?
Jordan: A professional athlete.
Playboy: How early did you begin thinking that?
Jordan: I always thought I would be a professional athlete. I always loved sports. I knew one thing I didn’t want was a job. Me and working were never best friends. I enjoyed playing.
Playboy: Your dad once said that you were the laziest kid he had.
Jordan: He doesn’t lie. He tried to change me, but it never worked. He couldn’t keep me from playing sports. I think my first job was in the eleventh grade and I quit after a week.
Playboy: What was it?
Jordan: I was a hotel maintenance man. I was cleaning out pools, painting rails, changing air-conditioner filters and sweeping out the back room. I said, never again. I may be a wino first, but I will not have a nine-to-five job.
Playboy: You had a bad experience with swimming when you were a kid, didn’t you?
Jordan: I went swimming with a close friend one day, and we were out wading and riding the waves coming in. The current was so strong it took him under and he locked up on me. It’s called the death lock, when they know they’re in trouble and about to die. I almost had to break his hand. He was gonna take me with him.
Playboy: Did you save him?
Jordan: No, he died. I don’t go into the water anymore.
Playboy: How old were you?
Jordan: I was really young. About seven or eight years old. Now I ain’t going near the water. I can’t swim and I ain’t messing with the water.
Playboy: Even when you go on a boat?
Jordan: Not without a life jacket, I won’t. Not a little boat, either. It has to be a big boat for me.
Playboy: It doesn’t bother you to say that, does it?
Jordan: No. I don’t give a damn. Everybody’s got a phobia for something. I do not mess with water.
Playboy: Were you always a star in sports?
Jordan: No, but I had ambitions of being one. All I wanted to do was play all the time. I used to give up whatever allowance I had to my brothers, for them to wash dishes for me and clean the house.
Playboy: Did it bother your father?
Jordan: My father is a mechanical person. He always tried to save money by working on everybody’s cars. And my older brothers would go out and work with him. He would tell them to hand him a nine-sixteenths wrench and they’d do it. I’d get out there and he’d say give me a nine-sixteenths wrench and I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. He used to get irritated with me and say, “You don’t know what the hell you’re doing, go on in there with the women.”
Playboy: Were you popular with girls in high school?
Jordan: I always thought I would be a bachelor. I couldn’t get a date.
Playboy: Come on.
Jordan: I kidded around too much. I always used to play around with women. I was a clown. I picked at people a lot. That was my way of breaking the ice with people who were very serious. I was good in school. I’d get A’s and B’s in my classes but I’d get N’s and U’s in conduct because I was kidding around, talking all the time.
Playboy: We’ve heard you did some serious preparation for bachelor life.
Jordan: I took home economics from seventh through ninth grade. They were easy classes, we got to eat and I was always a greedy person with food. And you got to do things. I always thought I’d be doing my own sewing and cooking and cleaning.
Playboy: What can you do?
Jordan: Oh, I can sew shirts, I can make clothes.
Jordan: I could hem pants right now. I can cook and clean and all that stuff. But do I do it? No. I don’t want to. But I could if I had to.
Playboy: Did you watch basketball much as a kid?
Jordan: I used to watch a little A.C.C. college basketball because we never got professional basketball on TV where I lived. I didn’t know anybody in the N.B.A. I only knew David Thompson, Walter Davis, guys from my area.
Playboy: When you were a high school senior, did North Carolina recruit you?
Jordan: They were recruiting me when I was in the eleventh grade. My high school coach wrote to them, so they sent a scout down. I went to North Carolina with the Five-Star camp, even though Dean Smith didn’t want me to go.
Playboy: Why not?
Jordan: He tried to keep me hidden. If I was at Five-Star, they would open up the doors of the schools and everybody would notice. I won about ten trophies in two weeks. I was an all-star and the M.V.P. for two weeks in a row and my team won the championship both weeks. I was racking it up. Then everybody started recruiting me.
Playboy: Was North Carolina your first choice?
Jordan: I always wanted to go to UCLA. That was my dream school.
Jordan: Because when I was growing up, they were a great team. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, John Wooden. But I never got recruited by UCLA.
Playboy: Even after your success in the Five-Star camp?
Jordan: By the time they wanted to recruit me, they had heard that I was going to stay close to home, which was not necessarily true. I also wanted to go to Virginia because I wanted to play with Ralph Sampson for his last two years there. He was going into his junior year. I wrote to Virginia, but they just sent me back an admission form. No one came and watched me. Then I visited North Carolina and I was happy with the atmosphere, so I committed early.
Playboy: Weren’t you planning to play baseball in college, too?
Jordan: I wanted to, but I got talked out of it. I still want to play baseball. I may play Triple-A ball this summer. I keep trying to talk to the people in Charlotte. You know George Shinn, the guy who owns the Charlotte Hornets? [Hornets players] Muggsy Bogues and Dell Curry played for his minor-league baseball team last summer. I told them I want to go play baseball. They don’t believe me. I’m serious. I may think about football, too. I ain’t going across the middle, though. I’ll do down and out.
Playboy: If you made a run at baseball, what position would you play?
Jordan: Well, I used to be a pitcher. But I’d probably throw my arm out just learning all the different things. I’d much rather try to start out in the outfield or first base. I’m going to do it. But I would never want just to step right into the majors. Players would get pissed at me. I don’t want that animosity. I want to start off low and work my way up.
Playboy: You have had four pro coaches. Whom did you like to play for the most?
Jordan: Who was best for me? Kevin Loughery.
Jordan: He gave me the confidence to play on his level. My first year, he threw me the ball and said, “Hey, kid, I know you can play. Go play.” I don’t think that would have been the case going through another coach’s system. Look what Loughery’s doing right now with Miami. He’s doing exactly what he did to me. He’s giving those guys so much confidence, he’s giving them an opportunity to create their own identity as players. With other coaches, you have to fit into their systems.
Playboy: Even Doug Collins?
Jordan: No, I just felt Doug would have tried to manipulate me. For that sense of control, power. I saw that with the way he dealt with Pippen and Grant. I would have been able to deal with it because I respect all my coaches. But Loughery never tried to do that. I could relate with him as a friend.
Playboy: What about Phil Jackson as a coach?
Jordan: Phil’s a good coach. He has some Dean Smith credentials out there. He’s relaxed, he’s knowledgeable. He’s a philosopher about everything. He believes in sharing the wealth among everyone, yet he believes in not trying to overshadow his team.
Playboy: The Portland Trail Blazers had a shot at drafting you. How would that have changed your life?
Jordan: I wouldn’t have had all this opportunity from a business and financial standpoint.
Playboy: Would your life have been any easier?
Jordan: No, this has gone exactly the way I wanted it to. Portland already had Clyde Drexler, so it would have been dumb for me to go there.
Playboy: Did your success with Nike surprise you?
Jordan: Yeah, that was something. First I thought it was a fad. But it’s far greater now than it used to be. The numbers are just outrageous.
Playboy: When did you really start getting into the business end of it?
Jordan: Four years ago.
Playboy: Not until then?
Jordan: In my first four years, I just loved playing basketball and didn’t worry about the money part of it. But I was being tutored and educated by ProServ.
Playboy: What do you mean tutored?
Jordan: Tutored about financial things, you know, monthly ledgers, where your money comes from and where it goes. My parents did a good job, too. They, as well as ProServ, helped educate me when I really didn’t have the interest in