[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."