YEARS AGO, AFTER a bad hurricane hit Wilmington, North Carolina, Michael Jordan came back to help the recovery effort. Jordan doesn’t go home very often, but he had some friends with him on that trip and wanted to show them where he’d grown up while they were in town. The house, a middle-class split-level, is at 4647 Gordon Road, near U.S. Highway 117. It’s the address where Dean Smith sent recruiting letters. Out front, Jordan seemed sentimental. One of the friends with him said later they didn’t feel comfortable describing the scene. It felt private. “How do most people feel when they go back to see their childhood home?” the person explained. “MJ is human.”
Someone suggested ringing the doorbell, but they worried about disturbing the current occupants, so his friends just stood there a moment with him, watching Michael Jordan look at the house where he used to live.
“Very early I had a personality split,” Jordan told me once. “One that was a public persona and one that was private.”
U.S. 117 IS the mother road of Michael Jordan’s past. It runs from Wilmington to Wilson. There have been Jordans living along that corridor since the Civil War. Al Edgerton, a longtime engineer in the North Carolina Department of Transportation and a grade school classmate of Jordan’s, was part of a crew that resurfaced 117 less than a decade ago. The highway cuts through fields and little towns.
“A lot of agricultural type equipment is running up and down that road,” Edgerton says. “When you get around Wallace, where Mike’s dad was from, that’s an ag-type county. You have a lot of farm trucks and tractors, pulling trailers of tobacco.”
Al met Mike in the third grade and they were teammates in three sports growing up. They competed against each other in Babe Ruth baseball in the brutal North Carolina summers. It’s hard to fathom July heat in New Hanover, Pender and Duplin counties if you don’t live there. During Al’s road crew days, he would go home and his boots would be soaked from all the sweat. He’d leave them out on the porch, but the next morning when he slipped them back on, they’d still be wet. That’s how hot it was. Checking asphalt reminded him of sweltering long-ago baseball games.
“We had field days in elementary school where in May you’d go out and have a 100-yard dash,” he says. “Even then, Mike, he hated losing. Some of the memories I have on activity buses going to football, basketball, baseball games. There was many times we’d have a game of cards on the activity bus. And we’d get to the school we were playing, and Mike hadn’t been winning the last few hands? He wouldn’t let anybody get off the bus.”
Al says he met Michael Jordan only once. It must have been 30 years ago, when the Bulls star came back to his hometown to put on a basketball clinic. They ran into each other afterward and laughed and told stories for a good half-hour. They knew the same people. Their fathers had sat together at their games. They’d driven the same roads to and from school.
“I don’t know Michael,” Al says. “I’ve always known him as Mike.”
ONCE MORE HE is the center of our sporting lives. Michael Jordan wasn’t destined to just fade away. After the 1997-98 season, which we have been reliving in “The Last Dance,” Phil Jackson looked into the future: “I know I will be forgotten as soon as this is over. All of us will. Except Michael. Michael will be remembered forever.” Jackson was right. Such is the power of Michael Jordan that ESPN’s prime-time ratings are up versus last year, in a time with almost no live sporting events.
The documentary tells the familiar story of Michael. Cut from his high school basketball team to six-time champion of the NBA. It is a story about will and work, and nearly every viewer knows how it ends. But still they’re compelled, because even though he is among the most known people on the planet, he remains a mystery. We know the whats but not the whys.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams is watching “The Last Dance” and remembering when he recruited Mike Jordan. Roy grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, raised in poverty by a single mom. A few years ago, he found himself driving from Chapel Hill to play golf in Wilmington. He was alone and he slipped off the interstate and drove over to the house on Gordon Road. If you’re driving down Interstate 40, there’s a sign at the Pender-New Hanover county line announcing that this stretch of road is named in honor of Michael Jordan. But if you’re Roy Williams pulling off 117, your mind’s eye focuses on Michael’s father working out front of Gordon Road. Most likely on a car engine, his tongue stuck out in concentration, a habit he acquired from his grandfather, and his son acquired from him. “Every single time I go down there,” he says, “I drive down Michael Jordan Highway. It just reminds me of those times. James and Deloris were so good to me. You can’t give the parents all the credit, but they led him by example. They taught him hard work.”
Michael Jordan has become so public it can seem as if he were born fully formed. Of course, that’s not true. His family spent at least six generations in one small patch of swamp and cropland in the rural outskirts and farm towns near Wilmington, on and around Highway 117. He remembers his grandparents still eating dirt and clay — a now little-known practice brought to the South from Africa — getting needed iron from the land. Michael used to eat the orange and red clay for dessert when he’d visit them.
He grew up not only hearing about a vanishing world, but he saw the last pieces of it too, a kind of life that died for much of America at the turn of the century but somehow kept going around U.S. 117 for 70 more years. He left that history behind and yet carries it all inside him too. Which means maybe the way to unravel Mike from Michael is to look at where and when his rural North Carolina roots quietly molded his career, and to consider how the land where he grew up shaped his ancestors, who shaped him.
FIVE SUNDAYS AGO, in the last hour before “The Last Dance” premiered, Michael Jordan got a text message. He looked down at his phone and saw it was from the son of one of his old security guards. Those guys cross Michael’s mind a lot. During the pinnacle of his fame, a group of retired and off-duty Chicago cops kept him both insulated and connected. The Sniff Brothers, they jokingly called themselves. As in jock sniffers. There were five or six core guys. Jordan took care of them long after his playing career ended, and he deeply misses the three who have died in the years since: Gus Lett, Clarence Travis and John Michael Wozniak, whose son Nicholi sent the text. Nicky sent a picture of Michael holding the NBA championship trophy, and there, in the background as usual, was his father. The Sniff Brothers were always around. On family vacations, in hotel suites playing cards, out in Los Angeles shooting “Space Jam,” hiding out beneath the United Center in the hours before a game.
Nicky wished Michael luck and thanked him for all the support over the years. Michael wrote back immediately.
I love it. I will watch with him, Gus and CT on my heart!!!!!!!!!!!
The public Jordan, the symbol, needed constant security protection as the game’s greatest player. The private person felt most at home around a bunch of middle-class Chicago cops, guys who’d worked narcotics and gang squad, who’d taken bullets and kicked in doors and who knew what it meant to work for a living and to live by a simple code. Guys who reminded him of home.
“They became my best friends,” Jordan told me years ago.
The Sniff Brothers helped him keep one foot in the striving world of his past while the other leapt into the air. One of them, Bob Scarpetti, remembers the surreal week in 1996 when he protected Princess Diana, who was visiting Chicago, during the day and Jordan at night. In preparation for the launch of “Space Jam,” Warner Brothers commissioned research to determine the reach of Jordan’s fame. The study revealed that the three most famous people on the planet at the time were Princess Di, Jordan and the pope. That kind of fame scared Michael’s father, who worried about what it might do to his son. The crowds scared Michael too, he sometimes admits.
“A normal guy,” his friend Fred Whitfield says. “A country boy.”
A year after “Space Jam” came out, Michael and his consigliere Estee Portnoy were in a hotel room in Las Vegas when they heard Diana had died in Paris — actually had been killed while being stalked by cameramen, by fame itself. Portnoy turned to Jordan, both of them reeling.
“You’re the most famous person on the planet now,” she said.
SEVEN YEARS AGO, Michael Jordan drove me through the streets of Charlotte in a V-12 Mercedes. The enormous engine sounded like a spaceship, and the glow of the interior lights felt like one too. The odometer showed 497 miles. I can remember the new-car smell. Soul music played through Bang & Olufsen speakers, “Black Rose” by the English R&B group Hil St. Soul.
Normally Jordan travels in the back seat of chauffeured cars. Except in North Carolina, his friends told me. In North Carolina, he drives.
“He knows his way to all the Hardee’s,” Whitfield said, laughing.
His faithful driver, George Koehler, grinned.
“It’s good to come home.”
The sun was going down.
“My parents used to live here,” Jordan said as he watched people cross the street in front of him.
Lots of people know that Michael broke his foot three games into his second NBA season in 1985. Almost nobody knows that his parents sold the home where he’d grown up, where James and Deloris raised their family, just 10 days after that injury happened. Charlotte was the beginning of a new kind of life to them, just as Chicago was to Michael.
“He was so wide-eyed,” then-Bobcats exec Rod Higgins said.
“He was scared to death when he got to Chicago,” Koehler said.
Jordan’s sudden wealth changed the arc of his family. No Jordans had truly left the small patch of North Carolina near 117 before Michael. James and Deloris moved to New York for a spell, where Michael was born, but moved back to rural North Carolina before he was out of diapers.
They were tied to the country.
The Mississippi writer Kiese Laymon was thinking about that journey a few days after the first episode of “The Last Dance” aired. He smiled at the long suits and the bright colors of Jordan’s wardrobe. They took on an air of sophistication in the glare of Jordan’s fame, but in Laymon’s mind they also called back to Deep South Sunday mornings. MJ dressed like he was walking into a Missionary Baptist or AME church. “If you look at early Jordan and listen to early Jordan,” Laymon says, “I definitely see a country black boy trying hard to be accepted by the black city of Chicago.”
“I don’t know Michael. I’ve always known him as Mike.”
Al Edgerton, Jordan’s grade school classmate and teammate in three sports
That conflict between the lessons taught to him in the country and the way the city expected him to act would follow Jordan through his career: his unwillingness to endorse Harvey Gantt; Republicans buying sneakers; the attacks he took for not doing more to help stop the poverty and crime at the Henry Horner Homes, just blocks from the old Chicago Stadium. A local high school principal called him out to The Washington Post in 1992 for catering to suburban shoe buyers and not the kids trying to navigate the turf wars in gangs like the Renegade Vice Lords and the Four Corner Hustlers. Nothing in Jordan’s past prepared him to understand urban decay and poverty. Jordan’s experience was rooted in a different kind of decay — the pervasive feeling many country folks, especially country black folks, carry in their chests. Only the altar of hard work can offer a way out of this dirt.
“I can hear it in how his mother calls his father ‘Mr. Jordan,'” Laymon tells me. “And I actually think Jordan’s kind of politics of working hard versus a politics of public critique is rooted in that countriness.”
SEEING MICHAEL JORDAN as from a specific place, as part of a specific family and history, is maybe the first step toward really seeing Michael Jordan at all. His people hunt deer, fish for catfish and bream, raise hogs and chickens and regularly attend church. Jordan grew up with a military father and a New Testament mother, both of whom grew up in Old Testament homes. Hard work as the only portal from one plane of existence to another was perhaps the first lesson James and Deloris Jordan ever learned, and one they passed on to all five of their children.
So in light of that, reconsider, if you will, the famous “Flu Game.”
It’s almost impossible to remember that there was a moment when Michael Jordan existed in the culture as a high-flying loser, an also-ran who soared individually but never led a team. That’s laughable now, but it’s true. Or, rather, it was. If his free-throw-line dunk is the apogee of one version of him, then the night he dragged himself into an arena, near ready to pass out, was the peak of what he’d made himself become. It was the 1997 NBA Finals. Game 5, Jazz versus the Bulls, series tied at two games each. Tipoff was 7 o’clock.
Utah Jazz ball boy Preston Truman got to the arena that day around 2 p.m., filling fridges, restocking shelves, washing towels, hunting down applesauce, a Jordan favorite. The Delta Center is a concrete bunker, so it was eerily quiet beneath the stands.
“We were hearing rumors,” he remembers.
Michael was sick.
The Bulls’ bus pulled up to the northwest corner of the Delta Center. Preston rushed out to help bring in bags. “You could visibly tell there was something wrong with him,” Preston says. “Any time Michael is in a room, it’s like Elvis. There’s so much energy around. He was not himself. Usually he’s smiling. He walked into the arena very slowly.”
Preston followed Michael as he inched through the concourse past the north end of the court and into the hockey locker room the Bulls had been assigned for the playoffs. Jordan went straight to a private room in the far back right corner. Only the trainers and Preston were in there. Someone turned off the lights. Michael took off his suit and lay down on a taping bench. Sometimes he curled up in the fetal position. Doctors came in and out. Preston just watched.
He overheard conversations about Jordan not playing until the second half. Nobody knew what would happen.
Preston kept looking at the digital clock that hangs in all locker rooms, connected to the game clock, counting down the minutes. The teams usually went onto the floor for warm-ups with around 20 minutes to go. Preston watched the clock and looked at Michael, just lying there in the dark with his eyes closed.
It’s been 23 years and Preston can still picture him. Not the high-flying MJ but a vulnerable human being. The scene remains so clear, especially what Jordan was wearing on that table in the dark. He wore the same shorts he wore underneath his uniform in every one of the 1,251 NBA games he played.
They said North Carolina.
MICHAEL MIGHT NOT be the most famous person on the planet anymore, decades after he last put on those shorts and took the court, but as the person has faded, the idea of him has somehow remained powerful and bright. The myth grows as the human being recedes. Here’s an example: Stripped across the top of eBay’s homepage a few weeks ago was a banner ad linked to everything the auction site had for sale related to Michael Jordan — both rare sneakers and pieces of memorabilia. It’s a seller’s market. A signed basketball goes for six grand. A signed North Carolina jersey goes for eight. Not that long ago, his 1984 Olympic uniform went for more than $200,000. Michael Russek from Grey Flannel Auctions sold that piece and said it is now in a case in the buyer’s home.
The shoes Jordan wore the night of the Flu Game hit the open market a few years ago. They broke the record at the time for the highest price ever paid for game-worn shoes. Russek sold those too. Here’s how it went down. A Utah businessman creeping up on middle age realized it was time to let go of childish things. It was time to go down to his safe deposit box and collect the most famous pair of sneakers in the world. That man was Preston Truman, the Utah Jazz ball boy who followed Jordan into the Delta Center.
Michael liked him because Preston always had applesauce and graham crackers waiting for him when the Bulls would roll into the Delta Center. At halftime of the Flu Game, Michael needed food but couldn’t find a spoon for his applesauce, so Preston sprinted down a corridor and found one in the media dining room and rushed it back.
Earlier, as Michael gave Preston the names for his will call tickets and told the kid he could use some of them to invite his family to the game, Preston had blurted out, “Hey, MJ, you think I could get your kicks after the game?”
Michael stared at him. It’s a terrifying look to receive.
“You want them?” he asked.
“I’d be honored,” Preston said.
Jordan started the game looking weak and out of place. The Jazz rushed to a 16-point lead. Then Michael began chipping away, 17 points in the second quarter alone, finishing with 38 — including a 3-pointer with less than a minute left that gave the Bulls the lead for good. Michael had willed his team to victory, collapsing in Scottie Pippen‘s arms as he left the court with 6.2 seconds on the clock. After the game, the visitors locker room was chaos. Preston found Michael hooked up to IVs, surrounded by friends. Charles Barkley was back there. Lots of people came and went. Preston kept watching the shoes. At one point, the Bulls’ equipment manager went to pick them up.
“No, no,” Michael said. “Leave those there. I’m doing something with them.”
He pointed at Preston.
“That’s how Michael is,” he says. “If he tells you he’s gonna do something, he does it.”
Jordan picked up the sneakers.
“Here you go, man,” he said. “You worked hard for these.”
More on ‘The Last Dance’
THERE WERE WOODS all around Jordan’s house. That means he knows the wild pleasure of playing beneath their shade, of inventing whole worlds, becoming a cowboy or a cavalryman, his brother the sworn enemy. Mike and his brother Larry had BB guns. They shot them out in the country at their grandparents’ place and in the small patches of trees that pass for wilderness inside the city limits, always feeling bigger than they were, like farm kids who call a nearby ditch something grand like The Canyon.
One day Mike and Larry shot up a wasp nest and the swarm descended upon them, stingers out. They took off running, screaming, throwing water on themselves trying to make the stinging stop. Their parents were furious at the boys for shooting toward the house, but the boys just laughed and laughed. They carried the guns with them like explorers or buck private infantrymen. Playing cowboys and Indians, Larry knelt down, aimed and shot Mike in the leg. So Mike shot Larry in the face — just missing blinding him with a hit to the eye. There were a thousand close calls like that.
Hours burned away like morning mist until dinner hit the table and the mosquitos swarmed the outdoor lights. A Southern night comes alive with strange noises and the low disembodied buzz drone of insect life. It’s as dark as the deepest ocean floor. The woods always held their secrets close once the sun went down. Michael knows that too, the shadows that can lurk around old trees at night, how the thin membrane between the land of the living and the land of the dead seems porous, holes opened up by the same imagination that created the daylight play.
THE LAND WHERE Mike grew up is the skeleton key — the way to unlock many of the Jordan stories, myths and legends. He comes from a singular place with its own history, codes and traditions — all of which gave him his greatest weapon: his own sense of himself and his deep reservoir of strength. The people who’ve gone back with him to see that old house can tell it when he gets sentimental parked out front. Anyone who’s seen “The Last Dance” can hear it when he chokes up talking about his father, and about the cost of his competitiveness, those two ideas forever connected. What if “The Last Dance” is really a document for his 6-year-old twins? Maybe he’s crying in that interview because he’s tired, or even a little drunk, but perhaps he cries too because he feels like the documentary is his last chance to tell people what he thinks the highest expression of a person truly is.
Now look again at the Flu Game shoes he gave Preston. A mad genius at Nike named Tinker Hatfield designed those shoes. Tinker is now a grandfather who is riding around his Portland neighborhood on a skateboard during these days of quarantine. He says his family of loggers arrived in Oregon timber country from the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia, leaving back east their feud with the neighboring McCoys. He’s from those Hatfields.
With his past steeped in feuds and hard work, Tinker styled himself as a futurist. He helped Michael walk a similar line between his own past and future. Together they invented a new way of being a famous athlete in the world, of representing two halves of the same man.
“He understands a process,” Hatfield says of Jordan. “A process of creating something new and different. He’s able to conceptualize.”
The Jordan Brand is the central creation — and now the central creator, in a nifty trick — of the public Michael Jordan, the symbol, the global citizen. While cultural critics rapped Jordan for selling shoes to Republicans, folks who lived in the same part of the world he came from, the midlevel Southern cities like Wilmington and the little towns out in the nearby countryside like Burgaw and Teachey, saw not who was buying the shoes but who was selling them. Who did all these kids of every race and class want to be like? “That was a significant transformation,” says Imani Perry, a professor at Princeton and one of America’s leading thinkers on race, “to have the entire nation say they want to be like a black man from rural North Carolina.”
Michael turned his own last name into a synonym for greatness. Nike does a lot of research about this. They’ve got deep data. Right now, Jordan Brand sells more than $3 billion a year of apparel and footwear, mostly to people who never saw him play. The Jumpman logo isn’t identified in focus groups as a silhouette of an actual person, even though that person’s actual name is often printed right above or below it. The logo has become like golden arches or an apple. Responders say it has come to mean, simply, excellence. That was Barack Obama’s take on Jordan when he introduced him at the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony in 2016. When someone is the best, Obama joked, they are called … “the Michael Jordan of rabbis or the Michael Jordan of outrigger canoeing.”
Everyone in the room laughed.
Sitting in his chair, Michael leaned over to the woman sitting next to him, who’d just received the honor on behalf of her late great-aunt, and he whispered, “Were you nervous?”
Then he stood up and walked past fellow recipients Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen and Diana Ross and Vin Scully and Robert Redford. A soldier read out his citation. His mother was in the crowd. For the first time in a long time, he wasn’t bigger than the moment. It showed in his body language and on his face. When we see the famous shots of Jordan clutching the Larry O’Brien Trophy, he’s often cradling it, almost wrestling it, the man and his prize intertwined. His grip is aggressive. That’s not how he looked standing next to Obama receiving his medal. He bowed his head so the shorter man could drape it over his neck. He received it. This was an object placed on him — not one he took. A grace, not a demand. Something he earned. Instead of hunching over and hiding his spoils, he stood there with the medal hanging on his chest. He looked out at the gathered crowd with something like humility and gratitude on his face. It’s one of the few moments in his public life when he seemed to consider and appreciate how long and unlikely his road had been. In that moment of holstered guns, the work it must have taken to keep them up and loaded every other minute of every other day felt heavy and real.
IN THE LAST week of his presidency, Obama got a special gift: a custom pair of retro Jordan IVs with the presidential seal and his campaign logo on them. But those shoes and every following pair of iconic Jordans almost never existed. Two people saved the brand: Tinker Hatfield, a man who looked to the future, and Michael’s father, James, a man who understood the past.
Hatfield came on board to run the Jordan design team starting with the Jordan IIIs. Let’s go back to the mid-’80s. Even then Tinker looked good in flamboyant hats. He’d need all the mojo he could muster, sartorial and otherwise, because he’d been assigned an unhappy client. Jordan had broken his foot wearing Nikes, just three games into the 1985-86 season.
“It soured him,” Hatfield says.
Now Jordan was entertaining offers from other shoe companies. The competition was whispering in his ear that Nike didn’t have the design chops or the marketing expertise to actually deliver on the forest of promises it had made him. Even then Jordan scared people. He held the power. In the future, whenever the Nike executive suits would start complaining about how Hatfield was disrespecting the corporate culture, he’d slide a piece of paper with Jordan’s cell number onto the table and dare the executives to call him and tell him why he and Tinker were wrong. Nobody ever dialed the number. But that kind of trust had to be earned, and for Hatfield, it started with a trip to Chicago.
He arrived at Michael’s condo. Jordan knew he was coming. Tinker and Nike colleague Howard White knocked on the door. Nobody answered. They knocked louder, and that’s when they heard a rumble and crashing coming from the basement. Hatfield thought it sounded like a pro wrestling match. He hit the doorbell. No answer. He hit it again. Finally, they heard a faint voice yell for them to come in. Tinker and Howard followed the noise downstairs.
“Michael was engaged,” Hatfield says now, “in a knockdown drag-out no-holds-barred trash-talking crazy table tennis match with then-teammate Charles Oakley. They were playing table tennis like it was the Finals, Game 7. It was incredibly competitive, and there was trash-talking. It was physical. They weren’t talking to us. They finally resolved the match. Michael won. He hardly ever lost at anything.”
Michael and Tinker talked a little. Then they went down to Bigsby & Kruthers, where tailors were fitting Michael for a new suit. Just an hour earlier, Michael had been cursing and swinging a pingpong paddle like a battle ax, and now he engaged in thoughtful, high-level design conversation with the men bringing out bolts of fabric and showing him various cuts they could do for the lapels. If there was a moment when Tinker Hatfield first understood the direction his life would take, it happened there surrounded by tailors who were scurrying around Michael Jordan.
He went back to Portland and worked around the clock.
Jordan arrived in town to play the Trail Blazers and stopped at Hatfield’s office. Tinker showed him a stack of leather, mostly sourced from furniture makers. The one Michael liked most was elephant-patterned. Tinker liked it too. So while the Nike bosses fretted about losing their new, vital client, Hatfield and his team worked with their factory in Asia to create a mock-up to present to Jordan.
There was a meeting scheduled at a hotel conference room in Orange County, California.
“Phil Knight was pretty well convinced that Michael was gonna leave Nike,” Hatfield says. “Phil was very, very concerned. I think he thought for sure we had lost him. There was this one last meeting. It was in this hotel.”
Everyone filed in.
Knight sat down. The Nike marketing head took a seat. So did Tinker, along with Michael’s agents. James and Deloris Jordan came into the room.
Then they waited.
Jordan’s parents looked mortified.
“They are sitting there very respectful and quiet,” Hatfield says. “You could tell they were a little steamed. They were his parents left waiting in this room for so many hours.”
Nobody knew if Michael was going to even show.
“We waited for four hours,” Hatfield says, “which is about how long it takes to play 18 holes of golf. From what I understand, Michael was out on the golf course with some prospective partners, and Howard was with them but he was trying to get Michael to leave the golf course and go to the meeting.”
Finally, Michael showed up.
He was in a bad mood, sulking, disinterested — until Tinker pulled out the Air Jordan III. That changed the whole tenor of the meetings, as did the models who came through wearing the corresponding apparel, and the rest is history. Jordan stayed with Nike and made enough money to buy a basketball team. For years, Hatfield thought his shoe design saved the company. Then he heard about what happened after the meeting ended.
Michael went outside and his father grabbed him in the parking lot.
“Son,” he said, “that was embarrassing to your mother and I.”
“What do you think I should do?” he asked.
His dad said that Nike’s commitment was on display because Phil Knight had waited so long, and its design skills were on display in the IIIs, and that this seemed like the right move for his future. Michael listened. That’s where the legend began — with North Carolina exerting its pull outside an Orange County hotel. From that parking lot to recognition from the president, not just of his athletic prowess, or his marketing savvy, but of his drive, his competitiveness, his essential greatness. It could be seen as a culmination of a life spent escaping a past, or a post-racial brand strategy anomaly, an American unicorn, or it could be seen in another way: a man actually fulfilling a destiny, carrying his family with him on his rise, coming from somewhere. Michael Jordan didn’t just appear. He was raised — by his parents, by a community, by the stories of those who came before.
More on MJ and the Bulls dynasty
ONE OF THE great unexpected joys of these five weeks has been the rediscovery of the pregame theme music the Bulls used, “Sirius.” You know the song. Makes your hair stand up on your arms when the synth kicks in with its tumble of sixteenth notes. A heavy bass undercurrent makes the same kind of noise a big ship propeller does beneath the black waves, a diesel engine thump. The public address announcer, Ray Clay, has made a life out of his Jordan introduction. He’s done it for free in grocery stores shopping for vegetables, for money at bar mitzvahs and weddings. He even did it in Chapel Hill once at a Tar Heels event. A speech teacher helped him learn to push the air out with his stomach muscles instead of his chest and to manage the air in his lungs. Early in his career, he almost passed out after his opening, “AND NOW … “
“Breathing is very important,” he says.
The first few notes of the song are enough to make players and coaches from that era break out in hives. It really is menacing to listen to even now. “I always can remember that damn song playing,” Pat Riley told me recently. “It definitely alerted the opposition that a battle was about ready to begin, for real.”
There’s a version online I’ve been playing over and over, from Game 4 of the 1998 Finals. The crowd is as loud as the big arena speakers. The top comment on the video says, “Karl Malone hears this in his nightmares.” It’s thrilling even all these years later. After Clay announces the fourth starter, Ron Harper, the crowd gets louder — because he’s also 6-foot-6. They know what’s coming. Every child of the 1990s can almost recite Clay’s next words by heart, how he says Jordan’s home like he’s talking about Sparta or something: FROM NORTH CAROLINA … That signifies many worlds. Not just North Carolina but coastal Carolina, always different than the mountains or the Piedmont plain; and not just coastal Carolina but Wilmington, and not just Wilmington but the rural riverbank swamps stretching out from the edge of town. And not just generic swamps but two in particular. Holly Shelter and Angola Bay. That’s where the Jordans come from. A tight wedge of brackish land outside Wilmington bordered by Highways 17 and 24 to the south and north, and Highways 117 and 50 to the west and east. Keep drilling down, before names and roads and any of that, go all the way back, because these 560 square miles of land tell you as much about the man as a story about being cut from a basketball team ever did. “There is a lot of power in staying connected,” says Zandria Robinson, a Georgetown professor studying race, gender, popular culture and the U.S. South. “There is power in that particular kind of rearing too — all that work. This is why they stayed connected to that land.”
Long before Michael Jordan came into the world, this is where he was born.
THE LAND EXISTED before humans ever took from it, carved homesteads from it, stalked its bounty for food and pleasure. Time moves differently back in the woods. Progress is a word that means fancier surfaces on the roads and pickup trucks instead of horse-pulled chairs with leather straps instead of springs. Before Highway 117 was a concrete road covered with asphalt, resurfaced seven years ago by a high school teammate of Jordan’s, it was a wide dirt path that mirrored the Northeast Cape Fear River, running past a dozen or so plantation homes. And before that, it was nothing. A rut for deer maybe. Or a footpath used by the band of Iroquois who lived there first.
The first plantation up the Northeast Cape Fear River was called Stag Park.
The land was named on a Monday afternoon, Nov. 12, 1663, when a group of white Englishmen from Barbados explored the river for the first time and came upon a tract of land without many trees and covered in lush, long grass — perfect for clearing. They saw turkeys and ducks. Several wolves howled. They stopped and watched a wolf tear an animal to pieces. They picked and ate wild grapes. On the northwest side of the river, they saw an enormous deer, with a mighty spread of points, and that’s where they got the name for the land.
Governor George Burrington lived there first.
Samuel Strudwick got it after his death.
Ezekiel Lane Sr. got it from his family.
Upon Ezekiel’s death, his granddaughter Mary Elizabeth Lane inherited Stag Park and 16 slaves. She married a Georgia preacher and together they ran Stag Park until around 1880.
The preacher’s name was Jesse Jordan.
All that’s left of the Stag Park empire is a silver historical marker on the side of 117. The land was cut into smaller and smaller pieces with each passing generation. Some of Jesse Jordan’s descendants still live there. But the land always remains. Nearly four hundred years later and in the dark woods, no time at all has passed. Maybe the light now comes from million candle power Q-Beams instead of whale oil lamps. But it remains wild territory. These are gothic inland narrows. “Gothic” is the adjective Martin Scorsese used with his director of photography when they wanted to re-create the Wilmington coast for the film “Cape Fear.” The movie is composed so that the actual light degrades over time, to reflect the inner turmoil of the characters and to mirror the way the humidity and weird ocean currents can make the tidewater air shimmer sometimes. Black bears still hunt through these swamps. Vast woods of longleaf pine and 800-year-old cypress-tupelo trees tower over this landscape. Songbirds fill the air with sweet noise. Big whitetail deer, heads crowned with enormous medieval-looking racks, still move like shadows in and out of the forest. This is where five generations of Jordan men lived and died.
“The kind of mystical ways that people have described Jordan over the years can be frankly connected to what it is like to be on ancestral land,” Zandria Robinson says. “They are living on Southern ancestral land. It’s rare that it’s physical in this kind of way — these multiple generations lived in this same area. Our ancestors walked their land, they buried s— out here, worked out here, died out here, buried each other out here. … This is ancestral land.”
The land is never just dirt and loam and clay and slate. It contains everything that has ever lived on or in it, fossils of tiny animals, the spirits of the people who tried to make their agrarian’s stand, and the evil men have done to one another to control a piece of paper filed in something called a courthouse that the law says gives them title. And when the laws are corrupted and the courthouse collapses, the land will remain. Every man and woman, every race and tribe and family, makes their own history, on their land, in their dirt. They bury things that mean something only to them.
Every history is deeply personal. Every history is unique.
More from Wright Thompson
FIVE GENERATIONS OF Jordan men came before Michael and he knew three of them: his father, James, his grandfather William and his great-grandfather Dawson. Dawson’s father was born a slave in 1862 and everyone called him Dick. In the 64 years he lived, before his heart and kidneys failed and he died in a Wilmington hospital, he went from slavery to owning his own home. He learned to read and could borrow the supplies needed to farm vegetables on his own credit. Like the men in a lot of families, he was a truck farmer. On Dick’s death certificate, filled out with a typewriter, is the only evidence that his father ever lived. John Jordan and his wife, Alice, came and went from this earth and left virtually no trace of themselves behind. Think about that in the context of “The Last Dance.”
There’s no history showing where John Jordan was born or where he was held captive as a slave. Based on his research into property and burial records, Pender County historian Mike Taylor says John likely worked the fields at Jesse Jordan’s plantation. New documents are being found all the time, old wills and business papers, even maps of the swamps to the east of Highway 117. “The Angola Bay map that is attached was made in 1883,” Taylor says, “and was discovered in a cache of surveys found in an old barn in a neighboring county only this past year. Michael Jordan’s ancestry in America is rooted in this region going back to Colonial days. They are rooted to land, first enslaved working on land in Stag Park. I believe some of his enslaved ancestors are likely buried on this land.”
There’s one piece of old paper that might have John Jordan’s name on it. When Ezekiel Lane died and his granddaughter Mary Jordan inherited those 16 slaves, their first names were listed in the probate documents, filled out by hand. First names only. Old Sam and his wife, Beck. Little Sam, Little Moses and Ben Judge. Plato and his wife, Amy. There is only one listing for a mother and child, according to the custom of listing a woman first and a man second only if the male was actually an infant or a toddler. Too young to work. The document lists, among the 16, a woman named Molly or Millie and a John. That’s probably Michael Jordan’s great-great-great-grandfather. Probably. There’s no way to ever know for sure.
That’s not an accident.
Historians and genealogists talk about the difficulty of cracking “the 1870 brick wall,” because census takers didn’t record even the first names of slaves. It wasn’t because they didn’t know the names. Census takers were locals, and as court and probate records from that time show, nearly everyone knew the names of local slaves. The U.S. Congress forced census takers not to write down names or place of birth, which created the wall — which erased them from history but not from the land.
CONSIDER WHERE THIS family history is leading. Leave Stag Park and go a century into the future for a moment. Sit with James and Deloris Jordan on Gordon Road, after their kids had gone to bed, the summer air hot and humid outside. When they wanted to go commune with the past, they sometimes went inland toward the swamps and farms. But when they wanted to dream, they went the other direction. They slipped out of the quiet house and got into their car, making the drive from memory: Gordon Road to Highway 117 until, not even 15 minutes later, they parked at the Atlantic Ocean. The smell of salt hung in the air. Sometimes they just sat in the car beneath the moonlight, and sometimes they walked hand in hand along the sandy dunes. The conversation inevitably turned to the dreams they shared for all of their five children. They wanted them to be men and women of integrity and work. They put that dream into action. James and Deloris Jordan created the America they wanted in how they taught their children to move through the world.
They told Michael to turn all negative events into positives, which later became his armor made of slights. Michael’s mother wrote children’s books after he got famous, and in one of them, her parenting philosophy was revealed: Saying you want something is fine and well, a good start, but doing something about it is what really counts. At the end of that book, when the mother puts her son to bed after his first successful basketball game, she tells him with pride, “I guess you aren’t just a dreamer but a doer, Michael.”
That idea is what this ground was nurturing for all those years. It’s what Zandria meant when she talked about the power of Southern ancestral land.
EVERY 10 YEARS, when the census takers would fan out around the countryside, when roads were makeshift things and not codified government projects, they’d find a Jordan man living in the same pie-slice-shaped wedge of land where they had always been. Dawson lived on Holly Shelter Road in 1920, Bannerman’s Bridge Road in 1930. Both of those are tucked into bends in the river, where the old Stag Park plantation used to be, where Dawson used to work a boat.
By 1940, Dawson Jordan lived between the swamps, Holly Shelter to the south and Angola Bay to the north. The year before, he’d worked 52 weeks straight and made $300. His son, William, and grandson lived with him too. The boy’s name was James R. Jordan. James was 4 years old, and 23 years from the birth of his son the basketball star, Michael Jeffrey Jordan, living back near the swamp with the son of a former slave — 17 miles northwest of Highway 117 where it intersects Burgaw and a half-hour drive, looping to either the north or the south of the Angola Bay swamp, from that house to the cemetery where James Jordan would one day be buried.
There are a lot of people still around those rural counties who remember the sound of Dawson’s deep bass voice. He drove a mule-drawn cart even after the first rocket sent a man into space. He made and sold moonshine out in the swamps and made extra money as a cook at the Wallace Hunting Club, the kind of hand-me-down place that shows up alongside church memberships and military service in small-town obituaries. They kept a low-slung camp, covered in unpainted clapboard, fronted by a porch with no railing. The front door led to a dining room with one long table taking up most of the space.
An old man named Frank Futch used to go there with his grandfather as a young hunter and still remembers Dawson sitting on a box collecting money, or on a nearby bench with one of his great-grandsons — most likely Michael’s oldest brother, Ronnie. Dawson liked to mix vodka and Coca-Cola and sip while he cooked deer meat or pork chops or chicken. He made a pot of rice with every meal. Sometimes, when he’d doze off, one of the hunters, an undertaker in one of the nearby towns, would tiptoe over and pretend to start measuring the sleeping man. Dawson would startle awake, laugh and yell at the man, “Get away from me! I ain’t dead!”
MICHAEL JORDAN GREW up with all these stories. He knew Dawson, who died in 1977 — the year Michael started high school at Laney — and would later describe the old man as “tough,” tearing up at the memory.
His childhood lives in the back-home stories he tells. There’s the pig story and the ax story and the BB gun story and the horse in the cornfield story, to name a few. Unlike the usual greatest-hits montage he spins for interviewers, these remain personal to him, and he gets wary if you bring them up — like, who in my life is talking out of school?
Mike used to ride horses around his family’s land until one threw him off and drug him through a cornfield. His foot got caught in the stirrup, and for a quarter of a mile, he bounced on the tilled ground and got ripped through the stalks. It was 38 miles from the Jordan boys’ house to the grandparents’ place out in the country. Every weekend they went out there and just roamed around.
“Michael is loyal as s—. If you are in his circle, you are in his circle. A tribe is the best way to describe it.”
Nicholi Wozniak, son of Michael John Wozniak, a former member of Jordan’s security
At 6 or 7, Mike went outside with an ax, mainly because his parents had told him not to play with it, and started chopping up wood and little branches, like he’d seen the grown-ups do. Then he misjudged and caught his big toe with the ax. There was blood everywhere, and he went screaming into his parents’ house. His mom took him to a local doctor, and a lady there put kerosene on his foot to disinfect it. To this day, he’s missing a quarter of an inch of his big toe.
Around the same age he had another brilliant idea: slip beneath the electric wire surrounding the hog pen and aggravate some of the pigs. The Jordan boys thought it was hilarious to dance in the mud and make the pigs chase them around honking and snorting. A particularly annoyed sow disagreed. She chased Mike toward the fence, and as he prepared to leap over the top wire to safety, he tripped. Caught the electric wire right across his chest. About had his teeth chattering, he got shocked so bad, and left him with a burn across his chest. When he went inside for some sympathy, his parents told him, “You shouldn’t have been out there messing with the pigs.”
One time, Larry wrecked a Yamaha 60 dirt bike with Mike on the back of it. Both of ’em got all skinned up but feared the wrath of their father even more. So they wrapped their cuts in tissue and then put on long-sleeve shirts to hide their arms. In the North Carolina summer. James got suspicious, eyeing the boys as they sat at the dinner table, trying to figure out what they were up to. Right about then is when Michael’s elbow started bleeding — through his shirt.
“Take off that damn long-sleeve shirt,” Mr. Jordan commanded.
Mike complied, revealing the disaster of his arms. His dad sold the bike.
Another time, some neighborhood kids were throwing footballs and shoes and stuff at the family’s electric meter. One connected and broke it. Mike’s grandmother was furious and told Mike’s father, who said he’d take care of it.
He called all the neighborhood kids over to the garage.
“One way in, one way out,” Michael foreshadows when telling the story later. He’s a good storyteller. Mr. Jordan told the kids he wanted to give them some cake and ice cream, and like suckers, they all bought it. Mike’s grandmother saw what was coming and pulled him in to help her in the kitchen, keeping him out of the line of fire. That’s when they heard the screaming. Mike’s dad was in there giving out whippings to all the kids, not just his own. They all ran crying to their parents, who then went over to confront Mr. Jordan.
They found him on the porch, smoking a cigarette.
“You beat my kid?” they asked.
“You damn right,” he replied.
IT WAS 1977 when Jordan’s life got divided into two halves. One potential, one kinetic. A past full of spirits and ancestors, influences and guides; a future full of choices and conflict, dead ends and golden roads. Ninth grade really pissed him off. He got suspended on the first day of school, breaking a record of perfect attendance. All his discipline problems were driven by this sense of unfairness that had taken up residence inside him. It started with the miniseries “Roots.” The racial injustice that had shaped his family suddenly became real to him. He raged against anything he couldn’t control. He’d prove himself to everyone.
That carried over to the next year, when he tried out for varsity basketball for the first time. This is where the myth of Michael Jordan was born, and in nearly all retellings of his life, including in “The Last Dance,” all roads lead back to this tryout and this rejection. The mother road is erased and a new path is laid out. That’s almost true. The mother road is erased for the public but not for him. He never forgets. Anything.
On the day he didn’t make the varsity basketball team as a sophomore, he stood in the school gymnasium that would one day bear his name, and he scrolled down one of two lists hung on the door, and when he didn’t see his name but did see the name of his classmate Leroy Smith, he rushed home in a rage. The road that took him home that afternoon in November of 1978 was Highway 117.
“My biggest lesson about people came from my father. … You could talk to him for two or three hours and not know a f—ing thing in two or three hours. But at the same time, you’ll say he’s a nice gentleman. He never gave any family secrets away. I’ve got that trait. I use it.”
In that moment, he began to understand the focus he could find by turning everyone and everything into an adversary. Like when he told the story, to himself and everyone else, that he was cut from the basketball team by a coach who doubted his talent. Turns out, he wasn’t really cut at all. No, he didn’t make the team. But according to a famous Sports Illustrated story, that’s because the coach recognized his immense talent and put him on junior varsity, where he’d get more minutes a game. Clifton “Pop” Herring, that coach, later found himself taunted by Michael’s story about what happened for decades.
“The thing is, people in Wilmington who knew the story,” says Pop’s daughter, Paquita Yarborough, “they didn’t hate that Michael was a hometown hero, but they hated the story was never set straight. That’s what people’s irritation really was. Part of the story was for his brand. Part of the story was to sell shoes and products and ‘You can be like me, I got cut. Then after that I became the greatest basketball player who ever lived.’ It is annoying. It’s very annoying. I have intentionally not watched Michael Jordan things. I had no clue there was a documentary.”
When Pop died last December, the Jordan family sent flowers. Paquita wrote her father’s obituary. Four hundred and twenty-two words and not one of them was “Michael” or “Jordan.”
THE JORDAN FAMILY and the Herring family are connected by a shared history that goes a lot deeper than one basketball tryout — that history is reflected in Pulitzer Prize winner David Zucchino’s new book,”Wilmington’s Lie.” It’s about an organized and violent white coup of the city in 1898 — exactly 100 years before the events of “The Last Dance.” The two stories were released within months of each other and are interesting to consider together. One describes the fall of black Wilmington, and the other chronicles the rise of the most successful black Wilmingtonian.
Wilmington on the eve of the 20th century was a model for an American city three decades after the guns of the Civil War fell silent. Zucchino paints a picture of an integrating city. Three of the 10 aldermen were black. Ten of the 26 policemen. Black merchants were free to set up in the city market. There was a black coroner and jailer, and the only daily Negro paper in the world, as its masthead said. The paper had white advertisers. Black men didn’t need to look at the ground when they passed a white man on the street. In 1880, Wilmington had the highest share of black residents of any Southern city, 60%, as compared to Atlanta’s 44% and New Orleans’ 27%. The neighborhoods were integrated. The courts were integrated. Black magistrates sentenced white defendants. A black middle class grew with each year. In 1898, Zucchino writes, the American Baptist Publication Society called it “the freest town for a negro in the country.”
That didn’t mean everyone in the city accepted what Wilmington was becoming.
There were two cultures living side by side, competing for the future of their home. Blacks and white Republicans, for instance, celebrated Memorial Day, laying wreaths at the American military cemetery in town. White Democrats, the political party of the slave-owning class, refused to honor American dead. They even tried to have Market Street moved so they wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity of walking past the soldiers’ graves. Earlier in May, they celebrated Confederate Memorial Day instead.
That was Wilmington as the 1898 election approached.
There are two great books on what happened next, but basically two groups of elite white citizens formed secret committees to overthrow the government if the election didn’t go as they wanted. The mostly Irish immigrants were enlisted as muscle. The treasonous army called itself the Red Shirts. So many white people bought guns in the lead-up to the election that the stores in the city ran out and had to request an emergency restock from dealers in Richmond and Baltimore. Like the Ku Klux Klan 30 years before, or again 30 years after, the Red Shirts rode in the night, yanking outspoken black citizens from their homes.
Two days after the election, the Red Shirts went looking for blood. A crowd of black longshoremen and stevedores who loaded cotton on the docks came back to their neighborhood to protect their families. A black store owner tried to reason with men to leave before the whites arrived.
“For the sake of your lives, your families, your children and your country, go home and stay there,” he begged. “We are powerless.”
They faced a choice. They chose to stay.
That’s when the shooting started.
The Red Shirts killed a still unknown number of people. At least 60 black persons died. As Zucchino reported, the mob forced the resignation of the mayor, all of the aldermen and the chief of police. The black newspaper was burned down. Many black residents with money, power or education were forced to leave the city, along with white politicians who supported equality — in some cases at gun point. Three days later, the white preachers of Wilmington told their congregation they’d done the Lord’s work.
“God from the beginning of time intended that intelligent white men should lead the people and rule the country,” said a Baptist minister named James Kramer, who’d carried a rifle into the streets.
No conspirator was ever charged with a crime.
North Carolina’s Jim Crow laws grew out of this moment. Its aftermath can be seen in the generations of stagnated lives, yes, but perhaps the cold arithmetic of numbers reveals the terrible legacy of the coup most pointedly. In 1896, according to The New Yorker, there were 126,000 registered black voters in the state. Six years later, there were only 6,100. Black families fled the city, some moving north, others hunkering out in the swampy longleaf pine forests like the Jordans. On the morning of the coup, 56% of Wilmington’s citizens were black. Two years later, the majority of citizens were white. Today, 76% of the city is white and only 18% is black.
The African American population living in and around Wilmington for the past 120 years has internalized a lesson that parts of America have too often tried to ignore. Michael learned it early. Once, he and his white best friend, David Bridges, went swimming at a friend’s house. The parents weren’t home. The boys were around 12. When the parents returned and saw a black kid in the pool, they ordered everyone out. Michael and David walked away, and as David tried to comfort his friend, they heard everyone jump back in the pool.
Michael has never told the story in public, just as he’s never publicly commented on the 1898 massacre in Wilmington, not once, even in passing. Michael’s great-grandfather Dawson was 6 in 1898 and didn’t die until Michael’s 14th birthday. He didn’t need to read a book. He knew someone who lived through it. “I’m sure the family was aware and just laid low,” Zucchino says. “A lot of people didn’t talk about it. It was too painful and it died out after a few generations.”
This history stayed buried for a long time, and when it did get passed down in words, it was usually told as a “war” in black homes and washed over as a “riot” in white ones. Two important books prior to Zucchino’s exposed that history. One, by Helen Edmonds, was published in 1951 and enraged the Wilmington establishment by calling out their lies. The second was by H. Leon Prather Sr. His came out in the winter of 1984, on the same day Michael Jordan scored 19 points as the Tar Heels beat Clemson to extend a winning streak to 18 games.
BETWEEN 1984 AND 2003, Michael Jordan became the most famous person in the world as his family members went on with their lives. Michael sucked up all the oxygen, which might be why few people noticed that around the same time Michael quit basketball the first time, his oldest brother volunteered for the Army’s parachute training school at Fort Benning. James Jordan Jr., known to his family as Ronnie, was much older than the rest of the candidates for the coveted jump wings.
The house on Gordon Road sat between the Army’s Fort Bragg and the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune. The same North Carolina forests that once hid runaway slaves now hide soldiers and Marines on training runs through the night, wearing face paint and dark forest camo. Fighting has always offered a way out for country folks, black and white. Michael grew up surrounded by the military. His father, James, served in the Air Force. Ronnie chose the Army. He graduated from high school on a Friday and enlisted that Sunday. He needed a new way. His mother felt like someone had died. Their house missed his enormous presence, and losing that energy left a palpable hole, especially for his mother. For many years afterward, she refused to go into his room.
Command Sgt. Maj. Jordan, as his soldiers called him, is an American stalwart. Here’s an example. His 30 years arrived just as his brigade was deploying to a war zone for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Jordan wrote a letter asking for special dispensation to stay in uniform and go to war with his men. “Here’s a guy who had 30 years in and had nothing to gain by deploying,” says his commanding officer, Col. Bryan Ellis. “And, of course, he had everything to lose, up to and including his life. And he never hesitated.”
Ellis and Jordan protected each other in Iraq. Almost nobody ever asked Ronnie about his famous brother. They flew all over the country, and when the brigade rotated home, Jordan could finally retire. The Army held a big celebration at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina. Ellis held a seat open. He posted young soldiers at either end of the parade field, by the sidewalk to the parking lot.
“Sergeant Major has a guest coming,” he said. “You’ll recognize him.”
The ceremony started, and standing up on the review stand, Ellis heard a rumble through the crowd. He looked up to see a star-struck young soldier escorting Michael Jordan to a seat. When the presentation ended, a crowd swarmed Michael, who was polite but quickly made an exit.
“He knew this was his brother’s special day,” he says.
That day, the Jordan family gathered at Ronnie’s home near the base. Ellis came and brought his 10-year-old son. They walked out onto the patio and saw all the uncles in a crowd. Michael was with them, holding a Corona and a cigar. The colonel grabbed a beer and a little later felt a hand on his back. He turned around and found himself face-to-face for the first time with the most famous man on the planet. Jordan stuck out his hand.
“I’m Michael,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“THE LAST DANCE” premiered on Sunday, April 19.
That night, the people who produced the film all gathered on a Zoom call to raise a toast to director Jason Hehir. A cast of ESPN folks joined the virtual toast. Some Netflix people were there too, as was NBA commissioner Adam Silver, top Disney executive Bob Iger and ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro. The heavy hitters. All of Jordan’s executives were in high spirits, and then, in the top corner of the screen, Michael popped into view. Michael Jordan! Even his appearance thrilled some of the executives on the call. Everyone toasted Jason, who raised a White Russian — he’s a “Big Lebowski” fan — in appreciation. Jordan raised a glass of tequila in salute and made a joke.
He hoped his mama wasn’t gonna get mad at him for all his foul language in the film.
The first episode began and “The Last Dance,” like so much of Jordan’s life, was then public property, to be considered, debated, judged. In The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Wesley Morris compared the film to the Oscar-winning “Made in America,” highlighting what he saw as a difference between Jordan’s place in the culture and that of Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali or even OJ Simpson. “Jordan is as important but less transcendent,” he wrote. “Less polarizing, less political, therefore less politicized.”
Less political has always been Jordan’s most tender spot. The fear that despite absolute devotion to his craft he might still be found wanting. The kind of man who might dominate the game for years, or the culture for a few weeks at a time, but wouldn’t change the world. Michael has found his voice late in life, speaking out against police violence, donating millions to charities designed to bridge the chasm of mistrust between cops and the communities they patrol. He supported NFL players kneeling in public and raised money for Barack Obama. But he is still the man who grew up around rural African Americans who believed that the only way to succeed in America, to defend yourself and your family, was to work twice as hard as everyone else. “That ‘work twice as hard as white folks’ s— we all heard growing up,” Kiese Laymon says, “came right from our grandparents.”
Jordan left North Carolina for Chicago carrying souls with him, like passengers, like roots. He became a superstar and a global icon, but he was never not also a member of a family that lived through slavery and the coup of 1898 and Jim Crow and on and on. His family, and their sliver of land, shaped him, taught him how to survive and struggle, how to surpass. Watching Jordan on the screen in the documentary, listening as he says again and again that he will outwork you, whoever you are, raises what just might be the essential Michael Jordan question: Isn’t working that hard and achieving all that it brings, and never letting go of your approach, isn’t that its own kind of yard sign? How, exactly, can Michael Jordan’s life be apolitical?
“It is political,” Imani Perry tells me emphatically when I raise the question with her. “Black Southern folks in particular, it is political. In it there is a transcendence of the expectations of what space you’re gonna occupy.”
That idea runs counter to the way the culture usually judges Jordan. It reframes his story. Michael Jordan’s life is as much an act of protest as carrying a sign or speaking out against a war.
“THE LAST DANCE” will live in the streaming world, first at ESPN and later at Netflix, but the moment of its cultural domination will soon start to fade. That’s the duality for someone like Jordan. Even as he catches glimpses of his own immortality, he is also confronted with the very real passage of time. Three of his old bodyguards have died, including two in the past two years. These were the men who knew him best. They called him Black Jesus. When John Michael Wozniak would beat him in cards or coin tossing or any other inane competition, he’d sing the Doobie Brothers as a taunt: “Jesus is just alright with me … Jesus is just alright.”
Their mortality shook Jordan, who had kept up with them even after his playing days were done. When Gus Lett got cancer, Michael got him moved from a South Side Chicago hospital to Northwestern Medical Center, paid his bills and told the doctors to treat that old man in the bed exactly like they’d treat Michael Jordan. When Clarence Travis retired from the police department, his friends threw a party at a White Sox game. Jordan showed up. When Joe Rokas retired, an enormous television set arrived at his front door.
“Michael is loyal as s—,” says Nicholi Wozniak. “If you are in his circle, you are in his circle. A tribe is the best way to describe it.”
Michael’s staff says he couldn’t even talk about Gus when the cancer came back. It hurt him too bad.
Wozniak was the last one still working for Jordan, guarding his big estate in Highland Park. John Michael fought his cancer hard, but the end came quick earlier this year. Nicholi was with his family in Nashville when he got the call that he needed to rush home. He boarded a Southwest flight into Midway, an hour without his phone, no one to know what was happening up there ahead of him. When he landed, he knew from the messages that he was too late. His father had died. There was a voicemail on his phone too, a message of condolence that had arrived midflight.
It was from Michael.
JORDAN IS PROBABLY playing golf right now. He’s 57. Who knows if he’ll ever dominate the culture like this again? He’s living with his family in a mansion overlooking the 16th green of a course in Jupiter, Florida. It’s a swank gated community of trust fund loafers, military-industrial CEOs and hedge fund billionaires.
His basketball team in Charlotte is still in quarantine limbo. Both of Michael’s brothers work for the Hornets. He sends the now-retired command sergeant major to owners meetings in his stead. Michael hired his brothers because he trusts them. That’s also why he took such care of his security guards for all those years.
“My biggest lesson about people came from my father,” Michael told me that afternoon in Carolina. “He could talk to anybody. He could get along with anybody. But he never let people into his life. He never let people see his thoughts. His secrets. I have those traits. I can sit and talk to all the different sponsors, and they know only as much as I want them to know. I am always able to maintain that mystique. You could talk to him for two or three hours and not know a f—ing thing in two or three hours. But at the same time, you’ll say he’s a nice gentleman. He never gave any family secrets away. I’ve got that trait. I use it.”
Keeping your head down and your thoughts to yourself, working hard, never trusting, never easing up even for a moment. It was a choice. Michael Jordan was born into a world of predators, and into a line of survivors, and he studied on how to win. That’s the real wonder of him up close. Not being near his fame or even the legend. It’s seeing the full expression of a kind of person. A child was taught how to survive in a world of wolves and he used that knowledge to become the alpha wolf. I picture him leaning back in his office chair in 2013 in Charlotte. Special fans clean the air of the smoke trailing in a lazy line up from his cigar. Inside he’s thinking about whom he might still be able to prove wrong.
Walking through a hallway in the arena he owns, he smiled.
You couldn’t tell what he was thinking.
“You won’t,” he said. “I’ve been trained my whole life: maintain your emotions, don’t do anything to give out a misconception of what your thoughts or feelings are.”
The lights were off. Nobody was around. Well, that’s sort of true. There are always people walking with Michael, invisible but shoulder to shoulder, every step of the way. There’s Mike Jordan of 4647 Gordon Road, and of course James Jordan, may he rest in peace, and Ronnie and Larry, and all those Jordan men who came before, Dawson and William and Richard and John. Especially John, whose great-great-great-grandson learned to fly.
He whistled in the dark as he walked alone toward his car.
Inside his expensive shoes he had nine and three-quarter toes.
MICHAEL JORDAN DOESN’T like to come home. He said once that he senses some malevolent forces waiting to pull him back into this place he escaped. But home remains a source of his power. One year on Easter, he took his now-wife, Yvette, back to Gordon Road. They drove down Highway 117 between his old house and Laney High, because she needed to see it and he needed to show it to her.
“I was a normal guy,” he told me. “I grew up in a normal house.”
The first free male of Michael Jordan’s line was Richard James Jordan, born a slave in 1862 and freed three years later. As he neared 60, having seen both the Civil War and the 1898 coup, Richard lived on Acorn Branch Creek, which has now mostly been filled in and covered with modern Wilmington. A tiny trickle still runs in a nature reserve between the Wilmington Airport and Highway 117. People like to mountain-bike there. A century ago, Acorn Branch Creek ran directly beneath what is now Gordon Road. The Jordan family had survived for six generations in these hard tidewater counties, moving up and down Highway 117, and by the time Mike Jordan was a boy, he lived almost exactly on a spot where the last slave in the family had lived too.
“Like the T-shirts say,” Zandria Robinson says, “he’s his ancestors’ wildest dreams.”
He went along 117 every day, from the house to high school, before he moved away. The drive takes seven minutes. About halfway off to the left there’s a tiny cemetery hidden now behind an industrial park. A chain-link fence surrounds it. Spanish moss hangs from the skeletal winter trees. Once it was called Acorn Branch Colored Grave Yard. Slaves were buried there before the war. The county runs it today, and a local official said that any African American buried in the small Wrightsboro neighborhood back then was almost certainly buried at Acorn Branch. A lot of the cemetery records have been lost or thrown away, but in the remaining files, that official found paperwork showing Richard’s widow and his son and daughter-in-law are buried at Acorn Branch. Richard is almost certainly buried there too. All four of them in unmarked graves.
The cemetery is just to the east of 117 and a mile north of Gordon Road.
Mike passed it every day and now Michael was passing it again with Yvette, pointing to his home and to the gymnasium where he tells people he got cut. They drove around town for an hour and a half. Yvette asked a lot of questions. She knew all about Air Jordan, about the shoes and the rings, but didn’t know anything about where any of that came from, where the man disappeared and the legend began. Going home with him changes a lot of things. Puts him in focus. That long-ago United Center introduction, accompanied by strobes and lasers and those chill bump sixteenth notes, undercut by a rumbling bass line buried down deep, feels different. Watch that sequence from the 1998 Finals again. Listen to it build. The man in the middle! Michael Jordan is sitting on the bench, waiting to hear his name, the most famous man in the world at the absolute peak of his powers, Richard Jordan’s wildest dream. Now listen as the announcer leans into his microphone and uses his stomach muscles to bring up enough air. He remembers to breathe and then cuts through the storm of noise.
“From North Carolina … “