Hubbard: Remembering Jordan at 50 — Fun Behind the Scenes

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While attempting to uncover a certain fact about Michael Jordan, an extended Google search proved futile. The fact would be wonderful to know because it would be a way of tormenting Jordan, and that’s always been fun to do because that’s what he’s always done to everyone else.

In searching the internet, however, I couldn’t find out what time Jordan was born 50 years ago today. I’d like to know because if it was more than a few seconds after midnight on Feb. 17, 1963, that would mean Jordan was not the first baby born on that day.

And if Michael is not first, it absolutely destroys him.

The stories of Jordan’s competitiveness are part of his legend, of course, and since I was fortunate enough to cover the NBA and work at the league office for most of Jordan’s career, I witnessed my share of it.

My all-time favorite behind-the-scenes moment occurred in 1992 at the Tournament of the Americas in Portland. Jordan and the Dream Team were playing in the Olympic qualifying tournament, and it was a foregone decision that a group of writers and public relations executives were going to have a Larry Bird League.

I had named our fantasy league in Bird’s honor five years earlier because we adopted his simple system of determining the best player. Bird added points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks and subtracted missed field goals, missed free throws, turnovers and fouls and whoever had the most points or highest average was the best player.

(By that time, I had told Bird that I had eliminated fouls from his system and he asked why. I pointed out that giving a foul was sometimes a good play and also that superstars sometimes got favorable calls. “Sometimes?” Bird said, smiling. “Hell, superstars get all the calls.” He endorsed the change.)

I do believe we had a first in taking fantasy basketball international, and it was challenging. Some of us had covered the Olympics in 1988 and were familiar with players from Brazil, Canada and Puerto Rico. But there were teams from Argentina, Mexico, Panama and Uruguay in Portland. Their leading scorers were going to produce fantasy points and we had only a vague idea of who they were.

It was clear the Americans were going to win by as many points as they wanted, but Jordan had been on two title teams and played long seasons. It was not important for him to dominate players from other teams who probably would have struggled in YMCA leagues.

Still, someone had to score the points, get the rebounds, etc., so NBA PR chief Brian McIntyre drafted Jordan. Later at the team hotel, McIntyre told Jordan, who said that was a mistake because he planned to defer, play defense and not play many minutes.

“You shouldn’t have taken me,” Jordan told McIntyre.

Sure enough, the scoring was spread around in the first few games, so McIntyre walked up to Jordan one night and said: “I took your advice.”

Jordan listened.

“I traded you,” McIntyre said.

Jordan grimaced and said, “Traded me? For who?” We can’t remember for sure, but McIntyre believes it might have been Oscar Schmidt from Brazil. Regardless, it was somebody obviously inferior to Jordan – but also someone who would get more fantasy points.

The next game against a team none of us can remember, Jordan started, played a few minutes, came to the bench, rested, then went to the scorer’s table to re-enter the game. The buzzer sounded and as he walked onto the floor, he looked at McIntyre sitting courtside and said: “You f***ked up.”

He then went nuts, put on a crowd pleasing show, and looked at McIntyre several times after scoring baskets.

Now, we’re talking fantasy basketball at a tournament where the U.S. won games by anywhere from 38 to 79 points. And Jordan felt slighted because of a fantasy league.

Yes, the man was competitive.

His memory was also legendary and I was victimized by it once. During the 1987-88 season, Jordan was irritated by suggestions that he was an offensive player but not a complete player. He didn’t give up any offense that season, but he did dedicate himself to defense and talked openly about wanting to win the Defensive Player of the Year award.

At the time, I worked in Dallas and wrote a column saying that the talent in the league was so good that it was impossible for one player to be the premier offensive and defensive player. There were simply too many great players, including some who were defensive specialists.

I was, of course, wrong but that’s what I believed at the time.

Jordan went on to lead the league in scoring and won the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards that season.

Four years later, I had moved to New York to work for Newsday and before a Bulls-Knicks game one night, I went into the dressing room to interview Jordan. I started asking him about defense and suddenly he stopped me and said, “So you think I play good defense?”

“Of course I do,” I said, laughing at the absurdity of the question.

“Well then what about all that s**t you wrote in Dallas?” he said.

Yes, the man had a memory.

He also had legendary stamina. Jordan is one of those people who doesn’t seem to need sleep and there have been countless stories documenting that over the years.

One I witnessed close up occurred in November 1992 a few months after the Dream Team won the gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics. I went to Phoenix, where the Bulls and Suns were going to play on a Sunday night.

I had called longtime Bulls PR man Tim Hallam and asked him to set up an interview. Hallam told me he’d say something to Michael but there were no guarantees. I told Hallam to tell Jordan I was going to park myself in the lobby of their hotel and await the bus when it arrived after practice. If Jordan was going to blow me off, I told Hallam, he’ll have to do it to my face.

He didn’t. When he came through the lobby, he said, “Hey buddy. Let’s go.” And we went to a small pool area at the back of the resort hotel grounds, sat down in pool chairs under an umbrella and talked for an hour. No one even walked by.

But the point of the story was his schedule. On Friday night, Jordan had played 47 minutes in 120-118 overtime loss to the Lakers. He scored 54 points on 21-of-39 from the field and also had 13 rebounds and seven assists.

After the game, the Bulls bused to the airport and flew to Phoenix, arriving after 3 a.m. on Saturday. Jordan had thought ahead because Phoenix has many great golf courses and he had his wife ship his golf clubs to Phoenix.

At 7 a.m., he teed off on the first of the 36 holes he would play. That night, he went to dinner with friends, got up early Sunday morning, went to a photo shoot for a commercial, went through a shootaround with the team, came back to the hotel, talked to me to an hour and went to his room. As he left, I asked if he was going to nap.

“Nah,” he said. “I’m going to watch football.”

That night, he toyed with the Suns, scoring 40 points in a 128-111 victory.

Yes, the man had stamina.

He also had a sense of humor. When I turned 50 while I was working for the NBA, Mark Vancil – who conceived and wrote all of Jordan’s spectacular photo books, including Rare Air – had Jordan sign a photo for my birthday.

“Happy 50th birthday,” Jordan wrote. “Halfway to 100.”

Yes, the man could even write trash.

But now it’s his turn and it’s a big deal in the sports world because it’s a milestone for one of the three or four greatest athletes in the history of sports. So I very genuinely say happy birthday Michael. Thanks for the many cooperative moments and the great memories.

And you are now halfway to 100.

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