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A Protector and a Best Friend : Profile: James Jordan looked after his son during the season and also served as an inspiration to his Bull teammates.

August 14, 1993|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Michael Jordan's mid-playoff trip to Atlantic City, N.J, in May sparked speculation that he had an uncontrollable gambling habit, his father, James, tried to protect him by taking responsibility for the junket.

But there was no one to protect James Jordan from the assailant who shot him in the chest and left his body floating in a creek near McColl, S.C., his name unknown until dental records confirmed his identity Friday.

James Jordan, 57, became protector and best friend to his son as Michael's athletic prowess made him a prisoner of his fame.

Unable to leave his hotel room for a meal or a walk without being hounded for autographs, Jordan would pay for his father and his childhood friends to join him on many of the Chicago Bulls' trips. Together, they would play cards, watch movies and create an oasis in the hectic landscape of Michael's sports and business obligations.

"Theirs was more than the ideal father-son relationship--they were best friends," said Chicago Sun-Times sportswriter Lacy J. Banks, who used to be a frequent participant in those card games and had planned to collaborate on a book with James Jordan. "He revered his father. It was, 'Can I get you anything, Daddy?"'

The Chicago players, respectful of his efforts to guard his son's limited privacy and amused by his enjoyment of the gifts Michael lavished upon him, affectionately called James Jordan "Mr. J." Over time, forward Horace Grant said, James Jordan became a father to the team, not just to Michael.

"He helped everyone to stay relaxed," Grant said. "To have that familiar face not on the sidelines and travel with you, not give you that uplifting spirit when you're down, that's going to be hard."

Said B.J. Armstrong: "He was just a fun-loving individual, just a great guy. He just always cared about people, and I really see why Michael is the type of person he is. It's just very sad something like this had to happen."

James Jordan had always watched out for Michael, from the time he built a basketball court in the front yard of the family home in Wilmington, N.C. Considered by friends to be a strong father figure who lived for his five children, he never coddled Michael, repeatedly beating him at games of pool and taunting him afterward to toughen his son's competitiveness.

It was that competitiveness James cited as the reason for Michael's greatness--as well as a factor in their controversial visit to Atlantic City between the first and second games of the Bulls' Eastern Conference playoff series against the New York Knicks.

"He wouldn't be doing it if he couldn't afford it," said James Jordan, who became his son's spokesman when Michael, stung by media concern over the trip, declined all interviews. "He's not that stupid. He's got a competition problem. He was born with that. If he didn't have a competition problem, you guys wouldn't be writing about him."

James Jordan's own basketball career never amounted to much. He once described his ability as "better than some and no worse than most," and after a stint in the Air Force, he returned to Wilmington and took a job at the General Electric plant.

He married Deloris Peoples, whom he had met in 1956 when he gave her and a cousin a ride home from a high school basketball game in nearby Wallace, N.C.

As his son's star ascended, James was beside him, sharing the spotlight in an underwear commercial and sharing his darker moments, too.

When Jordan was uncertain how to approach the seventh game of the Bulls' Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Knicks in 1992, he sought his father's advice rather than the counsel of his teammates or coaches.

"His father told him, 'Come out aggressive and scoring,' and he did. He had 25 points in the first half, and the Bulls blew them out," said Sam Smith, author of the Jordan biography, "Jordan Rules."

Added Smith: "(James) was helpful, friendly, decent. He enjoyed being Michael Jordan's father."

But there were times Jordan felt the need to protect his protector. Jordan would snap at reporters who tried to delve too deeply into his private life. And his mother steadfastly remains in the background. She heads the Michael Jordan Foundation, organizing its charitable activities.

"He feared something like this," Banks said.

Those fears were realized Friday.

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