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Back From The Edge

Nothing Could Stop Michael Jordan--That Is, Except Himself, With a Little Help From That Demon, Fame. How the Chicago Bulls Star Got It, Used It, Got Burnt by It and Finally Made It Back.

May 12, 1996|Mark Heisler | Mike Heisler covers the NBA for The Times and is the author of two books about baseball. His last article for the magazine was on Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis

Are you in there somewhere, Mike?

Jammed into a corner of the visitors' dressing room in Cleveland's Gund Arena, Michael Jordan looks into five minicams, speaks into 25 microphones and takes questions from a crowd of 50 press people who have compacted themselves into an anxious mass. The Bulls have just tied the Los Angeles Lakers' record for victories in a season, but for Jordan, this is routine, give or take a few paparazzi, which is what his singular fame has turned the press into.

The people in the back of the pack can't hear. They're waiting for someone ahead of them to get tired or claustrophobic and leave. TV guys yell at the people up front to get their tape recorders down so they can see Jordan's face; sometimes they nudge people to get them out of the shot. Fights are not unheard of. Curses are common.

In the center of the maelstrom, Jordan burbles away happily, breaking new grammatical ground as he goes and charming everyone in sight with his enthusiasm and his grin. He's formally dressed, as usual, in a thousand-dollar suit from his deal with upscale Chicago haberdasher Bigsby & Kruthers; his tie is knotted perfectly, a diamond chip-studded hoop in his left ear. There are a few beads of sweat on the famous forehead. Your child may not know President Clinton or the Pope as well as he knows Jordan, a superstar not only in basketball, for whatever that's worth, but in TV commercials, today's arbiter and index of fame. For Jordan, fame and artistry are intertwined. Only a few athletes--Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali--ever dominated their games and transcended their sports as he does. Jordan, coming along during a commercial and communications explosion, or helping trigger it, may be the biggest there ever was.

Think of it: an entire world in thrall! A foreign journalist at the '92 Olympics asking him, "Are you of this earth?" To which a bemused Jordan replied: "Well, I live in Chicago."

Actually, he rules Chicago. The nation's third-largest city is a Mike-ocracy, with fans staging candlelight vigils and leaving flowers at the base of his statue in front of the Bulls' stadium.

His annual endorsement income is estimated at $40 million, and he expects to sign this summer a new playing contract for another $15-$20 million. Last spring, when reports circulated that he'd return to basketball, the stock of his five corporate partners gained $2.3 billion.

Yes, he ran away from basketball three seasons ago. He was a different Mike then: spent, tired of the spotlight and the intrusions. Fame comes in two sizes--too little or too much--and it's never the way anyone thinks it will be.

"You think of all the good things about being famous," Jordan says. "You know, the notoriety, the respect"--he grins--"the free dinners, the different types of amenities that come along with success.

"But, then again, you never really think about all the things that it hampers or puts strains on, from your lifestyle away from the basketball court, the expectations that people have for you, the way that you're either supposed to live or expected to live, the way that they feel they have a piece of you, no matter what, because of their respect and adulation toward you."

So he tried something else--baseball? He had other ambitions as absurd--the pro golf tour? But he learned something: He couldn't do anything he wanted to. He wasn't a god, just a basketball player who missed it.

Now he's reconquering the game, trying to deal with the demands of fame, strains on his lifestyle and the people who think they have a piece of him, etc. When he left, it was as if a dark cloud fell over the NBA, but now it's Camelot again with TV ratings bursting out all over. Jordan is happier than he's ever been, finally a megastar at peace with himself.

The staffer has been instructed to rescue Jordan after 20 minutes or so, or he could be there an hour. Michael answers a few more questions and leaves, escorted by an off-duty Chicago cop who acts as aide and bodyguard. When the playoffs come and the real craziness starts, Jordan may use up to six bodyguards--or as the New York Daily News' Mitch Lawrence suggested, "Four to carry the litter, two to scatter the rose petals."

"Michael!" yells a Bulls staffer behind the press pack, "we gotta go!" If you were looking out at the world Michael Jordan sees, you might want extra security, too. It's not simple, this fame.

*

There was a crow walking on his career. it was Dec. 17, 1991, an ordinary game on the Bulls schedule--Chicago Stadium, 7:35 p.m. against the Lakers--that turned into something else: a look through time into Jordan's future.

Six months after winning his first NBA championship, the one he thought would change everything, his life had become more complicated than ever. It wasn't a victory parade but an ongoing controversy.

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