In the fall of 1993, Michael Jordan — often regarded as the greatest player ever to shoot a basketball — shocked the sports world by announcing he was retiring from the NBA. Then he stunned fans again by deciding to pursue his long-held dream of playing pro baseball.
Within months, the then-31-year-old high-flying guard known as "His Airness" was bobbling easy flies and swatting at bad pitches as a struggling right fielder for the minor-league Birmingham Barons.
This surreal fillip in sports history, which ended up bisecting Jordan's phenomenal NBA career, forms the basis of "Jordan Rides the Bus," director Ron Shelton's documentary that premieres Tuesday on ESPN.
"Only Jordan would 'get away' by playing another professional sport," Shelton, best-known as the director of sports-themed features such as "Bull Durham" and "White Men Can't Jump," said in a phone interview last week.
Shelton said he'd nearly forgotten about the baseball footnote to Jordan's career until a colleague suggested it could be the basis of a film for "30 for 30," ESPN's ongoing documentary series celebrating the network's 30th anniversary.
"Jordan Rides the Bus" is the 18th film in the series, which has generally received critical acclaim and high ratings. "The U.," which examined Miami's cultural history through the lens of the University of Miami's fabled football team, drew 2.4 million viewers last December, making it ESPN's highest-rated documentary of all-time, according to the Nielsen Co.
"For me, it was like, 'That really happened, didn't it?' " Shelton recalled. " 'Was that a fairy tale 15 years ago?' "
At the time, Jordan's decision was as shocking as the Tiger Woods saga has been to contemporary fans. Jordan's already legendary athletic prowess was at a peak. His Chicago Bulls had racked up three straight NBA championships and during the 1993 finals he scored 40 or more points in four consecutive games.
Jordan complained that he'd lost his desire to play the game, but fans and commentators offered their own conjectures for the star's mystifying exit, including that his worldwide celebrity was making it difficult to cover up his huge gambling losses.
In the course of researching his documentary, Shelton said he investigated the supposed gambling-retirement link — and decided it was bogus.
"I confirmed absolutely in my mind that his leaving basketball had nothing to do with his gambling issues," he said.
Instead, Shelton's film depicts a superstar shattered by the murder of his father in a bizarre roadside robbery the previous summer.
"It was a real interesting father-son relationship," Shelton said. "They kind of partied together. His father would travel with him, go to casinos with him, play golf with him. They were almost like brothers."
An avid baseball fan, James R. Jordan Sr. had long dreamed of his son playing in the major leagues, and his death apparently triggered a nostalgic quest for Michael.
But Jordan wasn't destined for the All-Star roster, even with Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf offering him a spot on the Chicago White Sox farm team. At spring training in 1994, Jordan proved such an awkward hitter and fielder that Sports Illustrated ran a cover story titled "Bag It, Michael." He practiced ferociously in the batting cage, however, and his dedication and charm won over many skeptics, including teammates who had previously resented him as a celebrity interloper.
"I take the position he actually was a pretty good ballplayer and made staggering progress," Shelton said.
Finding sources who would talk about what happened, however, proved harder than Shelton expected. Jordan declined to be interviewed, as did his former Bulls teammates Scottie Pippen and B.J. Armstrong. Nor was there much material available on Jordan's father.
"We have stills, we have footage of him in the locker room," Shelton said. But "there weren't home movies, things like that. He was very guarded."
But Phil Jackson, then the coach of the Bulls (and now of the Lakers), sat down for an interview. And Shelton lavishes attention on ordinary Birmingham residents — including a real estate agent and a bus driver — whose lives changed with a superstar athlete in their midst.
"For most of us, it was just this hole in the NBA, but in Birmingham, God had arrived," Shelton said. "From their perspective, it was the greatest thing that ever happened."
Andrew Billings, an expert on sports media at Clemson University, said that Jordan's brief foray into baseball will probably continue to puzzle and provoke NBA fans for decades — especially since Jordan returned to basketball and collected three more championship rings with the Bulls.
"One could have argued that he could have had eight [titles] in a row; others could argue he never would have made it to six had he not had the baseball career to rejuvenate and refocus on basketball," Billings wrote in an e-mail. "That's the great thing about the narrative; it remains a talking point in a 'what-if' kind of way."
Shelton concluded that Jordan returned to basketball in 1995 a changed man.
"I think Jordan learned," he said. As an NBA superstar, "he'd taken it for granted; then he saw how hard it was to be a professional athlete, these guys struggling in the minor leagues. And these were very, very good athletes. He learned to appreciate what he had."