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  • Kevin Scarbinsky

That time Michael Jordan came to town

New rule. Call it a Jordan rule in honor of "The Last Dance." If you ever breathed the same air as Michael Jordan, no matter how pedestrian the encounter, you are now required to share the experience in full detail. Your street cred may vary.


In my case, that means digging in the basement through the cardboard boxes that contain years of articles I wrote for The Birmingham News, all collected by my dad.


Thanks, Dad.


In the box marked 1989, there's a feature under my byline that tells the story of the time Jordan came to Birmingham. No, Mars, not that time. Long before he had trouble with the curve with the Barons, MJ was a basketball legend who still hadn't solved the Pistons or earned a single NBA championship ring.


It was Thursday June 15th, 1989. His season cut short by the Bad Boys in the Eastern Conference finals two weeks earlier, Air Jordan had a brand to build and a beast to feed in places like Birmingham.


The Football Capital of the South, like most of the globe by then, knew plenty about him on and off the floor. Five years into the league, he was more than a peerless, ruthless scoring champion, defensive player of the year and MVP. He was the Jumpman logo with the signature Nikes, editions I-IV. He was the co-star in those cutting-edge ads alongside Mars Blackmon (a k a iconic film director Spike Lee), who mused, "Money, it's gotta be the shoes."


Yes, Mars, it was, in person at the now-defunct Just For Feet boutique. I shadowed Jordan there and elsewhere that day. And now, the rest of the story:


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"Ladies and gentlemen … Michael Jordan has left the building."


A laugh line, it was, tossed off by the public address announcer to maybe a hundred sets of ears in UAB Arena. It's what they used to say after Elvis Presley finished a concert to try to sweep the remaining idolaters into the street.


Ladies and gentlemen. Elvis has left the building.


Michael … Elvis. If the announcer Thursday night was searching for humor, he found truth as well on this latest stop of the Michael Jordan traveling road show and corporate obligation. At 26, Jordan has leaped the tall buildings of fame and fortune. The 6-foot-6 all-pro is bigger than the Chicago Bulls, the NBA and basketball itself.


Or as one woman said who watched the spirits of a crowd of more than a thousand rise and fall at his beck and call at one stop: "He's like a rock star."


Little-known MJ fact No. 1: He wasn't Most Popular in his high school class of '81. Some kids even thought him a bit strange. "I took home ec for three years," he said. "Some people thought I was a little queer. But I always thought I'd be a bachelor. I never thought I'd get married."


If he was an unwilling suitor, an entire city seemed to blush when he came calling Thursday. The sea of people parted and closed from morning to night. At Inverness Country Club, where he stopped to flirt with his second love, golf, but was preempted by the rain. At Just For Feet, the shoe store outside the Galleria where it only appeared as if every teen and preteen in town clamored to join him on a makeshift court.


At a radio talk show. At a Southern Junior College banquet. And at UAB Arena, where more than 8,000 fans filled all the seats and more than a few of the aisles.


"Sometimes," he said in between cheers, "this gets out of hand and you can't lead a normal life."


It's the reason he makes fewer of these personal appearances every year and will continue to cut down. It's the reason his contract for these appearances demands an hour of free time away from the fans and the press. It's the reason he turns part of his back away from the public eye.


As he grows larger as a pop idol - did Elvis ever smile at you from a Wheaties box? - he resists harder the transformation from person to product that's destroyed other men.


"There are some pros and cons about the situation," Jordan said. "The pro of it is it's great to be looked upon as a role model by kids or even grownups and be admired. The disadvantage is if I make a mistake that you might make it's going to be magnified 10 times, maybe blown out of proportion. This is something I have to deal with day in and day out.


"This is why my friends and family are so dear to me. With them, I can act normal, even crazy if I want. That means I'm doing my job well when you don't see me mad or angry. When I'm in public, I want the public to see a very positive person because it leaves a lasting impression. When I'm upset, I'm going to stay home and try and hide that from the public because that's a side I don't want the public to see. But I do get angry and I do get mad."


Little-known MJ fact No. 2: He has a 7-month-old son, Jeffrey Michael Jordan, whom he does not discuss at length. "He's going to have enough pressure being my son. The best thing I can do is relieve that pressure at an early age."


There is one very public place where Jordan can't help but show his real face, and he found it here Thursday night. Center court, UAB Arena. No entourage nipping at his heels. No bodyguard clearing his path. No corporate executives telling him where to sign.


Just Michael, a ball and a smile.


He clowned his way through the 3-point shooting contest, losing to Jim Farmer of the Orlando Magic and then to high school winner Chris Lane of Mortimer Jordan.


And then the fun started. Dunk time. First he got Farmer, Derrick McKey and high school winner David Vance of John Carroll into the act, but they were just mirrors for Jordan's energy. He played the crowd, now on its feet, like a yo-yo, mugging, asking for suggestions, pointing and waving. He touched palms with one teen at courtside, and the boy almost swooned.


"You see that? This hand right here?"


It was hard to tell who wore the bigger smile, the ball boy serving as takeoff marker near the free-throw line or Jordan himself before sprinting full court and launching into a flyaway one-hand jam.


When he was done, the last cradle rocked and 360 spun, he took the mike a final time and said, "Did y'all have fun? I sure had fun."


And he said a few more words and the sea parted and he was gone. Michael Jordan had left the building.


Little-known MJ fact No. 3: After the Bulls lost in the NBA Eastern Conference finals to the Pistons 4-2, the only team to beat Detroit in the playoffs, Jordan did not watch the NBA Finals. Since his last game, he's been playing 54 holes of golf a day at his summer house in Hilton Head, S.C., when he's not knocking 'em dead in Birmingham or Knoxville or other stops on a tour that won't last forever.


"As I get older," he said, "time is the most prominent thing I need. I find myself looking for more time."


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Postscript: Two years later in 1991, Jordan won the first of his six NBA titles. Five years later in 1994, he came back to Birmingham as a minor-league baseball player. Thirty-one years later in 2020, sports has stopped during a global pandemic. I'm shooting "The Last Dance" straight into my veins every Sunday night alongside my two hoop-loving teenage sons, hitting pause now and then to share a few MJ stories, like the one from the box in the basement.


Thanks again, Dad. Next Sunday can't get here soon enough.

The front sports page of The Birmingham News on June 16, 1989.





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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency.