For decades, the NBA has been a star’s league. But even among the stars, there’s an exclusive club. Russell and Dr. J. Bird and Magic. Jordan. Kobe. They’re all part of a select group that paved the way for the NBA superstar of today. And in Icons Club: The Evolution of the NBA Superstar, Hall of Fame reporter Jackie MacMullan explains how some even shared secrets with each other along the way.
Here’s an excerpt from Episode 4, which details how the old guard in the NBA didn’t take too kindly to Michael Jordan’s early success.
Michael Jordan wasn’t keen on people telling him what to do, which is why he wore a banned version of his Air Jordan 1s during the 1985 slam dunk contest. But even though he put on a show, his fellow NBA stars judged the contest, and they weren’t about to let him upstage the likable Dominique Wilkins and his two-handed “around the world” dunk. Jordan’s showmanship left some of the vets feeling sour.
Jordan felt there was widespread jealousy over the creation of his Air Jordan Brand, an instant colossal financial boon.
“It was a great idea,” Jordan tells me, “it was a great concept and the next thing you know, it got bigger than any shoe contract, which I think had a lot to do with the jealousies and animosities throughout the league.”
Indeed, by 1987, Magic Johnson declared he was so deeply disappointed in Converse that he planned to leave because they were not marketing him properly and maximizing his earning potential. In other words, he was envious they weren’t creating the Magic Brand.
During the ’85 All-Star Game, both Magic and Isiah agreed to match up against one another and coast defensively, while George Gervin, in a twist on his Iceman nickname, picked up Jordan and tracked him like it was the NBA Finals. Jordan finished with seven points.
David Falk, Jordan’s longtime agent, said it was clear what was transpiring on the court.
“Everyone knows they froze him out,” Falk tells me. “They froze him out because they were jealous. They said, ‘Who’s this rookie who hasn’t done anything–you know, has something that we don’t have?’”
The furor that followed surprised and frustrated Jordan. It also left him wounded, and wary of this brethren of stars who seemed to follow a code that he wasn’t privy to.
“Look, I thought with the way I came into the league and what David Falk and ProServ and all the guys were teaching me, was how to be a business person playing the game of basketball,” he says. “I didn’t think it was a certain protocol in terms of how you had to either interact with these people or meet them, greet them, praise them. Either way, I didn’t know that.’’
Falk recalls returning with Jordan to his Chicago apartment following All-Star Weekend. The rookie knew he’d be away from home for a few days, so he turned the heat off to save money. His pipes froze in his absence.
Yet Jordan was far more perturbed by the freeze-out that occurred on the All-Star court in Indianapolis. As the day wore on, he became more and more agitated.
“We’re sitting in his apartment, in his townhouse, with winter coats on and he is on the couch, lying down, steaming, replaying the game in his mind over and over again,” Falk says. “And I finally told him, ‘Let me give you some advice that my wife, Rhonda, always gives me. Don’t get mad, just get even.’”
Magic and Isiah Thomas have consistently denied any freeze-out existed. But, as Jordan had demonstrated in the past, he seized on the smallest of slights and used it to work himself into a frenzy. He wanted revenge.
Two days after the All-Star Game, he torched Isiah and his Pistons for 49 points. And, for the next few years, he resisted Magic’s Cheshire cat grin, choosing to engage in perfunctory hand shakes as opposed to bear hugs or high fives. Truth was, he didn’t trust Magic, and resisted developing a friendship with him.
“Well, I understood it to be jealousy,” Jordan says. “And you know, I think a lot of it came from—Magic Johnson should have been Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan. He had the smile. He had everything. He had the marketability. He had championships.”
For icons who play in the same era, struggling to figure out a healthy relationship with one another is something of a rite of passage. Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell slept in each other’s beds on the road and joined forces for social justice causes; but they didn’t speak for 20 years after Russell criticized Wilt for not playing through an injury in Game 7 of the 1969 Finals.
Magic and Bird developed a healthy respect for one another, but years of vying for the Larry O’Brien trophy made it virtually impossible to maintain anything more than a cursory relationship while they competed.
But Jordan always planned to go it alone.
Those who know him best claim his killer instinct was deeply ingrained in him. Rick Fox, a fellow Tar Heel alumnus, got to know Jordan by working his camps each summer. Jordan made it clear his kindness would stop the moment they stepped onto the NBA court on opposite sides.
“The Mike I know was the Mike that showed me how to be a shark because, A, I wanted to be like Mike. I had a front row seat to his greatness, and I’m telling you, for two summers, I got to drive his cars, live in his house. I was around him,” Fox says. “And then, as I became a pro, I shifted to ‘I can’t be this guy’s friend. He can’t be my mentor no more. I’ve got to find in myself a way to compete against this animal. I can’t look up to him anymore because he’ll eat me to death.’”
Even without the validation of his peers, Jordan’s presence on the court was unmistakable.
Doug Collins became the Bulls coach in 1986 and his first game with Jordan was at Madison Square Garden, against a Knicks team led by future Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing. It was tight throughout, and Collins admits he was a nervous wreck.
“Two minutes to go in the game, the game is tied,” Collins says. “And so I come over, I’ve soaked through my suits. I’ve chewed my gum to where it’s a white powder around my mouth. So I sat down to talk to the team and I saw this Black hand come out with a cup of water.
“And I looked up and it was Michael. And he said, ‘Take this cup, drink the water, clean that shit off your mouth. I’m not going to let you lose your first game.’
“I think he scored the last 10 points of the game, had 50, and we walked off and I go, ‘What am I in store for here?’”
Jordan was just getting started. He would win games—and drop jaws—for the next dozen years. And the league would never be the same.