September 10, 2009
To commemorate Michael Jordan's induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this week, ESPN recently produced a special Jordan "bookazine," which is on newsstands now.
I picked up a copy over the weekend and haven't been able to put it down since. I can't recommend it enough.
The 92-page, high quality collector's issue is chock full of rare Jordan photos and features story after story about The GOAT's legendary career and accomplishments.
One story in particular, "Gash Almighty" written by best-selling author Donnell Alexander (originally for the Chicago Sun-Times in '98), recounts the time a pre-NBA Jordan was cut by a samurai sword while doing a public appearance in North Carolina.
"Gash Almighty" by Donnell Alexander
Early in the spring of 1982, when he was a skinny freshman at North Carolina, before he had enough fans to start his own religion, Michael Jordan was largely unknown outside the state. So when Dallas evangelist Bill Glass was planning a Carolina stop for his prison ministry tour that summer, Jordan was not the guy Glass had in mind when he called Dean Smith looking to line up a basketball player to beef up the act. Jimmy Black. Sam Perkins. That was the kinds of names Glass, a former NFL lineman, wanted. Not available, Smith told him. Previous engagements. Glass couldn't even get Matt Doherty.
When Smith offered up this unknown freshman, Glass was gracious but dubious. Jordan was certainly better than nothing. But part of the idea behind Glass' Weekend of Champions ministry was to have a big-name athlete take part in the witnessing programs. Aside from their rap sheets, what was to separate Jordan from these men doing time? Without the fame, how would they identify upward?
Then Jordan hit a certain championship-winning shot in March, and when that summer's ministry rolled through Raleigh's Triangle Correctional Facility, the inmates warmly welcomed him to the exercise yard. And Jordan, decked out in his fresh U.S. All-Stars warmups, got enthusiastic props for thoroughly schooling a cell block all-star. Glass was relieved. Those who didn't receive salvation at least would have something to write home about.
But the Weekend of Champions was about much more than behind-bars basketball. In the past, the tour had featured inspirational athletes such as catcher Jim Sundberg and pitcher Frank Tanana, as well as men of faith from professional coaching and the world of pro wrestling. This time, before Glass hit 'em with the Good Word, a martial-arts expert from Tennessee named Mike Crain was invited to ratchet up the yard's emotion. Jordan stuck around to see the show. And when it came time for Crain to do his crowd-pleasing samurai-sword show, he asked for a volunteer.
History gets a little murky after that. Glass remembers that Jordan willingly climbed onstage. Crain remembers it differently. See, the sword trick calls for Crain to chop a full-grown watermelon in half while it rests on the volunteer's stomach. Most everyone who winds up as the fruit platter declines to do so at first, especially after watching Crain, a burly Southerner decked out in an all-white martial-arts suit accented with his black belt, slice the air with cold steel for a few minutes.
But Jordan was more skittish than most — and emphatically said, "No." Crain wasn't fazed. He worked the thrill-hungry crowd of inmates to his advantage, and when he began hinting to Jordan that maybe he wasn't quite man enough to handle the job of human cutting board, the 19-year-old responded to the challenge just the way you would expect. He climbed up the wooden platform and laid himself back on a weight-training bench that had been used in an earlier act. And Crain placed the melon on Jordan's belly.
As Crain produced another black sash and began blindfolding himself, a panicky Jordan started to get up. Crain held him down lightly between the produce and the bench. In a scene that looked like a jailhouse staging of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, the brothers in the yard inched closer to the stage. Crain told Jordan to shield his eyes so stray rind and seeds wouldn't blind him, but MJ's eyes were already shut tightly enough to secure a home.
Crain drew back his sword and slashed into the juicy melon. But his blade traveled too far south, and the rail-thin Jordan's protruding right hip slowed the blow. The watermelon was torn, not severed. The crowd was now hypnotized and drew even closer to the laid-out Jordan.
Down came the blade a second time, and now shards of watermelon went flying into the sky and across the stage. Crain knew from his audience's reaction that he succeeded in dividing the fruit, but he had the queasy feeling that he might have gone too far. This whack was in the right place, but Crain had misjudged the amount of give in Jordan's lean belly. After pulling off his blindfold, Crain checked to make sure his volunteer was OK. When he and Glass wiped away the juice, melon and seed that covered the front of Jordan's white jersey, Jordan spotted a tear in the fabric.
Jordan was irate.
"Look whatcha did!" he screamed at Crain. The warmups were Jordan's reward from his first international tournament. But the guy who had driven Jordan to the prison was concerned about more than the jersey. He suggested Jordan check to see if he had been wounded by the blade. Still heated about the shirt, Jordan wouldn't look until they were back in the car and the driver insisted. Then they both looked down and spotted a gash near Jordan's navel. Because he hadn't felt the wound, Jordan hardly was concerned, even after doctors at an emergency room used three stitches to close him up. He did harbor a small grudge — but not about the injury. That would heal in days. Warmup gear like this, though, was one of a kind
After the Jordan snafu, Glass took Crain out of the evangelical rotation. Crain estimates that he has performed the watermelon trick 1,750 times and has cut 16 people. "That's not a lot," Crain jokes. "He's missed over 70 game-winning shots. Only mine are more costly."
Jordan didn't much speak about the incident after he returned to his dormitory. His dorm mates thought him such an unlikely candidate to have volunteered for something like this that he had to show them the stitches to convince them the story wasn't a prank. Everyone marveled about this uncharacteristically bizarre thing he had done. And legend has it that Jordan turned deeply spiritual when he came to realize how close he might have come to becoming prime footage on a "Faces of Death" video.
So the next time you moan about the lockout or about our obsession with Jordan and the Bulls, remember this: Once upon a time, Michael Jordan was only a rotten rind away from being half the player he is now.