From 1988 to 1999 I traveled with the Chicago Bulls working as a beat writer for the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill., the largest suburban newspaper in the Chicago area.
Michael Jordan was on those Bulls teams, except for the two seasons he missed due to a very premature retirement. I missed very few games through my 11 seasons, and I witnessed almost everything superstar Michael Jordan did on the basketball court over those years. I was with him after every one of the six NBA Finals games in which he and the Bulls claimed the league crown.
Jordan turns 50 years old on Feb. 17, 2013, no longer the young man he was when we first met in 1986, when I was covering the team for United Press International. In celebration of his turn of age, everyone is remembering his athletic achievements, and trying to recall his greatest moments on the court.
But when I am asked my favorite memories of my time with Jordan, I always lean towards the off-the-court stuff, moments that indicated how special he was to so many people.
When I first started traveling with the team they were still going from city to city via commercial airlines. The team would play in Cleveland on a Tuesday and have to stay overnight because there were no late-night commercial flights. I often flew on the same flights with the team, more by coincidence than design.
One morning in Cleveland, awaiting the first flight out, I sat with Jordan in the extremely public waiting area of the United Airlines terminal. It was pre-championships, probably 1988 or 1989, and Jordan and I were laughing over a Sports Illustrated article that I was reading (and he was reading over my shoulder). Jordan was to my right, and farther out to the right was a 4-year-old boy, being held by the shoulders by his father, with the boy's mother next to dad. The boy was staring hard at Jordan, who did not seem to notice.
Eventually, the little boy walked up to Jordan with a piece of paper and a pen in his hand. Jordan looked at the boy, who could barely get the words out:
"Are you Michael?'' he asked.
"I'm Michael Jordan,'' he said.
"Wow!,'' whispered the wide-eyed boy, who turned immediately and ran back to his father, who then sent the boy back to Jordan to get the autograph the boy forgot to ask for. The look on that boy's face was one I saw over and over through the years. That child could not open his eyes any wider to absorb the sight he was seeing. The moment was priceless, and I remember Jordan laughed ever so slightly as the boy ran back again to his parents.
I remember the look on another boy's face, several years later, in a moment so moving I still get choked up thinking about it.
For many years before games Jordan would meet with a child or youth who was physically or intellectually challenged, or had been told he or she was suffering from a terminal illness. Groups like Wish Upon A Star or Have Dreams would arrange the meetings through the Bulls' staff.
Those meetings were known to occur but were never publicized, and the meetings always took place in some quiet corner of the Chicago Stadium, the United Center or the road arena. I witnessed one such occasion.
Through sheer happenstance, at the Los Angeles Sports Center where the Clippers played for years, I ended up in the empty dressing room where Jordan was about to meet with a boy and his family. Jordan allowed me to stay.
The boy was in his teens. He was immobilized in a wheelchair. His eyes were dim; he reacted to nothing. He was severely paralyzed. His mother and (I'm guessing) his grandfather were with him. The mother told Jordan that he was the boy's favorite athlete, and that he had wanted to meet him for years.
Jordan listened to the mother, then turned to the boy. Standing in front of him, bending over to get his face close to the boy's, Jordan spoke to him. Jordan just kept talking, even though the boy did not (could not) react to what Jordan was saying. I saw no discernible sign the boy knew what was going on.
Somehow, however, the mother and grandfather did. The mother cried in this very quiet room, with only Jordan's words breaking the silence. Finally, after several minutes, the boy raised his eyes slightly. I guess he knew what was going on. Jordan saw the reaction, too, and spoke a few more sentences before shaking mom's and grandfather's hand, and leaving to go to the locker room.
I walked out of the room with Jordan.
"Do you do that before every game?'' I asked, knowing the answer.
"Something like that, yeah,'' he said.
At this point, I was almost too choked up myself to ask the next question.
"How do you play after that?'' I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders, turned to me and said: "I just play."
I have one other special memory of Jordan. Oddly, it again occurred in Cleveland, on March 28, 1990, when he scored 69 points in an overtime win against the Cavaliers.
Jordan rarely went out after games, but for some reason that night he met me and a couple other writers in the bar at the Cleveland Airport Marriott where the team and the rest of us were staying. We had a few beers and talked about his big night.
Someone asked Jordan if he could ever score 100 points in a game, and uncharacteristically Jordan spoke like a mortal rather than immortal athlete.
"I don't know,'' he said with a laugh. "I'm pretty tired."
I spent countless hours in Jordan's presence over those years. Those three moments are among my most treasured times.
Kent McDill has covered the Bulls for three different companies: for United Press International from 1985-88, for the Daily Herald newspaper in Arlington Heights, Ill., from 1988-99 and currently for NBA.com. He has written two books on the Bulls, including the new title "100 Things Bulls Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die'' published by Triumph Books.