The mystique of Michael Jordan, who turns 50 on Sunday, is explained by those who met him on and off the court.
The experiences range from hyper-competitive banter to awestruck fandom.
• Former NBA player Steve Smith on a 1992 playoff game in which Jordan scored 56 vs. the Miami Heat: "My rookie year we make the playoffs and we were the eighth seed playing Chicago. It was only a best-of-five then. He didn't score the first 10 minutes. Glen [Rice], myself, we were talking and going at it with him. We were up one, or they were up one, it was close. But this man scored 54 points, a lot of it on me, the next three quarters and ended up with 56. And the rumor was that he played 36 holes of golf earlier in the day, which hurt my feelings. I don't know if he played 36 holes or he played 18. But still, whatever it was, it hurt my feelings that he played golf and he came out and [scored] 56 [for] a win."
• Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, son of former NBA player Dell Curry: "I was 6 and my brother [Seth] was probably 4. My dad was playing for Charlotte. When the Bulls came to Charlotte we always looked forward to that game. I met him after the game in Charlotte. Me and my brother were getting trading cards and we were dying to get him to sign our M.J. card that we got recently. My dad set it up where we could wait outside the visiting locker room to come out. And [Jordan] and Dennis Rodman came out at the same time. We met both of them at the same time. We didn't care that Rodman was there. I was basically kind of awestruck at first because I didn't realize how tall [Jordan] was in person when you stand up next to him, especially with how young I was. When [Jordan] signed the card I was muffled for a minute because I was so happy. My mom took a picture of us, and my brother and I were just geeked up for the rest of the day. He was real down to Earth, real cool and signed our card. We took a picture, me, my brother and Dennis Rodman. My dad has the picture in a little album of memories he kept from his Charlotte Hornets days."
• Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, a Dream Team teammate of Jordan's: "Mike has always been a nice guy. We were in Barcelona. I didn't bring my golf sticks because I had two young kids. I know I wouldn't have a whole lot of time with the kids, practice and all of the things we had to do. And one day we had no practice and nothing to do. My family went sightseeing. I wanted to play golf. Michael was playing golf every day. I didn't have any sticks. Michael overheard me talking about wanting to play. So he said, 'Clyde, I am not playing today. Take my clubs. You can play with my clubs. Have fun.' I used his golf clubs and had a chance to play golf that day. That tells you what type of guy he was. [The clubs] were almost the same specification as mine because we are almost the same size. I played pretty good with them."
• Miami Heat guard LeBron James: "It was the best experiences I ever had at that time. I was a sophomore in high school, and I got an opportunity to go to Chicago where he worked out. I had an opportunity to meet him. It was like meeting a hero of yours. You really don't know what to say. You just kind of watch everything that he does, every step that he makes and [listen to] everything that he says. He's someone I always look up to. I don't know if he knew who I was or not. I don't remember if he said anything to me. I got an opportunity to shake his hand and sit down. It was cool."
• Denver Nuggets coach George Karl, who coached the Seattle Supersonics against the Bulls in the 1996 NBA Finals: "In '96 when we played the Bulls in the Finals I warned my players about socializing with Michael Jordan because I think he's a trickster. Players always wanted to say hi to him and talk to him. I told them that he is doing that to use you. I told all my players, even [Jordan's ex-North Carolina teammate] Sam Perkins that I didn't want any fraternizing with Michael Jordan before this series, but I also said you can shake his hand and if you want to go to dinner with him before the first game, fine. After that, nothing. I thought I was being macho myself. Michael Jordan never shook my hand and didn't recognize me the whole series until we lost."
• Former Boston Celtics forward Kevin McHale, now coach of the Houston Rockets: "The story I remember the most is they had a bad Chicago team and we'd be beating them to an inch of their life and he'd be playing like it was a tied game. I remember going to the locker room after those games and saying, 'Man, that kid competes. He really competes hard and gets after it. If he ever gets any type of jump shot he's going to be deadly.' I admired that. I liked him because he competed so hard. He was unique on a bad Chicago team."
• Former Chicago Bulls guard B.J. Armstrong, now a sports agent: "He's a guy who competed on every possession. We toss that around a lot, say that a lot. But whether it was practice, whose bags were going to come out first at baggage claim, every free throw … Every possession to him was about competition, which made him a very unique person in that way. He wasn't the best shooter I ever saw, the best ball-handler I ever saw. But he was very consistent in his approach of competing every possession. Everything about him was a lifestyle for him. If you see him right now, he is competing about something. A card game. A golf shot. Whatever it is there was going to be competition involved. He was a unique character. A unique player. A terrific teammate."
• Former Chicago Bulls center Scott Williams, now an assistant coach with the D-League's Idaho Stampede: "He was super competitive. I remember playing 1-on-1 games with him to 5 or 7. I might be one or two points away from a game-winner and he'd have a phantom foul call. He'd call his own foul, a phantom foul call, in the key possession of the game. I never got an opportunity to beat him. In my defense, he was the best player on the planet. And two, I wasn't really known for my scoring ability. The great thing about Mike was that if you got the right button pushed he'd stay in that gym and play with you all day. There would be times where we'd have back-to-back games and we might have a light practice and [coach] Phil [Jackson] would put the reins on him and not let him do things and he'd see us out there going and his juices were flowing while he was sitting out there on the sideline. That was always a great opportunity to jab him, poke him with a stick, poke the best. The problem was Jackson would let the reporters in the last few minutes of practice and by that time I was out there playing and he's giving it to me in front of a handful of Chicago reporters."
• Former NBA and North Carolina State forward-center Chris Washburn: "After my first year in the league, and he had already been in the league for a minute, and we were playing a benefit game for Athletes Against Crime. At halftime I had 12 points. Mike might have had 22, 23. But in the second half we both ended up with 38 and 38. I'm on a fast break on the wing, Mike has the ball and there is only like 20 seconds left in the game. I'm sprinting and I'm under the basket in three or four steps. Nobody was in front of me. I got my hand up. Mike comes down, scores the last two points and he had 40 and I had 38. He got MVP of the game simply because he didn't pass me the ball."
• Heat guard Dwyane Wade: "Growing up in Chicago I always go back to the beginning. When I fell in love with the game of basketball is kind of around the age of 9 years old. On WGN every night, Channel 9 in Chicago, I would watch the Bulls and saw them win their first championship. I got a chance to watch the greatest player on a nightly basis. That's what I always think of when I think of my first initiation to basketball and my first initiation to the greatest player of all time."
• Former Chicago Bulls assistant coach Jim Cleamons:"He was just a joy in letting you teach him. A lot
of guys they think they are all that and a bag of chips. As a teacher it was a pleasure because you knew how good he was and he would still try to execute what you wanted to have done. When I came to the Bulls in '89, '90, he was obviously the marquee player. He influenced his teammates because he didn't see practices as off. When your best player does it you have a chance. He competed in every drill like he was trying to make the team as opposed to as my mom would say, 'Have a look and a promise.' It just set the whole tone. His presence and the way he conducted himself as an athlete was a true joy as an athlete."
• Hall of Famer Chris Mullin, who played with Jordan on two gold-medal-winning USA teams: "I played with him in '84 during the Olympics and roomed with him that summer quite a bit. He led in every category on that team with some great players. Wayman Tisdale, Patrick [Ewing], Sam [Perkins]. But Michael was our guy. He led that team. It's funny. During that summer in the Olympics they played a lot of zone. So we would put Michael at the free-throw line and give him the ball and let him turn and make decisions. [Coach] Bobby Knight would get angry with him because he would leave his feet. He would turn, survey the situation and take a dribble or maybe not and raise up. He would hang in the air for so long he'd either find shooters in the corner or find Wayman and Patrick for dunks. Bobby was like, 'fundamentally you don't leave your feet to pass.' But they made a deal, when you turn the ball over you have to stop doing it. He never turned the ball over. He was that good. He actually turned Bobby Knight's thinking. You have to make exceptions for the great ones."
• Former Chicago Bulls forward Rod Higgins, now president of the Charlotte Bobcats: "The competitive nature of the guy was evident when he came in as a rookie. He was really non-verbal at that point, which is hard to believe knowing him today. But the thing that jumped out at you is he had an ability to compete at the smaller things, where it was running a sprint or 1-on-1 defense, whether it was making the most free throws. There was a situation where we had an eye doctor come in and give some eye tests. When you take the eye test there is a competitive factor in how quick you could punch the lights that come up. He wasn't 20-20. But he just loved the fact that he was able to have the best score. He got the most right and he was so thrilled because he wanted to say, 'Look man, I'm better than you at that, too.' "
[Related: Growing up as Michael Jordan's son]
• Los Angeles Clippers assistant GM and ex-NBA player Gerald Madkins, who played with Bulls in one training camp: "I had a black and white picture of Michael Jordan as a rookie guarding Magic Johnson in the All-Star Game. Magic had already signed it for me, and when I was joining the Bulls I brought the picture with me. We were in Miami for a preseason game and I reminded Michael that I had the picture. He tells me this is my hotel room alias, call me and I will give you my room number. I call him, went up to the room and knocked on the door and it was the biggest room I've ever been in. He's calling me. I'm trying to follow his voice to where he is in the room. There is a grand piano in it. I finally got to him and I handed him the picture. I saw an amazed look on his face when he looked at the picture and he said, ‘Yeah, I remember this. This is my first All-Star Game … ' He started talking about it and right then and there I guess I saw his humanity. The whole month before then I saw him as the shoes, the Jordan logo, the wagging tongue, the commercials, the best player in the league. I saw him how everyone else saw him as Michael Jordan. But at that time when I gave him the picture I saw a man, a father, a son, a husband. His humanity was in his face as he looked at a picture of a moment in time in his life and where obviously he was proud of it. There was real pride in what he was looking at. That changed my view of him even to this day."
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