Inspirational Athletes

Challenge Hungry: Michael Jordan

“Above all, challenge yourself.” Cecile M. Springer

Long before basketball superstar Michael Jordan became among the most accomplished athletes of all time, taking on the likes of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Kobe Bryant, he battled his own brother Larry almost every day for years on a small basketball half-court in his family’s backyard. And for years, the elder Jordan routinely trounced his younger brother. But Michael loved the sport. And in those daily games against his athletically gifted brother—games that often became so intense that they ended in fights—Michael’s challenge-hungry and determined spirit was unleashed to the fullest.

By his mid-teens, Michael finally began regularly beating his brother. Years later, he would say, “If I could beat him, I felt I could beat anybody.”

But if the challenge to beat his brother urged Michael on, then what occurred during his sophomore year of high school took everything to the next level.

By then, he had been playing basketball with a religious-like zeal for years, and had his heart fully set on making the school varsity team that year.

But when the day came and the varsity team list was posted, there was no “Michael Jordan” on it — and to put it mildly, Michael was not happy about it.

He went through the rest of his school day numb from disappointment, and then hurried home and privately retreated to his room, not wanting others to see him in his hurt state as he cried for most of the afternoon.

But Michael emerged from his room intent on becoming a varsity starter the following season, * and step-by-step continued his quest.

Years later in his 1994 book I Can’t Accept Not Trying, Michael expressed his belief in the effectiveness of setting short-term goals and accomplishing goals in a step-by-step manner. “Step by step.” he wrote. “I can’t see any other way of accomplishing anything.”

During his sophomore year, Michael ended up excelling on his high school’s junior varsity team, routinely pouring in over 30 points per game. His dynamic, exciting, passionate, and intense play also made him quite the crowd-pleaser—so much so that he often drew his school’s entire varsity team to the JV games.

An insatiable Michael continued progress after that season and into the summer; and by his junior year, and by his junior year, he earned redemption by making the varsity team.

And not only did Michael earn a starting spot on the roster as a first year varsity player, he soon became the team’s dominant player. As the star of the team in his junior and then his senior year, he gained acclaim as an immensely talented and determined player, and was invited to prestigious basketball camps and All Star games that included many of the nation’s top high school players—where he rose to the occasion and performed well against his elite competition.

And although Michael was not as highly regarded as some of the country’s other top high school players, the highly rated University of North Carolina basketball program was quite impressed with his play and potential, and offered him a scholarship.

After eagerly accepting North Carolina’s offer, Michael was soon off to the school’s Chapel Hill campus. As a freshman prospect on one of the nation’s premier college basketball teams, he had a seemingly boundless opportunity right in front of him.

And it certainly did not take long for Michael to make his presence felt in the new environment. In fact, after his very first team basketball practice, he left such a strong impression on the coaching staff, that they became convinced his upside potential would begin paying off immediately. Michael displayed an impressive combination of skills, focus, intelligence, and athleticism, plus a hunger for challenges and a quick learning ability. And as he routinely outplayed many of his team’s projected starters in preseason practice sessions, North Carolina head coach Dean Smith—a conservative-minded coach who had seldom ever put freshman on his starting lineups—quickly sensed that he really had no choice but to make Michael a starter that year.

Soon into that season, a certain mystique began to grow around North Carolina’s 18-year-old starting guard. Since college games were not routinely televised back then, it was a largely word of mouth buzz that spread about a freshman named Michael Jordan who displayed glimpses of quick bursts and high-flying acrobatics that perhaps had never been duplicated on a basketball court before.

Though Michael was not quite a dominant player yet, his extraordinary skills caused many to speculate that he was on his way to becoming the future of basketball—that he was perhaps a new variety of player that could elevate the already quick and high flying sport to a whole new level. *.

By the latter part of that season, he was quickly thrust into the national spotlight *and took the hype a step further as he helped the North Carolina squad make it to the national finals, and then drained a high-pressure clutch shot in the closing seconds of the contest, giving his team the eventual one point win and national title.

Curiously, the already tall Michael, who entered college at around 6’4”, continued to grow into the start of his sophomore year to 6’6”—even more bizarre considering how no other member of Michael’s family was over six feet tall.

Michael began his sophomore year with a bang, and made it apparent early that season that he would soon establish himself as one of college’s top players—an expectation he met and surpassed, as he captured Player of the Year honors, though he and his North Carolina team did not manage to repeat as national champions.

The following season, Michael once again was named Player of the Year, but again did not manage to engineer a championship win. A disappointed but still-focused Michael was spotted alone playing basketball in the gym the very next day after the defeat.

Later in that off-season, Coach Smith convinced Michael to forgo his senior season and go straight to the pros. Then on June 19, 1984—in what would turn out to be the greatest NBA Draft in league history—Michael was chosen number three overall by the then lowly Chicago Bulls, a team that had only one winning season in its past seven years.

Michael Jordan (Illustrator: Thomas Mesenbring Field)

And it did not take long for Michael’s new team to experience the level of his intensity. In fact, in one of his team practice sessions, everyone on the Bulls found out a great deal about what their first-round draft pick was about. During a five-on-five match up where the losing side would have to run laps afterwards, Michael led his squad to an 8-0 lead, only to have Bulls head coach Kevin Loughery switch him to the other side. An enraged Michael responded by leading his new team to ten unanswered points.

That session turned out to be a sign of what was to come that year, and in fact, throughout Michael’s career. As usual, he developed ahead of schedule, and in his NBA rookie season he quickly established himself as a scoring machine and an elite player. That season was also the beginning of “Michael-mania,” as fans were drawn to Michael’s exciting and high-flying playing style, as well as his charismatic personality and captivating smile.

In fact, it was all those attributes that encouraged footwear manufacturer Nike to offer a lucrative endorsement deal to Michael before his rookie season. At the time, Nike was a minor contender in the booming basketball sneaker industry, and was convinced that the high-flying Michael Jordan could be its key to catching up to industry giants like Converse and Adidas.

The Nike endorsement deal would be the first of many for Michael, who went on to become the first African-American superstar athlete to also carry his superstardom into the world of product endorsements. Michael’s popular Nike “Air Jordan” line of shoes and clothing eventually became a marketing phenomenon that turned Nike into a global powerhouse brand, and earned Michael a fortune in royalties and incentives. And the other endorsement deals that would follow throughout Michael’s legendary career would take his non-basketball earnings into the stratosphere, and catapult him into becoming one of the world’s most recognized figures, even to people who had barely ever played or watched a basketball game.

But before “Michael-mania” took off and became the phenomenon it eventually did become, it was temporarily halted when Michael broke a bone in his left foot early in his second NBA season. The injury sidelined him for over 60 games—an almost unbearable layoff for the eager-to-play Michael. He finally returned at the end of the season, and soon resumed his meteoric rise.

In his third season, he won his first NBA scoring title with a whopping 37.1 point per game average, and was already playing like a living legend, delighting fans as he sped and flew across the court, shut down opposing players, poured in points, and put the Bulls on the map.

For the next few years, he took the league by storm and won all kinds of accolades, from Scoring Champion, to League MVP, to All Star Game MVP, to Slam Dunk Champion, to Steals Champion, and to Defensive Player of the Year.

It seemed as if Michael was just about everywhere.

However, there was one place that Michael was conspicuously absent from every year: the Promised Land itself, the NBA Finals. For although Michael had reached personal superstardom and led the Bulls to the playoffs six straight times in his first six seasons, and Eastern Conference Finals appearances in his fifth and sixth seasons, he and the Bulls had not been able to make it any further than that.

And although Michael was hands down one of the league’s best players, he was also for the most part regarded as the player who dunked and scored, but probably not the player who could win it all.

But as Michael’s supporting cast on the Bulls continued to improve through draft picks and acquisitions, he also learned to coexist better with his teammates. And when Bulls assistant coach Phil Jackson was promoted to the head coaching position in 1989, the team chemistry—built around Michael—was taken to a whole new level. **

In Michael’s seventh year, the 1990-91 season, he and the Bulls finally turned the tide. After compiling an impressive 61-21 regular season record, they really unleashed their power in the playoffs by quickly eliminating their first two opponents, and setting up a Conference Finals showdown with their hated rivals, the defending NBA champion Detroit Pistons.

Though the Pistons had eliminated the Bulls the prior two seasons, this time would be no sign of a series win for the Pistons. Michael and the Bulls trounced the Pistons four games to none, and at last advanced to the NBA Finals, pitting them against a very strong Los Angeles Lakers team.

In those Finals, Michael and the Bulls recovered from a last second Game One loss, and went on to dominate and win four games straight, taking home an NBA championship—and then another one—and then another one, as for three straight seasons, Michael led the Bulls to NBA titles, and also won three consecutive Finals MVP honors in the process. And in between the second and third titles, he added Olympic gold as a part of Team USA’s “Dream Team” in the first ever Olympics where professional NBA players were allowed to participate. (Michael had previously also won an Olympic gold medal with Team USA as an amateur player coming out of college in the 1984 Olympics.)

After his third NBA championship, Michael was on top of the basketball world, but his longtime demanding schedule left him feeling drained. As he contemplated retirement during that off-season, it was off the basketball court that he suffered his biggest loss: the unexpected death of his father James Jordan, who was killed by armed robbers while taking a nap one night in his car.

The news was devastating for Michael, who had a very close relationship with his father and admired him greatly.

Michael reassessed his life, and then proper to the start of the 1993-94 NBA season, he abruptly announced that he was stepping away from the sport of basketball.

But rather than just twiddling his thumbs in retirement, Michael decided to try to take a shot at professional baseball. He began training privately, and later made his intentions public.

Michael, who had excelled at baseball as a youth and also played in high school, was over a decade removed from actively participating in the sport. But fueled by his eagerness to play, he began a rigorous training program, and signed a minor league contract in 1994 with the Chicago White Sox organization, who assigned the basketball-legend turned baseball-prospect to their AA affiliate Birmingham Barons team.

Michael struggled for most of that season playing for the Barons, and later played slightly better in a 35 game stint with the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League. Though he began improving and growing accustomed to the game, he realized that he was a long way from becoming a major leaguer. And, with a possible baseball strike on the way, Michael also knew that he would have little opportunity in the near future to gain the experience needed to succeed at baseball. Plus, he had scratched his “baseball itch,” and by the latter part of his baseball season had * a renewed enthusiasm for basketball.

A rejuvenated Michael excitingly decided to return to the NBA and rejoin the Bulls for the latter part of the 1994-95 season. He announced his sudden return with two words: “I’m back!”

In the 1993-94 NBA season that Michael missed in NBA retirement, the Bulls managed to do well in the regular season, but lost a hard fought playoff series to the New York Knicks. Now with Michael returning towards the end of the 1994-95 season, the Bulls hoped to make waves that year as they neared the close of the regular season and into the playoffs.

The returning Michael played well and took the Bulls into the playoffs with momentum, where they overcame the Charlotte Hornets in the first round. However, they suffered a defeat to the Orlando Magic in the following round, ending Michael’s run at a fourth championship. And although Michael averaged 26.9 points per game that regular season and 31.5 in the playoffs, it was widely agreed that his play had dropped off considerably from when he first retired.

But a renewed Michael Jordan sharpened his skills in the off-season, and in the 1995-96 season he quickly erased all doubts as to whether he could reach the top again. In fact, he and the Bulls dominated en route to a phenomenal 72-10 regular season record, another scoring title and league MVP for Michael, and another NBA championship win—and then another one—and then another one—as yet another time, the basketball world watched Michael lead the Bulls to three consecutive NBA championships, and win three NBA Finals MVPs for himself.

In those three seasons, Michael went from a three-time NBA champion to a six-time NBA champion, a seven-time scoring champion to a ten-time scoring champion, and a basketball legend to a true sports immortal and an almost superhuman figure in world culture.

He also ended the last title win on a particularly sweet note against the Utah Jazz in game six of the 1998 NBA Finals. With 42 seconds left and a three point Bulls deficit, Michael brilliantly rallied his team back by quickly making a lay-up, making a key steal, and then dramatically draining a memorable jump shot with five seconds remaining, putting his Bulls up by one, and sending his scoring total for the night to 45. The Bulls hung on to their lead in the remaining seconds, securing them the series win and their third consecutive NBA championship.

Months after the win, Michael once again officially announced his retirement from the sport, and by early 2000, he became an executive and part owner of the Washington Wizards NBA franchise.

But Michael would not stay a retired player for long. In early 2001, he began exercising and playing in several pickup basketball games. Though he claimed he was merely trying to lose excess weight and get in shape, various rumors began that he in fact was attempting an NBA comeback. Michael later confirmed the rumors, and announced that he had signed a two-year contract with the Wizards.

Many fans wondered if the comeback could put a damper on Michael’s legacy, and some expressed opinions against the 38-year-old legends return to the NBA. But for Michael, he was simply doing it because he wanted to play. He was doing it for the love of the game.

In two seasons with Washington, Michael averaged over 20 points per game, though the Wizards narrowly missed the playoffs both seasons. And while he was not as dominant as before, he was still among the league’s best guards, and was having a great time playing.

Following his 2002-03 season with the Wizards, Michael made his third retirement from the NBA—but, knowing Michael, there certainly is a chance that it will not be his last.

Michael currently spends most of his time working out, playing golf, promoting products, and spending time with his family. He also is actively pursuing the possibility of becoming involved with another NBA franchise, after having broken relations with the Wizards in 2003.

Meanwhile, during the second half of Michael’s career and continuing to this day, NBA fans seem to have made a habit out of looking for and dubbing certain league newcomers as the “next Jordan,” most recently giving the distinction to young Cleveland Cavaliers dynamo LeBron James, a player who in his first few seasons has shown that he very well might be worth of the sacred title.

But of course, just like there can only be one of a particular individual, there can only be one true Michael Jordan.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Michael Jordan is his hunger and eagerness for challenges, both on and off the basketball court. This was a theme that began in Michael’s late teens continues to persist to this day. Whether it’s Monopoly, pool, golf, cards, ping-pong, bike riding, Pac-Man, or tennis, Michael plays everything with a similar passion to the way he plays basketball.

“I’m all about challenges and seeing if I can go out and see if I can achieve something,” Michael once said. “If at the end of the day I do it, great. If I don’t, I can live with myself.”

Inspirational Athletes