The day after he led the University of North Carolina Tar Heels to a national basketball championship in 1982, freshman star Michael Jordan, a 6’6″, cobra-quick guard with dizzying aerial moves, was back on campus playing in a pickup game. Never one to rest on his laurels, Jordan said he wanted “to work on my weaknesses.” It must have been a short workout, because it would take a search party to find even a minor flaw in his game. “Whatever a basketball player is supposed to have, Michael Jordan has it,” enthuses NBC basketball analyst Al McGuire. “Watching him is like watching a highlight film.”
After two more dazzling years, Jordan, now a 21-year-old junior and arguably the country’s top college player, will lead the heavily favored Tar Heels into the NCAA championships, which begin this week. To be sure, he gets plenty of help from All-America teammate Sam Perkins. Still, Jordan has topped UNC—a school that is a virtual assembly line for NBA stars—in scoring for two straight years, helped guide the United States to a gold medal in the Pan American Games in Caracas last summer and is a shoo-in to make the Olympic team this summer. Says teammate Matt Doherty, who guards Jordan in practice, “He’s just a pain in the neck to stop.”
Forever modest, Jordan himself deflects such hoopla. “I’m just a team player who’s willing to contribute in any possible way to win,” he says. A ferocious competitor, he may be one of those athletes who hates to lose more than he loves to win. “Michael doesn’t like to lose at anything he does, whether it’s cards, pool or basketball,” says teammate Buzz Peterson, who is also Jordan’s confidant and roommate in a modest two-bedroom student apartment. Observes Tar Heel coach Dean Smith: “One time this year in practice we put him in with four guys who weren’t starters, and Michael’s team got killed. It ruined his evening.” Says Jordan, “I have to be a man and accept losing, but it’s very hard for me.”
Ironically, Jordan was considered too small to play varsity basketball as a freshman in high school in his hometown of Wilmington, N.C. Nonetheless he persevered, playing endless games of one-on-one with his older brother Larry, now a senior at UNC. By the end of his senior year, Jordan had grown eight more inches (he has added another inch at Chapel Hill), made the varsity and become one of the most sought-after high school seniors in the country.
Jordan’s parents are his biggest boosters. His father, James, an equipment supervisor at a General Electric plant, and his mother, Deloris, a customer-service supervisor at a bank, travel to almost all of Michael’s games, whether in Chapel Hill or Hawaii. “Michael could never walk away from basketball,” recalls his dad. “He’d just play and play and play.”
Jordan’s off-court demeanor is light-years away from that of a college superstar. Once, when roommate Peterson had to rush home to Asheville, N.C. to visit a sick aunt, he returned to their apartment to find that Jordan had “the whole room cleaned up, my closet fixed, my bed made, and my shoes and sweaters in the right place. That’s the kind of person he is.”
His life isn’t all basketball. Jordan relaxes by shooting pool five times a week, golfing, bicycling and watching TV. “If there’s a movie on he really likes and a basketball game, he’ll watch the movie,” reports Peterson. Though Jordan once juggled three girlfriends, he and Peterson look upon steady dating the way others might view being shipped off to the Gulag. “We felt like we were young and we still had a whole life ahead of us,” explains Jordan of their noncommittal policy. A geography major with a B average, he hopes to become a college professor once his inevitable pro career is finished.
But this month winning another national title is the challenge. In the NCAAs Jordan could wind up playing against such better-known college stars as Houston’s Akeem “The Dream” Olajuwon and Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing, both seven-footers. Jordan is not intimidated by the prospect. “When I go against players who have gotten a lot of publicity, I always consider myself the lowest on the totem pole,” he explains. “That makes me work harder, because I want to get to the top.” Somebody should tell him he is already there.