There were snickers when Juanita Jordan predicted her husband would be “doing more carpooling” after he retired from basketball a second time in January 1999 to spend more time with his family. But in the months that followed, that’s what Michael Jordan did, shuttling his three children to and from their Chicago-area schools in his Range Rover. The jobless Jordan also proved “a great husband,” Juanita told Ebony magazine in March 2000. “When he is away for a period of time, he sends me roses.”
That’s probably about to stop. On Jan. 4, only three months after her restless husband unretired again to play for the NBA’s Washington Wizards, Juanita, 42, filed for divorce in Waukegan, Ill., after 12 years of marriage. She asked for permanent custody of their children—Jeffrey, 13, Marcus, 11, and Jasmine, 9—and title to their $5.1 million mansion on eight acres in Chicago’s Highland Park. Juanita also asked for an equitable share of their marital assets, a substantial pile given Jordan’s estimated fortune of $400 million. “When you have personal issues, sometimes work is a great avenue to deal with it and move on,” a somber Jordan, 38, told reporters after practicing on Jan. 8. “Things will work out in the long run.”
Work has always seemed the best refuge for Jordan. Just five months after his first retirement in 1993 following the murder of his father, James, earlier that year, he tried his hand at minor-league baseball. When that experiment failed, he returned to the Chicago Bulls in 1996. His second spell away from the hardcourt was even shorter: In January 2001 he bought a 10 percent stake in the woeful Wizards for an estimated $25 million, took the job of president of operations and commuted to a deluxe apartment at the Ritz-Carlton Residences in Washington, D.C. By October he was playing for the team, a commitment that required him to live in D.C. full-time, while Juanita, head of a Chicago-based foundation that benefits several charities, stayed home with the kids.
Over the years, Jordan lived as competitively as he played: gambling in the high-roller rooms of casinos from Las Vegas to Atlantic City, golfing with buddies Charles Barkley and Tiger Woods and silently weathering occasional tabloid headlines about his personal life. It was no different during his latest comeback. After the Wizards played the New York Knicks in late December, for instance, Jordan joined buddies Ahmad Rashad, the NBC basketball commentator, and Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter at the trendy Manhattan bar Eugene, knocking back champagne and ringing up a $1,600 bill.
Jordan met Juanita Vanoy, then an administrative assistant, at a Chicago Bennigan’s restaurant in March 1985 after she attended a Bulls game. Pregnant with his child by 1988, Juanita spent nearly a year considering whether to file a paternity suit but instead married Jordan at 3:30 a.m. on Sept. 2, 1989, in the Little White Chapel in Las Vegas, when Jeffrey was 10 months old. A year and a half later the pair signed a postnuptial agreement.
Through most of Jordan’s career, Juanita remained in the lavishly appointed background. Their sprawling 25,000-sq.-ft. mansion seemed worthy of its own zip code, and Jordan heaped gifts upon his wife, including a heart-shaped Piaget watch—one of only three in the world—that he gave her on their 12th wedding anniversary, and a $500,000 diamond bracelet and $400,000 diamond necklace he helped design himself. “He spent many hours on them,” says Bijan Pakzad, Jordan’s business partner and the Beverly Hills jeweler who created the baubles. “He wanted to make her happy.”
As recently as mid-December, some friends still thought she was. During a Dec. 14 game against the New York Knicks at Washington, D.C.’s MCI Center, Jordan caught the eye of Juanita, who was in his luxury box. “I remember her waving at him,” says Donnie Simpson, a friend who was there. “That seemed so loving to me, that they were acknowledging each other from afar.” That, perhaps, was the problem.
Andrea Billups and J. Todd Foster in Washington, D.C., Lauren Comander, Lorna Grisby, Barbara Sandler and Trine Tsouderos in Chicago and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles