Financially, Air Jordan needs basketball less than it needs him
A HUGE BASKETBALL ON THE ROOF IS Till; first clue that Michael Jordan’s restaurant in downtown Chicago is open for business. And just in case you’re unaware that the owner does something more than grill steaks, Jordan himself flies across the face of the building on a giant mural and recaps his greatest moves on a wall of video screens inside. But the most revealing aspect of this $6 million enterprise isn’t the imagery; it’s the glass-enclosed private dining room at the back of the second floor.
This room is reserved strictly for the owner and his family. “There are times I’d like to go out with the kids and Michael, and then I realize this kind of crowd is always around him,” says Juanita Jordan, surveying the throng at the restaurant’s opening late last month. “Now there’s a place we can always be comfortable.” Her husband puts it more bluntly: “I’m going to try to eliminate as much autograph-seeking as possible.”
If Michael Jordan sounds like the Garbo of basketball, he has his reasons. Last June he led the Chicago Bulls to their second consecutive National Basketball Association championship, spent the summer as a member of America’s Dream Team at the Olympics in Barcelona, then came home to lead the Bulls into the current National Basketball Association playoffs. Eighteen months in a fishbowl with no time to rest, and Jordan understandably wants to be alone.
He might be in a more charitable mood if the Bulls had played like champions this season. But his team-males are aging, tired and injured—and once again the Chicago five is Michael Jordan and his supporting cast of Jordanaires. “How do we win now?” the 30-year-old asks grimly. “Any way we can.” Some smart money says the Bulls can’t reach the end of the playoffs gauntlet this year, but New York Knicks coach Pat Riley—who knows the road to the championship will almost certainly pass through Chicago—isn’t sure. “As long as Michael Jordan is breathing.”” he says, “Chicago is the team to beat.”
Indeed, the league’s scoring champion actually gets better during the playoffs. Always primed to compete at lop form, Jordan lifts weights even on game days, downs only the occasional beer and calls an evening of cards a party. “If I stay in my room,” Jordan says of his legendarily hermetic life on the road, “I can’t get in trouble.”
Of the many possible incentives to live so nobly, financial reward would seem the biggest. Ever since Nike sold 2.3 million Air Jordans in his rookie year in 1985, Jordan has been the premier name in sports merchandising and endorsements. Wilson, Gatorade. Coke, McDonald’s, Hanes, Wheaties—wherever you turn, Michael Jordan is there, bathed in a revenue torrent that brings him an estimated $50 million a year.
But Jordan doesn’t live right just because it pays; he lives right because his parents raised him right. James Jordan, 54, a General Electric supervisor, and wife Deloris, 51, a bank customer service representative, brought up their five children in Wilmington, N.C., where Michael learned to play basketball on his family’s backyard court. “We didn’t do anything for Michael that we didn’t do for our four others,” she says. “PTA, Boy Scouts, band—our kids were our life. James and I were so involved with our children that after they left home, we had to meet one another all over again.”
When Jordan decided to leave the University of North Carolina after his junior year to join the Bulls, it was Deloris who made her son fly to Oregon for that life-changing meeting with Nike. And when he moved to Chicago, Deloris wasn’t shy about following him. “My stomach was in knots,” she explains. “Here he was in the big city, and he didn’t know a soul.” So she went up for the first three months to help Michael settle in—and for the next two years dispatched one of his siblings almost every weekend to keep tabs on him.
A 21-year-old overnight sensation—who was also 6’6″, handsome, rich and single—was a disaster waiting to happen. Michael Jordan had no trouble staying away from drugs; his opiate of choice is junk food. He loved cards but wasn’t yet gambling for hefty stakes. And after an initial burst of spending for gold caused a friend to urge him to get rid of “the Mr. T starter set,” he veered away from costly jewelry. Women, therefore, were his only possible weakness. So his mother became his chaperone. “I was really nervous, and my mother became more or less my second eye,” he says.
Juanita Vanoy, a loan officer at a Chicago bank, was a mother’s dream. Jordan had flashed on her before she noticed him, and she was spookily mature. But he was both smitten and conflicted, even after the arrival of a son, Jeffrey, in 1988. It wasn’t until Jeffrey was almost a year old that Jordan announced he was willing to get married, and the couple headed off to Las Vegas with a pack of friends in tow.
There, Jordan balked again. “I told Juanita I was afraid that when the preacher asked if there was anyone who objected to the marriage, too many hands would go up. I didn’t trust my buddies because they saw it as the start of another stage of my life, and they knew that would limit them. So I said, ‘If you want to do it, let’s do it now.’ We’d both had a couple of drinks, we’d been gambling and losing—this was like our bachelor night. That’s how we got married at 3:30 a.m. in a wedding chapel. I did say, ‘Five years from now, maybe we can do a church wedding.’ And that’s what Juanita’s banking on. She says she was robbed of those precious moments.”
Actually, she has a few other grievances. “I’m more down-home Southern, Juanita’s more city-like,” Jordan says. “When my good friends come up from North Carolina, I don’t mind having them stay over and sleep on the floor—that’s a Southern attitude. But Juanita believes that these are grown men now. She’ll say, ‘Make sure they get a hotel.’ ” Juanita would also like more nights off from the family—which now includes Jeffrey, 4, Marcus, 2, and infant Jasmine—and more evenings alone with her husband. “I’ve lost the desire to go out. But I force myself because my wife deserves that attention,” Jordan says.
There was, however, one time when Jordan contemplated going out—and in a big way. In 1988, Nike marketing whizzes Rob Strasser and Peter Moore called with surprising news: They were culling out from Nike and wanted Jordan to go with them. “We thought Michael could be the black Ralph Lauren,” says Strasser, who laid out the plans for Michael Jordan, Inc. They were offering Jordan equity, challenge and a timetable for retirement that would let him leave basketball when he was still at his absolute peak, “If you can bring a championship to Chicago, fine,” Strasser told Jordan. “But all we need you to do is play through 1991. After that, you can drive your car into a ditch.”
But Nike CEO Phil Knight countered with a deal so sweet that even Strasser and Moore said Jordan should take it: an eight-year contract worth between $75 and $100 million. The size of the deal meant Nike would have to increase Jordan’s exposure. That also meant more TV-and-photo sessions, more endorsements and less free time. It also made other basketball players envious.
Jordan became so involved with business that he brooded about the fact that 40 percent of the $1.2 billion generated yearly by the NBA’s merchandising arm featured either Chicago Bulls insignia or his face. Reasoning that he and Nike should be the sole beneficiaries of his image, he sued the NBA. Jordan won but was only partly satisfied. “I got almost all my rights back,” he says, “and I got labeled as a greedy guy.”
Striving to make time for his family, Jordan has become a martinet about his schedule, particularly when it comes to filming commercials. “I won’t have all those retakes,” he says. “You don’t get five free throws when you get fouled once—you get two, and that’s it.” So it came as something of a shock when he worked with Michael Jackson on the music video Jam during a break in the 1992 playoffs. “They told me it would take two four-hour filming sessions,” Jordan recalls ruefully. “They didn’t tell me Michael works so hard he films for 25 minutes, then he has to rest for 90.” Jordan calls Michael “a nice guy, but shy”—largely due to the public invasion of his private life. “I felt lucky to be where I was. I mean, I’m able to do something outside.”
Jordan predicts he’ll soon be able to live without looking at the clock or avoiding his flocks of fans; he insists he’s going to retire in 1996. “I feel I’m at the stage of my career when it’s tough to move up,” he explains. “I can only maintain and be consistent. I’ve set such high standards. You lose a bit of the joy as you move on.” Taking his own parents as role models, he knows where the next joy is to be found: “I’m missing a lot of years now, but when my children start school, I want to be there for them.”
Jordan also has his next sports challenge lined up, and, not surprisingly, it’s one he can play alone. “I don’t need an opponent to be competitive in golf,” he notes. “The course is going to shoot 72 each time I face it.” He’s also sworn to keep his game clean, particularly after the time in 1991 when he lost $57,000 playing in a foursome that included a golf-shop owner who was later discovered to have been convicted for dealing cocaine. “That was a maturing experience,” he says. “Now I have people who check who’s coming into my house and who I talk to. That’s part of this life I don’t really like.”
Meantime, that private room in Michael Jordan’s Restaurant suggests Jordan still thinks he can find a way to be both accessible and private—that is, if the public cooperates. “If you do see me, don’t bother me,” he says, then grins and becomes the Michael Jordan of old. “But you can say hi.”