What do you get someone who, with six NBA championships, five most valuable player awards, 14 All-Star selections, 10 scoring titles and multiple millions of dollars, seemingly has it all?
Well, in the case of Michael Jordan's 50th birthday, memories suffice.
The greatest athlete in Chicago's history is a half-century old. The memories he and the Bulls created will last generations. When Jordan entered the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, the Tribune gauged his lasting legacy, traveling the world to report stories of his lingering impact.
These 50 anecdotes and memories — even some nightmares — do the same. Consider them candles, flickering symbols of recognition and respect from those who know Jordan well.
Jerry Reinsdorf, Bulls chairman since 1985
First day of spring training in '93. Walt Hriniak, who was our crusty batting coach, was convinced that this whole thing of Michael playing baseball was a publicity stunt. He told me a couple of times over the winter that he didn't want anything to do with it. The first day, he walked up to Michael — and Walter led the league in F-bombs — and said, "What the F is all this about? Is this a publicity stunt? Are you serious?'' Michael said to him, "I'm dead serious.'' So Walter said, ''All right, meet me at 7:30 a.m. at the cage.'' Every morning, at 7:30, Michael was there, hitting with Walter. He hit to the point sometimes his hands were bleeding. If you talk to Walter today, he'll tell you Michael was the hardest-working and most dedicated athlete he ever has known.
Jerry Krause, Bulls general manager from 1985 to 2003
We're in Phoenix in his second or third year. He has this huge, blood-filled swelling on one of his feet. The Phoenix team doctor, Paul Steingard, has to lance it. Blood and puss fly all over the table. … MJ begs (coach) Doug Collins to let him go to Houston the next night. … Doug and I confer, knowing the amazing recuperative powers MJ had — and Michael starts in on me. We decided to let him make the trip and we would protect him. If memory is correct, he got 52 or something like that. His pain threshold was unreal.
Dominique Wilkins, Hall of Fame Hawks forward
One game I scored 50, maybe 57, in Atlanta. I remember going back to Chicago and he scored 60. He took it a little personal. And the way he scored 60 was incredible. We put everybody on him but the kitchen sink but couldn't stop him. Couldn't stop him. Assassin. That's what he was. Probably the most competitive and feared guy I have ever played against.
David Falk, Jordan's longtime agent
The first summer following his rookie year, Michael comes to my house in Washington and notices that I have a Pac-Man machine in my rec room. He looks and me and says: "Can you play?'' We play a couple of games and I crush him. He says, ''Let's play again.'' I'm playing and I have the joystick and he screams: ''Look out! Look out!'' He distracts me and I get eaten. I turn to him and say, ''MJ, do I talk while you're playing?'' He looks at me and says: ''No, but I'm gonna win the next game''
Kobe Bryant, All-Star Lakers guard
Aside from all the stuff he has done on the court, the biggest thing — even beyond his athleticism and flashy game — was how fundamentally sound he was. As a young kid growing up watching that, that's the thing that I saw. I saw his ability to get to the basket to make all these flashy plays.
LeBron James, All-Star Heat forward
I've got so many memories of MJ. Name it. From the shoes to him flying through the air and switching hands against the Lakers to him hitting 3s versus the Blazers to him being on the TV screen with Bugs Bunny to him jumping over buildings in the suit in the commercials to him swinging a baseball bat or hitting a golf ball to him having a cartoon. MJ was an inspiration to me. He has done so many great things for our sport, so many great things for sport in general.
Reggie Miller, Hall of Fame Pacers guard
The one that stands out — and I mentioned it in my Hall of Fame speech — was the first time I faced him, which was an exhibition. We were in one of those obscure places, a neutral-site game. … I was a rookie. It was Chuck Person's second year. As most veterans do, they go through the motions. I was a jacked-up rookie, going 100 percent. Chuck, where I get all my talking from, was getting me all hyped up, saying, "You're killing Jordan.'' End of the half, I have 10. Jordan has eight. Chuck was telling me to talk mess to Michael. He was saying, ''You're the new guy. You're going to be all that.'' Michael just looked at me. In the second half, the real Michael Jordan came out. I think he ended up with 45 points. I had 12, just two after half. He looked at me and I was like, "OK, now I get it.''
George Karl, Nuggets coach, Sonics coach during 1996 NBA Finals
I remind him all the time that I think we held him below 40 percent shooting in that series. And I don't want to tell him, but he wasn't the best guy on their team that year. (Dennis) Rodman probably beat us as much as he did and of course (Scottie) Pippen took Gary (Payton) out of the game a lot. Their defense beat us.
Bill Wennington, Bulls broadcaster and former teammate
We were in Vancouver and we were losing at the end of a long road trip. Everybody just wanted to get home. We were playing an expansion team. In the fourth quarter, Darrick Martin starts talking crap to Michael. And Michael has, like, 19 points in six minutes and we win by four or five points. Everybody could hear what Darrick was saying. The whole team was playing like crap. We were tired. And it was the 72-10 year. We had no business winning, but Michael just turned it on because Darrick started talking. Nobody ever learned.
Nate Robinson, Bulls guard who owns 100 pairs of Jordans
In the Finals against the Sonics (in 1996) he hit this tough fadeaway on the baseline. It was a double-pump where he jumped first and he still was in the air and the defender landed. I sneaked into that game in Seattle as a kid. I had to go see MJ live. I was 11 or 12. That was big time for me.
Jim Paxson, former opponent
I was at the peak of my career and I was guarding him one time at Chicago Stadium. He ran off one side off a screen, came off the other side and I thought I was in the passing lane. I had my hand out to get on the ball. The ball went by my hand. … I thought I was doing a great job on one possession and he still pivoted, turned and dunked before I turned around.
Randy Brown, Bulls executive and former teammate
Ask any teammate what Turkey Trot is. Turkey Trot was a Thanksgiving Day practice, smalls against the bigs. It was the best practice performance I've seen in my life in a scrimmage. I think he had 100 points that day.
John Ligmanowski, longtime equipment manager
On the bus, he always had cigars. We had to open the vents on the bus to get the smoke out of there. He was the ringleader. We'd be in Canada and he'd come in and hand everybody a Cuban cigar because they were legal there. He always got the best cigars. And he was very generous. Even now when I see him, I try to infiltrate his cigar stash.
Reinsdorf, on baseball
His baseball career was a tremendous success if you think about it. He had been a pitcher in high school in Wilmington, N.C., So you can imagine what the competition level was. Fourteen years later, he decides to be an outfielder. So now he's a hitter. … We had to send him to Double A because the accommodations at A ball weren't good enough to handle the media horde. He hit .209. That's phenomenal. He could have hit .085. Then in Fall League that year, he hit above .250. The Fall League is where we send our best prospects from Triple A. If he had stayed with it, I believe he would have made the big leagues … at least as a fourth outfielder. I don't know anybody else who could have done what he did … and not embarrass himself.
Jeff Hornacek, Jazz assistant coach and former Jazz guard
People ask me all the time about that last shot he made on us (in the '98 Finals). I always say if you look at the replay, as soon as I saw him go up for the shot, I already was calling for a timeout. I knew he was making it. That was the type of player he was. When games got on the line, you dreaded when he got the ball.
Phil Johnson, Jazz assistant during '97, '98 Finals
I hate him. I can't stand him. (Laughs.) It was just an honor to watch him play. A guy like that, are you kidding me? There's no question his will to win and compete lifted that entire team.
Neil Funk, longtime Bulls broadcaster
The year that we played Phoenix in the Finals, they had home-court advantage. We lose at home in Game 5. Now we have to go back to Phoenix potentially to play two games and they feel like they have momentum. We're at (the charter flight staging area) and everyone has their luggage for the first game, the day off and the next game. Big suitcases. And Michael pulls up and he has this little valise. He comes up on the plane with it and he says, ''Gentlemen, this is all the clothes I brought. We're not going to be there long enough for me to have to change into anything.'' The mood on the plane was very subdued because we had lost the night before. That changed everything.
Tyrone Corbin, Jazz coach and former DePaul star
He made everyone around him better.
Nazr Mohammed, Bulls center who played for Jordan in Charlotte and a native Chicagoan
When he came back and went to Washington, I got the chance to play against him when he worked out at Hoops the Gym. That was unbelievable. I was like, 'What the hell? This is crazy. I'm playing pickup and hanging out with Michael Jordan?' For a kid from Chicago it was a dream come true.
Donyell Marshall, former Bulls forward who also played against Jordan
I have two pictures framed on my wall. They're both of MJ guarding me when he switched on to me on a pick-and-roll when I played for Golden State. I scored both times and tell people, 'Jordan couldn't stop me.' But seriously, I remember another time his first or second year back from playing baseball and we were up like 30 and Phil Jackson just sat there, not calling timeout. MJ just took over that game and they beat us by like 10. I remember thinking, ''I wish I wasn't playing and could watch this performance on TV.'' That's how good it was.
John Paxson, Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations and former teammate
When we were close to winning our first championship in 1991, he was approached to do the famous "I'm going to Disney World" commercial if we won. Michael told them he would only do it if the other starters were included in everything financially. To do that, he couldn't say the famous line on the court in Los Angeles because it would be impossible to get us all together in the chaos of winning. So we did it in the locker room at the Forum and Scottie, Horace (Grant), Bill (Cartwright) and myself were included because Michael wanted it that way. That says everything about him.
Gregg Popovich, Spurs coach
The first time I saw him, I was in awe. I remember sitting there (as an assistant next to Larry Brown) and I couldn't take my eyes off him. I didn't watch anything else on the court. I didn't even come close to trying to do any kind of job for Larry that night. I just stared at Michael.
Stacey King, Bulls broadcaster and former teammate
Cleveland brought Gerald Wilkins in to be the Jordan stopper. He was doing a lot of talking the game before, how he had great success guarding MJ, that he didn't need help, yada, yada. So at shootaround, Jordan was reading the newspaper on the way to arena and he kept saying, ''Jordan stopper? Yeah, we'll see.'' He went out and torched him for like 40. And he kept talking during the game, ''Where's the Jordan stopper?''
Scottie Pippen, Bulls ambassador and former teammate
The flu game (in the'97 Finals) had to be one of his greatest performances, knowing how down he was and might not be able to play. To have that type of game was amazing. But I saw it happen so many times. People talk about Willis Reed, but I think Michael definitely topped that one. I remember carrying him off that night. I just kept telling him, ''Get us through it.''
Reinsdorf, on honoring his contract
Of course I respected that, but that was the deal we made. That's why when he went to baseball I paid him his basketball salary. I told him I had had too good a deal with him. That was my way of rewarding him.
Bob Rosenberg, longtime Bulls official scorer
March 26, 1993. My wife died. I'm going down to the locker room. Michael and B.J. Armstrong pulled me aside and asked me if I needed help. Also, the All-Star Game in 1988. He says to me after the game, ''Why didn't you tell me I was two points short of (Wilt) Chamberlain?'' I said, ''Look, every time you went by, I kept putting up two fingers. You didn't understand that?''
Pam Kunkel, supervisor of Bulls game operations since 1974
This was after the fourth championship. We're sending stats all over the United Center. It's 1:30. I (had to) tromp down to the locker room to find a team official and Michael was just coming out. What do you say to Michael Jordan? I said, ''Congratulations.'' I'm, like, nobody in the scheme of things. And he said, ''Congratulations to you too. I know this is your fourth championship too.'' And then he kissed me on the cheek.
Charles Barkley, TNT broadcaster and Hall of Fame opponent
There are three guys, any time I see them, I pay homage to — Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, who saved the NBA and took it to an incredible level, and Michael Jordan. We all know Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player ever. I was blessed to play in his era.
Reinsdorf, private moment
The most recent private moment was about a year ago. We were at an NBA (owners) meeting and Michael came over to me and said, ''I owe you a lot of apologies. It's a lot harder to run a team than I thought.''
Kenny Smith, TNT analyst and longtime opponent
To me, he was the first athlete who had great fundamentals. … The first guy who had his correct hand in the passing lane, had the correct footwork and was a super athlete. Most super athletes depend on the fact they can jump over you and run by you. He took it technical. All of a sudden he became the most dangerous man alive.
Steve Smith, TNT analyst and longtime opponent
Being a shooting guard, I tried to get him in foul trouble. There was nothing I could really do except try and beat him up at the post. He was the greatest ever.
David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama and Bulls season ticket holder since 1976
In 1997, the Bulls were playing Utah in the NBA Finals, and the series was tied 2-2. Deedee Corradini, the mayor of Salt Lake City, was a client of mine and offered me two tickets to the crucial Game 5. They were in the upper deck. Having come all that way, a buddy and I decided to trade in the comps and upgrade. We found a broker and paid a usurious $1,200 a ticket for seats five rows from the court. We figured, Michael, Game 5 … why not go all the way? I called my wife, Susan, to check in before the game (and she said he was sick and might not play). ... I looked at the ticket I had in my hand and began feeling ill myself. … To my relief, when we reached our gold-plated seats, a sickly Michael was on the floor. … Michael started off slowly, clearly dragging. … But in the second quarter, with the Bulls trailing, his legendary competitiveness took hold. In the second half, the pattern repeated: Michael dragged. Then, with the game on the line, he shifted into another gear. In the end, the flu-bitten Michael would score an astonishing 38 points, including a 3-pointer to clinch the game, before famously slumping into Scottie Pippen's arms. An artist friend later gave me a charcoal painting of that scene. … a lasting memory of the day Michael saved the Bulls, and the ass of a die-hard fan who paid way too much for a ticket.
Tom Thibodeau, Bulls coach and former Knicks assistant during playoff battles
He caused me a lot of pain. And I always thought, ''I wish I could be on that side.''
Charles Oakley, former teammate
I just remember the hard work he did during the offseason to get ready for the season. A lot of people were amazed at what he did on the court. I've seen it so many times so it didn't amaze me. I saw it in practices.
Steve Kerr, former teammate
When's he coming back? Didn't he say he was going to keep playing when he was 50? No, it's so hard to even describe Michael. I get asked all the time about the show he put on and the spell he cast over the rest of the league, the intimidation over his opponents, the sheer will that lifted our whole team, the determination in every practice to make it into a fierce competition. I've never seen anybody like him. And I don't think I ever will again.
Tim Hallam, Bulls media relations chief in his 36th season
My favorite memories are not one specific game or statistic. As you get older and begin to reflect, it was those times sitting with him in all the different weird nooks and crannies of the visiting locker rooms and stadiums that he secluded himself in before the game just so he could have some peace of mind. You were listening to what the greatest, most cherished player ever to play the game had on his mind at those given moments far away from the madness of being Michael Jordan.
Johnny Bach, former Bulls assistant coach
I asked him one time why he so openly would challenge people. He said, ''Johnny, it's just part of me. I can't help it."
Doc Rivers, Celtics coach and longtime opponent
The thing I remember the most about him is the halftime speech at the All-Star Game. Barkley was laughing; a couple of guys were joking around. He basically informed us that we were going to win the game. And whoever didn't feel that way shouldn't play in the second half.
Will Perdue, former teammate
He always wanted to win. He would ask Phil Jackson to put Scottie on the other team so that when we scrimmaged, he and Scottie would go at it and he'd try to put Scottie in his place. I don't think Scottie recognized how beneficial that was at the time because it wasn't pretty. But it helped him.
Brian McIntyre, former Bulls and NBA media-relations head
At the Cleveland All-Star Game, when the NBA turned 50, he met with 12 Make-A-Wish kids. And it was a very emotional moment for everyone involved. He did stuff like that all the time. I was an emotional wreck for the rest of the day. He went out and performed like God. He could compartmentalize. And he made those kids' lives that day.
Clyde Drexler, Hall of Fame opponent in 1992 Finals, Dream Team teammate
I'm about six months older than Michael. We're just making the turn. It's time to go to the back nine. Michael was the ultimate competitor. He was always supportive as a teammate as well.
Dwight Howard, All-Star center
Everybody wanted to be like Michael. He's amazing. Everything he did, he inspired everybody to be better basketball players and better people.
Joakim Noah, Bulls All-Star center
Growing up as a Knicks fan, his influence was more negative. As I got older, I appreciated his talent more. … When he came back wearing No. 45, I was in there and he scored 55. Everybody thought he was going to take the last shot. And he dimed to Big Bill (Wennington). I wasn't happy about that.
Luol Deng, Bulls All-Star forward
He gave a lot of people hope to be like him. I have so many memories watching him as a kid growing up. What can you say other than he's the best?
Tim Hardaway, longtime opponent and Chicago native
I remember going against him in the Chicago Summer Leagues at IIT in 1985 and 1986. He had like 65 and I had like 63. I remember watching him play at the old Chicago Stadium. I always enjoyed being around him.
Gary Payton, longtime opponent and foe in 1996 Finals
I remember me and him jawing together. We always had great battles. That's what brought it out in me. Him and John Stockton were the two guys I always looked forward to playing against because I knew I would learn something. And I was the better trash talker, of course.
Tommy Heinsohn, former Celtics great and longtime broadcaster
He tried to kill you playing tiddlywinks. You have to have that to win as many championships as he did.
Tamika Catchings, WNBA All-Star, Olympic gold medalist and Stevenson graduate
We met him when I played at Tennessee. We were playing DePaul and (coach) Pat (Summitt) said, ''I have a surprise for you guys.'' She took us downtown and we went to this big office building and hung out with him. It was so cool because you never thought you'd be that close to Jordan.
Tim Duncan, All-Star Spurs center
I remember when he hit that big shot at the All-Star Game (with the Wizards) near the end of his career. Just being here for that experience was fun.
Reinsdorf, extravagant humor
David Falk was in town staying at the Ritz Carlton. We agreed to get together to talk. Michael was there and we were going to order dinner in Falk's suite. Michael got the menu and wanted to order wine. He looked at the wine list and it wasn't good enough so he called down and said, ''Don't you have anything more expensive than this?'' And he ordered two bottles of some incredibly expensive wine and charged it to Falk's room.
Tribune reporter Teddy Greenstein contributed.
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