The Greatest Basketball Player Of All-Time, Michael Jordan, At Age 50
Wright Thompson with an inside private look at the life of Bobcats owner Michael Jordan at the age of 50:
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Five weeks before his 50th birthday, Michael Jordan sits behind his desk, overlooking a parking garage in downtown Charlotte. The cell phone in front of him buzzes with potential trades and league proposals about placing ads on jerseys. A rival wants his best players and wants to give him nothing in return. Jordan bristles. He holds a Cuban cigar in his hand. Smoking is allowed.
“Well, s—, being as I own the building,” he says, laughing.
Back in the office after his vacation on a 154-foot rented yacht named Mister Terrible, he feels that relaxation slipping away. He feels pulled inward, toward his own most valuable and destructive traits. Slights roll through his mind, eating at him: worst record ever, can’t build a team, absentee landlord. Jordan reads the things written about him, the fuel arriving in a packet of clips his staff prepares. He knows what people say. He needs to know, a needle for a hungry vein. There’s a palpable simmering whenever you’re around Jordan, as if Air Jordan is still in there, churning, trying to escape. It must be strange to be locked in combat with the ghost of your former self.
Smoke curls off the cigar. He wears slacks and a plain white dress shirt, monogrammed on the sleeve in white, understated. An ID badge hangs from one of those zip line cords on his belt, with his name on the bottom: Michael Jordan, just in case anyone didn’t recognize the owner of a struggling franchise who in another life was the touchstone for a generation. There’s a shudder in every child of the ’80s and ’90s who does the math and realizes that Michael Jordan is turning 50. Where did the years go? Jordan has trouble believing it, difficulty admitting it to himself. But he’s in the mood for admissions today, and there’s a look on his face, a half-smile, as he considers how far to go.
“I … I always thought I would die young,” he says, leaning up to rap his knuckles on the rich, dark wood of his desk.
He has kept this fact a secret from most people. A fatalist obsession didn’t go with his public image and, well, it’s sort of strange. His mother would get angry with him when he’d talk to her about it. He just could never imagine being old. He seemed too powerful, too young, and death was more likely than a slow decline. The universe might take him, but it would not permit him to suffer the graceless loss and failure of aging. A tragic flaw could undo him but never anything as common as bad knees or failing eyesight.
Later that night, standing in his kitchen, he squints across his loft at the television. His friend Quinn Buckner catches him.
“You gonna need to get some glasses,” Buckner says.
“I can see,” Jordan says.
“Don’t be bulls—-ing me,” Buckner says. “I can see you struggling.”
“I can see,” Jordan insists.
The television is built into the modern stone fireplace in his sprawling downtown condo, the windows around them overlooking Tryon Street. An open bottle of Pahlmeyer merlot sits on an end table. Buckner, a former NBA guard from near Chicago and a Pacers broadcaster, is in town for an upcoming game. They’ve been talking, about Jordan’s birthday and about the changes in his life, all seeming to happen at once. Jordan feels in transition. He moved out of his house in Chicago and is moving into a new one in Florida in three weeks. He’s engaged. Inside he’s dealing, finally, with the cost of his own competitive urges, asking himself difficult questions. To what must he say goodbye? What is there to look forward to? Catching an introspective Jordan is like finding a spotted owl, but here he is, considering himself. His fiancée, Yvette Prieto, and her friend Laura laugh over near the kitchen island. Jordan relights his cigar. It keeps going out.
“Listen,” Buckner says, “Father Time ain’t lost yet.”
The idea hangs in the air.
“Damn,” Buckner continues. “Fifty.”
He shakes his head.
“Can you believe it?” Jordan says quietly, and it sounds like he’s talking to himself.
A DAY BEFORE, Jordan had flown to Charlotte from Chicago, a trip he’s made many times. This flight was different from all the others. When his Gulfstream IV, which is painted to look like a sneaker, took off and turned south, he no longer lived in the city where he had moved in 1984. The past months had been consumed with a final flurry of packing, putting the first half of his life in boxes. He has felt many emotions in his 50 years: hope and anger, disappointment, joy and despair. But lately there’s been a feeling that would have disgusted the 30-year-old version of himself: nostalgia.
The packing and cataloging started several years ago, after his divorce. One night at his suburban Chicago mansion, he sat on the floor of his closet with Estee Portnoy. She manages his business enterprises and, since the divorce, much of his personal life — his consigliere. It was 1 in the morning. They were flummoxed by a safe. Jordan hadn’t opened it in years, and he couldn’t remember the combination. Everything else stopped as this consumed him. After 10 failed attempts, the safe would go into a security shutdown and need to be blown open. None of the usual numbers worked. Nine different combinations failed; they had one try left. Jordan focused. He decided it had to be a combination of his birthday, Feb. 17, and old basketball numbers. He typed in six digits: 9, 2, 1, 7, 4, 5. Click. The door swung open and he reached in, rediscovering his gold medal from the 1984 Olympics. It wasn’t really gold anymore. It looked tarnished, changed — a duller version of itself.
The memories came to him, how he felt then. “It was very pure, if I can say it right,” he’d explain later. “It was pure in 1984 … I was still dreaming.” During the Olympics, he was deep in negotiations with Nike for his first shoe contract. He traded pins with other athletes. Eight years later, when he was the most famous person in the world and the Dream Team was forced to stay outside the Olympic Village, he’d be disappointed when that separation kept him from swapping pins again.
Jordan saw an old pair of shorts that didn’t fit anymore. He found first-edition Air Jordans. In his cavernous Nike closet, he counted nearly 5,000 boxes of shoes, some of which he marked to keep, others to give to friends. There was his uniform for the Dream Team. An employee found letters he’d written his parents as a college student at North Carolina, and what struck her as she flipped through the pages was how normal he seemed. Despite all the things that had been gained in the years since, that person had been lost. The kid in the letters hadn’t yet been hardened by wealth and fame and pressure. He told his parents about grades, and practice, and the food in the dining hall. He always needed money. One letter ended: P.S. Please send stamps.
For a rage-filled day and a half, he thought he’d lost two of his Bulls championship rings, No. 3 and No. 5. He tore the house apart screaming, “Who stole my rings? Who stole No. 5?”
“You talk about a mad f—ing panic,” he says.
Following the final title, the Bulls presented him a case with room for all six rings, but Jordan had never put them together. Now as he found them spread around the house, he slipped each one into its slot. He began plotting amendments to his will that if the missing rings emerged for sale after his death, they should be returned immediately to his estate. Buying a duplicate wouldn’t be worth it, because even if he didn’t tell anyone, he’d know. Finally the missing rings were found in a memorabilia room, and the set of six was complete. He could exhale and continue packing.
He discovered old home movies, seeing his young kids. They’re all in or out of college now. Warmups had collected dust alongside his baseball cleats and a collection of bats and gloves. The astonishing thing to him was how much he enjoyed this. “At 30 I was moving so fast,” he says. “I never had time to think about all the things I was encountering, all the things I was touching. Now when I go back and find these things, it triggers so many different thoughts: God, I forgot about that. That’s how fast we were moving. Now I can slow it down and hopefully remember what that meant. That’s when I know I’m getting old.”
He laughs, knowing how this sounds, like a man in a midlife crisis, looking fondly at something that’s never coming back.
“I value that,” he says. “I like reminiscing. I do it more now watching basketball than anything. Man, I wish I was playing right now. I would give up everything now to go back and play the game of basketball.”
“How do you replace it?” he’s asked.
“You don’t. You learn to live with it.”
“It’s a process,” he says.
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