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updated: 5/12/2014 5:39 AM

Jordan bio will surprise even the most die-hard Bulls fan

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  • This is the cover of a new biography on Bulls superstar Michael Jordan.

      This is the cover of a new biography on Bulls superstar Michael Jordan.

  • Roland Lazenby, above, has written a new biography about Michael Jordan that delves deep into Jordan's family, going back to his great grandfather.

      Roland Lazenby, above, has written a new biography about Michael Jordan that delves deep into Jordan's family, going back to his great grandfather.
    courtesy of Scott Cunningham

  • Michael Jordan, now the owner of the Charlotte franchise, is the subject of a new biography that attempts to show the "more human story" of an athlete portrayed as a superhero.

      Michael Jordan, now the owner of the Charlotte franchise, is the subject of a new biography that attempts to show the "more human story" of an athlete portrayed as a superhero.
    Associated Press/2012 file

  • According to a new book, Michael Jordan was considering going to Virginia instead of playing for North Carolina head coach Dean Smith, right.  Jordan won a national title with Smith but gave up his final year of college eligibility to turn pro.

      According to a new book, Michael Jordan was considering going to Virginia instead of playing for North Carolina head coach Dean Smith, right. Jordan won a national title with Smith but gave up his final year of college eligibility to turn pro.
    Associated Press/1984 file

  • Michael Jordan celebrates a Bulls win during 1998 NBA finals at the United Center in Chicago.

      Michael Jordan celebrates a Bulls win during 1998 NBA finals at the United Center in Chicago.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer/1998 file

 
 

There is one detail in Roland Lazenby's comprehensive Michael Jordan biography that I remember well.

Jordan was nowhere among the hundreds of high school All-Americans listed in Street & Smith's 1980-81 basketball preview. Jordan was sailing under the radar until he attended Five Star camp in Pennsylvania the summer before his senior year, and by that time the magazine had already gone to print.

I bought that issue, and being fired up about joining the college basketball world (as a fan, obviously), I went back to the list of preseason All-Americans and marked where every one would be playing in college. I wrote "Mike Jordan, UNC" on the bottom of the page in pencil since he was not on the list.

Here's the point: As someone who was born the same year as Jordan, started college in 1981 and lived in Chicago during most of his professional career, I'd like to think my knowledge of Jordan's basketball life is pretty thorough.

But Lazenby's book is impressive in its research. There are details bound to surprise even the most die-hard Bulls fan. Here are a couple:

Jordan and Patrick Ewing took official visits to North Carolina on the same weekend. Ewing said he might have committed to the Tar Heels if not for a disturbing image he saw during the trip.

Jordan was so intrigued by the idea of playing with 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson that he actually sent a letter to the Virginia coaching staff telling them he was interested. There was no follow up, because coach Terry Holland and crew thought they had a good chance at landing Chris Mullin and decided to stick with that plan.

"Terry Holland just admitted it. I was stunned," Lazenby said in a phone interview. "I think it really pained Ralph when he found out later. I think Ralph was pretty envious of what Michael was able to walk into."

Maybe those details are out there in some of the other books written about Jordan. But in "Michael Jordan: The Life," Lazenby tries to figure out what drove Jordan to become the sports icon of his generation.

There were some fortunate circumstances, such as a wealth of athletic talent in Wilmington, N.C. During Jordan's senior year, his Laney High School squad was actually knocked out of the state playoffs in the second round by crosstown rival New Hanover, which included future NBA forward Kenny Gattison and future NFL defensive end Clyde Simmons.

Lazenby details Jordan's meteoric baseball career, when he was named North Carolina's Little League player of the year, but then couldn't recreate the magic after moving up to play against older players on a bigger field.

"Everybody talks about him not making the varsity (basketball team) as a sophomore (as a motivating disappointment), but his collapse in youth league baseball, to me, was astounding," Lazenby said. "It was astounding to people who witnessed it, coaches and whatnot. These were the people pointing this stuff out to me."

In my view, the most fascinating part of the book is when Lazenby reveals the life of Michael's great grandfather, Dawson Jordan. Born into miserable circumstances in 1891, Dawson Jordan was an amazing survivor. While most everyone around him died young -- succumbing to overwhelming poverty and racism in post-Civil War North Carolina -- Dawson Jordan lived to be 86. He died when Michael was 14 and was present in his early life.

Dawson lost his wife at a young age, but determinedly carried on as a single father. Dawson's son, known as Medward, turned out to be the father of James Jordan.

On his mother's side is grandfather Edward Peoples, who managed to become relatively successful through sharecropping and moonshine.

Lazenby reveals some sad details of Jordan's family and rough times for his parents, James and Deloris, but it all comes together to tell a remarkable story.

"I was fond of Dawson Jordan, obviously, but who of the ancestors was most like Michael? In some ways I think it was old man Peoples," Lazenby said. "This guy that was just going to grind on everybody to get it done and would not be defeated. You can imagine that was MJ without the fancy circumstances."

By the time Jordan became a world-famous advertising powerhouse, the connection to his ancestors' struggle was largely severed. But having grown up in rural Virginia in the 1950s, Lazenby knew from personal experience what was there if he dug deep enough. Lazenby said he pored over thousands of death certificates while trying to piece together Jordan's family history.

"The book is dedicated to two guys from high school that passed on; two of my dearest friends in the world," Lazenby said. "One of them, his father had gone to Ohio State. But Southern culture just went out of its way to destroy the dignity of really fine, intelligent people. Some of my interest in writing about (Jordan's family), I was thinking in particular about the father of one of my friends who deserved so much better."

Lazenby tried to involve Jordan in the telling of his story, but would have had to give up editorial control to make it happen.

"I think it would have been fun to talk to him for this stuff," Lazenby said. "It's the kind of story that really does need an independent telling.

"I think it's a much more human story, in some ways. Before, he was a superhero, just this great mystery who could leap tall buildings in a single bound. But it's a much more human thing than that."

Super human, maybe, but human, nonetheless.

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