Ron Onesti: My 'Last Dance' with Air Jordan
I believe life is about the eternal search for the "silver lining." During this lockdown we are experiencing, amid so much health and financial concern, what keeps me going is the promise of positivity in the near future.
One such distraction for me that has come from this pandemic is watching the 10-part documentary series about Michael Jordan now being shown on ESPN. It brings back memories of the sheer joy that MJ, Scottie, B.J., Kukoc, Paxton, Kerr, Wennington, Luc, Cartwright, Grant, Dennis Rodman (of course) and Phil brought to us in Chicago, and throughout the world.
It also brought back some very cool personal memories for me with MJ.
In the early 1980s, my brother Rich and I opened a sports equipment and uniform store called "Onesti's Softball City." We supplied the city's "big" softball teams with cool, stylish uniforms that even Playboy used for some of its photo shoots! We became known all over the country for being heavily involved with the softball and baseball community, especially that of the 16-inch softball world. So much so that my brother and I were inducted into the 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame for our contribution to the game.
My first "run in" with MJ came as a result of a very good friend and customer of ours, George Kohler. He was a Belmont and Cicero (Chicago) guy who regularly stopped by the shop. George was a limo driver whose life changed in 1984 when he had a pickup at O'Hare airport fail to show up. As fate would have it, a young Michael Jordan arriving in Chicago happened to be looking for a ride at the same time.
George offered him (he called him "Larry" Jordan) a $25 flat rate to take him anywhere. From that moment on, George became Michael's official driver, his personal assistant and one of his best friends.
George would stop in our store from time to time telling us stories about MJ and the Bulls. One day, he pulled his limo over in front of the shop on his way to the airport. He jumped out of the car and had me walk over. There he was! It was Michael! I shook his massive hand, and he said: "This your place? Looks cool." Now, knowing how much he loves baseball, I see how he thought so.
George became so close to Michael that when the Bulls won their first championship, Michael got him a championship ring. I tried it on! So cool!
In 1992, a very close friend of mine by the name of Tobi Williams organized a charity softball game with sports celebrities versus members of Chicago media. Of course, being Softball City, we became the "official" supplier to the event and became its principal sponsor. The game was played at Thillens Stadium on Chicago's North Side. It was a classic Chicago gem of a scaled-down professional ball field, originally opened in 1938 by the Thillens Inc. check-cashing family. It was where all the major Little League games were played. I played there myself as a 12-year old budding-pro second baseman.
Back to the celebrity game. It was an incredible experience! Michael was there with other sports icons, including legendary Cubs catcher Randy Huntley. The media came out to play in droves, led by softball afficionados radio host Bob Sirott and Sun-Times writer Richard Roeper. I actually was the home plate umpire!
George and his limo pulled up, and out stepped MJ, clad in jeans and a T-shirt. We welcomed him to the stadium and handed him his uniform T-shirt. It was a red shirt with black and white lettering -- not by accident! I have a great pic somewhere of Michael from behind. I mean, how cool is it to have Michael wearing one of OUR shirts with the word "JORDAN" above the "Onesti's Softball City" on his back?
Known for his fierce competitive nature, it didn't wane that day. He got nine hits in nine at-bats, including a slide-in triple that Sirott, who was playing third base, recalls frequently. "I was afraid of Michael breaking a leg and me having to move away," Sirott said.
Michael made me nervous when Rich Melman from Lettuce Entertain You restaurants hit a single with Michael on second. MJ rounded third on his way to score. The throw came in close, and Michael slid hard to the plate. I called him safe, but we all held our breaths as he slowly got up. He is OK? The franchise is OK! Thank God!
Also knowing of his love for golf, we made him a very special gift. I took a 37-inch Clincher "Chicago 10" baseball bat and bored a hole down the center of the barrel. I then cut a golf club in the middle and inserted the club shaft and head into the end of the bat. He accepted the gift graciously, with a hearty laugh! It was a GREAT game, and not only did I hang with Michael, but my dad, a HUGE MJ fan, got to take a photo with him as well.
My dad was an old-school tailor. Because of my relationship with many friends of Michael, I was able to get my dad into see Bulls (and Blackhawks) owner Jerry Reinsdorf. In 1995, my dad wound up making Jerry some custom-made shirts, and we became very friendly with Mr. Reinsdorf. I remember one day accompanying my dad to Reinsdorf's office for a shirt fitting when Jerry had to take a call.
"OK, enough talking about it. Let's go for it. We'll bring the guy on and see if he behaves himself," Jerry said into the phone while my dad measured his cuffs. Turns out THAT was the trade for Dennis Rodman, and I was right there when the deal happened!
I have been involved with the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame since its inception in 1978. After building a grand museum on Taylor Street in Chicago, we were able to host some great events there. One such event was a news conference with the chairman of USA Basketball (our U.S. Olympic basketball program), Jerry Colangelo. At the time, he was the owner of the Phoenix Suns and also chairman of the board for our Hall of Fame.
Colangelo brought a couple of "key" friends with him for the news conference. I found myself sitting in between Michael Jordan and Larry Bird! They were talking to each other over my head, not even knowing I was there!
So, yes, I often reflect upon the many special experiences I have had these past bunch O' years. Being in the presence of a legendary athlete who is brought up in the same conversation as Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali, is something I once again thank God for along with other incredible experiences in my life.
That "silver lining" is what keeps me up and excited to come back and make more memories, not only for me but also for the folks who come to my venues.
I am a very firm believer that when life gives you lemons, you should cut them up and put them into your favorite cocktail, or make Limoncello!
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.