Though I covered countless Bulls practices and games during my eight years at WLS-TV, I can’t really say I knew Michael Jordan all that well.
I had a few opportunities to talk with him outside of the mass interview clusters featured heavily in “The Last Dance,” and generally found him to be friendly and engaging. He would look you in the eye and seemed comfortable discussing anything going on in the world of sports or entertainment. We’ve seen Jordan’s harsh side captured during the documentary, but he also had a genuine warmth that came through in one-on-one conversations.
I remember being in Sarasota, Fla. covering White Sox spring training back in Jordan’s baseball days when news broke of a trade sending Stacey King to Minnesota for Luc Longley. We sat in front of his locker for a few minutes talking about what was going on in the NBA, and I got the feeling Jordan hadn’t closed the door on a basketball comeback.
Fast forward to the spring of 1998, when it seemed pretty obvious to everyone that this would be the final season of the Bulls dynasty led by Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson. Getting tickets to a Bulls’ home game that season was incredibly difficult, but I wanted to make sure I had a chance to take my five-year-old son Eric to the United Center before the team was broken up. Fortunately, we got that chance, securing tickets to an early-April game against the Wizards.
For a five-year-old who was just starting to understand the role sports played in his father’s life, the chance to see Michael Jordan and the other Bulls players was incredibly exciting, and my wife made sure Eric had his mini Bulls warmup suit ready to go.
On the drive in from our home in the Western suburbs, I was going through a mental debate about whether I would try to find a way to have Eric meet the world’s most famous athlete. Jordan usually arrived in the player’s parking lot between 5:30 and 5:45 p.m., with photographers from all the local TV stations waiting to capture his walk down the tunnel to the Bulls’ locker room. Most of the time Jordan would give a few brief answers to questions about that night’s game as the cameramen, walking backwards, tried to avoid tripping over all the cables.
Unfortunately, the inbound Eisenhower was especially bad that night, and as we sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic in the dreaded “Hillside strangler” merging area, I figured the chance to have Eric see Jordan on his way into the arena was lost.
Upon arriving at the arena a little after 5:30 p.m., I quickly took Eric downstairs to see if we might be able to get a couple pictures for him to enjoy when he got older. The first person we ran into was the always affable Steve Kerr, who greeted us with a big smile, and welcomed Eric to his first Bulls game.
From there, we headed down the hallway to the area where Jordan entered the arena, and discovered MJ hadn’t arrived yet. Within a matter of minutes, here comes Michael, flanked by his personal security detail.
Jordan spotted me holding my quite nervous five-year-old child, shook my hand and gladly offered to take a photo with us. I handed my camera to a media colleague, took the photo, thanked Michael, and just like that, we had a memory to last a lifetime.
The rest of the night went by quickly as Eric took in the incredible Bulls’ game night experience. We were able to get photos with Bill Wennington, Jud Buechler and Benny the Bull, and Eric got a chance to watch some of the world’s greatest athletes warm up while standing on the court that he had only previously seen on television.
The Bulls won the game (of course), and the ride back to the suburbs was filled with a very tired five-year-old’s excited stories about a perfect night watching his sports heroes. My biggest concern was whether the photo with Jordan would turn out okay, and thankfully, WGN’s Randy Salerno did a great job, as I found out when I anxiously picked up the prints the next day. (Yes, the process was a little more complicated back then!)
Of course, this was just a run-of-the-mill regular season game, one of 82, but it’s a night that Eric and I will always remember.
Those photos proudly hang in our basement, right next to the big screen monitor I used to watch games almost every night.
One day that framed photo board will hang proudly in Eric’s home as he tells his children about the night he met the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan.
Through May 15, NBC Sports Chicago is airing every 1998 Chicago Bulls NBA Playoff game (21 total). Find the full schedule here.