Steve Wulf talks Michael Jordan’s Sports Illustrated ban, baseball days

Steve Wulf talks Michael Jordan’s Sports Illustrated ban, baseball days

The passage of time accomplishes plenty — but not all.

Seven years after writing the 1994 story topped by a cover headline that so incensed Michael Jordan that Jordan never spoke to Sports Illustrated again, Steve Wulf wrote an apology column for ESPN The Magazine.

Wulf, the decorated longtime journalist, reported and wrote an even more detailed mea culpa in April 2019 for the same publication on the 25-year anniversary of Jordan’s baseball foray.

That experiment, which followed Jordan’s stunning first retirement from basketball, is also viewed more favorably by decades falling off the calendar, including in Episode 7 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary. The challenge rejuvenated Jordan, who returned to the NBA in 1995 when a labor dispute sidelined baseball.

But time hasn’t healed one wound. Jordan still won’t talk to Sports Illustrated.

“I think he’s perfectly within his rights to maintain that stance. The headline was over the top,” Wulf said during a phone conversation. “And I know SI thought, ‘Well, we put him on the cover so many times. What’s the big deal about this?’ Well, you know what, we disrespected him.”

The headline in question — “Bag It, Michael. Jordan and the White Sox Are Embarrassing Baseball” — ran by a photo of Jordan swinging and missing a pitch by a significant margin. In “The Last Dance,” Jordan admitted he felt betrayed by the treatment.


“Going back and reading my original story, it was snarky. And I was pretty hard on him. But it certainly didn’t match the headline that Sports Illustrated put on the cover,” Wulf said. “I did acknowledge in the story that he was working hard and that he was willing to go from being ‘The Guy’ to being one of the guys. He was pursuing a dream, which was great. But at the time, I didn’t see any real natural ability. That’s basically the story I wrote.”

Wulf, who said he has been “entranced” by the documentary, knew that the film would eventually tackle Jordan’s baseball sojourn. Episode 7 didn’t use a current interview of Wulf, instead airing an old interview of him calling Jordan’s attempt to play baseball “delusional.”

Editors write headlines, not reporters or writers. In the original story, which Jordan is quoted in from group interviews, Wulf also reported on the significant, initial skepticism that Jordan faced.

“It felt like a commercial marketing enterprise as much as anything else. That’s what turned off the baseball hardliners. I was definitely in that chorus,” Wulf said. “But once that headline came out and I had to take a lot of guff for it, I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, people are going to be asking about this 25 years from now.’ And here we are.”

Indeed, the passage of time has validated Jordan’s pure intentions to chase a boyhood dream, complete with the blessing of his late father, James. Couple Jordan’s natural athletic gifts with his legendary work ethic, and progress from Jordan's Spring Training in Sarasota, Fla. to a Double-A assignment with the Birmingham (Ala.) Barons was almost inevitable.

Wulf, who already knew then-Barons manager Terry Francona, followed and noticed Jordan's progress himself back in 1994. He eventually traveled to Birmingham in August of that year to report and write a story on Jordan’s progress. It never ran.

“They basically told me to, ‘Bag It, Steve.’” Wulf joked. “We’re not interested in doing a mea culpa.

“I was blown away by how much he had improved. He had become a legitimate baseball player. He was totally willing to become just one of the guys in the clubhouse. He really was interested in becoming a better baseball player. And he worked really hard at it.”

Wulf left Sports Illustrated for a stint at Time Magazine shortly thereafter before joining ESPN in 1997.

Francona, who later won two World Series with the Red Sox, has said many times, including in “The Last Dance,” that working with Jordan made him a better manager.

As both Francona and hitting coach Mike Barnett opine in “The Last Dance,” Wulf said he believes Jordan would’ve made it to The Show had the labor dispute never happened.

“He would’ve probably needed another year at Triple-A. But he did great in the Arizona Fall League after Birmingham. And given his natural talents and work ethic and sense of competition, I think he could’ve been in the majors in 1996,” Wulf said. “Tito (Francona) and Mike Barnett the (Barons) hitting coach to this day maintain had Jordan got another 1,500 at bats, he would’ve made it. He might not have been a starting outfielder. But he could’ve been a fourth or fifth outfielder.”

Instead, Jordan returned to the Bulls. And the passage of time accomplished plenty. Such as, in a nod to Francona’s later success, what Wulf wrote in his 2019 ESPN The Magazine piece: 

“How many last-place Southern League teams can claim they're responsible for winning two World Series and three NBA titles?”

RELATED: Michael Jordan denies NBA suspension led to retirement in ‘The Last Dance’

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Bulls' Denzel Valentine continues passion project, releases second rap video

Bulls' Denzel Valentine continues passion project, releases second rap video

Denzel Valentine talked occasionally about his developing passion for rapping before COVID-19 paused — and eventually ended — the Bulls' 2019-20 season.

Now, the free agent swingman is using the hiatus to not only continue his charitable work in both his native East Lansing, Mich., and Chicago, but also further his passion project.

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A music video for Valentine's latest track, "Get Ya Grind Up," appeared on social media Friday. It not only stars Valentine, but his older brother, Drew, who is an assistant coach at Loyola. Their mother makes a cameo, as well.

Warning: Song contains NSFW language

Valentine released his first song and video in January, titled "Introduction," and in March, featured alongside Diamond Jones on a track titled "Hate Me." He also talked about his passion for rapping in an episode of the Bulls TV-produced "Run With Us" miniseries.

Valentine will either be a restricted or unrestricted free agent in October depending on if the Bulls submit a qualifying offer. After sitting out the entire 2018-19 season following reconstructive ankle surgery, Valentine endured a difficult 2019-20 season. He moved in and out of Jim Boylen's rotation despite representing one of the team's better 3-point shooters and passers. Over 36 games, he averaged 6.8 points in 13.6 minutes.

The Greater Lansing Food Bank thanked Valentine via social media for a March donation, and he also recently made a donation to Lurie Children's Hospital.


Report: NBA, NBPA agree to social justice messages for jerseys during restart

Report: NBA, NBPA agree to social justice messages for jerseys during restart

The NBA and NBPA have come to an agreement on social justice-related messages players can display on the backs of their jerseys when the league resumes play in Orlando on July 30, ESPN’s Marc J. Spears reports.

Here is the list of ("suggested") approved terms, according to Spears:

Black Lives Matter; Say Their Names; Vote; I Can't Breathe; Justice; Peace; Equality; Freedom; Enough; Power to the People; Justice Now; Say Her Name; Sí Se Puede (Yes We Can); Liberation; See Us; Hear Us; Respect Us; Love Us; Listen; Listen to Us; Stand Up; Ally; Anti-Racist; I Am A Man; Speak Up; How Many More; Group Economics; Education Reform; and Mentor

Per Spears, players will have the choice to brandish said messages above the number on the backs of their jerseys in place of their names for the first four days of the restart. From there, messages will still be permitted, but with players’ last names included underneath. TBD if more messages are to come.

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The Premier League provides some precedent for this initiative; all players participating in its season restart, which began on June 17, are donning jerseys with “Black Lives Matter” on the back in place of their names.

Meanwhile, prominent NBA players including Kyrie Irving, Dwight Howard and Avery Bradley have voiced concerns that play resuming could distract from the fight against racial injustice. Others contend that the attention the league’s restart will command can be leveraged into advocating for change. 

Ultimately, the league has left that assessment up to players on an individual basis. Commissioner Adam Silver has publicly said the NBA is deliberating on social justice programming for the bubble, and future investment in social justice causes, though no concrete plans have been made public. On June 24, the NBA and NBPA announced in a joint statement that leadership of both sides had met to “further advance the league’s collective response to the social justice issues in our country.”

“I think ultimately we can accomplish a lot (for social justice causes) by playing,” Silver said on a panel with Caron Butler, Magic Johnson and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot in June. “But as I said, I know there’s some roiling going on within the Players Association, and I respect the point of view of those who are saying let’s make sure that in returning to basketball, a larger, broader message about social equality, racial issues are not somehow lost.”