It’s not often that you watch an assistant basketball coach at a Division III school drive the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year and burgeoning superstar into a small college football stadium in a convertible with the top down.
But that’s exactly what happened on Oct. 2, 1985.
John Erikson, my assistant coach at Beloit (Wis.) College, drove Jordan to Strong Stadium for him to perform the coin toss before the Beloit-Cornell football game.
Courtesy of K.C. Johnson
Jordan was big at the time — but not big with a capital “B.” He was entering his second season. The first model of Air Jordans had just come out in April.
And why was he in Beloit of all places? In a sign that shows how much the NBA has changed in 35 years, the Bulls and Jordan held training camp on our campus.
Yes, Jordan, Orlando Woolridge, Charles Oakley, Dave Corzine and the crew plied their daily trade on our fieldhouse floor, which was well known throughout the Midwest because it was raised and extremely springy. That, plus then-coach Stan Albeck’s friendship with our longtime coach Bill Knapton, is what brought the Bulls to Beloit.
This was roughly only a month before Jordan broke a bone in his foot and missed most of the 1985-86 season. This was Jerry Reinsdorf’s first season as primary owner and Jerry Krause’s first season as general manager. Bob Sakamoto covered the beat for the Chicago Tribune — exactly what I wanted to do and a big reason I enrolled at Beloit, which, in a rarity for a small, liberal arts school, offered a journalism minor.
The days were heavenly. As players on Beloit’s basketball team, we got to watch Bulls practices, occasionally serving as ball boys or getting water and towels for the NBA players. Then we’d practice ourselves on the same floor just hours later.
As “The Last Dance” continues to play out on ESPN, Jordan’s legendary competitiveness that borders on maniacal is being cemented as a theme.
Everybody knew this already. But to see it from Jordan as he cooperated with filmmakers in recent interviews is compelling nonetheless.
And it reminded me of one day in October 1985 when Jordan and Quintin Dailey shot free throws after practice. The shooting started good naturedly, with smiles and smack talk. Then, Dailey started winning.
And something changed.
Jordan — who had to have had money on it, right? — kept talking, but lost the smile. Winning was all that mattered in that moment.
When that seemingly inevitable outcome occurred, Jordan reacted with inordinate excitement. To this scrawny teenager at least, it looked like he was addicted to competition.
During my days at the Chicago Tribune, I covered Jordan’s “Flu Game,” the time he held “The Pose” to beat the Jazz in 1998 and countless other signature moments. That he seemed as intensely and intently focused on winning a simple free-throw shooting contest against a teammate way back in 1985 tells you all you need to know about his legendary drive.
Oh, and by the way: Hours after performing the coin toss at the Beloit football game, Jordan dropped 46 points as his Red team beat the White team in an intrasquad scrimmage.