Nationals

Michael Jordan’s biggest fan? It could be Mike Rizzo

Nationals

The year before the hysteria, before the first steps of a singular silhouette, a brand, an icon, tickets were easier to come by.

A Bulls 27-win season didn’t stir Chicago. The madness on Madison may have belonged to those dedicated few who would venture west past Greektown to watch the Bulls. Mike Rizzo went. His earnings as a scout were sufficient when market forces -- spurred by the Bulls’ bad play -- suppressed costs. A handful of friends could hit the game, drink beers and head back to work the next day without distorting their bank accounts.

Rizzo was in his mid-20s then, an area scout for the Chicago White Sox beginning what would become a rise to the architect of a championship baseball roster in the nation’s capital. Chicago had always been his home. He went to Holy Cross High School in River Grove, Illinois, in the northwest suburbs, then Saint Xavier University about 30 minutes south of the city before staying based in town for work.

When Jordan showed up, he seeped into Rizzo’s life like he did for so many in Chicago. Here was hope coming to town. The Bulls had reached the playoffs once in the prior seven seasons. Could this be the beacon to guide a waffling franchise? Yes.

“He’s probably my favorite athlete of all-time, past, present future,” Rizzo told NBC Sports Washington. “I was fortunate enough with my rat pack of buddies, we were in the midst of that championship run. We were just at that age. I think we were about late 20s, early 30s when this thing started. I remember from Day 1 when we drafted Jordan after he hit the winning shot at North Carolina, it was a rebuilding club that wasn't overly exciting and overly championship-caliber. But we would go to the games a lot and hang out.

 

“Obviously, pre-Jordan it was much easier to get a seat than it was post-Jordan [arrival]. Certainly when we started to win championships it was definitely The Madhouse on Madison. Those were good times. Good times to watch this guy get after it. We had a great team and he was the king of the world in those days.”

Rizzo’s early-career baseball job influenced his relationship to Jordan in three distinct ways: first, tickets on his area-scout salary for the White Sox didn’t allow him much of a chance to get into the arena when demand skyrocketed. Second, he was still able to get back to his native city in the offseason, when the Bulls were playing. Third, he was employed by Jerry Reinsdorf’s baseball team. Reinsdorf’s ownership of the Bulls -- and a few key friendships -- allowed Rizzo angles to observe the phenomenon if his bank account did not.

“We did have a couple buddies that were traders at the board of trade,” Rizzo said. “So they had a lot of money. I remember one of them getting season tickets Jordan’s rookie year and taking me to a couple games. Then, unfortunately his second year, when we were really starting to gain momentum, the place was jammed all the time. A handful of games into his second season he breaks his foot. Then it was easy to get tickets again for the rest of the season. That second season, I saw a lot of Bulls games, but Jordan wasn’t playing.”

Rizzo and his friends backtracked to local bars instead. They sought out a stool or booth to watch every Bulls game. Jordan began to creep from one-man show, to the league’s best player, to the leader of the NBA’s best team, to, arguably, the greatest player ever. Rizzo watched, rooted and beamed.

“Everybody in the city was caught up in it,” Rizzo said. “People who didn’t really like the NBA -- I know a bunch of my friends were, ‘I’d rather watch college basketball than the NBA.’ That all stopped when Jordan came to town. It was an event, it was the thing to do, it was the place to be. It was a night out. Every time they played, people were congregating and watching this guy somewhere. In their living rooms, at the bar, at the stadium. He was quite the spectacle. It was the buzz and it lasted for years.”

Jordan’s teams went through a classic NBA ascension path. They first had to find a path to the playoffs. Once there, they dealt with a heavy early, such as the Boston Celtics in 1986, the year Jordan scored 63 points in the Boston Garden in Game 2 of a three-game Celtics sweep.

 

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“That was the game to me that put him on the map in my mind,” Rizzo said. “I was thinking to myself-- this guy is just trying to will, with all his talent and supporting cast -- he’s just trying to will these guys to win. I caught my first glimpse of what this guy’s mentality is all about.”

“The Last Dance” documentary has rebooted looks into Jordan’s psyche before a captive countrywide audience. The social media generation which never watched Jordan live is receiving a multi-hour dose of Jordan’s path and process, part of which was competitiveness causing him to be dismissive, obnoxious or worse. The documentary also shows the distinct influence of gambling in his life, a seeming byproduct of desperation to win any competition. He bet with security personnel on Quarters, made wagers with playoff opponents on the golf course the day of a game, ran a cash-laden game of cards in the back of the plane.

Even 30 years later, Jordan takes shots at Clyde Drexler, Isiah Thomas, former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, and anyone else he perceived slighted him or was improperly compared to him. Jordan’s 2009 Hall of Fame induction speech remains among the most thankless oratories any member of that exclusive group ever gave. He jabbed Krause, Jeff Van Gundy and Bryon Russell. In essence, he was himself, something the documentary is reminding everyone of.

But, it’s also a peek into the mental clockwork often necessary to stand out in pro sports. Rizzo calls it a “selfish streak” which is draped in the team framework. If you are the best, be the best, because the team needs you to be, even if it leads to friction at times.

“I say give me 25 of those types of mentalities and we’ll go a long way,” Rizzo said. “I also learned, doing this job for as long as I have, on the baseball side, is the greatest players of all-time have a selfish streak in them. You’ve got to be somewhat selfish to succeed to the point Michael Jordan did. Or Frank Thomas did. These guys, on a team scale, they know that individually they need to perform to their utmost for their team to be successful. And that’s the mentality. It’s often a team mentality, but a selfishness in the batter’s box or free throw line or with the ball in his hands that says, if I don’t do my job, we have no chance to compete.

“So you talk about your greatest players that ever played, have a little bit of streak of selfishness in them. I think that’s what drives them. Also, you make things that challenge you. Jordan, in the documentary, says he makes up these challenges to him all the time. And I’ve noticed players that do that also.

 

“When you’re talking about putting together a pitching plan for X major-league team, I’ve seen pitchers, the Max Scherzers and the Randy Johnsons and the [Stephen Strasburg] and those type of guys who come up with some type of story where they’ve been slighted or made of fun of and embarrassed. ‘I remember three games ago when he barrelled up a ball against me and he thought it was out’ and they used that as fuel to drive themselves to greatness. And I think the great ones do that.”

All these years later, Jordan’s tongue-out, legs-splayed, ball-extended image is not just seared into league and Chicago lore, it is also part of Mike Rizzo’s mind. Even those eventually charged with managing athletic greatness have prior lives of rooting with wide eyes. For Rizzo, those moments were provided by Jordan in Chicago back when everything was starting for both.

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