Door-stopper books about major sports figures and events seem to be the rage this year, and Roland Lazenby’s Michael Jordan: The Life, clocking in 708 pages, is no exception. The longtime sports scribe takes a fresh, albeit exhaustive, look at the iconic athlete and businessman who won six NBA championships, launched Nike’s game-changing Air Jordan sneaker line, and went on to own a piece of the Charlotte Bobcats franchise.
Jordan also became famous off the court, both for his gambling and for tumult in his personal life.
Here are some of the juiciest bits of the new book on one of the most famous and highly marketed public figures of the past few decades.
Jordan was called the N-word in school
The thing Michael Jordan is most associated with when it comes to race relations is when he declared that “Republicans buy shoes, too” when asked why he would not get involved in the election between Senator Jesse Helms and Harvey Gantt (who was black). In the election, Helms ran a notoriously racially tinged ad called “Hands” which had a white man losing his job to a minority because of racial quotas.
It turns out that his childhood wasn’t so post-racial. In fact, while in school, a girl called Jordan a “nigger,” and he was suspended after he threw a soda at her in response. “I considered myself a racist at that time. Basically, I was against all white people,” Jordan admits in the book. The incident happened right after the death of Jordan’s great-grandfather Dawson. Jordan was angered by the life Dawson had had to live He was 5’5” and a cripple, who had struggled all his life to support himself by rafting logs, sharecropping, and working as a cook at a whites-only hunting club.
His family was in the moonshine business.
To say that Michael Jordan’s family came from humble beginnings would be like saying his sneakers have sold decently. If that is not necessarily news, Lazenby does cover the extent to which Jordan’s family was once involved in the moonshine trade in North Carolina. For both sides of Jordan’s family, moonshine was a hedge against the vicissitudes of farming, which could leave families even more destitute than they already were in the blink of an eye.
Frustration in baseball was a lifelong experience.
It turns out that Jordan’s infamous attempt to make the Chicago White Sox wasn’t the only whiff he experienced in baseball. According to Lazenby, Jordan experienced a complete 180 when he transitioned from Little League to Babe Ruth baseball. In Little League, he was named the state’s MVP and threw two no-hitters, and that summer hit a 265-foot home run in an elimination game.
However, in Babe Ruth, Jordan struggled mightily, and apparently because he could not make the longer throws across the diamond from the shortstop position. The same went for pitching. In an interview, his coach at the time, Dick Neher, says, “He couldn’t make the throws. Mike didn’t get into but about four games for me when he was 13. I don’t think he got to bat but four times that season.
His family dealt with sex abuse allegations.
In 1975 Michael Jordan’s sister, Sis, accused their father—Michael’s lifelong hero—of sexually abusing her as a child (she evidently included this in a book she independently published, In My Family’s Shadow). According to Sis, after her mother called her a slut on the way to work, she responded, “If I’m such a slut, why don’t you keep your husband out of my bed?”
After detailing for her mother the allegations, Sis claimed that they confronted her father, who in a rage choked her while yelling, “Are you going to believe this tramp over me?” Then, after they returned home, Sis maintained that her mother, Deloris, said she would have to be sent away to a girls’ home because all three could no longer live under the same roof. Nothing ever came of that threat, and the family moved on.
He Preferred Adidas Over Nike
When Sonny Vaccaro, Nike’s basketball marketing guru, first met with Michael Jordan to talk to him about launching a shoe line with the footwear giant, it got off to a rocky start. First, according to Vaccaro, “[Jordan] was totally indifferent. He didn’t want to come with us. He wanted to go with Adidas. In the eighties, Adidas had the nicest sweat suits.” He also didn’t like the now legendary red-and-black originals, declaring that red was “the devil’s color.” And despite having $2.5 million and a 25 percent royalty dangled in front of him, Jordan adamantly insisted a car be part of the package.
“Michael was a pain in the ass, he was,” Vaccaro says in the book.