By Adam Lucas
The Smith Center is a veritable basketball archive. While going through some of Dean Smith’s office items recently, a photograph was uncovered that pictured Smith with Jordan in a practice setting. Williams hadn’t seen the photograph before (it doesn’t turn up on Google Image searches), so he stuck it in his car before making the drive to Charlotte for some Halloween festivities with his grandchildren on Saturday night, followed by the Hornets season opener on Sunday with three Williams-coached players plus Jordan.
Even though he owns the team, it’s difficult to think of Jordan as anything other than the greatest basketball player on earth. That’s what he was for so many of us who grew up on Come Fly With Me, emulating his latest ridiculous moves for the Chicago Bulls during a game in our driveway.
In his office, with no one running interference, he somehow seems a little more like a real person than he does in other situations. He and Williams fall easily back into their coach-and-player repartee, and within 60 seconds, there is little doubt Jordan is still the exact same Tar Heel he has been ever since he wore his Carolina blue practice shorts under his Bulls uniform.
“Did you see the end of the Duke-Miami game last night?” Williams asks him.
Jordan breaks into the smile that has sold billions of dollars worth of sneakers. “Best thing that could’ve happened,” he says.
Jordan currently has three Tar Heels on his Hornets payroll—Marvin Williams and P.J. Hairston are in the starting lineup, and Tyler Hansbrough comes off the bench. But it doesn’t matter who is on his roster. He still keeps track of every Carolina game with the same fervor he’s had since enrolling in the summer of 1981.
“I still watch the game with the highest intensity, as if I was playing,” he says. “The thing I see that I truly love about the University is their tradition, honor and respect. Everything about the program transcends generations. To me, I still feel connected knowing these kids are still learning basically the same things I learned.”
The way he talks, it could still be 1984 or 1994 or 2004. It’s not until he says something jarring that you remember Jordan isn’t just older than the current Tar Heels—he’s older than many of the parents of the current Tar Heels.
“I’m 52 years old,” Jordan says during one part of the conversation.
Hold on. Michael Jordan is what now?
It’s true. Jordan is 52 years old.
And yet, somehow it doesn’t matter. Video footage gets grainy. Shorts get longer. But Michael Jordan is still Michael Jordan. He’s still a worldwide superstar, and he’s also still—despite the office with the pictures of the championships and his kids and the limited edition sneakers—that kid from Wilmington who came to Chapel Hill as Mike Jordan.
About that surprise Williams took for him: when he walked into Jordan’s office, Williams approached the desk and showed Jordan the photo. “Have you ever seen this one, Michael?” the coach asked his former player. “We found this in Coach Smith’s things.”
Jordan broke into a smile and leaned back in his chair. He pointed across from his desk, to the wall where you’d hang something you wanted to see often. This was no dusty corner of the office. This was prime real estate.
On that wall was a framed photo. In fact, it was the photo Williams was holding in his hands. The frame contained the shot of Smith and Jordan, and below it, an uncashed $200 check from Smith’s estate—the check that was sent to every letterman upon the coach’s death.
Williams couldn’t do anything but smile. Of course Jordan had that photo. Of course he had it framed on the wall. Of course he would want it somewhere he could see it. He was Michael Jordan.
Greatest of all time.
Wildly successful businessman.
Above everything, though: Tar Heel.