Contributor: Ross Franco | Learn about his encounters with Michael Jordan.
I grew up in a small coastal town in North Carolina, called Wilmington. I moved there when I was about 11 years old and absolutely fell in love with it. As any NBA fan knows, Wilmington, North Carolina, is also the home of Michael Jordan – the greatest basketball player to ever play the game.
I went to John T. Hoggard High School and graduated in 1982. Across town at E.A. Laney High School, a future legend was finishing up his high school career for the Buccaneers. Michael Jordan graduated from Laney HS in 1981. He went on to star at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We all know about MJ’s legacy in college, the Olympics and the NBA.
Back in the early 1980s, we didn’t have the Internet, Twitter and Facebook, bombarding us with a constant flow of information; so, I had not even heard of Michael Jordan, until he was a senior in high school. MJ entered my consciousness about the same time as most other people – when he played at UNC as a freshman and hit this game-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA Championship, against Georgetown:
I have been fortunate to meet Michael Jordan, on four or five different occasions in Wilmington, NC.
The first time I met him, I was at Independence Mall in Wilmington, with a friend of mine. We were talking, looked up and saw a familiar figure, bobbing his head and walking toward us with another guy, who would become one of my best friends. It was Michael Jordan and David Bridgers – one of MJ’s lifelong friends. It was kind of surreal, because MJ was a sophomore at Carolina and was already becoming a little bit famous. Can you imagine him walking in a shopping mall now? We exchanged pleasantries and the guy I was with said, “Let’s go play some ball.” I was actually a really good player for a 5′ 10″ white guy, but I knew immediately that there was no way in hell, MJ was going to lace them up and play basketball with us. He kind of laughed and gave the smile that we all know so well. That was the end of that meeting.
Jordan was in Wilmington, another time, which I think was the summer between his rookie year and second NBA season (broken foot and 63-point game against the Celtics). At that point, he was VERY famous. I had also become good friends with David Bridgers during the two or three years since I first met MJ. I was invited to meet them at a local dance club, which was actually in the local Holiday Inn (that’s how small the town was back then). When I arrived, MJ, David and a couple of other guys – Buzz Peterson and Adolph Shiver – were already there. I walked up to MJ and introduced myself to him. He was sitting down at the bar and I was standing beside him. I tried to play it cool like I was ‘one of the guys’ and never once mentioned basketball to him. However, on the inside I was thinking, ‘Holy f#$k, I can’t believe I’m talking to Michael Jordan!’ That was a very long time ago; I don’t specifically recall the conversation. I know he was in town for a golf tournament, so, I wished him good luck. What was most impressive to me was that before I left, he said, “You taking off?” and called me by name. He knew, even at that young age, that it was important to remember people’s names – knowing it would make a lasting impression; it certainly did. I left with David and had to drive him back to MJ’s house to pick up his car, as he had ridden with MJ. I’ve had my car parked in MJ’s driveway, more than once – but that’s another story.
In 1987, MJ ran a basketball camp at UNC-Wilmington. I was neither one of the campers (mostly young, local kids – I was 22 or 23, attending college there), nor, one of the coaches, mentors or guides. I was a student, hanging around that camp a lot, just to see MJ play. Every evening after the campers were sent to their dorm rooms, I’d go and watch pick-up games at Trask Coliseum. Sadly, for me, that was my one opportunity to play in a pick-up game with MJ and some other local talent that I knew well; however, I’d just had surgery on my shoulder, a week prior to the camp – my arm was in a sling and I couldn’t play. I’ve played several times with Larry Jordan, MJ’s older brother, but, it’s not quite the same.
I remember Cozell McQueen, of NCSU, played in some of those pick-up games, as did a then-unknown, Sean Elliott. I think MJ flew him in, just to upgrade the level of competition for him to abuse. I remember MJ doing a drive to the basket that was the most athletic, spectacular MISSED shot, I have ever seen. The closest move I can compare it to, is this one that MJ made against the New Jersey Nets, in 1991 – except, even more spectacular!
Wondering if footage exists from these pick-up games? In the documentary to Michael Jordan’s, ‘Come Fly with Me’, the narrator alludes that the (following) video is from a pick-up game in Chapel Hill. However, it is in fact, from the 1987 UNC-Wilmington camp. Watch from the 19m 21s mark – what you see, is actually Trask Coliseum:
[Adam: I always questioned the date of this. Thanks for the definitive clarification, Ross!]
UNC-Wilmington’s colors are green and gold – you can clearly see those colors painted on the court. Also, see the photo below – MJ is wearing the exact same clothes in the video. I was probably standing beside the guy filming the game when I took the photo, as I was equally close to the court. Possibly, I was at the opposite end. I’m not sure.
I do recall one funny moment from the 1987 camp. I’m now 49 years old – most people think I’m in my late 30s, as I still look relatively young. Well, when I was 22 or 23, I looked like I was 17 or 18. I was at Trask Coliseum, right before the pick up games started one night and I walked past MJ. He said, “Aren’t you supposed to be in bed?” He thought I was one of the campers…probably because he had seen me hanging around so much.
As far as memorabilia goes, I have a couple of MJ photos that I took at the camp – also, an autographed poster, from around the same time. I can’t recall if it was at the camp or somewhere else that I got the poster signed but, I do still have it. It’s in terrible condition, but I would never part with it.
I have been really good friends with David Bridgers, for about 30 years. He is known as “MJ’s childhood friend.” I have read about David, in Sports Illustrated and he appears on ESPN’s 30 for 30, Jordan Rides the Bus. He is one of the kindest human beings I’ve ever known. You can hear and see David, at around 2m 8s and 5m 16s, here:
I called David at home, the night that Mr. Jordan’s body was discovered. He probably thought it was MJ calling, because the phone didn’t even ring a whole ring, before he answered. I told him I was sorry to hear about Mr. Jordan and he just started sobbing uncontrollably. He was really close to “Mr. J”, as he calls him.
Everyone wants to hang out with MJ and get to know him (myself included). David has to be really protective of his relationship with Michael – and, who he ‘lets in.’ He keeps a really tight lid on it because as you can imagine, everyone wants a pair of shoes or an autographed jersey or something else from MJ.
I want to make it clear that I don’t know Michael Jordan; I just know lots of other people who do. I was fortunate to have an opportunity to meet him and I hope I have a chance to talk with him again one day.
Those are my few encounters with the Greatest of All Time.