This Week in Sports History: Revisiting Jordan’s upbringing on his birthday

    There is no more recognizable name in basketball, and possibly any sport, than Michael Jordan’s. His legacy, even after the likes of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, is something that remains hard to replicate. Jordan’s career likely kicked off the advent of global sponsorship and corporate deals, as his image became synonymous with the sport internationally unlike any other before him. The legend got its start this week in history, as Jordan was born on Feb. 17, 1963. 

Fort Greene of Brooklyn, N.Y., is where Jordan’s entire legacy began, born to parents Deloris Peoples and James Jordan at Cumberland Hospital. He would not make his first marks on basketball here, though; at the age of 5, the Jordans resettled in Wilmington, N.C. Jordan’s parents always had high expectations for him and their other four children, instilling the value of hard work and perseverance by making good grades and exemplary behavior a standard in their home. This was likely a driving force behind Jordan’s own desire to push himself to new heights, despite constantly achieving his goals. His parents’ efforts weren’t without reward, though; James built Michael his first basketball court in their Wilmington backyard, fostering a love for the sport in him that would change it permanently.  His first chance to disprove others of his shortcomings came in the form of his overachievement, against his equally tenacious brother Larry. Despite Larry having been smaller than Michael since middle school, he was a better athlete and tough competition that Jordan had to improve his game to overcome. If the stories are to be believed, Michael and Larry hardly ever left the court during the day — they only ever took breaks to eat, sleep and fight, which their parents often had to break up.  

Clearly, the competitive drive ran in their family, and this was confirmed by their high school basketball coach, Pop Herring: “Larry was so driven and so competitive an athlete that if he had been 6’2″ instead of 5’7,” I’m sure Michael would have been known as Larry’s brother instead of Larry always being known as Michael’s brother.” His attempts to gain a spot on the varsity team, which was populated entirely by grown seniors, were blocked by its coaching staff, on the basis that his 5’9” height was insufficient to surpass the taller competition. They opted for his sophomore classmate, Leroy Smith, who was 6’7” and a more adept defender. Even in his youth, doubters were the source of his determination — he joined up with the junior varsity team, where Herring ran him through drills every day after school, pushing him to his limits and forcing him to pull the best out of himself. This kind of rigorous training allowed Jordan to obliterate his competition. Averaging over 30 points a game and tacking on numerous games with 40 plus points, he was happily welcomed to the varsity team as a junior, having grown to 6’3” before the start of the year. He exceeded their expectations, having averaged 25 plus points per game as a junior and senior. Taking notice of his incredible abilities, the McDonald’s All-American commission took notice and gave him a spot on the roster, wherein he proved his worth even further with a 30-point game. For reference, players like Shaquille O’Neal, Doc Rivers and Patrick Ewing were other McDonalds’s All-American recruits — O’Neal scored 18, Rivers scored 20 and Ewing didn’t even play.  

Having maxed out his potential at every level, it should’ve been a surprise to nobody that colleges across the U.S. were trying to court him — North Carolina, South Carolina, Duke and Syracuse, to name a few. Despite the numerous offers, Jordan elected to stay in his hometown, and his parents took to N.C. coach Dean Smith, resulting in him taking a scholarship with the Tar Heels. Smith was integral to Jordan’s development as a college athlete; Smith was present for the training camp that saw Jordan’s ability to become the best, yet did his best to humble him. According to Jordan, Smith treated all players on his squad equally, be they benchwarmers or future Hall of Famers. He was tough on Jordan when he made mistakes and reinforced the better play he saw in him; Jordan accredits much of his professional career to Smith’s ideology. There must be some truth to that claim; Jordan won the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Freshman of the Year and gave Smith a championship in the 1982 title game against Georgetown University. 

Jordan’s legacy beyond his youth needs almost no comment; a three-peat in championships, followed by a break to play baseball and yet another three-peat speaks for itself, as do the endorsement deals, worldwide “Be Like Mike” phenomenon and the status of being one of the most profitable athletes ever to exist. To get there, however, most of his childhood had to be built around striving for goals, desires to break records and the motivation to top himself. It seems like he had all the right role models in all the right places.