In Chapel Hill, Dean Smith may still leap to Tar Heel fans' minds first, but around the world, from Barcelona to Beijing, from Sarasota to San Francisco, a mention of North Carolina basketball conjures images of the man who redefined and continues to define the sport. A man who came to Chapel Hill known simply as Mike Jordan.
With journalist's smacking keyboards in the Mahogany Room of the Springfield Symphony Hall twenty minutes before the scheduled 6:30 pm commencement of the event, the old structure shook from a roar outside. Nearly in unison, the writers raised their heads, "Jordan's here." In fact, the sole reason the event was moved to Symphony Hall was Michael Jordan. Tickets were going for $1,000 each and the place sold out. To those in the business of monetizing the sport, it was another slam dunk for No. 23.
Indeed it was true, Jordan was in the house. Just moments after describing the relationship between Jordan's work ethic and ultimate success during the pre-show live on NBA TV, Kenny Smith got a smack and a kiss on the top of the head from his former Tar Heel teammate. A little surprised, but always cool, Smith said, "There's nothing better than being kissed on the head by the best player in the world,"
When the curtain was raised inside it was another Tar Heel, Stuart Scott, a man who played pickup ball with Jordan during their days in Chapel Hill, that led the television and in-house audience through introductions in what may go down as the greatest class of all-time. C. Vivian Stringer, John Stockton, Jerry Sloan and David Robinson were all received affectionately. Alone, the four of them would make a superlative class. But, in a manner that bordered on the uncomfortable, when the man nearly everyone in the room agreed is the best to ever play was introduced, the place nearly lifted off its foundation from the response.
In attendance at the induction, representing his fraternal family of Tar Heels were Dean Smith, Roy Williams, Larry Brown, Bill Guthridge, Matt Doherty, Buzz Peterson, Sam Perkins and Kenny Smith among others. On this day, with teammates, coaches and fans offering glowing tributes, perhaps the comments from Jordan himself proved most instructive. "Don't be in a rush to try to find the next Michael Jordan. There's not going to be another Michael Jordan." It was a comment designed to enjoin fans and the media to allow the current hoops stars the freedom of self determination. The cheering from the normally jaded media, though, drowned out the desired message.
Moments before his formal induction, as ESPN went to commercial with Stuart Scott's line, "next, the induction of the greatest player of all time," and the lights dimmed in preparation for Jordan's enshrinement, the somewhat reserved fans finally let loose. "Go Mike" was the cry that began the cheers which lasted throughout a video presentation that aired in the intermission.
During the speech, Jordan provided a window into his mythical competitive desire. It began with his family, was fueled by his non selection from his high school team, and was simmering by the time he reached Chapel Hill.
Upon arrival as a freshman, apparently Jordan was plagued by one simple question - just who is Buzz Peterson? Peterson was, of course, the North Carolina High School Player of the Year over Jordan and according to the new Hall of Famer, "When I first got to North Carolina all I heard about was this guy from Asheville who was the player of the year and I was thinking ‘well we ain't never played each other.' So how could he be the player of the year? Was it the media, the exposure? Buzz Peterson became the guy on my bulletin board. Buzz is a great person. It wasn't a fault of his. It was just my competitive nature. I didn't think he could beat me. But, he became my roommate and from that point on he was a focal point, not knowingly."
Jordan also related another tale from early in his freshman year. It was a slight that at once motivated and infuriated the then young Tar Heel. "When Coach Smith named four starters on the Sports Illustrated cover and left me off, that burned me up. I thought I'd be on that Sports Illustrated," he recalled, completely aware in retrospect that Coach Smith was protecting his young player, but still not giving in. "From a basketball standpoint, I deserved to be on that cover," he contended to a room full of laughter. A wave from Smith seemed to indicate that the former coach may finally be willing to cede that point.
On the evening, Jordan also raised the reputation of not just his university, North Carolina, but the entire state during the induction process. Sure, he could have asked his mentor and father figure, Dean Smith, to handle the induction. However, Dean Smith doesn't need validation. His place in history is sealed. Perhaps, though, a younger generation needed a refresher course in what another player in the state of North Carolina accomplished before No. 23 came along. By selecting David Thompson, a surprise to even Thompson himself, Jordan elevated a long under-appreciated pioneer in the aerial art of basketball.
Before any other allegiances though, Michael Jordan is a Tar Heel. "I'm a true blue Carolina guy to the heart," he said. He is also a product of a system. However, this "product" fundamentally changed the way the sport is played forever. "He makes one big shot and everybody thinks he's so cool," John Stockton said, laughingly, during his induction speech, quickly garnering support for the Understatement Hall of Fame.
Jordan changed the scope of the sport. He actually laid eyes on a skyscraper-sized poster of himself in Barcelona. He changed the style of the sport. Who didn't, and for that matter still doesn't, want to be like Mike? Superstars labor for years to create that one indelible image that defines their career. For Michael Jordan, these images could fill a library. Still, though, to this day, for the man who raised the game to the heavens, his first indelible image, the first master stroke, is painted a particular shade of blue. A Carolina Blue moment on a New Orleans night that was the launching pad for the legend.
Jordan and Dean Smith embrace after the ceremony.