Jan. 25, 1999
I live in the Chicago area, and despite the long winters I love it. I've had so many great times here. My dad loved Chicago, too, having been raised in nearby Joliet, Ill. When he, my stepmother and I were living in Buffalo, N.Y., and then East Orange, N.J., he would regale us with stories about Chicago and the city's sports teams. His favorite was the Cubs. Every spring he would tell me the Cubbies were destined to win the World Series. It wasn't until I was a little older and knew more about Chicago that I realized my father, like most Cubs fans, was in a world of his own when it came to his favorite ball club. He was the eternal optimist. But Chicago has been lucky over the years with some bona fide superstars for all its sports teams. They would include Dick Butkus and Walter Payton of the Bears, Bobby Hull of the Blackhawks, Ernie Banks and, more recently, Sammy Sosa of the Cubs. And of course, just-retired Michael Jordan of the Bulls.
Jordan is considered something special. Many say he's the greatest basketball player of all time. He's admired not only in Chicago but all over the world. All kinds of superlatives have been used to describe the man, and even some unkind revelations have surfaced about Jordan that most of us supposedly don't know. Frankly, I don't care, because I've taken my measure of the man in other ways. I'll try to explain.
I have never met Jordan, although through the eyes of a simple shoeshine man I think I know a lot about him. I'd like to share a story.
A few years ago I had a little extra time one day while I was waiting to catch a plane at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. One way to pass the time was to get a shoeshine. I sat down and waited until the shoeshine man was finished with another customer. It was a busy place, and there was a lot of conversation. I wasn't really paying attention at first, but one of the discussions caught my attention, and I started to listen closely.
It turns out the man polishing my shoes had occasionally shined Michael Jordan's shoes. One day during a shoeshine Jordan had mentioned that he was going to buy some new suits and remarked that the young shoeshine man looked to have about the same build and height he did. Jordan then asked him if he needed any suits, and the young man answered in the affirmative. A few days later Jordan showed up with five suits for the fellow. To say the shoeshine man was flabbergasted would be an understatement. You should have seen this fellow as he told the story. He was beaming. He said he couldn't believe that Jordan would actually give away $1,500 suits to him. He said he tried them on one at a time, and they fit him just fine. He couldn't say enough about "the gentleman Michael Jordan is."
As far as I'm concerned that story says a lot about Jordan. Some people gain success and then become so preoccupied with themselves that they forget about the needs of others. They forget that a simple act of kindness can make a big difference in someone's life. But many, like Jordan, don't forget. Their lives are about more than the pursuit of material things. They share their prosperity and are quick to lend a helping hand. Those are marks of grace and class as much in the business world as in professional sports.
Maybe Jordan's appeal has to do with the way he has handled his success. In the current issue of Newsweek magazine, which includes a profile headlined "The Michael Jordan We Never Knew," one of his close friends, actor and comedian Damon Wayans, describes Jordan this way: "Michael is just a country bumpkin who's transformed himself into everyman and superman." An old school buddy, Fred Whitfield, shows another dimension of the man: "Michael has the Southern reverence for elders. Michael feels comfortable around those types of men who don't necessarily have an education from a school but a master's in life."
Charles S. Lauer