My Best Worst Friend
Had some kind of inexact deja vu as I read this story yesterday (emphasis added):
While Jordan declined to speak to reporters, he did plenty of talking on the court.I once played HORSE with Michael Jordan. It was in the summer of 2008. My time in New York was winding down, and I could easily take an extra hour or two for lunch as necessary. You don't forget the details of playing basketball with the man who's done it better than anyone else, and I can recall vividly that fateful Wednesday in June
Needling Henderson relentlessly for being from Duke, the North Carolina product kept clanging jumpers off the rim as Henderson quickly won the first shooting game.
But then Jordan, wearing jeans and sneakers, started getting hot. He hit a free throw with his eyes closed to take the lead in the second game.
"What do you think, I just dunked my whole career?" Jordan asked Henderson after making a 3.
Henderson remained stone-faced when Jordan hit another outside jumper.
"You've got to miss eventually," Henderson told him.
"That's what Cleveland said," replied Jordan, referring to his last-second shot for Chicago in 1989 to win a playoff series over the Cavaliers.
The day started like any other. I got up, got dressed, rode the subway, and went to work. I peeled off my sports coat as the office air conditioning replaced the uncomfortable humidity of a sweltering trip to midtown. My desk was overflowing with papers from various assignments I was in the midst of closing out. I sat down at my desk, leaned back in my chair, sighed a few times as I considered what I wanted to accomplish that day, and then undertook the arduous task of checking my email. Back then, I was still responsible for supervising some time-sensitive reports that had to go out early, and that meant a glut of email greeted me every morning, seven days a week.
I got through my email, I got some paperwork in order, I moved on to other administrivia, and suddenly it was 11:15. I got up for a cup of water and some small talk with a few office friends. As we were chatting, my right pant pocket started vibrating, so I reached in, pulled out my phone, and hit the talk button without really considering the caller ID.
"Is this that flaming f***ot Joey?" a baritone grumbled through the phone. "You there, you punk bitch?" I don't like the f-word, and I don't like being called a "punk bitch," but I couldn't stifle my smile because nothing had changed: Michael was on the phone. I excused myself from the conversation with my colleagues, and I ducked into a vacant conference room.
During the bright days of June, I like to work with the lights off because the sunlight is adequate and rooms stay cooler when light bulbs aren't burning. So I staggered into the relative dark of a conference room and sat down as though I didn't want anyone to know I was in there. Only after I'd taken a seat did I realize how off-balance--literally and figuratively--I was feeling. I didn't hear from Michael all that often because I didn't (and still don't) have the bankroll for Vegas, strip clubs get old quickly, my golf game needs work, and I have never really gotten along so well with Charles Oakley. I loved him as a player, but his Captain Surly routine and Mean Girls-like focus on being the gatekeeper of MJ's inner circle make him less than affable. I have ceded that territory to Oak, though it means I don't talk to MJ much.
I hadn't really said anything since answering the phone because Michael just kept going. "That's right, motherfucker, I'm in town, I'm heading to the gym later, and I'm looking to whoop someone's ass. You know you owe me one. You know it, bitch. So get your shit, leave that cute little job of yours for a few hours, and come meet me at the gym."
I "owed" him one only because to beat Michael at anything is to forever arouse his anger. You saw his Hall of Fame induction, right? My transgression, my horrible offense at Michael's expense, dated back to when we first met, in the Detroit airport during the summer of 2002. I was flying out to Colorado and MJ was going to Los Angeles. He'd been in Detroit for some kind of charity golf event at Oakland Hills Country Club. I was there because I was still a student at the University of Michigan and had to attend a wedding right before classes resumed. We were both flying Northwest and a patch of that violent, unpredictable summertime Midwest weather rolled through, grounding everyone for a few hours. I had accumulated enough frequent flyer miles to travel in style for a change, and I hit the rich-person concierge area to wait out the storm. I walked in and saw Michael sitting on a couch with one hand on a cigar, the one bearing his wedding ring on some woman's thigh, and his eyes burning a hole through the television.
I always knew that Michael had a gambling problem, but I didn't understand its full dimension until I sat down across from him and got roped into his lunacy as he indulged his famously competitive zeal. The sky doesn't usually turn from blue and sunny to black and foreboding over the course of three minutes, but that's what had happened on this day, and the television was tuned to the Weather Channel so that travelers could follow the storm and adjust their plans. I guess that Michael had told the woman he was clutching that he could predict the weather--as though Michael Jordan needs pickup schtick--and fixing to mount the illusion of scarcity, she bet him a drink and phone number that she could beat him at it. Obviously, that got Michael going, in pretty much every sense of that well-worn expression. As I plopped down on the leather couch, he and the woman had just begun, and they both seemed eager to share their game with a stranger who could admire it and maybe cough up some cash.
"Excuse me--would you like to play a game with myself and my friend here?" Michael asked me.
"I'm sorry? A game? What's the game?" I could barely get out my response as my mouth tightened up into a grin that obviated any need for the usual aren't-you-such-and-such-celebrity routine. Michael could tell instantly that I was intrigued, that I was in awe, and that I was in.
He told me that I could buy into the game for whatever cash I had in my pocket--turned out to be $127. Small stakes for MJ, but nothing kills time like gambling, and Michael is an addict. No stakes are too small. In return for my cash collateral, I'd have a chance to win twice what I'd put up, and to exchange phone numbers with Michael and his lady friend. All I had to do was beat Michael and the woman at a series of prop bets that ranged all over, from how fast the storm was moving, to how cold it would be in Fort Lauderdale that night, to how much rain would fall in Ohio.
Over the next three hours, Michael, the woman, and I went back and forth, talking shit, getting drunk, and making outrageous bets about the most mundane and innocuous meteorology. When the clouds finally parted and planes began taking off again, I'd won 28 bets, I'd earned $254, I'd stored some random woman's number in my phone, and I'd become friends with Michael Jordan. Of course, he also stopped talking to me for 45 minutes after I properly predicted that the heat index in Mesa, AZ would hit 114 that Friday. He had said 113, and I was closest without going over (116 was the answer).
When I eventually landed in Colorado that night, I texted Michael that I'd enjoyed meeting him, and that he wouldn't believe the weather in Denver. He wrote back, "Eat a dick, motherfucker. I'll call you when I am next in town. I'm collecting my $254. GTG. Just left mile-high club." I assumed he was messing around, and that our paths would never cross again. He's Michael Jordan, and I'm me. But sure enough, about a year later, Michael got up with me in New York. He even cajoled me into buying him dinner just to stick it to me and because he could. From then on, we were friends.
I've never been forgiven for having had the temerity to win our bet in DTW, though, and when MJ called me to play ball that day a few years ago, I knew what was in store. The phone call alone was more than enough proof. What 45-year-old man unleashes a torrent of profanity and ignorance to entice his friends into playing basketball with him? This afternoon gym session with Michael was going to be the usual--he'd make shots, he'd make money, he'd make fun of everyone until he sensed he'd all but broken your spirit to live. Then he'd tell you to stop "being a bitch," and he'd suggest smoking cigars and meeting women. By 2008, Michael was divorced, so it wasn't as uncomfortable for me when we'd have a guys night. Tiger and Charles and Charles never seemed to care, and if they did, none of them ever said anything to Michael. Certainly not Tiger. Neither did I, but despite the way we met and everything I'd long assumed about him, I could never get past the cheating. By the time Michael and I played HORSE that June Wednesday, my guilt-by-association had gone away, and that made things easier.
As suddenly as he'd gotten on the call, he got off it. "Alright. 1:30 at the usual spot. Come ready, Joey. I'm gonna make it rain on your ass like you were Eric Smith." I hung up and walked out of the conference room. My friends had dispersed, so I returned to my desk without having to say anything. Though I've never lied about my friendship with Michael, I've also never been quick to bring it up. How can I possible explain to people that I am friends with one of the ten most famous people on the planet? With Michael Jordan?! Who would believe that? It sounds crazy, and it is. I am writing about it today only because this Gerald Henderson news has been making the rounds, and it's so funny that Michael just always does Michael.
Back at my desk, I quietly finished out some short-term assignments and emailed my boss that I had to run some errands and would be gone for a few hours. Around 12:30, I neatly stacked all of the outstanding paper still littering my workspace and headed out the door. As usual, the humidity outside was heavy, and it felt as though the air were filled with some viscous liquid that was inescapable. The subway only made it worse, and I was panting when I walked into my apartment. I quickly threw on my basketball gear and went back out. That day, I was going to play in my white-and-French-blue Jordan XIIs because they matched my blue Knicks shorts. Michael likes it when I show up in Knicks gear because it reminds him "of a career spent tea bagging Patrick." Who am I to deny Michael Jordan a basketball indulgence?
Another subway ride left me at the gym. Michael Jordan can't play at local parks or public centers, of course, so we always go to a private facility. I'd mention where, but Michael still hits this place on a regular basis, and I already have blown up his spot enough in this post.
I walked into the gym, and it was eerily quiet. The room was still and dry, permeated by a plastic smell given off by some new padding along the walls. Michael was lying on the floor stretching, and I didn't see anyone else around. He told me that Oak was on the way, and that a bunch of other guys were going to be joining up later. In the interim, though, he wanted to get warmed up. In classic Michael fashion, he cast himself as the magnanimous fellow making a generous gesture. "I'll tell you what--we'll play HORSE. That way you won't wanna go home crying too quickly. I know you can't dunk, but I've seen that scrawny ass of yours hit some shots." To be friends with Michael is to forever indulge his vanity and his inward focus, but his biting sense of humor and willingness to abandon judgment once you've earned his trust make him seductive all the same. He's the sort of person whom you can't quit very easily. The fleeting moments of fun always pull you back before his pettiness creates too large a void.
Hoping above all else to not pull something, I stretched a little as Michael and I revved up the playfully adversarial banter. I can't talk shit about my basketball game to him for obvious reasons, so I always have to go elsewhere. I was gonna be on my knees; he was gonna be in a paternity suit. I had ruined my chance with some woman; he had ruined the Central Florida athletic department. I picked the wrong day to mess with him; he picked Kwame Brown. I couldn't get one letter off of him; he had letters S, T, and D to spare. Finally I was warmed up and ready to go.
The game started simply at the free-throw line. I got to shoot first, and I chose a spot from which I was confident. Establishing a rhythm, however it happens, is crucial when playing against Michael. Be it HORSE or a real game, you have to see yourself making a few shots if you're going to stay on the court. He answered, and he did it with his eyes closed. "That's some Mutombo shit right there, Joey!" Yes, we all remember.
Next, I walked over to the baseline and put down a 16 footer. Michael matched that, too. If it seems like I was choosing basic shots...it's because I was. As much fun as it would be to beat Michael Jordan at HORSE with an array of specialty shots and high-difficulty conversions, that's not really within the realm of possibility for a mediocre player who has spent most of his life doing things other than playing basketball. It's especially hard when playing against the greatest player of all time.
My game came unraveled after I missed my next shot, a three from the extended elbow on which I called bank. The ball did bank, only it caromed so hard off the backboard that it missed the rim and wound up back at half court on the other side of the floor. "Damn, Joey. That was uglier than my divorce settlement!" I told you that Michael can be fun. "Now we're gonna separate the men from the bitch-ass motherfuckers."
Michael walked underneath the basket, leaped out toward the back wall, spun in the air, and easily put the ball in the hoop after floating it over the backboard. Before I even tried, Michael was hooting at me, "Can't spell Hoey without an H." He was right, both grammatically and in a basketball sense. I got an H and fell on top of myself in the process. As I was getting up, Michael was strolling back toward midcourt, and he stopped one step from the line. Without turning back toward the basket on which we were shooting, he lofted the ball over his head with one hand, and it fell through the basket without hitting the rim. Then Michael shrugged at me and said, "That's what Portland saw when they didn't respect my J. I bet you didn't think I could do that." Really, this is what we're talking about?
I was quickly a HO. R and S came on the next two exchanges when I failed to make a three from my knees, and then when I saw the ball lip out after Michael insisted that I mimic his famous layup against the Lakers. If you're keeping track, I made my first two shots, missed my third, picked up four letters on the next four shots, and endured references to faded glory from 1991 and 1992, a full 17 and 16 years earlier. The sad thing is that Michael almost always talks about or somehow invokes these moments. Reading what he said to Gerald Henderson the other day compelled me to share this story because while Michael's post-career descent into a certain lowlife hedonism is well known, his enduring competitiveness and depressing inability to let go remain beyond tangible comprehension for most people. This is a man who wouldn't allow me to have water on the day of my Gerald Henderson experience until I was at HORSE. He explained, "Craig Hodges used to want water breaks, and look what happened to him."
Luckily for me, I am not too proud to cast my lot with someone like Craig--whom MJ and I once ran into on the street in Chicago; it was really awkward--and the sweet rapture came soon after I was at HORS. (Or, as Michael said, "Get that Pietrus-ass French 'HORS' shit out of here." A reference to an active player was actually encouraging, so I didn't even mind that it was an insult, and that as far as insults go, it was about as weak as anything Michael has ever summoned.) Michael's next shot was a straight ahead three, something I could convert. The charity was limited, though, because after I matched him, he returned to the spot from which I had missed a bank three and effortless executed a spinning fadeaway off the board. Game over. HORSE for me.
"That's the shot I hit to beat James Worthy after my first practice at UNC," Michael said. "I challenged him to a game of one-on-one, and I nailed that shot just to show him that I could. He said 'No way you hit this' as it was in the air. And after I put it down, I told him 'That's what Leroy Smith said to me.'"
As you can see, some things about Michael have never changed, and apparently, they never will.
(As you might not be able to see, this post is a work of fiction. But what does it say about Michael that it seems so believable? -- Ed.)