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An extraordinary father-son relationship, tinged by tragedy
In June 1991, James Jordan sat by his son Michael, who had joyous tears streaming down his cheeks as he finally tasted championship glory inside a raucous Los Angeles locker room.
Five years later, on Father's Day, James' spirit is what compelled Michael to collapse into the fetal position on the United Center floor as the Bulls' fourth championship celebration took flight.
Just shy of three years after two teenagers woke a napping James at a North Carolina rest stop, then robbed and murdered him, Michael accepted his fourth NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award with his father on his mind.
"This was probably the hardest time for me to play the game of basketball," Michael said on June 16, 1996, after the Bulls closed out Seattle. "I had a lot of things in my heart and on my mind ... and maybe my mind was not geared to [the game].
"I think deep down inside, it was geared to what was most important to me, which was my family and my father not being here to see this. I'm just glad my team pulled me through this because it was a tough time for me."
Some of those who have known Jordan the longest and have been closest to him spoke eloquently of the bond Jordan shared with his father, whom he called simply "Pops." During Jordan's rise to fame, he often talked about his father's ability to keep him grounded and openly referred to him as his best friend.
"There's no question where Mike came by his love of baseball; that was his dad's sport," says Dick Neher, Jordan's Babe Ruth League baseball coach. "James and I worked together at the GE plant for 20 years. He never missed a game, and he rarely missed one of Mike's practices. They were extremely close, and they remained so."
Whispers of Jordan possibly retiring early began shortly after police arrested Daniel Green and Larry Demery and charged them with murdering James Jordan, who was 56, on July 23, 1993. A fisherman discovered James' body in a creek on Aug. 3. Ten days later, he was identified using dental records. Just shy of two months later, on Oct. 6, Michael Jordan left basketball at 30. And while Jordan didn't cite the loss of his father as the only reason, he addressed the tragedy at his packed news conference at the Berto Center.
"I'm a very optimistic person and I guess the most positive thing I can take from my father not being here with me today is that he saw my last basketball game," Jordan said then. "And that means a lot."
Teammates and friends who watched Jordan celebrate the Bulls' first three championships with his father understood how losing him had influenced his retirement decision.
"I can't say I was shocked, because he was so close to his dad," says John Paxson. "I always felt this way: If retirement is what he wanted, you had to be happy for him. If some burden would be lifted or that could clear his mind, well, there's nothing wrong with that. He deserved it."
Added James Worthy, a teammate at North Carolina: "[The murder] had to affect him, close as they were. My folks kept going to the games after I left Carolina and they'd sit with the Jordans, so we knew them very well. They were a very close family, a very nice family."
On March 12, 1996, a jury chose life in prison over the death penalty for Green. Two months and eight days later, a jury sentenced Demery to life in prison as well.
And then, on Oct. 14, 1996, Jordan attended the opening of the James Jordan Boys & Girls Club and Family Life Center a few blocks from the United Center.
At the center is a plaque that shows James Jordan smiling -- looking much like Michael did that 1991 night in Los Angeles.