Playing on a championship college team in his freshman year was a huge thrill for Kris Johnson. But that experience paled in comparison to the post-season summer he spent in Burbank playing with basketball great Michael Jordan.
It’s a memory that still causes his voice to shake with excitement 25 years later.
Johnson, a former pro basketball player who is currently a businessman, was a member of the UCLA basketball team that won the NCAA tournament in 1995. The team was treated like sports royalty, with invitations to The White House and gala events like the premiere of the Will Smith-Martin Lawrence action hit “Bad Boys.”
But the 19-year-old Johnson really freaked out when a call came into the UCLA basketball office. “They said, ‘Michael Jordan is in town shooting a movie, and he wants all of us to come to Warner Bros. Studios to play and train.’”
The movie was “Space Jam,” the live-action/animated comedy that would pair the basketball great with cartoon icon Bugs Bunny.
“I worshiped Mike,” said Johnson. He knew Jordan was a fan of his father, former UCLA star Marques Johnson. “He had his poster on his wall in college.”
He remembers the first day he drove to Warner Bros. and was escorted to this “gigantic tent. It looked like something you’d see in Area 51. When I walked in, there was this really bright light that hit me.” Moments later, he was introduced to Jordan’s trainer, Tim Grover.
Inside was a full-size basketball court, featured in the latest episode of ESPN’s buzzworthy Jordan retrospective, “The Last Dance.” “They had imported the court from Long Beach State University.” Running the length of the facility was “a whole gamut of weight and lifting machines.” There was also a large lounge with an L-shaped couch and big fluffy pillows; a putting green; a boxing speed bag; a refrigerator; a gambling table; and huge speakers pumping out music.
“I thought, ‘This is going to be a great summer,’” Johnson said. “There was just this vibe, this energy that you were someplace special. When the doors opened and the light went on, you’d look up because you didn’t know whether it would be Will Smith or Bill Murray or Angela Bassett or Grant Hill or Patrick Ewing or Reggie Miller coming in.”
On that first day, Johnson recalled being so dazzled that he, teammate Charles O’Bannon and a few others couldn’t stop giggling. After about 30 minutes, he said, “the light went on and all these people started walking in. About 20 people. I had no idea who they were, maybe publicists, studio folks. Then Michael’s security guys walked in. Then, like Moses parting the Red Sea, walked in MJ. Six-six, 210 pounds, looking like the absolute basketball god he is.”
The star had just finished that day’s shooting and was in street basketball attire. “He had on customized Michael Jordan shoes that you or I had never seen before and they won’t be selling ever. He had on shorts and a Paid in Full cut-off T-shirt. His look was unbelievable.”
“Me and Charles, we just looked at each other. We’re almost grown men and we just started laughing. Like ‘Oh, my God, THERE HE IS!’ I didn’t want to look at him. Charles didn’t want to look at him.”
The players eventually settled down. “Once you break the ice with Mike, you realize he’s just like you,” Johnson said. “He loves competition, he loves the game. He even gave me a pair of his patent leather Air Jordans. He gave me them off his feet. He really was uplifting to me, took me under his wing, gave me a lot of confidence not only in basketball but anything I did. And when you touch greatness, you always want to achieve that standard.”
Johnson had come off a season during which he had been injured and gained a lot of weight, ballooning up to around 275 pounds.
When he started playing at the Jordan Dome, he had dropped to 215 pounds. “Michael taught me how to transition to the perimeter, pick and roll. When we played, there were 10 guys on the floor, nine NBA players and Kris. I constantly had to show my worth, constantly play at a high level.
“And Michael was not playing any differently than he would play with Scottie Pippen. Michael is very hard on you, and if you don’t have the mental fortitude to deal with that, you will break, as a player and as a person. It takes a strong person to deal with Mike. He got in my [expletive]. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, you’re Marques’ kid. Oh, you’re only a sophomore at UCLA. '
At the time, Jordan was trying to get back into basketball shape himself, preparing for the coming NBA season after taking a year and a half off to play baseball. There was a method to playing with college kids.
Said Johnson, “What Michael wanted to do that summer was work out and also expand his game. It was a great situation for him. He gets to nurture and bring along a college kid and tap into that side of his brain that is not slapping Steve Kerr around in practice and being a little kinder and talking you up and coaching you.”
Jordan set up sudden-death game situations in which he would rely on Johnson to shoot the potential game-winning shot from the corner. “He would pass the ball to me, and, I’ll tell you the truth, ask my dad or anyone else who was there, I’d hit that shot more than not. Nothing made Michael happier. He would love me when I hit that shot.
“If I missed it, he wouldn’t talk to me for a few minutes,” he added with a laugh.
What Johnson now calls a master class made a major impact on his sophomore season performance. Having dumped the weight he gained during his injury-plagued freshman year, he went from putting up “despicable numbers” to averaging 12.5 points and five rebounds a game. He became UCLA’s leading scorer in conference play and had two games where he scored 30 points.
Johnson’s father would often accompany his son to the Jordan Dome.
“We’d get there early before the pros did, and there’d be a casual game of three-on-three, just to warm up,” said Marques Johnson. “I was 40 years old at the time, so I’d get in the games from time to time. Different people would be there. Dean Cain [then starring in the ABC series “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman”] would be there on a regular basis.
“This one day, I dunked real casually to finish off game point, and Michael just let me have it, in a good-natured way. ‘C’mon, old man.... Don’t be trying to dunk out here.’ I said to Mike, ‘Look, man, whatever I was doing, you had my poster up on your wall in college, so I must have been doing something right.’ He just blushed and got red and said, ‘You got me on that one, man. I sure did. You got me on that one.’”
“It was just a great atmosphere,” Johnson added. “And we all knew what this was about. This was Michael’s Jordan Dome. We just felt fortunate to be part of this whole thing. All you had to do was look around and see all the celebrities and star-studded players on the floor to realize this wasn’t some run-of-the-mill summertime run. This was one of those once-in-a lifetime experiences.”