On the day that Michael Jordan has been officially announced as a member of basketball's hall of fame, let me take you back to when Jordan was an 18-year-old freshman at North Carolina in 1981.
This was even before “The Shot” against Georgetown in 1982. The UNC media guide labeled the freshman from Wilmington as “Mike Jordan.” He wasn’t commonly called "Michael" yet.
When longtime UNC play-by-play announcer Woody Durham asked Coach Dean Smith before the 1981-82 season began how practice was going, Smith said: “Pretty good. I think the youngster from Wilmington is going to help us a little.”
Laughed Durham when he told me this story many years later: “That was one of the greatest understatements of all time.”
One of the first basketball guys to accurately predict the future for Jordan was Billy Cunningham – the first great player Smith coached at UNC back in the 1960s. Cunningham would later win NBA championships as both a player (1967) and a coach (1983) for the Philadelphia 76ers.
In the early fall, Cunningham liked to return to Chapel Hill to watch Smith conduct practice and get a read on the next batch of Tar Heels.
“So I went down to watch the Tar Heels practice before the 1981-82 season,” Cunningham told me once. “And I saw Jordan awhile. And then I said to Dean: ‘He’s going to be the greatest player who ever came out of here.’
“But Dean got mad at me,” Cunningham continued. “You know how he is. He doesn’t like to hear anything like that. To him, everybody is equal. And I said, ‘Coach, coach. Just look at Michael. This isn’t brain surgery. Look at the way he plays.’”
Lastly, here are a couple of responses from Jordan on a questionnaire he filled out for the UNC sports information department in 1981, at age 18.
Question: Who’s the athlete you most admire?
Answer: Walter Davis, Magic Johnson.
Question: What movies have you most enjoyed?
Answer: Weapons of Death, Superman, Superman II.
Question: What’s the best book you’ve read?
Answer: The Pearl (by John Steinbeck).
Question: What’s your post-school ambition?
Answer: Professional basketball.
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