BOSTON (CBS) — Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player of all time. He dominated the NBA for 13 seasons with the Chicago Bulls (plus two more with the Washington Wizards in the early 2000s), winning six titles. He won those six Larry O’Brien Trophies over an eight-year span.
It was really over a seven-season span that he won those championships, because Jordan spent one of those title-less years attempting to jump sports and become a great baseball player. It didn’t really work out, as Jordan hit just .202 in 127 games for the Double-A Birmingham Barons. Air Jordan whiffed 114 times in his attempt to become a baseball star, mustering just 88 hits.
Jordan’s manager that one season is someone whom Red Sox fans are very familiar with: Terry Francona. Before he led Boston to a pair of World Series titles, Francona did what he could to help Jordan at his attempt in baseball. Francona discussed his season with MJ with WBZ-TV’s Dan Roche, and said while Jordan didn’t succeed in that venture, his competitiveness never wavered throughout his struggles.
“We saw him get real frustrated one stretch, I think it was a couple of months into the season. [Hitting coach] Mike Barnett and I sat down and talked to him because I felt like he was playing for the right reasons,” said Francona. “All the things you read about (theories of a potential NBA suspension over gambling), none of that is true. We told him that you’ve earned the right to enjoy what you’re doing. Not that you like getting outs, but he felt like he didn’t want to get in anybody’s way and he didn’t want to lose at anything.
“I told him, ‘Just try to enjoy getting better,’ and he did that. It was a different person than what you saw in the NBA because he didn’t dominate the league,” added Francona. “But at the same time, he enjoyed the idea of trying to master something. Even something that was this difficult, he embraced the challenge.”
Just because he was trying to become a baseball player didn’t mean Jordan didn’t hit the asphalt to instill his basketball dominance. Francona remembers playing pick-up games with the NBA legend, and he often felt Jordan’s wrath — whether he was going against him or on the same team.
“We couldn’t just have a pickup game, because anytime he was involved it escalated. One thing I found out was it didn’t matter if you were on the floor at the Boston Garden or the asphalt in Birmingham, he didn’t want to lose,” recalled Francona. “And there were times where I would be so tired that I would almost want to lose. One time my knees were hurting and I was tired, so I took the last shot and we ended up losing. He came up to me and said ‘Hey man, I always shoot last.’ I was like, ‘This game isn’t televised!’ But he didn’t like it. He did not like to lose, and he didn’t just want to beat you, he wanted to pound you into oblivion.”
Francona said he had a great relationship with Jordan, though that didn’t help him get any tickets when Jordan returned to the NBA and delivered another three-peat to Chicago. So he bought his own to go see Jordan take on the Indiana Pacers in the playoffs — leading to another classic Michael Jordan story for Francona.
“I didn’t want to bother him because I saw how he lived his life. I got tickets for me, [Brad Mills] and another coach. We were sitting 10 rows behind one of the baskets and at halftime, one of the security guards came up and said ‘Hey, MJ wants to see you.’ They were playing the Pacers in the playoffs and he wanted to see me in the locker room, and I didn’t want to go back there,” said Francona, adding the security guard made it clear that he should go see Jordan. “By the time I get back there they’re coming out of the locker room. It’s Phil Jackson, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, and MJ comes up and gives me a big hug. I’m like, ‘Get off me, you’re all sweaty.’
“He bet me he would score 20 the second half, and I said you’re on. I’ll be damned, when he got that 20th point he found me in the stands,” Francona said with a laugh. “I had to go to the ATM after the game.”
See Dan Roche’s 1-on-1 with Terry Francona on the WBZ-TV news on Wednesday and an extended version Sunday night on Sports Final!