It almost seems like a fever dream now, but 17 years ago Michael Jordan quit the Chicago Bulls after three championships and embarked on a career in baseball.
On Tuesday night at 8 on ESPN, "Bull Durham" director Ron Shelton explores that time in the fine documentary "Jordan Rides the Bus," as part of ESPN's stellar "30 for 30" series. (To celebrate the network's 30th anniversary, well-known filmmakers have made documentaries examining key moments in the last 30 years of sports.)
There's been some mystery around Jordan's decision, mostly of the swarmy kind. What's true is that Jordan made the decision after his father's murder in Robeson County (a crime now caught up in the SBI lab scandal); Jordan said then that playing baseball was a dream he and his father shared.
But the move also came as Jordan's gambling scandal hit the papers. So some have floated the idea that the NBA may have pressured him to take a leave.
Through interviews with people close to Jordan, archival Jordan interviews, and conversations with some who encountered Jordan during his stint playing with the Birmingham (Alabama) Barons, Shelton gives a thorough view of not just Jordan's mindset, but his experiences as a player.
Some observers were quite angry at Jordan, accusing him of making a mockery of baseball. After all, it takes years for ball players to achieve their skills; who was Jordan, they said, to think he could just come in and make a go with it. One of the most potent interviews in the film is with Sports Illustrated reporter Steve Wulf, who early on panned Jordan's play. His narrative reminded me of Andre Agassi's memoir "Open," in which Agassi remembers the gap between the coverage of him and the reality of his life. Both the book and Wulf's story are a reminder of the power of the printed word and why care should always be taken.
"Jordan Rides the Bus" shows why Number 23 (or in this case Number 45), was not only a great basketball player but a great athlete. Jordan isn't an easy man to (publicly) know, even in footage of a "60 Minutes" interview with the late, great Ed Bradley, he's pretty guarded. Yet "Jordan Rides the Bus" is a profile in loss, fearlessness and determination. And, you'll remember, after he left baseball, Jordan went on to win three more championships.