Our waitress Christina was heading back out onto the patio to deliver a platter of drinks to Michael Jordan and his crew. I asked her to tell MJ that there was an old Chicago reporter inside who’s got a challenge-match for him on the pool table.
There was no such thing as a “challenge-match” — I just thought it sounded like good bait. The smile Christina flashed when she walked back in was unmistakable — it was on.
This all happened on a night back in 1998 at the Rock Bottom Brewery in Fresno. Each year, as a favor to his friend and former teammate Rod Higgins, Jordan would fly to California to participate in Rod’s basketball camp and charity game.
That afternoon, KSEE-TV’s sports anchor Raj Mathai and I had covered the event at Selland Arena. At that time, when Michael Jordan came to town, it was both a sports story and a news story.
After we finished our nightshift, Raj and I and a few other friends headed over to Rock Bottom. It was just after midnight when Christina made the ask of Jordan, who had earlier turned the outdoor patio in a private party.
MJ’s crew of about 10 followed in behind him as he walked straight up to me at the pool table. Recognizing me from the days when I used to cover the Bulls and Blackhawks on radio in Chicago, he smiled and said, “What the hell are you doin’ all the way out here?”
“I got out of sports and went into news. We were there covering you today at Selland.”
Without giving him even a second to respond, I continued, “C’mon, let’s rack ‘em up and do this.”
Jordan replied, in colorful terms, that he had to go to the bathroom. As he walked away, he looked at Raj and said, “Seven seconds of sound, huh, Mathai?”
We were astonished! Not only had he seen the sports segment about him earlier — he quoted Raj from it.
When Jordan returned, I said, “Let’s go. Raj and I will take on you and Darrell Walker.”
MJ looked me dead in the eye: “Uh-uh. One on one.”
Of course, that’s the game I really wanted anyway. When I asked him what we were playing for, the six-time NBA champ answered with what I would later learn was one of his stock lines: “Whatever makes you nervous, man.”
Of course, this made perfect sense. If you’re the greatest team athlete in the world with six rings and hundreds of millions of dollars, the price of a bet against your opponent doesn’t matter much. What he wanted was for me to feel the pain of the loss.
Had I known all of this was going to happen, I would have hit a cash machine on the way over. Instead, I told Michael that $40 was all I could cover.
“Rack ‘em up.”
And I did. His friends and my friends all settled into seats scattered around the main pool table.
My favorite movie of all time is The Hustler, circa 1963, where a young Paul Newman travels east from California in search of a high-stakes money game against Jackie Gleason (Minnesota Fats).
The scene that was now playing out in a Fresno bar in the early morning hours was positively surreal. And just as in The Hustler, people in the room were making bets with each other on who would win our match. Raj and Walker may not have been shooting, but both of them were definitely wagering on their guy.
MJ jacked the cue ball into the rack but nothing dropped. After I made the first couple of shots, the trash talk started. He was putting his hands in the pockets and daring me to prove I was a pressure player. At one point he leaned over from across the table and asked, “Can ya feel me in there, yet? Am I in your kitchen? Ya hear me in there?”
I beat him the first game. We go double or nothing. I rip my break but sink nothing. Then MJ runs the table; seven stripes in a row and then the eight-ball. As his people are cheering, he looks over at me and says, “Anyone ever hear of a huuuuustle?? I put myself through North Carolina playin’ pool!”
I gave it right back to him: “I thought you were on scholarship at UNC? Musta been walkin’ around money.” And back and forth it went.
We’re back to even before we start game 3 for another $40. I remember missing a shot I shouldn’t have, and then shaking my head as I walked over to Raj. He said, “Shake it off. Don’t worry about it.”
I started laughing and asked him, rhetorically, “What difference does it make?! We’re playing pool against MJ for money — we’ll be telling this story for years! It doesn’t matter if I win or lose!”
Raj looked at me and said, “It matters. It definitely matters. Take him down.”
I knew exactly what he meant. The tale would be a lot more powerful if I came out on top. I, too, had spent a whole lot of time shooting pool for cash in college, so I knew my A-game was in there somewhere. And after Coach Mathai gave me that slap, I set my scotch to the side, stopped screwing around and beat Jordan three games down. Forty, eighty, one-sixty.
At that point, MJ quit — and he wasn’t happy. No surprise; Jordan’s proclivity for getting infuriated after any kind of loss is legend. And it is true. You don’t become the world’s greatest anything without a good measure of killer instinct.
Cash started changing hands among the spectators. Michael pulled a money-clip out of the front pocket of his jeans and handed me a $100 bill, a $50 and a $10.
Against all of my better judgment, I said, “Michael, you know you gotta sign that hundred for me.”
“It’s a federal offense to sign U.S. currency.”
Another MJ stock line. This wasn’t the first time someone had inconsiderately asked him to autograph a bill right after he’d lost the value of it.
Of course, I understood. But then he did something I didn’t like. As people finished paying up and he and his crew began ambling back toward the patio, I extended my hand and said, “Good game, Michael.”
He blew it off. Didn’t even turn around. And he heard me. So I said, “What’s the matter? You can’t say ‘good game’ and shake my hand?” He couldn’t believe it. Michael looked at me with a shocked expression, then shook my hand and said, “All right, all right. Good game.”
A little while later, as our groups were walking out to our cars. I thanked Michael again, and this time he was a gentleman: “Good luck out here, Mikey boy.” As I’d learned in future years playing golf against him, MJ wants his opponent to stand up to him and give it right back. He can’t stand getting his ass kissed. I once gave him too generous a compliment for a tee-shot he’d hit on a par-three, and his comeback was brutal (and not fit to print).
When I got home from the pool game that night, my answering machine had a long message on it. Raj and Kevin were laughing, celebrating and yelling that they could not believe we had just been drinking and gambling with Michael Jordan. I really wish I’d kept that cassette recording.
There were no cell phones back then, so we didn’t have any photos. I took this picture on that afternoon inside Selland Arena as Michael was warming up for the celebrity game.
Years later, I showed him the pic after a round of golf. He couldn’t understand where it was from, as he was familiar with just about every well-known photo that had ever been taken of him. With a wink and a grin, I said, “Remember Fresno? You want another shot at the king?”
There’s two Michael Jordans. The dead-serious one who Roy Williams once described as a “guy who’ll kill you over a $5 card game.” Not always so nice. And then there’s the charming, friendly one. On this day, even as I was daring Michael to a rematch at the same time I was asking him to sign his name for the billionth time, I got the fun one.
MJ smiled at me and said, “I can’t hang with ya game, Mikey boy. I can’t hang with it.” Then he signed the two prints. One of them still hangs in my office — along with that $100 bill. Memories of a real-life movie scene that played out 2,000 miles from my hometown and the team that Michael Jordan immortalized in the 1990s.
ESPN begins a 10-part documentary tonight on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Let “The Last Dance” begin.