Riding with Michael Jordan: ‘It was quite an experience’
Stories from lesser-known players on their time spent with Jordan’s Bulls
Scott Burrell was 26 when he joined the Chicago Bulls for the 1997-98 season. By that time, he had already played with a number of high-profile stars as a member of the Charlotte Hornets, including Larry Johnson, Kenny Anderson and Glen Rice.
But Burrell quickly realized that life was going to be far different with the Bulls. During training camp, his eyes were opened when team security assignments were issued.
“In Charlotte, we had a guy who was the security for the team,” Burrell said. “In Chicago, each person had his own security. It was because we had so much star power that it was like being with a rock band when we traveled. For me, as a young player, it was quite an experience.”
Just call it the Michael Jordan experience.
By the 1990s, Jordan had helped transform the Bulls into the biggest attraction in sports, which was a shock to the system for some of the lesser-known players lucky enough to experience part of the ride.
‘IT WAS THE TIME OF OUR LIVES’
Brad Sellers was a 24-year-old from Warrensville Heights, Ohio, when he was drafted by the Bulls in the first round of the 1986 draft. Jordan was already a rising star by then. He had won the 1985 Rookie of the Year award and his Air Jordans had made more than $100 million in shoe sales within the first 12 months of being introduced.
But the fun was just beginning.
“I’m from a little town in Ohio, Michael’s from a small town in North Carolina and Scottie [Pippen] comes in later from a small place in Arkansas,” Sellers said. “We were country boys in the big city, and we didn’t know nothing from nothing.”
As the Bulls built a winner with the player who was fast becoming the game’s most iconic figure, the players earned VIP status at nightclubs and restaurants at home in Chicago and on the road.
“A bunch of 20-year-olds living in Chicago, yeah, it was special,” said Sellers, who played three seasons for the Bulls and is now the mayor of Warrensville Heights. “Not to get into any of the details, but it was the time of our lives.”
Jordan’s teammates, for the most part, were able to enjoy their status in the city. But, as detailed in Sunday’s episodes of The Last Dance, the attention soon would become a nuisance for Jordan as his celebrity grew.
“You saw MJ doing laundry in the first few episodes and that was him back then, the country side of him, just living like a regular dude,” Sellers said. “But he just got bigger and bigger in basketball and to a point where he couldn’t go out. I remember saying to him one day, ‘Hey, M, how do you eat?’ …
“He told me he would call Jewel-Osco [a grocery chain] about 15 minutes before they closed, and let them know he was coming in,” Sellers said. “They would stay open later to let him shop.”
Jordan would generously tip the staff for staying past work hours.
“He wasn’t making no $30 million a year; I’m sure at that time he was making less than a million,” Sellers said. “But it was a lot of money at the time and he made sure that he took care of people.”
Jordan’s teammates would also benefit from the city looking out for its star.
Police escorts would guarantee Jordan’s prompt arrival to destinations. Sellers recalls game days where he’d time his entry onto the freeway near his home in the northern suburbs to the time when Jordan was traveling to the arena.
The reason: State troopers, who knew Jordan’s cars, would always wait at the entry point where he got on.
“We would go out of our way to go by the freeway near his house because the troopers would turn on their lights when Michael got on and lead him along the shoulder,” Sellers said. “I’d drive my Chevy Blazer right behind his Corvette on the shoulder.”
Burrell had a similar story while traveling to the airport on a snowy day, fearful that the team flight would leave without him.
“I’m sweating, so I call Luc Longley, who’s stuck as well five cars ahead of me,” Burrell said. “Next thing you know we see a police escort in the breakdown lane, and it’s MJ getting an escort to O’Hare. We jumped in behind that escort, and made it on time.”
Burrell, of course, had a memorable scene at the end of episode four of the documentary when Jordan described him as “Dennis Rodman Jr.”
As Phil Jackson gives in and grants Dennis Rodman a midseason vacation, a young Scott Burrell’s voice speaks up from the back of the room, “Can I, ummm, can I get 48 hours in Vegas too?” https://t.co/kKZkSwHMkZ
— Korked Bats (@korkedbats) April 27, 2020
“Contrary to what Mike said about me partying and hanging out, I didn’t go downtown much,” Burrell said. “I told my parents a long time ago about it and they were prepared. When they saw it, they laughed.”
Also laughing about that moment: Burrell’s wife, Jeané Coakley, who’s a sports anchor in New York.
I was in high school when “baby Rodman” was at his peak 😂 https://t.co/ENi0236YuW
— Jeane Coakley (@JeaneCoakley) April 27, 2020
“People have been asking about what my wife thinks, and we laughed about it,” Burrell said. “If my wife has a problem with something I did when I was 22, then we’re probably not the right couple.”
Burrell’s one year in Chicago turned out to be the most amazing season in his career.
“The most talented, the most focused team that I ever played for, by far,” Burrell said. “Led by a guy who never took a day off, because it wasn’t in his DNA. Just an amazing guy to watch every day.”
‘Mike was always testing you’
Part of the Jordan experience for teammates, of course, was getting tested by His Airness.
“You get around players that don’t always take their leadership seriously, but Michael made sure that everyone was committed, dedicated and focused,” said Dennis Hopson, the head coach at Lourdes University in Sylvania, Ohio, who joined the Bulls at the age of 27 for the 1990-91 championship season. “Mike was on a mission to win a championship, and he’d come at you to make sure he had the right teammates around him to accomplish that.”
Sellers recalls getting on the team bus or team flights and seeing Jordan meticulously skimming through a stack of periodicals.
“He read every newspaper, every magazine, just looking for someone to say something crazy about him,” Sellers said. “He was insatiable for information and knowledge, and was always looking for some motivation.
“And if he found something?” Sellers asked. “He’d use it against you. Everybody was in his crosshairs.”
Even teammates. Episodes on May 10 will recall an incident from a 1995 scrimmage where Jordan punched Steve Kerr in the face.
"I just haul off and hit him right in the f—ing eye. And Phil just throws me out of practice."
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 4, 2020
While Hopson didn’t witness anything similar during his brief stint with the Bulls in 1990-91, he did say everyone was challenged by Jordan.
“Mike was always testing you, and always wanted to see how tough you were and whether you would back down with what he was giving to you,” Hopson said. “As difficult as he made it for you, you couldn’t back down. If you did, he knew he had you.”
Burrell found that out at his first practice in 1997 after joining the Bulls for Jordan’s last season with Chicago.
“He comes at me the first day and says, ‘Hey, Scott Burrell,’ and the fact that a teammate called me out by my entire name showed that he didn’t know a damn thing about me and that I was in trouble,” said Burrell, who’s now the head coach at Southern Connecticut State University. “He said, ‘You thought you were good coming here because now you don’t have to face me four or five times a year, but now you have to face me every day.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, boy.’ That made me nervous.”
When asked if he ever spoke to Jordan when he previously played with the Hornets, Burrell was emphatic with his response.
“Oh, no, no, no, I was way smarter than that,” Burrell said. “You really didn’t want to even look at him, because then he might interpret something that might set him off.”
Burrell recalls a few opponents being bold. One was a member of the Philadelphia 76ers who once talked trash to Jordan during a 1997 preseason game in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, just days after the Bulls star had surgery on his toe.
“[Jordan] was struggling a bit, wasn’t playing great and the guy was letting him have it,” Burrell said. “Then MJ goes over to him and says, ‘You’re wearing my shoes, why are you even talking?’
“The other time we’re in Denver and the guy’s telling MJ that he’s old, and not the same person,” Burrell added. “Mike lit him up.”
Burrell, to his credit, was one of the few Bulls who wanted to play Jordan one-on-one after practice. After one intense game that Jordan won 7-6, Burrell insisted they go again. Jordan declined.
When Burrell asked why, Jordan hit him with a savage response:
“So you can tell everyone, all your friends, family and relatives that you beat Michael Jordan?” Jordan asked. “If I win, what am I going to say to my family: ‘I beat Scott Burrell?’ ”