The story behind the Kenny Lattimore album that became Michael Jordan’s soundtrack for the 1998 NBA Finals
The Grammy-nominated R&B singer details his relationship with the GOAT, leading up to the moment he hadn’t seen until ‘The Last Dance’
Back in April, Kenny Lattimore got a phone call on behalf of an old friend he hadn’t spoken to in years. That friend was none other than Michael Jordan, whom Lattimore, a Grammy-nominated R&B singer and songwriter, first met nearly 25 years ago.
In the mid-1990s, Jordan became one of Lattimore’s highest-profile and most authentic fans during the Chicago Bulls’ second three-peat. Lattimore was informed that a never-before-seen moment of Jordan’s admiration of his music would be depicted in The Last Dance, a 10-part docuseries chronicling the greatest player of all time’s career with the Bulls, through the lens of the team’s dynasty-ending 1997-98 season.
With sports across the world on hold amid the coronavirus pandemic, ESPN moved up the highly anticipated release of The Last Dance from its originally scheduled June debut. So the call to Lattimore served as an official request, in respect of music licensing, to feature the track “Days Like This” from his 1998 album From the Soul of Man in the documentary.
“I never saw the footage beforehand, but they said, ‘We want to use ‘Days Like This,’ ” Lattimore recalled. “They said, ‘Someone is gonna ask Michael what he’s listening to, and he’s gonna say, ‘Kenny Lattimore.’ I knew something like that was gonna happen … but I didn’t know what the clip was gonna be. It could’ve been anything. It could’ve been him walking into a hotel. It could’ve been him getting into the car. But he happens to be using ‘Days Like This’ as hype music? I was totally floored. I had no idea.”
Lattimore cleared the song to be used in the documentary, and tuned in to ESPN from his Los Angeles home every Sunday night for five straight weeks, waiting to see the decades-old footage for the first time. A minute into the 10th and final episode, that moment arrived at last.
The opening scene shows Jordan, clad in a backward Kangol hat, Oakley sunglasses and headphones, bopping to music in the back of a team bus on June 3, 1998, six hours before tipoff of the NBA Finals between the Bulls and Utah Jazz.
“What are you listening to?” a fellow passenger poses.
“Huh?” Jordan asks, pulling the headphones from his ears.
“What are you listening to?”
“Kenny Lattimore … it’s brand-new. It’s not even out yet,” replies Jordan before cracking a smile. “He’s a friend of mine, you know, I can get it.” Jordan continues dancing, while the opening notes of “Days Like This” begin to play.
“I’m looking up at the screen, I see him on the bus and he’s jumping around,” Lattimore said. “I’m like, ‘Oh. My. Gosh. This is the moment!’ When he finally says his portion, it was so much more than I thought … I thought he was just gonna say, ‘I’m listening to Kenny Lattimore,’ and they were going to keep it moving. But when he goes, ‘He’s my friend,’ I was like, ‘Get out of here!’ Within seconds of him saying my name, my phone starts blowing up.”
Since the episode aired, the moment has become a viral meme on social media and even has its own handle, @JordanJamming. On the final night of The Last Dance, Lattimore hopped on Twitter to confirm that Jordan did in fact have the album in June 1998, four months before its Oct. 20, 1998, release.
— Kenny Lattimore (@kennylattimore) May 18, 2020
“I thought about it for a minute,” Lattimore said, “and was like, ‘I did send him the second album.’ And a flood of memories came back to my head.”
Coincidentally, their relationship actually began with a phone call in 1996.
In May that year, the then-26-year-old R&B singer released his debut, self-titled studio album, Kenny Lattimore, featuring two tracks, “Never Too Busy” and “For You,” which both cracked the top 20 of Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart. The album achieved gold certification and earned Lattimore, a Washington native and graduate of Howard University, the NAACP Image Award for best new artist. “For You,” his now-timeless wedding song, also received a nomination in the best male R&B vocal performance category at the 40th annual Grammy Awards.
Meanwhile, Jordan was at the top of the world, coming off Chicago’s historic 72-10 regular season in 1995-96 that yielded both his fourth league MVP trophy and eventually a fourth NBA championship in six years, sparking the Bulls’ run at a second ’90s three-peat. Off the court, Jordan’s personal brand had expanded to his own fragrance, Michael Jordan Cologne, which dropped in November 1996. Leading up to the release, Jordan requested one of Lattimore’s hit records for the cologne’s debut commercial.
“I got a call, I don’t remember from whom, but I think it might have been through my record company,” Lattimore said. “They said that Michael Jordan wanted to use my song ‘Never Too Busy’ in a commercial for the cologne he was launching. At the time, just from that call, I found out that he was a big fan. … The only thing is, I didn’t write that song. I waited a bit to hear what was happening with the deal, and come to find out the publishers got into some kind of financial battle … so the deal never closed.” Instead, Donell Jones’ 1996 track “My Heart” plays in the background of the commercial promoting the fragrance.
“I was devastated,” Lattimore said.
Even though he failed to land “Never Too Busy” for his cologne commercial, Jordan maintained a deep affinity for Lattimore’s music throughout his final two seasons with the Bulls.
“Michael Jordan single-handedly promoted me through the NBA,” Lattimore said. “I ran into Charles Barkley at a function years ago and he said, ‘Mannn, you know who was hyping you to everybody in the league? Saying that everybody in the NBA had to have your CD … MJ!’ It was so funny to hear that. I had no clue. Charles said, ‘The reason why we really know your music like we know it is because of Michael Jordan.’ ”
In September 1997, about two months before the start of what the Bulls dubbed their “Last Dance” season, Lattimore received another phone call at the request of His Airness. Nike had planned to officially introduce the Jordan Brand as a subdivision of the global sportswear company, and Jordan wanted Lattimore to perform during the launch event, held at NikeTown in New York City. Lattimore accepted the invitation (the physical copy of which he still has as a keepsake), and invited Barry Eastmond, a producer on his 1996 hit “For You,” to play the gig with him in New York.
“I had to make sure my presentation was right, because I was singing for the great Michael Jordan,” Lattimore said. “We get there and there’s the moment when he comes in and I meet him for the first time. He was just so gracious but his energy was so high. He was like, ‘Oh, my gosh! This is my dude right here!’ And I was like, ‘Wow, this is Michael Jordan.’ ”
Before Lattimore took the stage at the event, Jordan had a small favor to ask of him. “Ahmad Rashad had come into the room,” Lattimore remembered. “Michael goes to the security people and says, ‘Before anybody else walks in this room, I want to have a moment.’ He then asks me to sing for him and Ahmad a song called ‘Forever.’ I’m sitting there going, ‘How do you know ‘Forever’?’ Because that was an album cut.” The song is track No. 5 on Lattimore’s first album from 1996. “I was like, ‘If you know ‘Forever,’ then you really are a fan.’ ”
Fortunately for Jordan and Rashad, Eastmond, the producer Lattimore brought along with him to New York for the special occasion, knew how to play the melody of the song.
“To be honest, I was nervous,” Lattimore said. “You kind of look at it and say, ‘Look, this is somebody’s favorite song. … Am I gonna mess it up? Do I remember the words?’ If I’m not mistaken, I think I asked him to give us a minute to pull it together. And we didn’t have that much time because the guests were about to come in. I took some notes really quick and I was able to nail it. We knocked it out for him and I think he really appreciated it. It was unforgettable. Just an iconic moment for me. After that, it really endeared me to him tremendously.”
By the time Lattimore met Jordan for the first time in New York, he had already completed about half of his second studio album, From the Soul of Man, which he recorded in Philadelphia at DJ Jazzy Jeff’s A Touch of Jazz Studios. “From the Soul of Man was considered my lyric album,” Lattimore said. “I wanted to say things that we, as men, don’t always say — that maybe we don’t know how to say. I always felt like we don’t come up to socialize and talk about our feelings, our emotions.”
As Lattimore crafted his meaningful sophomore project, he worked with a producer named Vidal Davis on what ultimately became the album’s opening song. “He came in and he had this track that I started writing to,” Lattimore recalled. “It took a while to say what I wanted to say. We sat with the project and I said, ‘The words are right, but something is missing.’ Then we brought in a guy named Tim Motzer, who put the guitar parts on it, which took the whole song to another level. It was so different and that’s what I liked back then. I liked standing out and being different. That became the first single and first release to launch this album.”
After wrapping the project in late 1997, Lattimore began working with a black Columbia Records executive named James Andrews on a plan to market and promote the new album. Andrews had the idea of putting together a book exploring the topic of male emotion that would be released with the CD. Lattimore even teamed up with renowned inspirational speaker and author Iyanla Vanzant, who penned the book’s foreword. Columbia Records then began deciding who would be the first to receive the promotional package of the album and book months ahead of the official release.
“That’s how Michael Jordan got the advanced copy,” Lattimore said. “I didn’t just send him a blanket CD. Normally, the only people who would’ve gotten an advance were creative influencers who were helping us figure out what singles we were going to use. But I said, ‘No, Michael Jordan has to be on that list.’ He wasn’t a record person, but when we put things together, what we thought was, ‘Who else would really appreciate this.’ We were like, ‘Let’s give it to MJ.’ We sent it out to him and he got it before the world got it.”
Yet it wasn’t until 22 years later, during the live airing of the final episode of The Last Dance, that Lattimore discovered Jordan used From the Soul of Man, and “Days Like This,” as the soundtrack to the last NBA Finals appearance of his career.
“The idea, stereotypically, is that before games all basketball players are just listening to hip-hop — that’s all they do,” Lattimore said. “But maybe Jordan’s approach was, ‘I’m already hype. I’m listening to this to balance me out.’ This was a whole different kind of approach to sports.”
Before Game 1 of the 1998 NBA Finals, Jordan entered Salt Lake City’s Delta Center with Lattimore’s From the Soul of Man playing from his Walkman to his headphones. And five games later, he left the same arena as a six-time NBA champion after hitting the Game 6-clinching jump shot to complete the Bulls’ “Last Dance.”
“That moment shows the power of music in anyone’s life,” Lattimore said. “It’s an inspiration. It sets the tone for what you’re going to do. And for my music to be in his ears, at such a pivotal time, at such an iconic time, it makes me feel like my music is always going to be tied to greatness for the rest of my life.”
Following the release of From the Soul of Man in October 1998, Lattimore remembers meeting up with Jordan for an intimate gathering in Las Vegas, where he sang a few songs, including “Days Like This,” in a setting similar to the one he experienced a year earlier in New York. Though it’s been too many years to count since the last time they spoke, Lattimore said, he’s planning on giving him a call soon.
“I would just tell him, ‘Thank you for being authentic,’ ” Lattimore said. “I love the fact that he loved that album, that song. Even if the world didn’t know now, I still know, ‘Yup, Michael Jordan was a big fan. He loved my music.’ ”