Can you believe it? Michael Jordan turns fifty today and Charles Barkley does the same on Wednesday. The next thing you know I'll be telling you Manti Te'o had a fake girlfriend and deer antler spray is the newest thing in PED's. I've had the fortune of being around both of these guys (Jordan for a few months back in 1994, and Barkley for a few decades, starting in the year 1989). While both are sports giants, the two men are on the opposite sides of the public eye. One shies away from the cameras while the other has never met a camera he didn't like. Aside from his failed NBA management ventures, Jordan has kept it on the down-low. Barkley has become, as Michael Wilbon puts it, "the voice of his generation"- a clown prince to some, yet respected by most, and seen in your living room often.
I thought I'd share with you a few stories that perfectly illustrate MJ the private person and Sir Charles, the life of the party:
It was the summer of 1994: Michael Jordan had up and quit basketball and quickly arrived in Birmingham as the Barons new right fielder. No doubt this was big stuff- and while I had interviewed MJ a few times in years past, I had planned on being the first local TV sportscaster to land the MJ interview, live on WBRC TV. Each and every night before home games, Jordan and the Barons took BP at the Hoover Met from 5-5:15 pm . Upon his arrival in Birmingham, I confidently told Michael I planned on him joining me for my 5:20 sportscast live from home plate- afterall, our Channel 6 camera was but 5 feet from the batting cage. Jordan quickly told me that he would never join me live. He said he never did a live interview before a Chicago Bulls game and he wasn't about to change his routine simply because he changed sports. I told MJ that I would win him over by going live each and every night five feet from batting practice, and sooner or later, Jordan, ever the competitor, would admire my drive and join me live. For about 6 weeks I went live at 5:20 whenever the Barons were at home. Jordan simply grinned and told me, "I'm not gonna do it." Fast forward a few weeks to August 1994.
There I am filling up my gas tank at a Shell station on Highway 280, when filling up his yellow convertable on the other side of the pump was none other than Michael Jordan. At last, through the gas pumps, our eyes met. Michael Jordan grinned, tilted his head and said to me, "Sorry, I'm still not gonna do it." With that he was off- and he kept that promise the rest of the summer.
Charles Barkley is the life of the party. So when a few years ago I asked him to allow us into the TNT studios to follow him with our cameras for a night, he gladly obliged. Charles ushered me into the TNT viewing room, a state-of-the-art conference room that boasted of dozens of big screens airing all NBA games that Thursday night. After introducing me to Magic Johnson, I quickly took a seat next to the former Laker great (thank heavens for Depends undergarments). Before we knew it, it was about midnight, and the TNT crew had signed off for the night.
As we headed to the door, Charles and Magic walked me out of the TNT building in midtown Atlanta. Said Charles, "Hey Karle- wanna go out for a few beers in Buckhead? Magic is wimping out on us because he needs to fly back to LA- why don't you join me tonight and go out on the town?" My first thought was excitement, and then fear (I could see my picture on the cover of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the next morning with the headline reading "Local TV Sportscaster Has Bottle Broken Over His Head"). As reality set in, I told Charles that I had a wife and 2 kids waiting for me back in Birmingham, and it would be best that I head home. After some serious ribbing, Charles told me he would go it alone.
Looking back on those Jordan and Barkley moments, I often wonder if I should have pressed MJ harder. I wonder if I should have called my wife and said "Jill, I'll be home in the morning- I can't pass up going out with Charles". Yet the more I think about it, the more I think I did the right thing. Michael Jordan was never going to change his mind, and after turning down Charles, I can say to this day that I have never been arrested.
It's interesting what a reporter remembers about run-ins with sports greats. Jordan, the best ever, shying away from even a weasly local reporter, while Barkley, ever ready to hold court with a beer in his hand. I certainly consider myself lucky to have met both of these 50 year olds.
Now if you have an hour, let me fill you in on my run-ins with Muhammed Ali, Ted Williams, Brett Favre, Derek Jeter and Arnold Palmer.