His last name is Jordan and his father’s first name is Michael, which means that when Jeff Jordan takes the court as a freshman with the University of Illinois basketball team, all eyes will be on him. But no matter what the expectations of the fans and media are, Michael Jordan doesn’t want his eldest child to be like Mike. Being like Jeff is all he asks.
“I want him to be his own person, you know?” Jordan, 44, said as he sat next to his son in a rare interview with TODAY co-host Matt Lauer. “I want him to enjoy his life, whatever he chooses to be that, you know? If you play basketball, you're a doctor, you're a lawyer, whatever, I'm gonna support you with the love and every effort, every inch of my body.”
The wide-ranging interview, recorded earlier in Illinois, covered everything from what the former NBA star told his children about his gambling to his divorce from their mother, Juanita, to the time Jeff Jordan beat his dad in a game of one-on-one hoops.
A guard, Jeff Jordan has his father’s lean build, but at 6-foot-1, he’s five inches shorter. Unlike his father, who was heavily recruited by colleges out of high school, Jeff Jordan enrolled at Illinois without the benefit of an athletic scholarship. He admits to being more shy than his dad and his younger brother, Marcus, a high-school junior, but, he said, he has the same drive to excel.
“He wants to be a basketball player, but he wants to do it on his own terms, which is all cool for me,” the six-time NBA champion said. “The thing that we have tried to tell Jeff is that you set your own expectations. By no means in this world can you ever live up to someone else's expectations of who you are.”
He said he includes himself in that and told how he let his sons discover basketball on their own and never forced them to play the game. Only when they came to him asking for advice did he get involved with them.
Growing up in the spotlight
Jeff Jordan didn’t really understand what expectations others had until he got to high school. He attended Loyola Academy, a private school near the family’s Highland Park, Ill., home, where no one made a big deal about who his father, who played most of his career and won his titles with the Chicago Bulls, was.
“I didn't realize who I was until probably second grade, third grade,” he told Lauer. “Kids never really brought it up that much. I graduated from eighth grade in a class of, like, 30. The community wasn't really that big on popular culture. So growing up there, it wasn't too bad.”
When he began to fully realize the enormity of being the son of the greatest basketball player who ever lived was when he started playing the game in high school and ended up on the front page of the sports section for playing as a freshman on the sophomore team.
“I think that was the first time I was really shocked by who I was and how big it was,” he said. “That was definitely the time where it really hit me all at once.”
“He wanted to go kind of underneath the radar, which is very tough,” Michael Jordan added. “But he wants to be his own person, which I admire.”
Learning from his father’s mistakes
In addition to being considered the best basketball player ever, Michael Jordan was also probably the most universally admired and respected. His were the feet that propelled the big-money business of signature shoe endorsements, and his face in an ad could sell anything. He’s been retired as a player for four years, but he still earns more than $30 million in endorsement revenues.
The only time anything resembling scandal touched his career was over the issue of his appetite for high-stakes gambling. While facing the Knicks in the playoffs in 1993, the New York tabloids learned that he had gone down to Atlantic City to play the tables the night before a game and trumpeted the news to the world. Later, a gambler wrote a book saying that he’d won more than a million dollars from Jordan playing golf. In a “60 Minutes” interview with Ed Bradley, Jordan admitted that he had sometimes been reckless with his gambling, but said he had never put his family or his livelihood at risk.
He said he hasn’t hidden that part of his life from his children, but has talked to them about it.
“I want people to understand, gambling is not a bad thing if you do it within the framework of what it's meant to be, which is fun and entertaining,” he told Lauer. “So my lesson to [Jeff] is, don't ever go outside your means. Don't ever put yourself in a predicament where now you're gonna regret it.”
Marriage and divorce
He and his wife, Juanita, married in 1989 and had three children, Jeff, Marcus and Jasmine. They filed for divorce in 2002, reconciled, then finally dissolved the union last December. He’s never talked about it until now.
“It was hard,” Jeff Jordan said. “I could see it coming a little bit more than my younger brother and my younger sister, but it was hard for all of us.”
“But he was very mature about it,” his father added. “His mom and I were on the same page when it came to that — our kids came first. We still communicate each and every day. Nothing's being done with the kids that we don't communicate. And we're very good friends actually. And they can sense that.”
Michael Jordan and his wife didn’t shut the kids out of what was going on in their own lives, he said. “We have all different types of dialogues, even with all of us in the same room,” he said. “It’s fun that if we can relate, and we can yet stay on the same page even through a trying and negative time.”
The competitive nature is in the genes
He said he and Jeff are more like best friends now, and the basketball games they used to play were what you’d expect from one of the most competitive people on earth and a son who shares his desire to win. Michael Jordan showed no mercy in those games, either in his play or in the trash talk for which he was infamous around the NBA.
He said he last played Jeff about a year ago. “I had the upper hand, and I quit,” he said.
“You quit?” Lauer asked incredulously.
“I did,” he said. “It got to the point with him and my youngest — they’re such competitors and so am I.”
He said he’s not as agile or quick as he used to be, and didn’t want to start losing, because when you accept losing, that’s what you do.
“Have you beaten him?” Lauer asked Jeff Jordan.
“I’ll put it on the record,” he replied. “Yes.”
“Ask him how many times,” his dad challenged Lauer before emphatically answering his own question: “Once.”