There is ‘no preparation’ for handling the level of fame experienced by Michael Jordan in the 1990s, said former Chicago Bulls team-mate BJ Armstrong.
There were obvious perks to being team-mates with Michael Jordan. Plenty of his Chicago team-mates own multiple championship rings, they appear in some of the most-replayed NBA highlight clips of all time and they have got a lifetime of stories to tell about one of the best to ever take the court.
BJ Armstrong also learned to move quickly – off the court, that is.
Whether it was during his rookie season when his stall in the Bulls locker room was adjacent to Jordan’s locker, or at a dinner with the six-time NBA champion and Kobe Bryant about a quarter-century later, Armstrong often found himself with a front-row seat to witness the true cost of fame for arguably the world’s most recognisable athlete.
Jordan guards former Bulls team-mate BJ Armstrong
“I remember as a young player I had this dream of playing in the NBA,” Armstrong – the longtime NBA guard and three-time NBA champion with the Bulls – who is now a California-based sports agent, told The Associated Press. “And I vividly remember when I got to Chicago thinking, ‘You better be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it’. Michael was the first person to show me what it meant to be a star… but you cannot be that star and not accept all the things that came with it.”
By 1998, Michael Jordan was a cultural icon and one of the most popular people on the planet. But his fame came at a price
Every story about Jordan always seemed to become a big story, and Jordan felt some things were overblown such as his infamous stances on not wanting to endorse political candidates publicly or going with his father to Atlantic City for a quick gambling trip during the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals.
“We understood his pressures, he understood what we needed and that was just a special group of people who got together,” said Armstrong, who was a Jordan team-mate for the 1991, 1992 and 1993 championships. “I don’t wish stardom on anyone. When I hear people say, ‘this guy is a star’, I always say, ‘good luck’. What it takes to be a star at that level is beyond. Always having security around, dealing with tickets, he always had to be turned on. There is no preparation for that.
Tensions rise within the Bulls organisation as sensitive info is leaked to the media. Watch episodes five and six of The Last Dance on Netflix via Sky from 8am on May 4
“I always say, to this day, that the Air Jordan guy was great and God bless him. But I’ll always just remember Michael, the guy.”
Knowing that there would always be an enormous media horde at Jordan’s locker, Armstrong found himself getting dressed and out of the way quickly because otherwise his shoes would get stomped on and his space would be invaded.
Michael Jordan scored 42 points despite playing in shoes that were too small as he led the Bulls to victory over the Knicks on March 8, 1998 at Madison Square Garden
If he forgot how that exercise went, he got a reminder in 2014.
Jordan was in Los Angeles and dinner with Armstrong was arranged. Armstrong got to the restaurant and found a third seat at the table, asked Jordan if a guest was coming and was told that Bryant would be joining them for the meal.
Kobe Bryant lines up against Jordan
Armstrong and Bryant knew each other; they shared an agent, Arn Tellem, at one time. Bryant arrived and before long, he and Jordan were dissecting every nuance of each other’s game. In the end, they decided that Jordan would have a slight edge because his hands were bigger than Bryant’s.
“They were playing a virtual game of 1-on-1 at dinner,” Armstrong said. “I just sat there and listened to them talk about the love they had for the game. They were so sophisticated; they were talking about footwork, how they conditioned themselves, how they would box out. The detail that they had, the respect that they had for the game … I wish I could have seen them play (against one another) in their primes.”
Word got out over the course of the evening that Jordan and Bryant were in the restaurant. Eventually, one got out through a back door, another through a side door, and Armstrong was left to fight off a crowd.
“It was chaos,” Armstrong said. “And they were in basketball heaven.”