As this matter unfolds, you will find that what happened to Mr. Jordan was the kind of random violence that all the public is concerned and afraid of. It could have been any of us. It could have been anybody who happened to get tired at that time.
--Jim Coleman, director of North Carolina Bureau of Investigations
They didn't seem all that dangerous.
But, of course, the two killers of James Jordan were now surrounded by a dozen heavyset, solemn-faced deputies who led them into a North Carolina courthouse for arraignment last Monday morning.
Then I remembered that nobody ever looks dangerous at his own arraignment for murder. He always seems shocked, puzzled, saddened, stunned.
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. San Antonio Spurs
TicketsMon., Oct. 3, 7:00pm
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. Utah Jazz
TicketsWed., Oct. 5, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsFri., Oct. 7, 7:00pm
TicketsSat., Oct. 8, 7:00pm
I once stood ten feet from John Wayne Gacy, who killed 33 young men, and I thought he looked like a pathetic, harmless clown.
I watched Johnathan Doody and Alex Garcia, the perpetrators of the Buddhist temple massacre, and thought they looked like typical high school students.
Killers do not reveal themselves.
I saw the North Carolina courthouse scene live on CNN television. This was the kind of coverage I remember television giving the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
That was 30 years ago. This is probably fitting. No figure in American life since JFK has evoked anything so close to an aura of Camelot as has Michael Jordan in recent years.
His triumphs as a Chicago Bulls basketball player, his television commercials and his $30 million per year income have transformed everything about him into myth.
The latest Harris Poll rates Michael Jordan as everyone's favorite sports star. An accompanying note states that Jordan is the favorite of every demographic group studied. This encompasses sex, region, age, race, income and education. Nobody is bigger than Michael Jordan these days. Not even Clint Eastwood. Not even Elvis.
James Jordan, Michael Jordan's father, was the friendly little man with the big grin and the shaved head. He spent the last years of his life known only as "Michael Jordan's father."
If you looked for him, you could spot him at his son's side during Michael's greatest triumphs.
"As long as he's here," Michael Jordan used to say, "I know I have at least one fan." Michael always called his father "Pops."
With laughter and obvious great pride, the elder Jordan would say:
"Yeah, there was a time I used to be James Jordan. Now I'm only talked about as Michael Jordan's dad. That's the way people know me. But I don't mind at all."
He was murdered in cold blood at about 3:30 a.m. on July 23, when he stopped to take a nap near the intersection of interstate highways 74 and 95, near Lumberton, North Carolina.
The teenagers didn't know him. They didn't seek him out because he was Michael Jordan's dad. To them he looked like an easy mark, someone who could be robbed and killed without fear of discovery.
Why wouldn't they assume they could get away with this crime? Incidents exactly like this occur on the highways of this country every day.
What made this one different was the fact that Michael Jordan had only one father.
I have always been surprised whenever I hear about professional athletes carrying guns in their cars for protection. Today, I find myself wondering why every driver in the country doesn't find it necessary to carry a loaded gun.
Would it make this account more effective to call the killers thugs? I don't think so. The brutality of the story tells itself. There is, in the end, a deadly banality about all of these crimes. They are all the same. It is only because they occur with such regularity that our senses have been ground down, dulled.
We merely shrug at the news of the latest victim and move on about our business. What's on television tonight?
One of the young men lived with his mother in a trailer court just a mile from the crime scene. He was recently released from prison, after serving time for armed robbery and assault.
The other was awaiting trial on a charge of armed robbery. They were close friends. On his way home from attending the funeral of a friend, the elder Jordan had unwittingly wandered, alone, into enemy territory.
The telltale signs of affluence may have helped to target James Jordan. He was driving a $46,000 Lexus 400, red in color, with vanity license plates memorializing his son's association with the University of North Carolina and Michael's jersey number throughout the superstar's basketball career with the Tar Heels and the Chicago Bulls.
James Jordan answered that description. He parked his car by the side of the road, to rest his eyes and take a nap for a few moments before driving on.
Try something different. Put yourself inside the mind of the 18-year-old who fired the shot from his .38-caliber pistol into the elder Jordan's chest, killing Jordan with a single shot.
I hesitate to put words in anyone's mouth. But if you have been following the many murders committed by members of this age group, you come to understand that the thoughts are always the same. So it doesn't require a grand act of the imagination to re-create them.
These young killers are cold, quick to kill, ruthless and brutal. They never think of the consequences of their acts. These two who killed James Jordan are brothers, under the skin, of the two teens from Agua Fria High School who shot nine victims in the Buddhist temple massacre two years ago.
They will kill without passion. They strike at anyone. There is always more urgency to get their hands on quick cash than there is to plan or to weigh the consequences. The decision to strike is made, and the killing becomes justified as a means to cover their tracks.
Here in Arizona, just two years ago this month, Johnathan Doody told his companion, Alex Garcia: "No witnesses."
And then Doody pumped bullets from a rifle into the head of every person lying face down on the floor before him. Neither Doody nor Garcia showed any emotion, either then or since.
So we can safely assume it was no different with the two 18-year-olds who killed James Jordan.
This is the frightening part. None of it was personal. Like the Buddhist monks, James Jordan just happened to be in the wrong place.
With this in mind, consider that this is something quite similar to the way the killing of James Jordan went down:
"Is he dead?"
"Yeah . . . about as dead as he's ever gonna get."
"Check him out. See how much he's carrying."
"Uh-oh . . . you know who this is? The license says James Jordan. Damn, I bet it's Michael Jordan's father! Look, right here on the driver's license, it says James Jordan."
"We should have known it right away. Look at the license plates. UNC0023. That's Michael Jordan's playing number. And UNC is for the University of North Carolina, where he played in college. Everybody in the world knows that number."
"Yeah, and now we killed his father. We've got to get rid of this body and get far away from it."
"Damn, he died so easy. I just squeezed the trigger. There was no sound at all as the bullet went into his chest."
"And look at him now. He looks surprised. He never thought when he was dancing around Chicago Stadium with Michael that something like this could happen to him."
"Damn! That's really Michael Jordan's daddy!"
"We'll take him over the state line to that swamp in South Carolina. We'll dump him there. No one will find him for a long time, if ever."
"And they'll never find us, either. We'll hide this car so far from here there'll be no connection."
"This is such a fine car. In a way, it's Michael's fault for giving him such a nice car."
"Damn! We really offed Michael Jordan's father! Isn't that something? Don't that beat all?"
"Let's quit talking and get out of here. This is something they better never catch us for."
@body:But, of course, this pair was untutored in the ways of big-city crime. They drove around in the car for four days, parking it in the trailer court, where it was duly noted.
They even used the cellular telephone inside the car, unaware that every phone number they called could later be traced by the police.
@body:Perhaps the most surprising outcome of the story is the attitude taken by many sportswriters around the country. It showed that there is a growing resentment toward Michael Jordan. His success has taken its toll.
Instead of sympathizing with Michael, the sportswriters went after him. They cited his excessive gambling and the gambling debts he has reportedly refused to pay.
Here is Scot Ostler in the San Francisco Chronicle:
"The leading theory was that James Jordan was murdered because of unpaid debts, either his or his son's. We know what happens to guys who welsh on million-dollar bets.
"In a sad way, it's almost a relief the murder was a random crime . . . but the thing was a hanging curve ball at which most of us had to take a cut."
Here is Bob Verdi in the Chicago Tribune:
"How is it possible that any person, high-profile or not, could be missing three weeks without family members taking every imaginable measure in concert with authorities to secure information?
"Michael Jordan's life hasn't been private for years, and James Jordan's death won't be, either. . . . Your gut fear that seemingly innocent trips to Atlantic City or accusations of unpaid golf bets had something to do with this tragedy won't go away until and unless investigations make them go away."
Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune, who wrote the best-selling book The Jordan Rules, wrote:
"Prosperity, it seemed, was making Michael Jordan a monster, an arrogant, selfish superstar who pursued his own agenda."
Then Smith listed the basketball player's problems:
"There were accusations in a book that he'd lost more than $1 million gambling and then refused to pay his debt, more gambling questions when he went to Atlantic City to gamble before a key game in the playoffs and a self-imposed boycott of the media for two weeks during the playoffs."
There wasn't a day that went by that the stories about James Jordan's "missing status" didn't also contain the information that he had pleaded guilty to a felony and been placed on probation several years back for embezzling $7,000 from his employer. There were also repeated references to the fact that he had been sued many times for failure to pay debts.
In addition, it was explained that nobody notified the police that he was missing, because James Jordan was always running off for days at a time without telling anyone where he was.
The only columnist who came up with a piece indicating that Camelot still existed for Michael Jordan was Bob Greene, who wrote the book Hang Time: Days and Dreams With Michael Jordan, a series of adulatory interviews with Jordan. Greene wrote a reminiscence last Sunday.
"If you're lucky," Greene recalled Jordan saying to him, "you grow up in a house where you can learn what kind of person you should be from your parents. And on that count, I was very lucky. It may have been the luckiest thing that ever happened to me."
It is instructive to learn who Jordan considers to be his friends in the media. The only media person invited to the funeral was Ahmad Rashad, the television sportscaster.
It's a strange story. Last Sunday, at the height of it all, that Nike commercial for Jordan ran again. The one in which he's all alone in the gym and he says: "What if I were just a basketball player?"
But he isn't just a basketball player. He's a superstar. And these are the things that go with the package.
We will be caught up in this story forever. It will never go away, and we don't know what effect it will have on Jordan.
"The past is never dead," William Faulkner once wrote. "It's not even past.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.