Wednesday, September 29, 2010
The gold standard of basketball blogs, Henry Abbott’s True Hoop, recently went into exhaustive detail about Michael Jordan’s stewardship of the Charlotte Bobcats. Central to most of Jordan’s business dealings throughout his career have been a handful of loyal confidantes, with Fred Whitfield arguably chief among them. Abbott shed some light about the importance of Whitfield, who has been a consigliere to Jordan as a friend/adviser/lawyer during the NBA star’s playing days and later as a partner with Brand Jordan, the Washington Wizards and now the Bobcats.
In an indirect fashion, the partnership of Whitfield and Jordan is also responsible for this blog that you are reading.
Whitfield hails from my hometown of Greensboro, N.C., where he was a standout player at Southeast Guilford High School. Whitfield went on to play at Campbell College, the site of a legendary basketball camp (where Whitfield befriended a young Jordan). Perhaps inspired by his experience at Campbell, Whitfield started his own camp in Greensboro, with a little help from well-known friends like Jordan, Johnny Dawkins and Ralph Sampson.
Whitfield’s Achievements Unlimited camp began in 1984, and grew in popularity every year. I started becoming obsessed with basketball in the early 1990s, when I was around 12. Most of the kids on the Guilford College YMCA all-star teams often sported AU T-shirts, so I figured that if I wanted to play at their level I would have to go to that camp.
Achievements Unlimited is famous around North Carolina for its “World’s Greatest Pickup Game”— featuring pro and college players — that campers and their families can attend at the end of the week. Jordan faithfully played every year, even as his fame reached astronomical levels. It always blew my mind to see the teachers’ parking lot at Western Guilford High School filled with Mercedes Benzes and BMWs. Jordan was the unquestioned king of those games, but in the three years I attended, it was awesome to see Mugsey Bogues, Kenny Smith, King Rice, J.R. Reid, Rick Fox, Dell Curry, Grant Hill and Alaa Abdelnaby. All those players were minor royalty in North Carolina at the time, so seeing them play at this bandbox of a high-school gym was quite an experience.
But nothing could compare with witnessing Jordan in that environment. Remember that this was during the years of the first Bulls three-peat, when Jordan was probably the most famous person in the world. The other players would be warming up, and everyone in the stands would be on edge because Jordan wasn’t there. After all, why would the greatest player ever carve out time to come to this nondescript high school in Greensboro? But then the double doors in the corner would swing open, and Jordan would enter surrounded by a security detail. The buzz at that moment was palpable, and you could hear the electricity spread across the crowd. I remember sitting in the bleachers diagonally across from where Jordan entered. I couldn’t make out his facial features, but the profile of Jordan’s bald dome was instantly recognizable.
There were great players in those games, but Jordan always dominated. Whenever I want to wax poetic about Jordan’s greatness, as basketball fans are wont to do, I think about those pickup games. Jordan knew that every set of eyes in that gym was focused on him, and every spectator demanded that Jordan live up to his reputation as the best in the world. And Jordan always delivered. Even in the summer after a grueling 100-game season. Even in a high-school gym in Greensboro.
For a novice player, the basketball education at the camp was tremendous. It’s where I first learned the pick-and-roll and how to fill the lane on a fast break. My clearest memory of the instruction was Dawkins telling us how to find our shooting range, which he defined as anywhere you can consistently make three of five shots. Dawkins showed us by starting under the basket, then taking a step back after making three shots. He ended up drilling a few jumpers just shy of half court.
But the part about AU that I didn’t appreciate at the time was Whitfield’s insistence that the camp not only be about basketball. We had a list of vocabulary words that we had to learn every night and would be quizzed on the next day. I dutifully studied words like “inevitable” and “exemplary” while I soaked my weary bones in the tub. The test scores would be factored in with the points and rebounds to establish the camp all-stars. Standout campers were awarded dictionaries instead of the traditional plaques or trophies.
I was never that good, so I was insanely jealous of those players that got the dictionaries. Like hoops, words became an obsession of mine. I still put a checkmark next to every new word I look up in my Webster’s New World. The outgrowth of those twin passions is this blog, which owes a debt of gratitude to Whitfield and Jordan for stoking those interests.