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Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson and my neighbor

By Staff | Jul 8, 2016

Ben Simmons was selected first overall in the recent NBA Draft. The 20-year-old Simmons, a 6-10 power forward originally from Australia, played his NBA-mandated college year at LSU before declaring for the draft. His going Number One was no surprise, not even to this 68-year-old “cub reporter” who has been covering Central Florida high school sports part-time since 2008. Simmons played high school ball at nearby Montverde Academy and it was my privilege to watch him, both at courtside and on television a few times. He is the real deal.

Those of us who can recall the 1962 RHS Cinderellas and their coming this/close to a repeat in’63 will, of course, remember Rugby’s star player. He was our next door neighbor and once “babysat” for me when he was a junior and I was in the 8th grade. My parents had gone out for the evening and wanted to have someone ensure that I didn’t get into mischief. Most 13-year-olds can look after themselves and I always minded my folks, but when the state’s star player is your minder, you don’t mind.

He was an Honor Student and brought some school work with him and sat in my Dad’s recliner with a tray of milk and freshly-baked cookies by his shooting elbow. We hadn’t won at State yet and I doubt he would remember the evening, but I always will.

1963 champ Williston’s Phil Jackson became North Dakota’s most famous export, outshining even Lawrence Welk. History forgets that RHS was 5-0 against Jackson’s Coyotes in their final five face-offs. Jackson became a Little All-American at UND. In 1963, his freshman team went to Minneapolis to face the UM frosh. Dad and I flew down with Dr. John Eylands and his son Val in their Twin Bonanza to see the contest. UM won the game and my neighbor actually blocked one of the 2-inch-taller Jackson’s jump shots. My neighbor was the only freshman to make the UM varsity the following year and was captain of the Big 10 team as a senior.

On May 4, 1993 I was in Atlanta on FAA business and two-time defending champion Chicago was in town for Game Three of the NBA Eastern Conference Playoffs first round. The Hawks, led by Dominique Wilkins, had lost the first two games in the Windy City and faced elimination in the best-of-five format. To my surprise, the radio said that there were still 8,000 unsold seats at the 16,000-seat Omni, located in downtown Atlanta in the complex that houses Ted Turner’s television empire.

This was my one chance to see Michael Jordan and his Zen Master coach Phil Jackson and I was one of 7,000 “walk-ups” and got a great corner seat about 15 rows from courtside. When the teams came onto the court for warmups, the Atlanta crowd began cheering and chanting “Michael, Michael” and then here came Coach Phil, all 6-feet-8 of him in a suit tailored to accommodate his bony shoulders and long arms. He sort of loped like a wolf as he strode to the bench.

Shortly before tipoff, Hawks owner Ted Turner and wife Jane Fonda took courtside seats. Miss Fonda is much smaller than I would have imagined and wore a sequined tan blouse with matching slacks, and matching sequined hat. They left before the game was over and were barely noticed.

The game was close and Jordan twisted his knee and went down shortly before the end of the third quarter. The Atlanta crowd grew quiet as Bulls trainers rushed to the fallen future first-round Hall of Famer. He was helped off the court and disappeared into an exit below me. I saw a few folks praying.

As the Bulls were ready to begin the fourth quarter, right on cue, Jordan emerged from the tunnel below me to the cheers of the Atlanta faithful. He was limping noticeably but made play after play, including a huge dunk, literally on one leg. He finished with 39 points, 14 of them in the final frame. ‘Nique had 29 for the Hawks.

The Bulls won 98-88 and the host Hawks quickly flew away. Jordan stayed on the court giving interviews. None of the Atlanta fans wanted to leave. Chicago had eliminated their team 3-0, but the crowd remained until Jordan had finished his interviews and left the court to a thunderous standing O. A man sitting next to me said, “Someday we’ll be telling our grandchildren about seeing Michael Jordan, just like our grandfathers told us about seeing Babe Ruth.”

Gronvold is a 1966 graduate of RHS and has never been given a standing O.

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