Born in Brooklyn, New York, Michael Jordan spent his early years in a rollicking house in rural North Carolina, surrounded by generations of family that stretched back to his great-grandfather. Jordan's stable home life remained consistent even after his immediate family moved to the city of Wilmington in the late 1960s, with parents James and Deloris establishing high academic standards and firm ground rules to keep their five children out of trouble.
It was James, a maintenance worker turned supervisor at General Electric, who introduced Jordan to his first athletic love, baseball, and built a basketball court in the backyard (and also reportedly inspired Jordan's notorious tongue wag with his own facial contortions). However, companions recall Deloris, a bank teller, as the more forceful presence of his parents. Her strong will would later be reflected in her son's renowned drive to succeed.
His rivalry with his brother fueled Jordan's desire to be the better player
If the backyard court provided the canvas for Jordan to develop his basketball genius, then it was the presence of its other regular occupant that unleashed the beast of his competitive spirit. Larry Jordan was a year older, and while Michael was already taller, Larry was stronger, equally athletic and not inclined to lose to his younger brother. The two went full steam at each other on the court every day until bedtime, with Deloris stepping in to calm the boys when things grew too heated.
A determined Jordan eventually figured out how to win on a regular basis and his continuing growth widened the gap between them, but it wasn't clear who the superior athlete was before he reached that point. Noted their high school basketball coach, Pop Herring, "Larry was so driven and so competitive an athlete that if he had been 6'2" instead of 5'7", I'm sure Michael would have been known as Larry's brother instead of Larry always being known as Michael's brother."
Jordan didn't initially make his high school varsity basketball team
Jordan has often rehashed the popular legend that he was cut from the Laney High School varsity basketball team as a sophomore, inspiring him to work harder and get better, but that's not exactly how things went down. All basketball hopefuls tried out for coach Herring in the fall of 1978, and Jordan, along with the rest of the promising underclassmen, were assigned to the junior varsity team, with the lone exception of his friend, classmate and rival, Leroy Smith.
It's difficult to argue with the reasoning: The team was returning 14 of 15 players from the previous year, and most, like the then-5'9" Jordan, played one of the smaller guard positions. With the Buccaneers in need of a tree to block shots and rebound, it made perfect sense to select the 6'7" Smith for the final roster spot.
Along with providing a jolt of motivation, the decision helped Jordan develop into a floor leader with regular playing time, and the Laney JV games soon became the hot ticket in town. Furthermore, Coach Herring showed he had Jordan's best interests at heart by personally running him through drills every day as a junior, the hard work – and a fortuitous growth spurt – turning the gangly teenager into the Laney varsity alpha dog.
He was a standout at basketball camp
If there was a time when the legend of Michael Jordan took root, when teammates and onlookers began to grasp that they were witnessing a talent for the ages, it was during the summer of 1980. Invited to the annual camp run by the University of North Carolina head basketball coach Dean Smith, a showcase for the state's top players, the Wilmington boy quickly distinguished himself from the pack. UNC assistant coach Roy Williams was stunned by Jordan's combination of athleticism, quickness, intensity, and instincts. After a day of practice, he told fellow assistant Eddie Fogler, "I think I've just seen the best 6'4" high school player I've ever seen."
Williams then made the rookie mistake of arranging for Jordan to attend the Five-Star Camp outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Although this one featured blue-chip basketball prospects from around the country, as opposed to the smaller pool in North Carolina, the 17-year-old Jordan again treated the competition like a punching bag, transforming him into a must-have college recruit. Fortunately for the Carolina brass, James and Deloris Jordan had taken to Williams and the paternal Dean Smith, influencing their son's decision to commit to UNC.
Jordan did not receive special treatment at UNC, which kept him humble
After a senior season in which Laney narrowly missed out on a division title and its best player averaged a triple-double, Jordan continued to soar with a record 30 points in the McDonald's All-American Game. However, he soon experienced a welcome return to earth with his immersion in Dean Smith's program at UNC. The even-keeled Smith forged team unity by treating his stars and benchwarmers equally, and Jordan was happy to let his effort do the talking in the highly regimented practices. "[Smith] was the perfect guy for me," Jordan later said. "He kept me humble, but he challenged me."Basketball Coach Dean Smith
As it turned out, they were perfect for each other: When Jordan coolly sank a go-ahead jump shot with 15 seconds left in the 1982 NCAA title game against Georgetown University, he gave Coach Smith his first NCAA championship. And with that first major, televised triumph, Jordan was officially on the map as a young American sports star, ready for the next steps in a career that would carry him to unprecedented heights of success and fame.