On the City's West Side, Jordan's Legacy Is Hope
By Edward Walsh
CHICAGO, Jan. 13 Three blocks west of United Center, where Michael Jordan announced his retirement from professional basketball today, there is a two-story, gray brick building that stands as testimony that Jordan is more than just the world's most famous athlete.
The building is the James Jordan Boys & Girls Club and Family Life Center and is named after Jordan's father, who was murdered in 1993. Just before 11 this morning, as people did all across this city, the club's staff gathered in the second-floor Teen Center to peer at a large television set and await the announcement they did not want to hear.
They sat transfixed throughout Jordan's lengthy news conference, often nodding in silent agreement whenever he talked about the importance and challenge of being a good parent and other matters beyond the basketball court. When it was over, they applauded.
"Well, I guess we can go and cry now," said Alton Hall, 46, a maintenance worker at the center.
Inside the center, with its science and computer labs, its arts and crafts center and gymnasium that is decorated with Chicago Bulls championship banners, there are reminders that Jordan is a son and brother as well as an athlete. There are pictures of his late father and his mother, Deloris, as well as his two brothers and two sisters. There is a picture of Jordan in his ninth grade football uniform, wearing number 7.
At that hour of the morning, the only children in the building were toddlers in the day care center, barely aware of who Jordan is. But among the older children who begin drifting into the center in mid-afternoon when the nearby schools let out "there is a consensus that Mike is retiring at the right time," said Yvette Thomas, the club's administrative assistant.
"They're just elated that he played, that they saw him," she said. "But it's still a very sad time too. I'll watch the games, but not with the same excitement. It won't be the same."
Jordan brought more than excitement to Chicago's desolate West Side. He brought a sense of hope. United Center, built in the early 1990s to replace the aging Chicago Stadium, is part of a rapidly spreading development boom on the West Side that is slowly changing one of Chicago's poorest sections. So, too, is the Jordan Center, built in 1996 with funds donated by Jordan's then-employer, the Chicago Bulls.
Ken Butler, 36, assistant director of the Jordan Center, grew up in the nearby Henry Horner Homes, a bleak public housing project that is also being redeveloped. There was a time, he recalled, when the Horner Homes was a thriving community. But then came 1968 and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., when rioting erupted here and in other cities and much of the West Side went up in flames.
After that, Butler said, "there was always a sense of hopelessness. If you could move out of the community, you were a success story. But once Mike came to the Bulls, he gave these kids hope. It meant a lot to the kids. Everybody wants to be like Mike, even the gangbangers. Even they stop and listen when you talk about Michael Jordan."
Jordan, of course, is not the only person responsible for the rebirth of many parts of the West Side. But the excitement he brought to United Center was infectious and served as a catalyst. "You say the name Jordan and it's magic," said Patt Rutherford, 56, who works at one of the two job placement services that are housed in the Jordan Center.
Jordan himself visited the center just before Christmas. He won two out of three ping-pong games with Lloyd Walton, 45, the center's director who is also a former professional basketball player. He handed out Christmas gifts to the delighted children, lingering as he stretched a scheduled 30-minute visit into about two hours. "You could just see his face lighting up," Butler recalled.
At the time, no one knew for sure whether Jordan had played his last game for the Bulls. But today it became official. Jordan began his news conference by offering his condolences to the family of John C. Knight, a slain Chicago police officer whose funeral was taking place at the same time.
It was then, Butler said, "that it really hit home. Then you realize there are more important things in life than playing a game. It's sad to see him leave. But I'll tell my grandkids that I met that man there. I met Michael Jordan."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company