On July 11, 1988, a well-dressed and determined young woman walked into the spacious downtown offices of one of Chicago's toughest and better-known domestic lawyers. Juanita Vanoy had been meticulously attorney-shopping for weeks. Twenty-nine years old and a mid-level office worker, she was romantically involved with a very big sports celebrity -- and now she had a very big problem.
"She told me she was pregnant, unwed, and that the father of the child was Michael Jordan," attorney Michael Minton recalled the other day. "She felt she could not get Michael's attention or cooperation or response without the retention of a legal representative."
They had been dating since mid-1985 and Juanita thought they'd be planning a wedding by now. Jordan had proposed to her the preceding New Year's Eve at a fancy downtown restaurant, but then things stalled. Even though she was five months pregnant, the lawyer found her without anger or bitterness -- just resolute. "She was very disciplined," Minton said. "And she's very realistic. She knew what she had to do. She was not the least bit indecisive."
Vanoy hired Minton that warm Midwestern summer day, and directed the lawyer to pursue a paternity suit against the most famous and revered athlete in Chicago -- and soon, the world.
Indeed, anyone who knows Juanita Jordan will tell you that she has never been intimidated by Michael Jordan, never blinded by the basketball legend's money and fame -- and that she always knew where she stood in the game. She was a hardworking and ambitious woman before she met him, raised as the fifth of six girls on Chicago's tough South Side -- and her friends say she has never forgotten where she came from.
Now, after 12 years of marriage, three children and a high life of big houses, private jets and elegant jewelry, Juanita Jordan, 42, exits the relationship the same way she entered it -- with eyes wide open and hard-nosed lawyers pursuing Michael Jordan.
The news that the basketball legend was being dumped by his wife was at once stunning and predictable, say those who know them. One source said the Jordans renewed their vows just last September. But there had been hints of trouble in the marriage for years.
These days, Juanita Jordan is keeping her own counsel, confiding only to her family and very close clique of longtime girlfriends. None of them will say what pushed her over the edge in a marriage that has withstood an unforgiving fishbowl, aggressive groupies and constant travel. Some point to Michael's decision to make a second comeback, as a player for the Washington Wizards, guaranteeing that he would spend even more time away from his family and huge home in the upscale Chicago suburb of Highland Park.
After Jordan was named president of the Wizards in early 2000, he was still able to spend significant time in Chicago, and his family sometimes visited Washington when he was here. But sources say Jordan has not been home much in recent months, since announcing in September that he would play again, and Juanita's divorce filing asserts that they have lived "separate and apart" for some time.
A well-known Chicago private investigator, Ernie Rizzo, said in an interview last week that he had observed Jordan in compromising situations in the company of a half-dozen women, including a Denver stripper, over the past 10 years. Rizzo, who had done some work on Juanita Jordan's 1988 paternity case through Minton, had in recent years been hired by the wives of other Chicago Bulls players to tail their husbands. "These guys were always with Jordan and so Jordan would end up in those reports," said Rizzo. "I'm sure the wives were going back and talking to Juanita."
The media, for the most part, left Jordan's personal life alone until now. But the divorce filing has sparked renewed interest, and this week's supermarket tabloids are filled with sensational stories.
Jordan, 38, has spent his entire career trying to protect his clean image and lucrative endorsements. The one blemish came in the early '90s, when news broke of his high-roller gambling. But the fans did not punish him. And after he and Juanita wed, he happily spoke in magazine articles about the virtues of marriage and family.
It wasn't always that way. When attorney Minton contacted Jordan through the Chicago Bulls in July 1988 to discuss Juanita's plight, Jordan had very little to say about the woman who would be his wife and about the baby she was carrying. "He was very noncommittal," Minton said.
By then, Vanoy and Jordan had been dating nearly three years, but according to Minton, "they were having trouble communicating."
"Juanita felt this was something she needed to do," said the attorney. "He was obviously not being responsive to her needs or the needs of the unborn child. It's not something that if you ignore it, it will go away."
Juanita had worked most of her adult life, for organizations such as the American Bar Association and Heitman Financial Services. She was a loan officer when she and Jordan met at a Chicago Bennigan's after a Bulls game, and she had hoped to complete an associate's degree at a local junior college. Minton said she never struck him as an opportunist looking to exploit Jordan, but as a prospective mother trying to secure her child's future.
The attorney called Jordan and laid out Juanita's legal position. "I don't like to use the word 'threatened.' I did explain to him that the only alternative to him admitting paternity on a voluntary basis was for us to initiate a paternity action, which would be public record," said Minton.
Jordan promptly turned the lawyer over to his own lawyers and handlers, and thus began a tedious 2 1/2-year negotiation. "They were discussing and they were dating," explained the lawyer. "They were saying, 'We're emotionally committed to each other.' But this was not exactly like Ozzie and Harriet."
Minton's recollection is that Jordan admitted paternity within a few months, but financial discussions continued. Although Vanoy gave birth to a healthy baby boy in November 1988, with Jordan's name on the birth certificate, she somehow managed to stay largely below the media's radar. Writing for Sports Illustrated years later, Jack McCallum said he was "flabbergasted" when Jordan, during an early 1989 interview at his home, introduced the writer to his girlfriend -- and their 4-month-old son.
In July of that year, after Minton "had undertaken substantial legal work," according to a lawsuit he later filed against the Jordans for compensation, Vanoy informed him that she was about to marry the basketball star. She directed the lawyer to start negotiating a prenuptial agreement with Jordan's representatives.
Two months later, Minton received a surprise phone call from Juanita telling him that she and Michael had gotten married at the Little White Chapel in Las Vegas at 3:30 a.m. "I congratulated her and then reminded her that the prenup had not been signed," said Minton. "She told me to work on a postnup."
Those negotiations dragged on for another 18 months, ending with a postnuptial agreement executed by Juanita and Michael in February 1991, right after a Bulls game. Minton refused to discuss the terms of the agreement, but in his 1992 lawsuit, his lawyers claim that he negotiated terms that were "extremely beneficial and greatly exceeded any statutory benefit Vanoy Jordan would have received under Illinois law."
Minton's suit against the Jordans was settled a few months after he filed it, and he said he amicably parted ways with Juanita.
The agreement he negotiated is not mentioned in Juanita Jordan's divorce petition. Today, Juanita is asking for an "equitable" share of the marital property. Jordan's assets have been estimated at $398 million. Her current lawyer, Donald Schiller of Chicago, left one return message for a reporter but did not respond to two subsequent calls for comment.
Juanita Jordan is almost four years older than Michael (he was 22 when they met in 1985), and she once said that "he soon proved to me that he was mature and could deal with me at my level of maturity."
Michael seemed to agree. Shortly after the wedding, Michael Jordan found his voice about Juanita and their 10-month-old son. "I'm happy. It was a big move getting married," Jordan said at the time. "It helped me mature."
Two years after they married, Juanita was quoted in Ebony magazine, calling her husband "affectionate and romantic. We often have candlelight dinners. . . . He sends me flowers all the time."
Over the ensuing years, in the role of Mrs. Michael Jordan, Juanita threw herself into community and civic events that welcomed her name. In recent years she has headed the Michael and Juanita Jordan Endowment Fund, the family's charitable foundation. She lives with their three children in the family's 25,000-square-foot home. Jeffrey is now 13, Marcus is 11 and Jasmine 9. She has asked for custody, with "reasonable visitation" for Michael.
She has been the honorary chairwoman of a number of charities and cultural events, publicly urged an investigation into the Highland Park Police Department over allegations of racial profiling, and wrote a weekly entertainment column for Copley News Service for 18 months in the mid-'90s. "She liked the idea of it because it gave her a chance to do something on her own, as herself -- not always as Mrs. Michael Jordan," said editor Jim King, who brokered the arrangement. "Of course, if she mentioned Michael, we wouldn't cry."
Still, friends say that through it all, Juanita strove to stay grounded and not be completely seduced by the Jordan whirlwind and aura, remaining focused on her children and family. "She has always been down-to-earth and kind and approachable," said Stella Foster, a Chicago Sun-Times writer who has known her for years.
On Sundays, Juanita still takes her three kids back to the South Side to go to church with their grandparents and hang out with family. "That's where I grew up," she once said. "It just keeps them in touch, keeps me in touch."