SEATTLE -- It is about a half-hour after a dreary exhibition game. The Chicago Bulls' bus is parked inches from Gate B at the Kingdome. The door of the bus is open, shielding shrieking fans from the one person in the world they most want to meet.
Even though this was late October and the NBA season was more than a week away, straining, craning fans were feverish for a look, a touch, an autograph.
This is what it's like to be Michael Jordan.
"I think the one thing about being Michael Jordan is that I've had to grow up quickly, very quickly," Jordan said. "I've had to be very cautious of what I had to say so that it wouldn't be misinterpreted. Certain things you can do in public that would be all right for everybody else might give people a misconception about my personality if I do them."
Jordan, 27, has matured into what every superstar should be. He looks people in the eye. He remembers their names. When he does charity work, which is often, he isn't looking for the nearest news camera.
He has to be squeaky clean, and he is. He doesn't have to be a role model, but he is. He has grown comfortable under the microscope.
"It's fun being a role model," he said. "Because I've received so much good fortune, I feel inspired to help others. I get a lot of joy out of it, I must admit. But there are times when I'm just like a normal person and I don't want to be bothered and I want to be alone.
"On those times, I have to maintain a certain perception so that the person who catches me on a bad day still doesn't come away with a bad impression of me. I guess it's like acting. There are times when I have to be an actor so people don't get the wrong impression of me."
The unexpected is expected from Jordan. Every night of the year, from the exhibition season through the playoffs, he has to be superhuman. On the floor, off the floor, in front of 25,000 fans in Seattle, in an airport in Dallas, in a restaurant in Cleveland, he has to be Air Jordan. Unblemished, spectacular, above the fray.
"It's unfair, but it's the way it is," Jordan said. "I didn't ask to be put in this position, to be admired by so many people. But it's such a prestigious position that you accept it and try to make the best of it. I mean, there's a lot about this that is a lot of fun.
"It's a great feeling to know that you can put smiles on so many faces and maybe make a difference in somebody's life. Those are the advantages. The disadvantages are that you rarely get to go out and enjoy life with your family and friends without people infringing on you. It's a disadvantage that I'm willing to accept and not worry about."
A cover story in this month's Esquire magazine wonders whether Jordan is the new Joe DiMaggio. They are the most respected athletes of their generations.
"I went to Paris this year and I was able to move around," he said. "I was able to sit in the cafes outside. It was great. They get a lot of celebrities coming through there. It's like a way of life for them. But besides Paris, it gets pretty tough for me to move around."
Still, his is a storybook life. Cut from his high school team as a 10th grader, three years later he hit the jump shot that gave North Carolina the 1982 NCAA championship.
"That one jump shot against Georgetown started everything," he said. "When I hit it, everything started to fall into place. It was like the pieces of a puzzle coming together. It was unbelievable how it changed my confidence level."
Now he is a quietly confident, supremely self-assured all-star. He is a multi-million dollar corporation. He is on more magazine covers than Cher. He is the player every playground kid aspires to become.
"Every time I step on the court, I feel like it's another challenge, another time I have to prove myself," he said.
He began lifting weights this summer and is playing at 215 pounds this season, 17 pounds heavier than last season. He expects it to help him withstand the inevitable pounding that will last from November to May.
"I think my competitiveness comes from being rejected," he said. "When I got cut, I made an eternal pledge to myself to always prove myself to people no matter what it is that I do. If you think I can't do something, I'm going to prove to you that I can. I think getting cut in the 10th grade really put things into perspective for me. I think all kids can learn a lesson from that. Never give up. I didn't."
The numbers tell you a lot about Jordan. He has averaged 32.8 points a game in six seasons, 35.8 in 53 playoff games. He is the second player in league history to win four consecutive scoring titles. He has been a first-team all-star the past four seasons and an all-defense choice the past three. He has everything -- except a championship ring.
"I have envy for Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas because they've done something I haven't done," Jordan said. "It's not a bad envy. It's just something you want to achieve. It's something I know we'll do in Chicago."