By Will Burchfield @Burchie_kid
It’s just like eating ice cream, Michael Jordan told them.
No, really. That’s what he said.
That’s the message the greatest basketball player of all time imparted on the Michigan football team the night before it’s season-opening game against Hawaii.
Practicing is like eating dessert.
“I think it resonated with everybody,” Jim Harbaugh said. “He got good at basketball because he practiced it, and that’s such a great carry-over to football because you get good at football by playing football. He said if you love it, then you want to do it every day as much as you can. It’s like eating ice cream. If you love ice cream, then you’re going to eat it every single day.”
So Michigan licked its chops and then devoured Hawaii in a 63-3 win on Saturday afternoon at the Big House.
M.J. was in Ann Arbor to watch the Wolverines take the field in their Jordan Brand debut. The two parties agreed to an endorsement deal in 2015, making Michigan the first – and only – football program in the country to don the Jumpman logo on its jerseys.
In talking to the team on Friday night, Jordan explained this wasn’t a decision he took lightly.
“He has so much pride in what he’s done in his life to have a brand, the Jordan brand,” said quarterback Wilton Speight. “It represents a lot and carries a lot of weight, and basically he was saying it’s our job to keep the Michigan brand and the Jordan brand up there on the same level.
“He said he went with us because he knew we would do that and now it’s our job to back it up.”
Jordan’s meeting with the team wasn’t strictly about business. He used the time to connect with the players on a personal level, reflecting in particular on how he felt before his first college game.
“He wanted to do everything right. He didn’t want to make any mistakes, he didn’t want to screw anything up,” said Harbaugh.
“He was really just a chill, cool dude,” Speight said. “He wasn’t like, ‘Oh I’m Michael Jordan.’ We put up his highlight tape – or one of his many highlight tapes – and he was just laughing the whole time, kind of ducking his head, a little bit embarrassed. But it was a really cool experience just to have the ultimate competitor in any sport just being one of the guys in the room.”
Jim Harbaugh, who played a key role in the partnership at hand and who continues to thrust Michigan back in the national spotlight, said Jordan spoke to many of the same themes the coaching staff stressed throughout the offseason. Improving every day. Being a good teammate. Performing under pressure.
“The same things that I think our team has been hearing for the last month and the last year. They were listening a lot better to Michael Jordan than they were to me,” Harbaugh laughed.
Hard to blame them.
“Michael Jordan’s the GOAT – like the actual GOAT,” said linebacker Mike McCray, referring to the popular acronym that stands for Greatest Of All Time. “Having him there gave us a little extra boost of confidence.”
When Jordan walked into Michigan’s team meeting room, he took a seat next to fullback Khalid Hill.
“I was freaking out – like, that’s MJ” Hill recalled. “For him to be around, it was crazy.”
And his presence quickly altered the sense of perspective in the Wolverine’s locker room. On campus, these guys are celebrities. Next to Michael Jordan? They hardly exist. But that didn’t stop a number of them from picking his mind, and Jordan was happy to oblige.
“He was open to answer any question,” Hill said.
(Hill himself declined to get in on the action, laughing and admitting, “I didn’t want to ask anything dumb.”)
Freshman running back Chris Evans, who dealt with a bout of sickness during training camp, asked Jordan how he battled through the flu to score 38 points in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals.
“His love for the game,” Evans said. “No matter what was going on, even though he was feeling sick, his love for the game just overcame all that and his love for his teammates.”
Defensive end Chase Winovich asked Jordan if he really got cut from his high school basketball team as a sophomore, a piece of Jordan’s legend that has often been disputed.
“I kind of thought it was bold,” Hill said, “like, wo, why’d you ask that question.”
But Jordan confirmed it was true, and then explained that the coach who cut him actually played a major role in his success.
“His coach picked him up every day at 6 a.m. to work him out and help him get better at his sport. And that coach is the reason why he’s here today,” Hill said.
It wasn’t just the players who were inspired by Jordan. Even Harbaugh found himself moved.
“It warmed my heart when he talked about every single day trying to be better than the day before,” said Harbaugh, who preaches a similar mantra.
(Yes, talk of slow, stubborn progress “warmed his heart.” This comes from a guy, mind you, who enjoys watching cops direct traffic because “It’s fun to watch somebody that does their job well.”)
Still, Harbaugh knows it was the players who benefited from Jordan’s talk the most.
“MJ was fantastic with the team. Spent 45 minutes and really connected with them, really told them things that they can take away and apply to their own game – advice, tips. And it was real,” Harbaugh said.
“For him to be me in the team room with us, sit down with us, talk to us and be real with us, saying this is how everything goes, I appreciate him for that,” he said.
And surely Jordan appreciated Michigan for living up to their end of the deal. Indeed, could Jabril Peppers, hurdling a helpless defender, have personified the Jumpman logo any better?