Jan/Feb 2009 Spotlight

Be Like Mike

by Chris Epting

I had never been much of a Michael Jordan fan. It was 1997, and up until that point, while I'd always appreciated what he did on the court, he had killed my teams too many times in the clutch. It was hard to "enjoy" his work due to the fact that as a fan, it constantly came at my expense.

So when a friend called me in 1997 to ask for a Jordan-related favor, I sort of rolled my eyes. At that point in my advertising career, I was creating commercials for the Los Angeles Clippers (tied with one other for the favorite account of my career). This friend thought it might be possible, through my affiliation with the Clips, to arrange a meeting with this kid he'd heard about who lived for Jordan.

As I was told, this little boy was pretty ill, so I made the call to the team. They explained that for Jordan, no special arrangements could be made. He was too in demand, too impossibly over-committed. To Jordan's credit, he arranged several dinners and events a year to make sure he got to as many kids as possible. But on game days while on the road, he was off limits. (Totally understood.)

That was that. Or so I thought.

A couple of weeks went by, and then a day before the Clippers/Bulls game, I got a call. Seems that the day before (an off day for them), the Bulls had come to L.A. early to catch a Lakers game. While there, someone who's heard of this request from the Clips mentioned to Jordan the kid I'd described. And he said, "Set it up before the game so we can meet." And so, we were supposedly on.

I was to call the parents of the child, which I did. I was to escort them to the arena for the meeting, but first, they asked if I could come over a few hours early the day of the game to meet their son, Bijan. He was wary of strangers, and for me to a part of the evening, he needed a comfort level. So I went.

This lovely child, who I believe was about eleven, was stricken with a grave disorder that had left him severely physically handicapped. But his mind was spectacular. Creative, intuitive, funny, aware of the reality of his situation... and a Michael Jordan freak. The afternoon hours I spent that day with him and his mom were incredible.

But then it was time to go to the game.

Bijan's dad had hired a limo to take us all out to the Sports Arena for a designated meeting with our contact at 5:30. Deliberately, we didn't tell Bijan about meeting Jordan—it was simply too unpredictable an event to risk breaking his heart. As far as Bijan knew, we simply had great seats for the game, which seemed fine with him.

The Bulls at that time were as hot as it gets—a virtual traveling NBA circus with Rodman, Pippen, MJ and a few others—and the scene at the Sports Arena bore that out. In those days, the arena was a ghost town for many a game, let alone hours before tip-off. But at five o'clock or so when we got there, it was madness. Thousands of people outside waiting for the 6:30 door opening, vendors selling bootlegged Jordan shirts, Rodman wigs—you name it.

We were let in through a side door and made our way to the gate where we were to meet the Clippers PR person at five-thirty. Bijan, whom we pushed along in a stroller-type device, stared wide-eyed at the crazy scene taking place around him.

Five-thirty came, and no PR person. Five-forty. Five-fifty. Six. Thank goodness we hadn't mentioned this to him, I thought—because clearly, plans had changed. I went and placed a call on a walkie-talkie, but before I got an answer, she arrived—looking worried. "Come on," she rushed us, "he's all set." (The team bus had been delayed, evidently.)

A few things now. We have to tell him, or we think the shock might be too much. (He had grown very tired, too, and needed to be woken up.) So as we walked I whispered to him, "Bijan, something big is about to happen—the best thing in the world—just get ready—you are not going to believe this, buddy." And I, not even caring before about Jordan, was starting to get nervous.

We were led to a screened off area near the locker room, a private "room" created for this event. We were told to wait a few moments, and then the door opened, and there he was. The man. MJ. In a black suit. He was told I was the contact, so he came over to introduce himself—as he did so, he was looking at Bijan. And I know he didn't expect a child this seriously ill because his expression changed. And he seemed to shift into some higher level "hero" persona. He bent down to Bijan's level, and for about ten or 15 minutes he controlled the flow of every molecule in the room. He held Bijan. Whispered to him how he wanted him to come visit in Chicago to meet his own little boy. Asked him lots of questions and told him that, that evening, when he called his son at home in Chicago, he couldn't wait to tell him all about his new pal, Bijan. With all this, Bijan seemed to come alive. It was hard for him to speak, but he gave it his all.

Some pictures were taken, and then Jordan pulled me aside and said (very seriously), "Look, you get these pictures developed—get two 8 x 10's and send them to this address (which he scrawled out). I said, "Two?" to be sure. He said, including Bijan now, "Two. One that I can sign and send to Bijan. And one that I can keep in my office—where only the pictures of me and best buddies are allowed to hang."

The 350-pound security guy nearby had tears streaming down his face. We were all choked up. We were witnessing a combination of greatness and compassion like we'd never seen before.

Jordan signed a ton of autographs for the kid, including the red "23" jersey Bijan wore. We all hugged Jordan goodbye, and I said, "Thank you." He got this surprised look on his face and said, "Hey man, this is my job." Good job then, MJ.

At our seats near the Bulls bench soon after, MJ came over for one last high-five with Bijan. Now he was suited up. Clark Kent had become Superman. And he lit the tough-fighting Clippers up for 42 points.

Bijan died two weeks later. I went to the funeral because after just one night, his family felt like my family. (Those were some of the warmest, toughest people I've ever met.) Bijan's mom brought me back to see him before they closed the casket. And there he lay, peaceful in his signed Jordan "23" jersey.

Ironically, he is laid to rest a stone's throw from my dad at a cemetery in Southern California. Whenever I visit my dad, I always go visit Bijan. His plaque is engraved with a beautiful poem (that he wrote), and the corners are embossed with the Bulls logo.

I wrote Jordan a note about that, and while I'm not sure if he ever got it, it almost doesn't matter. He breathed life into this boy's soul on a night when he needed it most. He made everything better for a little while simply by being kind and using his gift in the best way possible. Michael Jordan made me and those I was with that wondrous night believe in magic.


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