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Ball boy, athletic director recall rookie Michael Jordan taking center stage at EC Washington
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Ball boy, athletic director recall rookie Michael Jordan taking center stage at EC Washington

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The two richest players in NBA history took center stage in EC Washington’s gymnasium.

It was supposed to be a Junior Bridgeman homecoming. The 31-year-old was nearing the end of his career and Bob Cantrell, who was the athletic director for all East Chicago schools, wanted Bridgeman to play one more game on the floor where he led Washington to a 1971 state championship run. Instead, it was Michael Jordan who drew the fervor of Regionites for a Bucks-Bulls preseason game on Oct. 9, 1984.

“We wanted to get (Bridgeman) to the high school where he won the state championship. We went up to see the Chicago Bulls general manager. We talked to him and we said Junior Bridgeman was from our high school and won state, and went on to play for the Louisville Cardinals ... and we’d like to get him back in our gym,” Cantrell said.

Cantrell agreed to pay the Bulls $11,000 to host the game. Bridgeman was going to play on his home court one more time.

Except 10 days prior, the Bucks traded Bridgeman to the Los Angeles Clippers. The game was then marketed to showcase a 21-year-old Jordan, who was named the Naismith and Wooden Player of the Year winners in his final season at North Carolina and was selected third overall in the 1984 NBA Draft.

Getting in the gymnasium at $5 a ticket turned out to be quite the bargain though “at the time was a decent buck and nobody even hesitated,” Cantrell said.

But John Cantrell may have had the best seat in the house. At 10 years old, his job was to give the Bulls water, wipe up sweat and hand them towels. It was an unforgettable experience.

“Oh my God, yeah, it was amazing,” he said. “You’re in the huddle so … you can hear the players yelling at each other and you can hear the coaches yelling at each other and everybody talking trash.”

It was one of the most electric atmospheres he’s been around. Everyone watched in anticipation in the layup lines, including the opposing Bucks.

“I remember everybody, even the other team was watching him warm up. It’s like when you go play a school you don’t know anything about, you’re sizing them up during warmups. These grown men were not really paying attention in the layup line. They were watching Michael Jordan.”

Former Times sports reporter appears in ESPN's Bulls, Michael Jordan docuseries, 'The Last Dance'

Once the game tipped off, it didn’t take long for Jordan to introduce himself to a new band of fans. It was the first opportunity for Jordan to play in the Chicagoland area after opening in Peoria, Illinois and then St. Louis.

“One of the first times that he got the ball, he made a steal, and he was going in and he was going to go on for a dunk and somebody almost undercut him. And he still made a double clutch on the layup and everybody got excited. They thought he was gonna dunk and literally, it was like the air getting out of a semi tire. Like that's the first time he got the ball because everybody was ready for that,” John Cantrell said.

The memories became clear as ESPN aired “The Last Dance,” a docuseries about Michael Jordan and the Bulls. In the first episodes, the Bulls were dubbed as championship partiers.

“You got your (cocaine) lines over here, you got your weed smokers over here, you got your women over here,” Jordan said in the docuseries of a night in Peoria.

So it should be no surprise that beer was popped after a 100-97 Bulls win over the Bucks that night in Washington’s locker room.

“As soon as the game was over, beer started popping up. … But you don't drink beer in a locker room after the game. And they were all drinking and Jordan was the only one who was not drinking,” John Cantrell said.

Jordan eventually lifted the Bulls out of the pits of drunkenness and losing. He was committed to staying in tip-top shape, that night opting for a celebratory 7-Up instead, Cantrell said.

“He's a machine, like, he kept his body in such perfect shape. I'm assuming that he didn't drink at all. Michael Jordan's body's a temple ... He was a real serious cat — like, everybody else is partying and Michael, he seemed annoyed because you shouldn't drink and if you look at the roster that they had versus the roster (when they got good) they got rid of everybody.”

Jordan scored 22 points and had a few highlight-reel plays but, perhaps best of all, he was a stand-up guy to all who approached him.

“He was just a rookie and he was just like another high school player coming around — that friendly, that outgoing and talkative to people, signing autographs. It wasn’t like a lot of the pros you think are kind of stuck up, but he wasn’t. He was just a down-to-earth guy; very friendly. It was almost like, ‘I’m not a star yet. I want to be so I want you guys to support me.’ That’s the impression he gave you,” Bob Cantrell said.

“Then all of a sudden, overnight, it was like he was the greatest ever.”

The experience went so well, Cantrell tried to get the Bulls back. But after Jordan evolved into a superstar, averaging 28.2 points per game en route to an All-Star appearance and Rookie of the Year season, the price became too steep.

“The next year after he had become a big star, we went back to see if we could get him back. … And they wanted $100,000 the second year, and of course we couldn’t afford that,” Bob Cantrell said.

Of course, Jordan’s earnings came largely from basketball and endorsement deals earned. Bridgeman became a successful businessman after his playing career, owning Wendy's and Chili's restaurants, and is the second-richest NBA player according to multiple reports.

And they both got to star in EC Washington’s historic gym.

Gallery: 50 famous Region athletes

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