Early in the spring of 1982, when he was a skinny freshman at North Carolina – before he had enough fans to start his own religion – Michael Jordan was largely unknown outside the state. So when Dallas evangelist Bill Glass was planning a Carolina stop for his prison ministry tour that summer, Jordan was not the guy Glass had in mind when he called Dean Smith looking to line up a basketball player to beef up the act. Jimmy Black. Sam Perkins. That was the kind of name Glass, a former NFL lineman, wanted. Not available, Smith told him. Previous engagements. Glass couldn’t even get Matt Doherty.
When Smith offered up this unknown freshman, Glass was gracious but dubious. Jordan was certainly better than nothing. But part of the idea behind the Weekend of Champions ministry was to have a big-name athlete take part in the witnessing programs. Aside from their rap sheets, what was to separate Michael Jordan from these men? Without the fame, how would they identify upward?
Then Jordan hit a certain championship-winning shot and when that summer’s ministry rolled through Raleigh Correctional Center, the inmates warmly welcomed him to the yard. And Jordan, decked out in his fresh Team USA warmup, got enthusiastic props for thoroughly schooling a cell-block all-star. Glass was relieved. Those who didn’t receive salvation would at least have something to write home about.
But the Weekend of Champions was about much more than behind-bars basketball. In the past, the tour had featured inspirational athletes like catcher Jim Sundberg and pitched Frank Tanana, as well as men of faith from professional coaching and the world of pro wrestling. This time, before Glass hit ’em with the Good Word, a martial arts expert from Tennessee named Mike Crain was invited to ratchet up the yard’s emotion. Jordan stuck around to see the show. And when it came time for Crain to do his crowd-pleasing samurai sword show, he asked for a volunteer.
History gets a little murky after that. Glass remembers that Michael willingly climbed on stage. Crain remembers it differently. See, the sword trick calls for Chain to chop a full-grown watermelon in half while it rests on the volunteer’s stomach. Most everyone who winds up as the fruit platter declines to do so at first, especially after watching Crain, a fully Southerner decked out in an all-white martial arts suit accented with his black belt, slice the air with cold steel for a few minutes.
But Jordan was more skittish than most – and emphatically said “No.” Crain wasn’t fazed. He worked the thrill-hungry crowd of inmates to his advantage, and when he began hinting to Jordan that he wasn’t quite man enough to handle the job of human cutting board, the 19-year-old responded to the challenge the way you’d expect. He climbed the wood platform and laid himself back on the weight-training bench that had been used in an earlier act. And Crain placed the melon on Mike’s belly.
As Crain produced another black sash and began blindfolding himself, a panicky Jordan started to get up. Crain held him down lightly between the produce and the bench. The folks in the yard inched closer to the stage. Crain told Jordan to shield his eyes so that stray rind and see wouldn’t blind him, but MJ’s eyes were already shut tight enough to secure a home.
Crain drew back his sword – and slashed into the juicy green melon. But his blade traveled too far south, and the rail-thin Jordan’s protruding right hip slowed the blow. The watermelon was torn, not severed. The crowd was not hypnotized and drew even closer to the laid-out Jordan.
Down came the blade a second time, and now shards of watermelon went flying into the sky and across the stage. Crain knew from his audience’s reaction that he’d succeeded in dividing the fruit, but he had the queasy feeling that he might have gone too far. This whack was in the right place, but Crain had misjudged the amount of give in Michael’s lean belly. After pulling off his blindfold, he checked to make sure his volunteer was okay. When he and Glass wiped away the juice, Michael spotted a tear in the fabric.
Dude was irate.
“Look watcha did!” he screamed at Crain. The warmus were MJ’s reward from his first international tournament. But the guy who had driven Jordan to the prison was concerned about more than the jersey. He suggest Michael check to see whether he had been wounded by the blade. Still heated about the shirt, Michael wouldn’t look until they were back in the car and the driver insisted. Then they both looked down and spotted a gash near Jordan’s navel. Since he hadn’t felt the wound, Michael was hardly concerned, even after the doctors at a nearby emergency room needed three stitches to close him up. He did harbor a small grudge – but not about the injury. That would heal in days. Warmup gear like this, though, was one of a kind.
After the Jordan snafu, Glass took Crain out of the evangelical rotation. Crain estimates that he’s performed the watermelon trick 1,750 times and has cut 16 people. “That’s not a lot,” Crain jokes. “He’s missed over 70 game-winning shots. Only mine are more costly.”
Michael didn’t speak much about the incident after he returned to his UNC dormitory. His dorm mates thought him such an unlikely candidate to have volunteered for something like this he had to show them the stitches to convince them the story wasn’t a prank. Everyone marveled over this uncharacteristically bizarre thing he’d done. And legend has it that Jordan turned deeply spiritual when he came to realize how close he might have come to becoming prime footage on a Faces of Death video.
So the next time you moan about our obsession with Jordan and the Bulls, remember this: Once upon a time, Michael Jordan was only a rotten rind away from being half the player he is now.
The was an excerpt from EPSN The Magazine’s special edition Michael Jordan Hall Of Fame Collectors Issue. I was lucky enough to be sent an advance copy from an ESPN rep and I’ll have a review up on Hoops Addict in the next few weeks. If you’re Jordan fan this is a must read. Between stories of samurai’s trying to slice up Jordan, a first hand account from Phil Jackson and epic stories of legendary closed door Dream team scrimmages, there are a ton of exclusive quotes, stories and photos that will have you unable to put this down until you’ve read it cover to cover.