Episode 3: “Mr. Jordan”
Cliff Bumgardner: If you’re news to the podcast, go back and start at Episode 1, it’ll make a lot more sense.
Amanda Lamb: October 6, 1993. Michael Jordan sits on a basketball court in the Chicago Bulls training facility in Deerfield, Illinois. He’s at a table with his wife, Jaunita, and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Reporters, NBA officials, and Bulls teammates fill the room, waiting for Michael to speak. There’s a spray of microphones in front of him. He leans into them.
Michael Jordan: I’m very solid with my decision of not to, uh, play the game of basketball, uh, in the NBA.
Amanda: The rumors are true. The greatest player to ever pick up a basketball is leaving the game in his prime. He’s just 30 years old. Four months ago he led the Bulls to their first three-peat, their third NBA championship in a row.
Michael Jordan: I’ve always stressed to people who have known me and the media that has followed me that when I lose the sense of motivation and the sense of to prove something as a basketball player, it’s time for me to move away from the game of basketball.
Amanda: A lot has happened to Michael in the last four months. Word was going around that the NBA was investigating his gambling. There were even rumors he might be kicked out of the league. And then, his father was murdered.
Michael Jordan: My success has been as much their success. My family’s been a part of that, my wife, my father who, as everyone knows has left us. I think what he made me realize was how short life is, uh, and that was an area that I had to look at, uh, how quickly something could end so quickly and so innocently.
Amanda: Michael’s retirement left people dumbfounded. They didn’t buy it. There was something off about the whole thing. Why retire now, in his prime, from the game he loved? It didn’t add up.
He had barely spoken about his father’s death since the murder. They hadn’t reported him missing in the first place. And now this, this sudden exit from basketball.
And in the absence of real answers, people started to make things up, conspiracy theories linking all these things together. Conspiracy theories that dogged the James Jordan murder case from the very beginning.
From WRAL Studios, this is Follow the Truth: The story of the James Jordan Murder, and the man who says he didn’t do it. I’m Amanda Lamb.
Amanda: Daniel Green and Larry Demery were charged with James Jordan’s murder in August of 1993, but the case wouldn’t go to trial until January of 1996. And in those two and a half years while the case shuffled along, mostly out of the public eye, well, it created a vacuum, a vacuum people filled with their own theories about what happened and how. And no matter what was said when the case got to trial, nothing could ever live up to the grand conspiracies concocted in the meantime.
And that skepticism for how things really went down, it’s never gone away.
And almost all of those conspiracies were born out of what people knew – and what they didn’t know – about the Jordan family.
Today, in the era of social media celebrities and reality stars, being famous doesn’t mean what it once did. That’s why when you tell someone about this story, it’s hard to articulate just how iconic Michael Jordan was in 1993. He was everywhere, from the basketball court to the Nike store. He even had his own song.
Gatorade Commercial: [singing] I dreamed I grew like Mike, if I could be like Mike. I want to be like Mike, like Mike [trails of]
Amanda: He won every award you can imagine. And the hearts of lots of fans along the way:
News Reporter: Not even the great winds of Chicago can bring Michael Jordan down. He has taken the city by storm. Captured warm places in the hearts of Chicago’s often-cold fans.
Fan: “He’s a wiz kid”
Fan: “He’s brought the Bulls back to life”
Fan: “He’s pretty cool, he puts on a show for everybody [fades out]
Amanda: But his influence wasn’t just confined to the court. As powerful as Michael Jordan the athlete was, Michael Jordan the brand was something else all together.
News Reporter: Jordan’s agents have selected a new world for Michael to conquer: Madison Avenue.
Amanda: Nike even used Jordan’s supernova status in their marketing.
Michael Jordan [Air Jordan Commercial]: What if my name wasn’t in lights? What if my face wasn’t on TV every other second. What if there wasn’t a crowd around every corner? What if I was just a basketball player? Can you imagine it? I can.
Amanda: And Michael’s dad, James, was always there in Michael’s life. Every step of the way.
James Jordan: We went to one of Michael’s games or Larry’s games, we took the whole family. And, uh, it got to be a family affair then. And I think it has remained a family affair, you know, right on up through the years.
Amanda: James was the guy behind the guy, always in the background, sitting in the stands, cheering on his son. But thanks to Michael, James did get his own fifteen minutes of fame from time to time. They even made an underwear ad together.
James Jordan: Michael, are these your Hanes?
Michael Jordan: Uh huh.
James Jordan: Son, is there a reason you wear them?
Juanita Vanoy Jordan: Definitely.
James Jordan: Hmm. You think mom would like me in these?
Michael Jordan: Maybe.
Amanda: The famous son. A proud father, but there was a lot more to the man than his relationship with Michael.
Born in Wallace, North Carolina, James Raymond Jordan Sr. was the son of sharecroppers, a hardscrabble upbringing that prepared him for a stint in the Air Force. In 1957, he married his highschool sweetheart, Deloris, and the two started a family. They would go on to have five kids together. Three boys and two girls. Michael was the youngest boy.
James was a sports fanatic when he was a kid–especially baseball and almost went pro. So it was only natural for him to encourage his two youngest sons, Michael and Larry, to play sports. Even if he never made it to the big leagues himself, he seemed content to experience it through his kids.
News Reporter: Most of all James Jordan was proud of his son. He was thrilled to be part of the magic of Michael.
James Jordan: I’m lucky to be here, I’m lucky to be a part of it, you ever think of that? I’m lucky to be a part of what he is, what he stands for and what he’s doing right now.
News Reporter: At the dedication of the Michael Jordan section of I-40, James spoke of the work ethic he tried to instill in his son.
James Jordan: Hard work and dedication, be it young or old, Black or white will get you someplace, thank you.
Amanda: But while Michael was up in Chicago, perfecting his signature one-handed slam dunk, James got in trouble with the law.
Johnson Britt: Mr. Jordan had been arrested and, um, was subsequently convicted in Wilmington
Amanda: Former District Attorney Johnson Britt.
Johnson Britt: …with, um, being involved in a kickback scheme at the, uh, plant where he worked. And then ultimately he was charged with fraud.
News Reporter: James Jordan pleaded guilty to accepting a $7,000 kick back from a private contractor while he was employed at GE in Wilmington. Jordan received a suspended sentence, probation and a $1,000 fine.
Amanda: This case is why the state had James’ fingerprints on file when they later identified his body.
Johnson Britt: He was also in the FBI system as a young man he was charged with burglary in New York.
Amanda: We reached out to several members of the Jordan family for this podcast, including Michael Jordan, none chose to participate.
The Jordans have been notoriously tight-lipped about a lot of things over the years… and here at this moment of intense scrutiny, the public had a lot of questions and no one to answer them.
So there’s really not much more we know about James Jordan as a person independent of his son… separate from the lore that has become Michael Jordan’s story. Because most people saw James through his connection to Micahel, his death was equally connected to the basketball star, for better or for worse.
Through questions about debts, gambling… and even the mafia.
That’s coming up after the break.
Amanda: There’s a lot we don’t know about the night James Jordan went missing or the weeks that passed before his body was found.
But here are the facts we do have.
On July 22nd, 1993, James had gone to Wilmington to attend the funeral of a former coworker. When the service was over, James went back to the widow’s house with some friends. They had dinner and a few drinks. The toxicology report done after his death found James likely still had a good amount of alcohol in his system when he died. He left the friends shortly after midnight, driving back toward his home in Charlotte. It’s usually about a three and a half hour trip. But, he didn’t make it that far.
Investigators believe Jordan stopped about an hour into his drive to take a rest. They say he parked the Lexus on an access road between Interstate 95 and Highway 74 in Lumberton, North Carolina. And it’s here they say his final moments played out.
Of course, no one knew this at the time. The next day, James was expected in Chicago to attend a golf tournament with Michael.
Johnson Britt: There was a driver who was supposed to pick him up at the airport, and when he didn’t arrive, um, he waited. And then returned to where the tournament was, golf tournament being held and said, you know, “Mr. Jordan was a no-show.” The family, I don’t really think had that much concern, but when they could not reach him, um, what resulted was Michael’s security team started their own investigation. They did not report him missing, um, in the sense that they contacted the local law enforcement agency.
Amanda: It wasn’t until the car was found in early August that the family began working with police or filed any kind of official missing person report.
It’s this period of time – the weeks when James was missing, but his family didn’t tell the authorities – that has remained a mystery even to this day.
Dan Wiederer: It’s hard to speculate, and that’s one of those unanswered questions that I think gives a lot of people pause.
Amanda: This is journalist Dan Wiederer; he wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune about the case on the 25th anniversary of James Jordan’s murder.
Dan Wiederer: …how a man’s so beloved by his family, a man with so many children would let him be missing for three weeks without reporting to authorities that he was not around, that he was missing, and that his 57th birthday would come and go without anyone knowing where he is.
Amanda: James’ past, the family issues, legal troubles, it all wove together during the investigation as the public tried to explain his family’s secrecy by saying it was proof something much bigger was going on.
It gave birth to a slew of conspiracy theories. Most of them were completely unfounded, with people insisting things like James was never really killed, that he faked his death to avoid more legal troubles or to get off the hook for financial problems in his business.
Some people even claimed they saw James driving around Lumberton in the days following his supposed death… Though why would he go through the trouble of pretending to die only to walk around in public days later, that’s never been explained.
Other theories, though, had just enough truth in them to stick around for a while.
Mark Roberts was a reporter for WRAL back in the 90s. He covered the James Jordan murder case when all these conspiracies started flying around
Mark Roberts: There was already conspiracy theories working up, said he had gambling debts or something like that. There was already some stuff swirling around and things.
Amanda: This is the most persistent conspiracy theory surrounding James’ death: that he was killed not in some random act of violence, but as payback for Michael’s gambling debts, which had been all over the news at that time.
In 1992, Michael was court-ordered to testify against James “Slim” Bouler [BOO-ler], a convicted drug dealer. Michael was asked to explain why Bouler had a check for $57,000 with Michael’s name on it. At first, he said it was just a business loan. But then, under oath, Michael admitted the money was actually to repay a debt he owed Bouler after a weekend of gambling.
And then in 1993, a San Diego businessman wrote a book about gambling addiction prominently featuring Michael. It referenced nearly a million dollars he said Michael owed him for bets they’d made while playing golf.
Mark Roberts: There seemed to be a lot early on about Michael’s gambling debts and his father’s gambling debts.
Amanda: In May of 1993, Michael made a now-infamous visit to an Atlantic City casino. Typically this wouldn’t be news, except that it was during Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals and there was speculation that Michael bet on basketball.
The NBA bars players from betting on league games, so they launched an investigation into Michael’s gambling habits to see if he had violated any of those rules.
And when all this controversy was swirling around Michael and he’d refused to talk to the media, it was James who stuck up for his son.
News Reporter: It was James Jordan that said it was his idea.
James Jordan: It’s so ridiculous, that, you know, I can look right by it, you know. ‘Cause it was actually my idea to go to Atlantic city.
Amanda: When James died, all this talk about hanging out with drug dealers and big-ticket sports betting led to speculation that these were connected with the murder, that James’ killing was a message to Michael. There were even insinuations that the Mafia was somehow involved. And that Larry Demery and Daniel Green were just hapless fall guys. It’s still a popular theory circling around the Internet today.
But none of this holds water. For one thing, Michael could likely have paid off any debts he had. And motive aside, the logistics of the killing don’t fit any of those theories. Also, there’s no evidence to back any of them up.
Mark Roberts: There was a lot of stuff that seemed like it could have been the deal, but, uh
Amanda Lamb: There were a lot of stories.
Mark Roberts: Yeah. Never, never, nothing ever really seemed to sink into the concrete really.
Amanda: But keep in mind, back in the ‘90s, these conspiracy theories weren’t confined to some dark corner of the Internet, this was playing out in the six o’clock news.
News Reporter: Questions were raised about whether his financial dealings could have had anything to do with his death. [Trails off]
Amanda: After James’ death, the family released a brief public statement.
News Reporter: It reads in part, quote: “We ask that our friends respect our needs for privacy while we mourn the loss of the head of our family.”
Amanda: Most people wouldn’t hear Michael speak publicly about his dad’s death for another two months, during his retirement speech on the basketball court, which also ended the NBA’s investigation into his gambling habits.
Michael Jordan: I guess the biggest positive thing that I can take out of, uh, you know, my father not being here with me today is that he saw my last basketball game. And that means a lot.
Amanda: But the public and the media weren’t the only ones who had a hard time getting information out of the Jordans. As the case moved toward trial, it became obvious the prosecution needed the family’s cooperation, prompting District Attorney Johnson Britt to reach out.
His first contact was with Michael’s older brother, Larry, the last person in the family to see their father alive. Britt went to him with questions about his father’s jewelry: the watch and NBA ring recovered during the investigation.
Johnson Britt: How much is the ring worth? How much is the watch worth? Who made it? When was it given to your dad? Larry’s repeated response was, “you have to ask the man,” “you got to talk to the man.” And finally I was kinda taken back by that. I said, “who you keep calling the man?” He said, “Oh, you got to talk to Michael.” Now this is Michael’s big brother saying, “you gotta go talk to the man.”
Amanda: So how do you get to “the man”?
Britt talked to Michael’s people. But he says every time he thought they had come to terms on a meeting date, it was derailed. He felt like he was being put off.
Finally, they set a date, December 27, 1995 in Chicago. That’s just seven days before the trial was scheduled to begin.
It’s a snowy, cold, typical Chicago winter day. Britt and several detectives arrive at Michael’s office, but Michael isn’t there. Instead, Britt – who is in charge of this case – faces a team of Michael’s attorneys, who start firing off questions at him.
Johnson Britt: “Why are y’all here?” “What are you going to ask him?” They wanted to know in advance. And, you know, we need these questions answered. It may be necessary that Michael Jordan come to Lumberton and testify in this case. His lawyers didn’t want him to do that and in a sense, I don’t think he wanted to testify.
Amanda: And honestly, neither did Britt.
Johnson Britt: The celebrity status that became attached to this case, um, could influence what happened. And his mere presence, I believe would have.
Amanda: Finally, Michael shows up at the meeting.
Johnson Britt: And you look outside, there’s, the streets are wet because it had snowed and he pulls up in this black Porsche that doesn’t have a spot on it. Suddenly this figure walks in and it’s Michael Jordan.
Amanda: Britt says things relax a little. Michael is affable, even friendly. They joke about the weather, how harsh Chicago is compared to North Carolina. But after the pleasantries, they get down to business.
Johnson Britt: He’s like, you know, “am I going to be a witness?” And I said, well, you may be.
Amanda: Britt explains to Michael and his attorneys that if he does come to Robeson County to testify, Britt will make sure he is as insulated as possible from the media and the public.
Johnson Britt: He will be escorted in through the back of the building. He’ll get on the back elevator, which is restricted. He’ll come upstairs, get off the elevator, walk in the side entrance of the courtroom, and he’ll take the witness stand. And as soon as he finishes, he’ll leave the same way. In and out.
Amanda: Britt shows Michael a photo of Daniel Green wearing the watch and NBA ring. Michael identifies all of them, saying yes, these were things he gave his father. He also confirms the Lexus is the one he bought for his dad. The confirmation is good enough for Britt and the defense attorneys, so it’s decided: Michael won’t have to testify.
But before he leaves, Britt did have one other thing he wanted from Michael…
Johnson Britt: Do you mind autographing these books? I have an autograph book that I kept. I gave each of my children one, and I gave my brother-in-law one who’s probably the biggest Carolina fan in the world.
Amanda: Again, this is the prosecutor, the guy responsible for managing and maintaining fairness in the case, and even he can’t escape the allure of Michael Jordan.
But of the people we’ve talked to, Britt might have the most insight of how Michael was feeling about the case.
Dan Wiederer: Michael has talked a lot over the last 25 years about his father, about what his father meant to him, but he’s talked very little about the actual murder of his father and how it has impacted him and his family.
Amanda: Again, Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune:
Dan Wiederer: I think there’s a privacy there that they wanted to keep, obviously Michael being the icon that he is and the grand spotlight that he comes under. I think they wanted to keep this out of the public eye as much as possible. I think there is a coping mechanism there for a family that has gone through something so grizzly and so uncomfortable and so harmful to a family member to try to get their arms around that and get around the emotions that come with that.
Amanda: Talking about James, his life and death, the controversy and the conspiracies, it’s not easy. It’s a part of this story where we have an abundance of questions and a shortage of answers. And that’s really the whole problem.
When someone dies, we want closure. We want some way to wrap our head around it, to have the tragedy make sense. But it almost never does.
We don’t want to believe that someone like James Jordan could die randomly, a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So we set our imaginations loose, conjuring up murder-for-hire plots and complex underground schemes, all to explain the unexplainable.
It created an atmosphere of distrust around this case that’s never really gone away.
One of the very few times Michael has spoken publicly about his father’s murder was on the Oprah Winfrey show, in 1993 — just three weeks after he retired from the NBA. We can’t play you that audio, but it’s out there if you want to listen to it.
In the interview, Oprah asks Michael if he’d ever want to confront those responsible. Does he wonder how or why they would do such a senseless thing?
Michael Jordan responds, quote, “No, because I don’t want to know. It would probably hurt me even more to know their reasons, because it would be totally meaningless. It’s better that I don’t know.”
For the Jordans, it seems, no answer is necessary. And for the public, none will suffice.
Amanda: On the next episode of Follow the Truth…
Charlie Gaddy: Uh, could you tell me who you are and what the situation is there, please?
Renee Bollinger: My name’s Renee Bollinger. I work in advertising and we’re still being held hostage.
News Reporter: Police in Lumberton needed plenty of backup today as they surrounded the local newspaper building, which had been locked shut by two gunmen.
Amanda: We’ll introduce you the scene of the crime: Robeson County, North Carolina
Scott Raab: There’s a lot more going on than just a random roadside murder of, uh, you know, basketball, superstar’s daddy.
Amanda: A place that comes along with a whole lot of baggage.
Dan Wiederer: Because of the DNA of the County, because of the, the racial divisions in the County. Because of the long standing history of suspicion in the County of corruption within law enforcement.
Amanda: Follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen.
Follow the Truth is written by me, Amanda Lamb, and Cliff Bumgardner.
Cliff also produces the show.
Shelly Leslie is our executive producer.
The show is edited and mixed by Wilson Sayre.
Our production manager is Anita Normanly.
Original music is by George Hage and Lee Rosevere.
Additional reporting by Clay Johnson, Jay Jennings and the many other WRAL-TV journalists whose coverage you hear throughout the story. The show is represented by Melinda Morris Zanoni and Legacy Talent Entertainment with branding and digital marketing by Capitol B Creative. Special thanks to Dave Beasing.
This episode uses additional audio from the following organizations: NBC-5 Chicago, Gatorade, Hanes, and Nike.
Thanks for listening.