When it comes to college basketball rivalries, look no further than a handful of timeless programs including Duke and North Carolina or Louisville and Kentucky to see that those rivalries go beyond the court.
However, there are always exceptions to the rules.
Michael Jordan is one of them.
It seems like every weekend hundreds of people run out to the Fayette Mall with high hopes of obtaining a pair of the newest Air Jordan’s.
It’s even not that uncommon to see his North Carolina number 23 shirt available in some stores. For example, Champs Sports in the Fayette Mall does not have one single Louisville item in stock, but there is a stack of Jordan North Carolina tees that seem to sell well. I’ve seen several people wear them downtown this summer.
After all, what did Jordan even have to do with Kentucky? He played against UK as a freshman scoring 19 points to lead #1 UNC over #2 UK 82-69 in a battle of unbeaten teams in East Rutherford, NJ.
It almost seems in some strange sense tragic that the greatest player ever never really had any real involvement with the city that is home to one of the greatest college programs.
There’s not much else one can think of to relate Jordan and Lexington together, but if you dig a little deeper, you can find that the greatest player of all time actually has a very interesting past with Lexington, one that is forgotten by history all too often.
In the 1984 NBA Draft, Jordan was convinced he was going to Portland. Jordan had won a National Championship with Carolina, and was convinced he was going first overall. After Houston selected Hakeem Olajuwon, Jordan knew he was going to be a TrailBlazer.
Portland had different plans.
They chose Kentucky Wildcat Sam Bowie over Jordan, and as the third pick rolled around the Chicago Bulls selected Jordan.
In Jordan’s rookie season, Nike created the Air Jordan I, which if you believe the marketing campaign (that’s a whole different story for a different day), was banned from the NBA for violating the league uniform policy. After Nike revealed an ad with the phrase “The NBA can’t ban you from owning them.”, sales took off.
What many people don’t know, is that Lexington was actually selected to be one of the original launch locations to test the market of the Air Jordan I. There were six original cities, with Lexington being added as a late seventh pick during March Madness 1985. The shoe sold for $64.99 and did well in Lexington, so well that the entire 1985 men’s basketball team received the White/Metallic Blue Air Jordan I, which were worn for one of the team photos.
In addition to that pair, which rereleased this summer and is still available at Fayette Mall, Nike and Jordan released a pair known as the “Storm Blue” Air Jordan I. This shoe became known as the “Kentucky” color way, and it will be rereleased for the first time since 1985 this December.
Skip ahead a few years to 1989 and Jordan had another encounter with Lexington, this time was slightly different though.
On June 6th, 1989 Jordan was pulled over by Patrolman Tommy Puckett for driving 90 m.p.h. in a 60 m.p.h. portion of Interstate 75.
Puckett claimed after pulling the 1988 Ferrari Testarossa over, he immediately recognized the “M-AIR-J” license plate. He claimed Jordan was patient and cordial despite being issued the speeding ticket, as well as another citation for driving without a driver’s license.
Several weeks passed and Jordan had not paid the ticket, so Judge John Adams of Fayette County issued a warrant for Jordan’s arrest for failure to appear in court.
After a report about the warrant hit the Chicago Tribune and New York Times, his agent paid the $102.50 fine via mail to the Fayette County Circuit Court, lifting the warrant off of Jordan.
On October 24th, 1989 Jordan returned to Lexington for the first time since the speeding ticket story to take on the Phoenix Suns in a preseason game. Try as hard as you are able to, there are virtually no stats, photos, or stories about this game online from many of the Chicago Bulls databases, the only trace of it is on the Rupp Arena events timeline.
Fast forward two more years to 1991, and Jordan was back in Lexington.
Rupp Arena was selected as the site for a preseason exhibition game between the Chicago Bulls and Seattle Supersonics.
Jordan and the Bulls drew 20,775 fans to Rupp Arena as they defeated the Sonics 98-89 behind 20 points from Michael. During the game players from both teams laughed at the numerous camera flashes from the local media, especially when Jordan would shoot a free throw, sometimes with his eyes closed.
”I’ve seen it quite a few times, it’s nothing new to me. Everybody got a kick out of it.”
The Bulls would return to Rupp Arena in 1994 to take on Jamal Washburn’s Dallas Mavericks. Attendance was just under 17,000 as Jordan was retired from the NBA and playing baseball with the Birmingham Barons.