Jordan heir Marcus stars at Central Florida
ORLANDO, Fla. – He sits in a suite high above the basketball court, protected from potential autograph-seekers and media members and college students with cell-phone cameras.
Just in case any of them were to, you know, show interest.
For the most part, though, NBA legend Michael Jordan can slip in to watch a basketball game at the University of Central Florida these days without much fanfare. A few folks may gawk and point prior to tipoff, but usually they’re fixated on the same player His Airness is there to watch.
Jordan’s son Marcus.
“I’m sure a lot of people think this opportunity was just handed to me because I’m related to Michael Jordan,” Marcus Jordan told Yahoo! Sports after a game earlier this month. “The truth is that it wasn’t easy. I worked hard to get here, just like everyone else.”
It’s paying off.
Not just for Marcus Jordan, but for Central Florida as well.
More than a month into the 2010-11 season, the 11-0 Knights are one of seven remaining undefeated teams in college basketball and tout victories over major conference schools such as Florida, Miami and South Florida.
Marcus Jordan is one of the main reasons.
A 6-foot-3, 200-pound guard, he ranks second on the team in scoring with 15.2 points per game and is also averaging three assists. Earlier this season he paid homage to dear ol’ dad when he soared for a tomahawk slam over a Stetson player.
The dunk – the first of Jordan’s career – was featured as one of the Top 10 plays on “SportsCenter” and came moments after Stetson fans had chanted “You’re not Michael” while Jordan was at the free-throw line.
In elementary school, friends used to pester Marcus and Jeffrey for free pairs of sneakers or ask them if they starred with their father in the movie “Space Jam.” During middle school and AAU basketball games, parents sometimes complained to referees that the Jordan boys received favorable calls because of their last name.
By the time they reached high school, every opposing player wanted to be the guy that held Marcus Jordan to single digits or the one who dunked in his face. For Marcus, getting a shot blocked was no big deal. But the kid who swatted it would have a story to tell – and probably embellish – for years.
It didn’t take long for Marcus to become numb to it all. While everyone else was busy making comparisons, he said there came a time when he realized he’d never be able to emulate arguably the best player in NBA history.
And no one else would, either.
“No matter who you are, you always want to be like your dad when you’re growing up,” said Marcus, who turns 20 on Christmas Eve. “I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t want to be like my dad. I definitely did.
“But once I got to high school I stopped growing. He’s got five inches on me. There are only a certain amount of things he could do that I’m able to do. I realized that.”
Jordan paused and leaned back in the bleachers in an empty UCF Arena.
“Eventually,” he said, “my goal became for people watch me play for the first time and think ‘Marcus Jordan … wow. That kid is a player.’ If I accomplish that, it’s enough for me.”
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Jordan is at that level now, but there were times early on when those close to him wondered if he’d make it this far.
Because Michael was on the road so much, the family enlisted the help of Carl Vanoy and John Hicks – who are nephews of Michael’s former wife, Juanita – to assist with the day-to-day activities that were a part of Marcus and Jeffrey’s childhood.
Whether they were taking them to school or picking them up, dropping them off at basketball practice or shopping with them on a weekend, Vanoy and Hicks’’ main responsibility for years were Marcus and Jeffrey Jordan.
“One of us was there every day of their lives,” Vanoy said.
As big of a role as they played in all aspects of their upbringing, Vanoy and Hicks’ biggest influence on the Jordan boys involved basketball. Michael was always there to offer advice over the phone, and he shot jumpers and taught moves to his sons on the family’s indoor court whenever he was home.
But the best way to learn how to play basketball is through pickup games. One-on-one, two-on-two … it doesn’t matter. The competition is what’s important. Because they were from the south side of Chicago – “a lot rougher than Highland Park,” Hicks chuckled – Marcus and Jeffrey’s cousins were just the right guys to bring out their competitive fire when they were in elementary school.
“We beat them up,” said Hicks, who turns 33 next week. “We didn’t take it easy on them. We’d knock them down and never help them back up. And we never let them win a game – ever. I think it made both of them tougher people.”
Especially Marcus, who often cried when he didn’t get his way. That didn’t sit well with his cousins, who pushed Marcus even harder when he got upset.
“We wouldn’t let him quit,” Hicks said. “There are no quitters in our family. We weren’t raised like that. We just had to toughen him up. We had to let him know that people aren’t always going to let you have your way. You’ve got to make your own way.”
That’s why it’s so satisfying for Vanoy and Hicks to watch Marcus now.
After averaging eight points as a freshman, Marcus has taken his game to a new level under first-year Central Florida coach Donnie Jones. The process began over the summer, when daily 9 a.m. workouts helped Marcus drop 20 pounds, down to 200. His body fat decreased from 12 percent to 6 percent.
Under Jones’ up-tempo style, Marcus has nearly doubled his eight-point scoring average from his freshman year. With Keith Clanton pouring in points and grabbing rebounds down low and Marcus and guard Isaac Sosa providing a threat on the perimeter, Central Florida looks more than capable of challenging Memphis for the Conference USA title.
“Marcus has been huge for us because of his ability to score,” said Jones, the former Marshall coach who was a longtime assistant under Billy Donovan at Florida.
“I told him the biggest thing for him was to establish his own identity. I said, ‘Everybody knows who your father is, and that’s a great thing. But your identity is going to be based on what you do on the court and how you handle success and the people around you. That’s what’s going to go on your individual resume.’
“He’s taken great [pride] in becoming his own man. Now he’s getting attention for his basketball accomplishments instead of his father’s.”
Honored as he is to have his sons playing for his program, Jones said the “buzz” surrounding Michael Jordan’s connection to the Knights has simmered a bit on Central Florida’s campus. Michael Jordan has been to two games this season as well as a few practices. Jones said he’s been more than accommodating when he’s been asked to speak to the team.
“Michael is very proud of Marcus and Jeffrey,” Vanoy said. “He may let them know that a little bit, but he doesn’t want to give them so much credit that they quit working on their games. But I know for a fact that he is very proud of them.”
Marcus said his father either calls or texts after every game to offer opinions and pointers. Michael Jordan watches any game that isn’t televised on the Internet.
“He’s like any other dad,” Jones said. “He wants his sons to be treated normal, to be pushed and for their coaches to demand their best and not treat them any differently. He wants us to treat them the same as we do every other player.”
That’s exactly what’s happening with Marcus Jordan – not just on the court, but off of it, too.
Instead of asking about his father, students occasionally stop him to congratulate him on a win or ask about an upcoming opponent. Even though the attention never bothered him in the past, Marcus said it’s refreshing to “fly under the radar” a bit on Central Florida’s campus.
“A lot of people don’t really say anything to me,” he said. “I don’t really get bugged.”
“But hey,” he said, “if people want to come up and talk to me about our team or how I played in a game, I’m all for it. That’ll be great.”