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Carmen & Michael.
For MJ's 60th birthday, a look back at his friendship with Bulls fan Carmen Villafane.
“They seem to give something to each other. They’re both so outgoing and driven. Neither one of them gives into limitations. When you see someone like her, it keeps you in touch with reality, of what could be.”
— Anna Villafane in 1993, about her 21-year-old daughter Carmen, with cerebral palsy, and Carmen’s friend Michael Jordan, 30
Michael Jordan is 60 today, and he has me thinking of the stories of his friendship with Carmen Villafane. They met way back when the Bulls were on the precipice, and a few days before Jordan’s birthday; Villafane and her mother Anna attended a Bulls game at the Stadium the week of Valentine’s Day, and Anna made a valentine for Michael from Carmen.
Carmen had cerebral palsy and used a motorized wheelchair that she operated with her chin, and on this day, the Stadium security placed her on the floor, presumably back on an angle behind the Bulls bench. I’ve seen the story two different ways, one in a newspaper column by Tribune sportswriter Bob Sakamoto during the ‘93 Finals, the other in Hang Time by Tribune columnist Bob Greene, but in either version she ended up behind the Bulls bench, valentine in hand.
“I gave the card to Michael,” she told Greene.
“He said, ‘Is this card for me?’ I was too excited to say anything. I nodded my head. He opened it and read it right in front of me, right there, and he thanked me.”
They spotted each other a second time not long after at a Chicago auto show (presumably the auto show). Villafane and her father were in attendance while Michael was making a promotional appearance. She approached him. He noticed her.
“I said to him, ‘Do you remember me?’ And he said, ‘Aren’t you the girl who gave me the Valentine card?’”
And she did, and they did. As Bill Gleason reported after Game 3 of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls were undefeated with Carmen sitting behind the bench. “I will be here Monday afternoon,” she told Gleason. “Michael gave me the tickets.” The Bulls won Game 4, and then won again in Game 6, where she likely was, too.
I thought of Carmen because of the news that to celebrate his 60th birthday, Jordan was making a $10 million donation to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It is the largest individual donation in the history of the 43-year-old charity, and surely an excellent way to bring awareness and encourage donations (there is even a special $63 donation option in honor of MJ’s birth year of 1963 — and, I’d like to think, his legendary Garden game).
Jordan took an interest to Make-A-Wish at least as far back as the summer of 1984. The Chapel Hill News reported on a 15-year-old Joel Roberson with muscular dystrophy who had loved seeing Jordan and Sam Perkins in college. His “make-a-wish” was to watch Jordan and Perkins again but with the Olympic team.
The Foundation gave him and his family six tickets to one of a series of seven exhibition games between the Olympic team and an NBA all-star team. Jordan scored 25 in the Olympic team’s win, and met Roberson with Perkins afterward.
With the Bulls, Jordan made Make-A-Wish a priority. And he felt those meetings as deeply as the children, it seemed. In The Jordan Rules, Sam Smith described a scene of Jordan in tears in the locker room before a game after a Make-A-Wish meeting with a little girl “wearing a frilly dress.”
“How do they expect me to play basketball now?” he asked.
Carmen and Michael did not meet through Make-A-Wish, but Jordan’s commitment there — in 2008 they named him a “chief wish ambassador” — matches his commitment to his friendship with Carmen. After that first season of her calling his office when she wanted to attend a game, she received a letter from Michael in the early autumn just before the season started.
Season tickets. And a note.
I hope you enjoy the season ahead. I’m looking forward to seeing you at every game.
As Sakamoto told it, Stadium security came to call Carmen as “Michael’s guardian angel.” Michael was hers too. Anna recalled a game in which Jordan, on the Bulls bench with the game winding down, saw that Carmen’s arm had come loose from its strap and was banging repeatedly on the wheelchair. He ran over to re-strap her in.
“That’s Michael for you,” Anna said. “He was afraid Carmen was hurting herself. Right in the middle of the game, he was taking care of a friend.”
“Carmen is just a real sweet young lady,” MJ said. “There’s something very special about her.”
Carmen figures into many a milestone Jordan game. Along with the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals and the ‘93 Finals, she pops up in stories about Jordan’s first game at the United Center after his baseball comeback, and his first game at the United Center as a member of the Washington Wizards. Greene spoke with her in August of 1993 after James Jordan was found murdered.
“I’m so devastated, and I can’t get over it, and I don’t know what I can do to help,” she told Greene. “He has never asked me for a single thing,” she went on. “And now that he’s the one who needs the help, I don’t know how to give it to him.”
In May of 1996, Gleason reported that Carmen had attended “all but eight Bulls home games over the last eight seasons.”
Carmen shared with Gleason more of her story, including her commute to the U.C. from her job as a data entry clerk at a west side V.A. hospital, taking what she called a “Chicago disabled transit bus” which made stops throughout the city. The bus would drop her at the MJ statue while the real MJ waited for her in the players parking lot. They would then go in together.
“She has become part of the Stadium, as much a part of basketball for us as lacing up our sneakers or putting on our socks,” John Paxson told Sakamoto. “I think it’s wonderful for us to be such a big part of her life. She has such a great spirit and is fun to be around. All of us enjoy talking to her whenever we see her.”
I read a few years ago that at 45 years old, Carmen Villafane passed away in July 2016, survived by her husband and their daughter. She’s one of those names that surrounded the Bulls dynasty and became part of its myth. She’s not mentioned when people discuss MJ’s inner circle, but they seemed to have a relationship that was just as close.
Her digital obituary holds over 300 messages from family and friends. One of them reads:
I am devastated about the loss of my friend, Carmen. From the first moment I met her almost 30 years ago, I knew she was a special person and we bonded right away. I admired so much about Carmen her toughness, her spirit, her strength and her sweetness. I'm proud to have been her friend. I loved her and I will miss her very much. My thoughts and deepest condolences to Chris and Danielle.
All My Love, MJ
Thank you to the late great Bill Gleason, along with Bob Greene and Bob Sakamoto for your work on Carmen and Michael, and to Sam Smith for your reporting. Thank you Cheryl Raye-Stout for your friendship and guidance. And a very happy birthday to Cheryl, who had the Michael Jordan of Michael Jordan scoops — twice.
There are more great photos of Carmen on the obituary, including ones with Michael. Juanita Jordan also signed the log book, writing, “Words cannot express our sadness. Carmen lived life with zest and it was such a joy to see her smiling face. She was a very special family friend and my children and I will never forget her.”
So I couldn’t write the exact year because it changes by the source. Sakamoto said Carmen’s Valentine’s Day gift for Jordan was Feb. 14, 1988 — so on Valentine’s Day — but that was an off day in between a Detroit road loss on the 13th and a home win over Atlanta on the 15th. Gleason wrote in 1996 that it started in 1988, and Greene called it “the week of Valentine’s Day.” But he also started going to Bulls games regularly in April 1990, and described hearing the Valentine’s Day story from Carmen in what appears to be the book’s present action in 1991, saying that when Carmen told him the story, she described it as happening “the year before.” So that’s 1990. Or they met in April 1990 and “the year before” is 1989. Gleason’s “all but eight Bulls home games over the last eight seasons” accounting is helpful; assuming 1996 is the final of those eight seasons then the first is 1989, which makes sense because that would be her first year of season tickets assuming that the Valentine’s Day story was 1988, and was the week of (probably 2/15/88), not the day of. In any case, these are the challenges of writing history.