"Do you want to come hang out with Michael Jordan?" BBQ and football with MJ in 1992
As told by a Chicagoan and his daughter, a BBQ at MJ's mother-in-law's turns into a neighborhood phenomenon: football, MJ on a motorcycle and a man jumping from a moving car to get an autograph.
“I will never forget my dad walking up to me and being like, ‘Hey, do you want to come hang out with Michael Jordan?’ And me thinking it was somehow a trap, because what kind of question was that?”
I am writing this book to tell the complete story of the dynasty Chicago Bulls. The team and the players, the games and the rings — yes.
But I am also telling the stories of what it felt like to be here for the dynasty. And by “here,” I mean anywhere between Gary and Milwaukee, give or take.
Which brings us to Howard Little and his daughter Alexis (@TheNotoriousLex on Twitter) and the day in August of 1992 that they, along with Alexis’s brother Howard, played pickup football with MJ — and then met a young R. Kelly, who basically told Jordan that he would one day write “I Believe I Can Fly.”
Howard and his family were together for an annual UPS company picnic that celebrated the company’s founding on Aug. 28, 1907; Aug. 28, 1992 was a Friday, and the picnic was on a Saturday, prior to the school year, so Alexis thinks the picnic was either Aug. 15 or Aug. 22.
Meanwhile, Jordan, Juanita and their then two children were at Juanita’s mother’s house in Roseland for a family gathering and barbecue, placing this story either one or two weeks to the day after Jordan and the Dream Team defeated Croatia to win gold in the ‘92 Olympics.
So I’ll hand it off to Howard and Alexis, who will tell the tale, in a lightly-edited interview combined from two separate discussions:
An ongoing DM with Alexis
A conversation between Alexis and her father
Lastly, please, if you have any stories of meeting any members of the Bulls, whether Jordan, John Ligmanowski or anyone in between, please send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
ALEXIS: This was a wild day. R. Kelly was there. Mike smoked people in a game of football just because he said he could.
JACK: I love that the photos show kids in their Bulls championship shirts. That’s just how it was then. Why weren’t you in Bulls gear?
ALEXIS: I was dressed in my hot pink best because we had literally gone to my dad’s company picnic that morning.
HOWARD: We left the anniversary and went to my mom’s, and I decided to take a quick spin around the block in my old neighborhood. I saw a couple of my friends, and they were saying that they saw Michael Jordan come past the park, get out, look around and go back to the car. I said, “You guys have got to be lying, Michael Jordan was not around here.” And they said, “Yeah he was! He was around here!”
As I thought about it, knowing that Juanita (lived nearby), I said, If that’s true, then he must be going to see his mother-in-law. He was married to Juanita at this time.
ALEXIS: My dad went to high school (at Fenger) with Juanita and they dated, so on a hunch he shows up and there he is.
HOWARD: I drove down the block, and there was a BMW M8 sitting there. It was navy blue, and it had “MJ 23” on there.
I said, I cannot believe that Michael Jordan is actually here at Juanita’s mother’s house.
ALEXIS: They were just having a regular family barbecue, and my dad randomly showed up and they were like, “Fix a plate!” They were only 15 or so years out of high school so her family remembered him well.
HOWARD: I see her nephew on the front porch. When I was dating Juanita, we used to go to his baseball games all the time. So I yelled out to him. “Hey, you used to play baseball!” And he said, “Yeah!” He came to the car and said, “You used to date my aunt years ago.” I said, “Yeah I did. How’s she doing?” “She’s doing fine.” “Is she here?” “Yeah, she’s in the house.”
He went and got Juanita. She came out, and she was pregnant. She said, “Hey! How are you doing?” “Great to see you!” I said, “Is Michael here?” She said, “Yeah, you want to meet him?” I said, “Of course I’d like to meet him!”
I remember coming into the house, and Michael was sitting in a chair reading Jet Magazine.
Juanita’s mother came in and said, “Oh my gosh! Who brought this stranger in!” I said, “How are you, Ms. Vanoy?” She said, “How are you doing? This guy used to come to the house all the time! I had to kick him off the porch.” (Laughs.)
So I’m sitting and talking to the Vanoys for a couple of minutes, just catching up on old times, while Michael is still sitting there, and I said, “Ms. Vanoy, listen, I have two kids who love Michael Jordan. Would it be okay if I go back home and bring my two kids and wife to meet Michael?”
She said, “No no, I don’t see him alone that often. When he comes, I like to keep him to myself.”1
I said, “Alright Ms. Vanoy, I understand. But man, I would really love to bring my kids and my family back here.”
She said, “Alright, I tell you what. You can bring them back here for a little while, but then I want some time with my son-in-law alone, because he doesn’t come here often.”
I said, “Okay,” and I jumped in the car.
ALEXIS: I will never forget my dad walking up to me and being like, “Hey, do you want to come hang out with Michael Jordan?”
And me thinking it was somehow a trap, because what kind of question was that?
HOWARD: Your mom was taking her time getting ready. I said, “We better go now, because I don’t know how long he’s going to be there.” She said “Okay” but she still kept taking her time. I said, “You guys, get in the car.” You guys got in the car.
And she goes back in the house again and says, “Let me put on my makeup.” I went back to the car and I took off. (Laughs.) I knew she would be awfully upset, but I knew I would be more upset if I got there and Michael was gone.
As we were going toward Juanita’s mother’s house, I remember she had told me, “No autographs.” I knew that would be tough, because as I was driving I was thinking to myself, No one’s going to believe that I met Michael Jordan.
So I pull over to a Walgreens to buy a throwaway camera. And of course, this would be the one day where there are no throwaway cameras in the store.
But they did have cameras. The average throwaway camera back then was about $12. They had a camera in the store that was $40 or $50. I had to buy it.
We got to the house and he was outside, throwing the football around. I was thinking, How am I going to take these pictures, since they told me no autographs, no pictures? So I gave the camera to my daughter Alexis, who started taking pictures.
Ms. Vanoy said, “I told you, no pictures or autographs.” I said, “You told me, but you didn’t tell my daughter.” She started laughing and said, “Alright, if you’re going to take pictures, take the camera from the little girl and take your pictures. Get some nice pictures.”
ALEXIS: Look at (Jordan’s) eyes while playing D during a touch football game with teenagers. He was relentless. The GOAT at linebacker.
HOWARD: As the day progressed, more people kept hearing about Michael being in the neighborhood. I remember one guy, he was driving his car down the street and he looked right and looked left and said, “Michael, Michael!” He jumped out of his car but was still in drive and it was rolling down the street. “Hey Michael!” He was wearing Air Jordans and took his shoe off and asked him to sign his shoe. Michael started laughing and signed his shoe.
ALEXIS: I forgot about the shoe guy! That guy totally almost crashed his car trying to get his shoe signed.
HOWARD: Two (other) crazy things happened. One was that Michael saw this guy on a motorcycle come by. He stopped, and Michael asked if he could ride his motorcycle. He’s riding the motorcycle through the neighborhood and he was like the Pied Piper with all the kids following him on bicycles through the neighborhood.
He rode it around the block, and as soon as he got back it was so crowded.
ALEXIS: Here’s the wildest part ever though — I’ll swear on a stack of bibles and my dad will back me up. R. Kelly rolls up, having never met Michael Jordan at the time. He just found out through the grapevine where he was and wanted to tell him how inspired he was by him. Pre-12 Play R. Kelly2.
HOWARD: They come up to Michael, and we were standing there, and I heard R. Kelly distinctly tell Michael that, “One day, I’m going to write a song about you.”
ALEXIS: He told (Jordan) that watching him do what he did for the city of Chicago made him believe he could soar to the highest highs.
So we basically were there when R. Kelly told Michael Jordan he’d write what eventually was “I Believe I Can Fly.”
HOWARD: As the crowd got bigger and bigger, I was fearful for my children because people were pushing. So we decided, we saw Michael, we got some photographs with him, we saw him on a motorcycle. I thought this was more than enough, so we decided to leave.
ALEXIS: I was still riding high when I started school. I had to write a “What I did during the summer” essay and my teacher failed me and made me have my parents sign it because everyone thought I was making it up. My mom sent me to school with the pics and everyone lost their mind.
Thanks again to Alexis and Howard for sharing their story! Please share your own, especially if you have photos! Email me at email@example.com. Thanks for reading!
Again, this was August after the Olympics and before Aug. 28, so either Saturday 8/15 or Saturday 8/22. The Bulls won the championship June 14 in Chicago and the Olympics qualifying tournament began June 28 in Portland, so unless Ms. Vanoy — Juanita’s mother — went to Barcelona, this was the first time she had seen Michael since mid-June.
It goes without saying that any mention of R. Kelly today brings to mind his hellacious, decades-long acts of rape, exploitation and trafficking of minors, actions that led to his guilty verdict last week in federal court on a host of charges. But I thought he should be included in this story both because it adds to the craziness of what happened, and because there is the historical element of both Alexis and Howard recalling that Kelly told Jordan he would write what became “I Believe I Can Fly.”