More than six million people tuned into ESPN last Sunday to watch the 24/7 cable sports network’s new documentary on the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls and the team’s star, Michael Jordan.
A Milledgeville resident and local legend with ties to the basketball great was one of those millions. For 12 years (2001-2013), GMC Prep boys basketball coach James Lunsford worked Jordan’s high school basketball camp at the University of California-Santa Barbara attended by some of the top young hoops talent from all over the world.
“When I first started, everybody who was somebody was there, including the No. 1 high school player in the country,” Lunsford told The Union-Recorder in a Thursday phone interview.
Lunsford had been working with worldwide athletic apparel giant Nike for a while when one of his contacts with the company invited him to work Jordan’s camp held each August in California. Santa Barbara sounds like a random location for a camp hosted by a man from North Carolina who played professionally in Chicago. Lunsford said the reason it was there was because the college campus had a lot of different gyms for the camp to operate out of and was also self-contained, which kept the public out because MJ mania was at an all-time high.
“There would be guys waiting outside to buy Michael’s clipboard or what ever they could get their hands on,” Lunsford said. “I’ve seen stardom, and Michael Jordan is a star. Everywhere he goes and everything he does, there’s a crowd. I’ve never seen him not sign something for somebody or have a bad attitude.”
Jordan’s camp was split up in two one-week sessions and attended by more than 1,000 kids (including Jordan’s own sons) hoping to become basketball stars someday. Players were divided into eight different leagues at the camp, each one led by a coach.
“I was director of one of the leagues,” said Lunsford. “One thing about Michael is that he’s a fundamentalist. We did fundamentals in the morning, and Michael would come walk around while we were working.”
The annual camp was a huge draw for top high school recruits who wanted to meet Jordan and also show their games off to the man many consider to be the greatest ever. The camp’s alumni group includes the game’s top player of today.
“That’s how I got to meet LeBron (James),” Lunsford said. “LeBron started going to that camp as a ninth-grader. He came every year and they always put him in my league. He got to where he just took it over. When we’d do fundamentals in the morning, he’d say, ‘Let me lead the group.’ He would go around the circle and work with the players on fundamentals even when he was in high school.”
As for Jordan, Lunsford says His Airness was always a gracious host, signing something and taking a picture with each and every camper and worker.
“Michael is a loyal guy. He treated everyone on the camp staff with class.”
On Wednesdays, he would invite the young players to sit on the court for a Q-and-A session. Some were silly in nature, like “Do you really wear Hanes?” while others asked how he handled getting cut from his high school team. One message that sticks out in Lunsford’s mind to this day was Jordan saying he wished he would’ve started lifting weights sooner in his career. It was a lesson he learned the hard way playing against the “Bad Boys” of the Detroit Pistons in the ‘80s as their physical play took a toll on the young star.
Being the ultimate competitor, Jordan would play one-on-one against one camper each session and showed absolutely no mercy.
“He would play them like he was playing against Pippen or somebody like that,” said Lunsford. “He’d push and shove, and he used to say to us that there’s only one way to play — with intensity.”
That intensity is a reason why Coach Lunsford rates Jordan as the best to ever step onto the basketball court.
“I think going to college really made a difference in his game. He worked in the best program in the country at that time. I used to think the only weakness he had was shooting from long range. He improved on that. I’m a LeBron guy, but I think Michael is the greatest that ever played the game.”
Parts three and four of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary airs Sunday night beginning at 9 p.m.