Remembering 'Pops'

updated 08/30/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/30/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

JAMES JORDAN SEEMED UNUSUALLY MELLOW to his old friends Carolyn and James Robinson that final night. Earlier in the day, July 22, he and Carolyn had attended the funeral of Willie Kemp, a former coworker of theirs at General Electric. Now, after a leisurely sturgeon dinner at the Robinsons' home in Wilmington, N.C., Jordan, 56, was talking about his family, including his son, basketball star Michael Jordan. He also talked about slowing down and spending more time at home. "He said, 'Look at Willie. He planned his retirement so long, and now he's gone,' " Carolyn recalls. "James said he was going to stop working and enjoy the rest of his life."

Sadly, that was not to be. A few short hours later, James Jordan fell victim to what Jim Coman of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation called "the kind of random violence that all of the public is concerned about and afraid of." Authorities allege Larry Martin Demery and his friend Daniel Andre Green, both 18, attacked Jordan as he dozed by the side of Route 74 near Lumberton, N.C., during his four-hour drive home to Charlotte. One of the two—authorities won't say which—allegedly pumped a .38-caliber bullet into Jordan's chest. According to authorities, the pair then dumped his body in a swamp just over the South Carolina line. They spent the next few days joyriding in Jordan's flashy $46,000 red Lexus, which Michael had given him in December of 1991. They reportedly even posed for a video flashing the silver NBA championship ring Jordan held been wearing.

So it was last week that the superstar lionized by millions came to be burying his own idol, a man who was not only his father but also his best friend. At a private ceremony on Aug. 15 at the Rockfish African Methodist Episcopal Church in little Teachey, N.C.—next door to the town of Wallace, where James had grown up the son of sharecroppers—a weeping Michael Jordan urged fellow mourners to remember how his father had lived, not how he died. "Pops taught us a lot," a friend reports him saying. "Pops would want us to carry on."

Michael's 15-minute eulogy did for the congregation what his father had always done for Michael—raised their spirits. "My personality and my laughter come from my father," the younger Jordan liked to say. "My business and serious side come from my mother." But James Raymond Jordan was no slouch himself in the hustle department. After his discharge from the Air Force, he and wife Deloris settled in Wilmington, where she worked at a bank while her husband rose from forklift operator to supervisor at a GE plant.

Along the line, James fostered a fierce competitiveness in Michael, the fourth of his five kids. "When Michael was 7 or 8, I used to get him so mad," James reminisced last spring. "We'd be playing pool [but] I never let him win. Not only that, but after we'd play, I'd pick on him, and I'd talk some trash."

In 1985, the year after Michael turned pro with the Chicago Bulls, James received a three-year suspended sentence and was fined $1,000 after pleading guilty to accepting a $7,000 kickback from a contractor while in charge of inventory control at the plant. (Friends claim his plea was an attempt to cover for fellow workers.) But by then he was ready to embark on a second career. While Deloris oversaw the business side of the sporting-goods ventures—including a T-shirt manufacturing plant in South Carolina—that their freshly minted millionaire son had set them up in, James took care of the business he loved best: being Michael Jordan's dad.

Wherever Michael went, there was his proudly beaming Pops—cracking jokes in the Bulls' locker room, accompanying the team on road trips, even appearing in a commercial with Michael. He was someone with whom the younger Jordan could let down his guard, one of the few able to penetrate the superstar bubble that increasingly isolated his son. Said Michael's teammate Will Perdue: "It's like Michael and his dad were one." When Michael came under fire this spring for a gambling excursion to Atlantic City the night before a losing playoff game, bon vivant Pops said he had suggested the trip to help his son relax.

After Pops's vandalized Lexus was found abandoned in woods near Fayetteville, N.C.-with no trace of its owner—some said that gambling debts might have had something to do with his disappearance. This early speculation was fueled by the ill-timed casino jaunt, combined with allegations made shortly afterward by San Diego businessman Richard Esquinas that Michael had run up a tab of $1.25 million in golf debts. (Jordan has admitted to making a $300,000 payment to Esquinas.) That theory seemed to offer some explanation of the puzzling question of why the Jordan family hadn't reported their footloose patriarch as missing. But sources say the reason had nothing lo do with gambling: James and Deloris lived separate lives. "They didn't really see each other all that much," one close family friend says. "It was nothing for James to be gone for days al a time."

It took authorities a week to determine that the stripped Lexus belonged to James Jordan—and that the badly decomposed body fished out of South Carolina's murky Gum Swamp Creek Aug. 3 and cremated three days later was, in fact, his. But then the investigation kicked into high gear. On Aug. 13 authorities arrested the first of four young Fayetteville men charged with stripping the abandoned car. (All have pleaded not guilty.) Calls traced to the car's cellular phone, including several to 1-900 sex lines, led authorities to Demery and Green.

To neighbors in Lumberton, the suspects were known as "bad boys" who shouldn't have been on the streets in the first place. Green had been paroled June 4 after serving two years of a six-year sentence for assault with a deadly weapon—hitting a man in the head with an ax handle. Demery was free on $20,000 bond, awaiting trial for knocking 61-year-old Wilma Dial unconscious with a cinder block and fracturing her skull during a robbery last October. "If they put him away for what he done to me," said Dial, "Mr. Jordan could still be cheering his son."

Meanwhile, friends and fans of Michael Jordan can only speculate about the further toll this tragedy might take. Disillusioned by intense public scrutiny of his private life, the superstar had recently begun making noises about early retirement, possibly as soon as next year. Could this speed his exit? Some observers think just the opposite. "It's only a guess," cautions writer Sam Smith, who covers the Bulls for the Chicago Tribune. "But it was James who instilled in Michael that when things are going bad, bury yourself in the game." Indeed, two days after the funeral, Jordan appeared to be trying to lose himself in a round of golf in Chicago.

And just maybe Team Jordan will be inspired by the unbridled joy Pops took in the game, as in the rest of life. "You just hope that when the ship comes to dock," James told a reporter last year, "you can say, 'Damn, we had a good time.' "

TOM NUGENT in Charlotte, BRANT CLIFTON in Lumberton, STEVE DALE and LEAH ESKIN in Chicago, and bureau reports

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