RICHMOND — Cell phones had not yet gone mainstream, and the internet was about a year away from its official launch.
The year was 1990, although that might not seem like so long ago to some, the world was still an innocent enough outpost that picking up the phone and making one call could still get you an audience with the most famous athlete in the world.
“Can you imagine, sitting there as a high school basketball player, and in walks Michael Jordan?” asks Bill Disbrow. “It would have been like God walking in.”
The longtime former head coach of the Richmond Colts boys basketball dynasty admits that like everyone else in the worldwide hoops community, he has been glued to the TV for each and every episode of The Last Dance, which wraps up its five-week run this Sunday night in Canada on Netflix.
The biggest plus of the 10-episode mini-series, which centres around the 1997-98 Bulls, has been its ability to infuse a little revisionist history into the hearts of minds of the new breed of basketball youth by pointing out just how complete a game-changing a force Jordan actually was.
Yet to think that not too much earlier in Jordan’s career, the world of pro sports superstardom was still penetrable enough that with a little ingenuity — of which Disbrow happened to have plenty — it was still possible to do what the Colts coach dared to do, and that was attempt to invite His Airness to drop by Richmond Secondary School.
To set the scene, it was early in the 1990-91 season, one in which the Colts were ranked No. 1 in B.C., and by season’s end would go on to win a fourth top-tiered provincial title over a span of seven years, something accomplished only by New Westminster’s Duke of Connaught in the early 1950s
It’s hard to remember any high school basketball program in provincial history being as known and reported on by the mainstream media as the 1984-91 vintage Colts.
Still, there was a certain level of chutzpah behind what Disbrow planned: To contact Jordan’s representatives, and ahead of the Bulls’ Oct. 24, 1990 NBA exhibition game at the Pacific Coliseum against the Seattle Sonics, have MJ himself pay a quick visit to Richmond High to surprise his Colts’ team.
“So I called his agent, David Falk, and I spoke to his assistant and she said it would be a great thing,” Disbrow recalled this week.
“The NBA was really trying to promote itself around the world, my team was ranked No. 1 in B.C., and we were getting a lot of press. So I decided to call and ask. I told them that I could be holding a preseason meeting with my boys in my classroom. I will invite all of the media, and they will know what is happening, but the kids won’t. I’ll stand in front of the classroom, with the cameras in the room, and Michael Jordan is just going to walk in while I am speaking to them. They’ll film it, and it will go around the world. She really liked the idea.”
Not too many days later, Falk’s assistant called back to tell Disbrow she had floated the idea past both her boss and Jordan, and that both had given the win-win idea the thumbs up.
“I just about had a heart attack,” laughed Disbrow, whose these days is the head coach of Vancouver’s David Thompson Trojans. “Now I just had to find a way to keep a secret.”
Disbrow might have had more contacts with the Vancouver sports media than any high school coach in the province at the time, yet he knew he couldn’t tell them about it in advance and expect the news not to leak.
So he hunkered down, and was ready to call them all on the morning of the visit and the game.
“I was going to tell the press about Michael, but only on the last day,” he added. “I didn’t need it leaking. I was pretty confident they would all drop what they were doing to come. What I had said to the Bulls was that I could get every media outlet out there. They will all be there. And you can imagine the looks on the kids faces if he had walked in.”
Yikes. A scheduling error torpedoed the entire plan at the 11th hour.
Falk’s assistant had mistakenly booked the appearance at Richmond High, on the assumption that the Bulls would be in Vancouver the night before, as per NBA regular season regulations.
“A day or two before, they called to apologize,” said Disbrow. “It was an exhibition game, and so they were not arriving until that afternoon. They’d have a shoot-around, eat and then play the Sonics. They couldn’t fit us in.”
The team did send three life-size Jordan posters to Disbrow, each personally signed, and while Disbrow remembers gifting them to his team, one prominent member of the 1990-91 squad has no idea who ever got them.
“It wasn’t me,” says Louis Johnson, the 1991 tournament MVP, and these days co-owner of the Dynamite Basketball Academy. “I wish it was.”
Still, in his day-to-day occupation as a coach, pre-pandemic of course, Johnson is surrounded by young basketball players, and a big spin-off for him from The Last Dance mini-series is the way it has explained the how’s and the why’s of Jordan’s dominance to the latest teenage generation.
“They’re all into LeBron and Steph Curry, and those guys are great players, but they haven’t seen Michael Jordan in any way other than highlights,” says Johnson, 47.
“I can tell them that he is at a completely different level, but because of The Last Dance, they can see it… all of the other things that are connected with it. What made MJ MJ, from his mentality to his attitude.”
Semiahmoo Totems senior boys head coach Ed Lefurgy is a full 10 years younger than Johnson, yet he still trends towards the generation of the Jordan Rules.
And like Johnson, Lefurgy picks up on some of those nuances, so evident in The Last Dance, which seem to be lost on today’s player.
“If they have a competitive bone in their body, they are taking something away from this,” said Lefurgy, the former UFV Cascades player. “I think it’s opening up their eyes to a time when (opposition) players weren’t all friends developing relationships with each other, trying to advance their brands. AAU and a lot of other stuff has taken that away.
“And at what other time in their lives will they have this much focus and time for one thing,” continued Lefurgy about the months of self-isolation being endured by the general populous, including high school students.
And now as The Last Dance nears its finale, Lefurgy finds himself drawing inspiration for the pioneering efforts Disbrow made 30 years ago in almost bringing Jordan to Richmond High.
“I think that so many of the things that Bill did or tried to do, they would be almost unthinkable to try and do now, like trying to reach out to get LeBron James to come,” Lefurgy begins.
“I tried to get Rainier Beach to come up here for a game,” he continues of a failed attempt to bring in the blue-chip Seattle-area high school which has won nine state titles and produced a string of NBA players like Doug Christie, Jamal Crawford and Nate Robinson.
“It’s a tough thing to do, but Bill is the most creative coach and organizer I know,” added Lefurgy. “He is like a breath of fresh air, and just talking with him, you get so many great ideas.”
Although he failed to bring Jordan to town, Disbrow did succeed in bringing in perhaps the two greatest high school coaches in U.S. history, to play his Colts: The late Morgan Wooten’s DeMatha Stags, and Bob Hurley Sr.’s St. Anthony’s Friars.
Only three high school coaches have been inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, and Wooten, and Hurley just happen to be two of them.
And although Jordan was forced to skip his afternoon visit that day at Richmond High, a sell-out crowd of 17,505 filled the Pacific Coliseum and saw the Sonics, with a rookie point guard from Oregon State named Gary Payton, top the Bulls 109-87. Jordan, who admitted the game was not his best performance, scored 17 that night.
Of course, five years later, early in the Vancouver Grizzlies inaugural season, he would deliver one of the best performances of his career, turning Darrick Martin’s ill-advised second-half taunts into a miraculous comeback victory.
Oct. 24, 1990?
It’s a date that for all intents and purpose, is barely a hiccup in the life of one Michael Jeffrey Jordan.
Yet as in-depth as The Last Dance can take you inside the world of MJ and the Bulls, there might not be a better example of how distant and removed our biggest stars have grown from the general public, than the story about the day in 1990 that Michael Jordan almost came to Richmond High.
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