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Did UCLA really turn down Michael Jordan?

Yahoo! Sports logo Yahoo! Sports 3/2/2021 Jeff Eisenberg

Eleven minutes into ESPN’s broadcast of last month’s UCLA-Arizona game, college basketball’s most tangent-prone analyst steered the conversation in an unexpected direction.

Bill Walton told an outrageous tale of his alma mater declining to recruit the greatest player who ever lived.

Michael Jordan wanted to play for UCLA, Walton insisted, but UCLA told him, “Nah.” 

When pressed by play-by-play man Dave Pasch, Walton reiterated that Jordan preferred the Bruins to home-state North Carolina until former UCLA coach Larry Farmer said, “There’s no reason for you to come here. We don’t have space for you.”

While it’s easy to dismiss Walton’s story as the product of a peyote dream, some quick research reveals there might be some truth to it. Google “Michael Jordan” and “UCLA,” and one of the first links that pops up is the transcript of a 1992 interview the Chicago Bulls legend did with Playboy magazine.

During the interview, biographer Mark Vancil asks if North Carolina was Jordan’s first choice. Responds Jordan, “I always wanted to go to UCLA. That was my dream school.”

“When I was growing up, they were a great team,” Jordan continues. “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, John Wooden. But I never got recruited by UCLA.”

So could it be that Walton was … right? Or at least partially right? 

The path to uncovering the truth begins with a conversation with the man who Walton threw under the bus.

Did UCLA pass on Michael Jordan?

On a quiet Thursday night in February, Larry Farmer’s phone suddenly began buzzing nonstop.

Friends bombarded the ex-UCLA basketball coach with texts about Walton’s dubious account of Jordan’s recruitment

“I was like, ‘What? What is Bill talking about?’ ” Farmer told Yahoo Sports. “You know I love Bill, but that prompted a text message. I told Bill, ‘I get blamed for enough that didn’t go right at UCLA. Don’t put Michael on me!’ ”

In March 1979, when Jordan was still an anonymous sophomore on the JV team at Laney High School in Wilmington, North Carolina, UCLA was in the midst of a leadership crisis. Larry Brown became the third coach in four years to try to prove he was up to the challenge of following John Wooden. Brown retained Farmer as an assistant coach to maintain a link to the Wooden era on his staff.

An unranked UCLA team made an improbable run to the 1980 national title game to culminate Brown’s debut season. The Bruins then graduated all-conference forward Kiki Vandeweghe and several other key frontcourt pieces and hoped to replace them with a heralded 1980 recruit, but 6-foot-9 Russell Cross chose to stay in the Midwest and attend Purdue.

As a result, filling its void at center was UCLA’s top priority for Jordan’s 1981 recruiting class. Brown and his staff expended much of their time and budget crisscrossing America in pursuit of highly touted 7-footers Patrick Ewing (Georgetown), Greg Dreiling (Wichita State) and Stuart Gray (UCLA).

UCLA was content to fill out the rest of its 1981 class with a trio of promising Los Angeles-area players. McDonald’s All-American wing Nigel Miguel, power forward Gary Maloncon and center Brad Wright all signed with the Bruins.

The way Farmer remembers it, Jordan was never on UCLA’s radar. Farmer doesn’t even recall learning Jordan’s name until the future Chicago Bulls legend broke into North Carolina’s starting five as a freshman and flashed glimpses of otherworldly talent.

“Based on what we saw of Michael as a freshman at North Carolina, had we known about Michael in high school, there is no doubt we would have been in his home and we’d have tried to get him to campus,” Farmer said. “I can guaran-damn-tee you we would not have told him no.”

UCLA certainly had no reason to be aware of Jordan until at least the summer of 1980 when his spectacular performance at the prestigious Five-Star Camp garnered his first national exposure. North Carolina had been the only major program recruiting Jordan before then. In the aftermath, South Carolina, Duke and N.C. State all joined the fray.

Brown’s recollections of Jordan’s recruitment echo those of Farmer. While being careful to avoid directly contradicting Walton, Brown pointed out how hard it would have been to wrest Jordan away from North Carolina at the height of the Dean Smith era. Brown hinted that UCLA never had any reason to believe it had a chance with Jordan and certainly never turned him away.

“I would never doubt Bill,” Brown told Yahoo Sports. “I have unbelievable respect for him. But that’s not quite how I remember it.”

Dean Smith et al. standing in front of a crowd: Michael Jordan blossomed under Dean Smith's tutelage at North Carolina. Would things have turned out differently for him had he gone to UCLA? (Grant Halverson/Getty Images) © Provided by Yahoo! Sports Michael Jordan blossomed under Dean Smith's tutelage at North Carolina. Would things have turned out differently for him had he gone to UCLA? (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

'He was Carolina through and through'

Based on the recollections of Farmer and Brown, it appears that Walton’s account of UCLA’s rejection of Jordan is at best embellished. Whether Jordan would have considered UCLA had the Bruins recruited him remains far more murky.

One of the luxuries that UCLA enjoyed in those days was that its name carried a lot of clout nationally. In 1981, the Bruins were not far removed from a stretch of 10 national championships in 12 years, from the NCAA tournament being known as the UCLA Invitational.

“If we called a kid and said UCLA was interested, we were automatically in his top five and probably in his top three,” Farmer recalled. “That would guarantee us an in-home visit and probably a campus visit.”

N.C. State’s David Thompson was famously Jordan’s favorite player as a kid, but there is another high-flying wing that Jordan also looked up to during that era. Jordan loved watching UCLA’s Marques Johnson, a member of Wooden’s final championship team and college basketball’s national player of the year in 1977.

In a 1983 Sports Illustrated photo, Jordan poses in his North Carolina dorm room with an Adidas poster of Johnson displayed behind him. Jordan references the same “Johnson’s Law” poster in archival footage included last summer in the fifth episode of ESPN’s "The Last Dance."

“I like the Lakers, I like Marques Johnson and I like Adidas,” Jordan says, gesturing at his dorm room wall.

Nigel Miguel, the lone wing UCLA recruited in Jordan’s class, played and roomed with Jordan in 1981 at the McDonald’s All-American game and several other all-star games. Miguel describes Jordan as “a big UCLA fan” who looked up to Johnson and rooted for the 1980 Bruins on their run to the national title game.

While Jordan had love for UCLA, Miguel says his heart bled Tar Heel blue.

“He was Carolina through and through,” Miguel told Yahoo Sports. “There was never any question he was going to go to Carolina.”

Years later, as Jordan was filming "Space Jam" in the summer of 1995, he again displayed his affinity for UCLA. With NBA players in a labor standoff with the league, Jordan called the UCLA basketball office and invited the reigning national champion Bruins to play pickup games with him inside a newly constructed inflatable dome on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank.

When Jordan was able to work out with his NBA peers again, the only UCLA player he asked to come back was a little-known forward who averaged barely 2 points per game the previous season. Marques Johnson’s eldest son had already shed more than 40 pounds that offseason and had a special connection with Jordan because of his father.

“The chance to be on that court and to experience the behind-the-scenes stuff, it was life-changing for me,” Kris Johnson said.

The Big Redhead's response

While Jordan never wore UCLA colors, Farmer did briefly coach him during his college career. It happened in 1983 when Jordan tried out for the U.S. Pan-American team and Farmer served as an assistant coach at the Trials.

On the last night of tryouts, Farmer coached Jordan’s team in a scrimmage. After a flurry of early baskets, Jordan signaled to the bench that he was tired, but Farmer pretended he didn’t see it in hopes of milking a little more out of the North Carolina star.

“I’m like, 'I’ve got to get another bucket or two from him before I take him out,'” Farmer recalled. “Sure enough, we come down to the offensive end and he hits another shot.”

That was Farmer’s first experience around Jordan in person. He swears he had no idea that Jordan had an early affinity for UCLA, nor did he or anyone else in Westwood decide there wasn’t space on the roster for the greatest of all time.

Soon after Farmer sent his text to Walton the night of the UCLA-Arizona game, he received a response from the Big Redhead himself.

“I’ll get it straight,” Farmer says Walton texted.

Responded Farmer, “No worries, Bill. You know I love you.”

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