It remains one of the great mysteries, an enigma so enduring that even the combined talents of Poirot, Jonathan Creek and Scooby Doo might fail to even get a sniff of the real truth. Why, in the summer of 1993, did Michael Jordan opt to sacrifice his sublime power on a basketball court, one which was delivering both championships and untold fame, for an alternative life as a journeyman scrub on baseball’s under-card?

He was then at the peak of his talents. The Chicago Bulls had just won a third consecutive NBA title with their shooting guard pulling every string and asserting himself as the Greatest of All Time. There was nothing he could not do, it seemed. Even when we got used to it, he would do something else to surprise and astound.

Jordan had a new game to conquer

But no-one expected the rabbit out of this sack. “I had a plan to play baseball,” Jordan revealed. “That was the dream that my father and I concocted after the first time I won a championship.”

James, his father and mentor, had been murdered. It was the right time. And Jordan announced to a disbelieving world that he was stepping away from the Bulls to try his luck as a batter with the Birmingham Barons, a minor league side in Alabama.

The rationale, and the results, are the subject of a new documentary by film-maker Ron Shelton. In ‘Jordan Rides The Bus’, which premieres on ESPN this week, Shelton explores the Bulls star’s detour amid the grief, sensing a need to recapture his drive – and his spirit – in an entirely different sphere.

He was among players who were still striving to better themselves, each knowing that this was probably the peak of their ascent rather than a step towards the top.

“They had an attitude toward the game that they truly loved,” Jordan reflected. “Because it was just a game, it was a dream that they were fulfilling. I kind of lost that in the realm of what was happening with me and with basketball. I mean, I was on a pedestal for so long that I forgot about the steps to get to that.”

While Jordan was recapturing his lost innocence, the conspiracy theorists questioned his motives. There were rumours that he had been ordered to take a hiatus by NBA Commissioner David Stern as a measure against his expensive gambling habits. Shelton debases that idea, defending his subject against the innuendo and accusations that this was a personal ego trip.

Birmingham, AL was a world away from Chicago

“At a personal level, I’ve always felt that this chapter in Jordan’s life was misunderstood,” said Shelton, who previously directed ‘Bull Durham’. “Instead of being an exercise of his ego, it was quite the opposite. The press and public never allowed him to have that moment, that year away to pursue his own dream. Also, as a former professional baseball player who laboured for several years, grinding up the ladder one bloody notch at a time.”

Jordan never did move up the ladder. We see him struggle at the outset, his veneer of invincibility stripped away. But his work ethic sees him improve gradually, to the point where he achieves the respectability he craves. Not great but average.

“I have a unique appreciation for how difficult this world is,” Shelton declares. “The bus rides, the lack of days off, the daily routine of it all can be brutal. Pitchers are wild, lights are bad, and injuries are a daily occurrence. There’s nothing like this in sports history. The greatest player of all time in one sport submits himself to the gauntlet that mere mortal athletes have to go through daily.”

Unlike others who walked away at the apex only to falter, there is a second coming of Jordan. His curiosity satisfied, he returns to the NBA after a 20-month break, ready to drive the Bulls to three more titles and another chapter in his fabulous story.

What we learn is that the period affected many around Jordan: on the Bulls, his past and current team-mates, his sponsors – and the bus driver. Frustratingly, what is still missing is how it impacted, then and now, on the man at the centre of the storm.

Jordan, as ever, remains a great mystery.

‘Jordan Rides The Bus’ will be shown on ESPN on Wednesday September 8 at 10pm.

Watch the trailer

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