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How Did NBA Legend Michael Jordan's Father James Die?
Following James Jordan's murder, the NBA great briefly retired and pursued a career in baseball, a sport his father taught him to love.
The year 1993 was a big one for NBA great Michael Jordan. It marked his third-straight year that he was named NBA Finals MVP, a first in the league's history.
But it was also a time of immense grief for the Chicago Bulls superstar. His father and biggest supporter, James Jordan Sr., was brutally murdered on July 23, 1993, a death that led to Michael's brief retirement, which spanned from October 1993 to February 1994.
James' death would irrevocably change his son's life, altering his career path and the way Michael carried himself for the rest of his years. As Michael told the New York Times in 1994, "You never know, someone might be following you. I'm very aware of that. It's second nature now."
What happened to James Jordan Sr.?
James had been driving home from a friend's funeral in the early morning hours of July 23, 1993, when he decided to pull over for a nap in his red Lexus, according to the Chicago Tribune. It was there on a highway in Lumberton, North Carolina around 2 a.m. that Daniel Andre Green and Larry Martin Demery, both 18, noticed their target. They later claimed they only wanted to steal James' car, but ended up fatally shooting him.
The teens told investigators that they had planned to tie James up and leave him on the side of the road, taking his expensive car — a gift from his son, Michael — and other belongings in the process. Instead, Green shot the 56-year-old square in the chest, killing him.
"He awakened, and when he awakened the guy with the gun got scared and shot him," said Robeson County Sheriff Hubert Stone at the teens' arraignment in August of 1993, according to the Washington Post.
And while Michael had achieved fame worldwide by this point, with his father often joining him at games, Green and Demery were unaware that they had killed the star's father. They only learned the victim's identity after they had fled the scene and more closely examined what they'd stolen, including James' wallet containing his driver's license.
"I believe we killed Michael Jordan's dad," Green said, according to Robeson County District Atty. Johnson Britt's opening statements at trial, the Chicago Tribune reported.
They then took James' body to a nearby waste treatment plant with the intention of dumping it in a vat that would dissolve the remains. But the facility was locked, so they instead dumped James' body in a swamp in South Carolina, Britt alleged.
The Lexus was found abandoned in Fayetteville, N.C. on August 5, at which point the Jordan family realized something bad had happened to the patriarch. According to the Los Angeles Times, the family hadn't filed a police report at that point because James was often away on extended business trips.
Where was James Jordan Sr. found dead?
On August 3, fisherman Hal Locklear found James' decomposing remains in what was known as Gum Swamp, a marshy wetland in South Carolina where locals catch catfish. The remains would not be positively identified as James until August 13.
“(The body) was just something I walked upon,” Locklear said to the L.A. Times. “I was walking the banks for 30 minutes before I found anything. ... It’s dense right there. You couldn’t see it from the bridge. It probably would have taken a fisherman to find it. There is a swimming hole up the road from where I found it.”
Ten days after that, James was identified by dental records using impressions of his jaw and hands since the body had already been cremated, the Associated Press reported.
James' dental records were unique in that he had extensive work done to repair his teeth, which would've cost more than the average South Carolina citizen could afford. So when Marlboro County Coroner Tim Brown saw news coverage about James' disappearance, "I thought, 'Hell, it could be the dental work, he could be one who could afford it,'" according to the Washington Post.
“What happened to Mr. Jordan was the kind of random violence that all the public are concerned and afraid of,” said Jim Coman, director of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigations, the Chicago Sun Times reported.
James was laid to rest on August 15, 1993. Michael delivered a 15-minute eulogy at the funeral, which was attended by family, as well as Chicago Bulls teammate B.J. Armstrong and Dean Smith, Michael's coach at the University of North Carolina.
"Dad is no longer with us," read a message from James' wife and her children that was in the funeral program, according to the Washington Post. "But the lessons which he taught us will remain with us forever and they will give us the strength to move forward with a renewed sense of purpose in our lives."
How were Larry Martin Demery and Daniel Andre Green caught?
Around the same time that James was buried in a plot near his mother and father, police apprehended Green and Demery, thanks to the teens making traceable calls on James' car phone. On August 16, the teens were charged with first-degree murder and armed robbery and held without bail, per the Sun Times.
Though Green and Demery surrendered to police, the FBI and North Carolina State Bureau of Investigations were able to determine their whereabouts through James' phone, the Sun Times reported.
“One of the things that helped us the most was the car phone,” Capt. Art Binder of the Cumberland County (N.C.) Sheriff’s Department said. “They took (the phone), they made telephone calls, and we traced them.”
At the arraignment, it was further revealed that Green had led police to the site where they had buried Michael's 1986 All-Star Game ring, worn by James at the time of his death, the Washington Post reported. Green also made a video of himself rapping while wearing the ring and a gold watch, both gifts from Michael to James, according to the AP.
Demery pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, armed robbery, and conspiracy to commit robbery in 1996, and was sentenced to life in prison, according to previous Oxygen.com reporting. He also agreed to testify against Green.
Green, meanwhile, took his case to court, with his defense team arguing that Demery was responsible for the murder and burglary, the Chicago Tribune reported. It was only after Demery showed up at Green's home "all shook up," that Green agreed to help him dispose of the body, the defense argued.
But Demery testified that Green was the one who pulled the trigger, fatally shooting James, who woke up right as the men were about to rob him.
"No sooner than the words were out of his mouth than Daniel shot him. I couldn't believe he had done it. There had never been any discussion of hurting this man to get what we wanted," Demery testified, according to the Greensboro News and Record.
Green was found guilty of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and conspiracy to commit robbery, and sentenced to life in prison in January of 1996.
By the time Green and Demery were locked behind bars, their fates having been decided by the courts, Michael was back to playing basketball after a brief stint on the minor league baseball fields.
Michael said that his father thought he'd be a good baseball player, striking it big like Black trailblazers Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders.
"He said, 'You've got the skills.' He thought I had proved everything I could in basketball, and that I might want to give baseball a shot," Michael told the NY Times. "I told him, 'No, I haven't done everything. I haven't won a championship.' Then I won it, and we talked about baseball on occasion, and then we won two more championships. And then he was killed."
In the years since the murder, Michael has said very little about his father's killers. Instead, he's focused on the impact that the death has had on his career, sharing that James was his "rock" in the 2020 docuseries, The Last Dance.