It was 1987 when a 14-year-old Paul Mills waited outside a Houston mall for 12 hours to meet Michael Jordan.
The past four Sundays — over 30 years since — Mills has watched every episode of ESPN’s 10-part documentary about Jordan, “The Last Dance,” with his wife and two daughters. The series ends Sunday night.
“To watch some of that just brings back a flood of memories,” Mills said. “But at the same time, you want other people to see what the pursuit of excellence and what it means to be really focused and driven in order to accomplish something, whatever that may be. But I think Michael kind of personifies the pursuit of passion that a lot of people pursue. It’s not necessarily basketball, but it’s something that people are really driven by. You can see it from his perspective, which gives you an idea about the focus and the pursuit of excellence that’s required in order to be good at whatever you’re gifted at.”
Jordan and that era of the NBA inspired Mills’ passion for the sport, ultimately becoming Oral Roberts’ men’s basketball coach in 2017. Although Mills mentioned Larry Bird and Magic Johnson as part of what made what he believes was the “glory time of basketball,” Jordan was always his favorite player. Mills even admitted that as a teenager he was willing to fight his own friends who argued there was a better basketball player on the planet than Jordan. Today, he just has to smile when his players try to argue that LeBron James or Kobe Bryant was better than Jordan.
“You just realize that, one, they’re not very aware of the bigger (picture), because they’re just growing up in a different era,” Mills said. “You just hope that, eventually, if you’re gonna run around and be super vocal about it, just make sure that you’ve got some research and you actually paid attention.”
Mills’ fandom of Jordan was actually somewhat obsessive. He was a Chicago Bulls fan despite growing up in a city with its own NBA franchise. Mills estimates he had 26 posters of Jordan hung up in his childhood bedroom, with one even stuck to his ceiling so it was the first image he saw every day for motivation. He slept with a Jordan basketball by his side every night.
“I was consumed with Michael Jordan,” Mills said.
Considering Mills’ obsession, it wasn’t a surprise to his mom when he wanted to camp out to meet Jordan. They were already planning on attending the Bulls’ game against the Houston Rockets, which, over 30 years later, Mills still remembers every detail from. Mills rattled off that the Bulls lost by one, but Jordan still scored 44 points and was 14-for-14 from the free-throw line. A fact check proved every stat Mills said was accurate.
“But the Rockets were good that year,” Mills added. “The Bulls were just now emerging.”
The day before the game was when Jordan was scheduled to make an appearance at a shoe store at a local mall. Mills learned of the event from the newspaper, which stated Jordan would arrive at about 2 p.m.
To make sure he was first in line, Mills had his mom drive him to the mall at 2 a.m. with intentions of having to camp outside on the concrete. After about an hour of waiting, Mills realized he was the only one there that early, so he joined his mom back at the car and slept until the sun started to rise.
“Where the mall was wasn’t the safest place in the world, so, fortunately, I was able to sleep in the car,” Mills said. “My mother was a trooper to allow a 14-year-old boy to have that kind of experience, but she knew how much it meant to me and how captivated I think a lot of us kids were with MJ.”
When the mall opened at 9 a.m., Mills was the only one in line at the shoe store. But by 2 p.m., Mills said hundreds, maybe even a thousand people, had shown up.
“When Michael walks out at 2 o’clock, it was utter chaos,” Mills remembered. “It was as if Michael Jackson had entered the building. Everybody began to swarm him, and he had security around him and so people weren’t able to get to him, but it caused quite a commotion just from him emerging from behind closed doors. But by the time the police and security got everybody else assembled, I was no longer first, and, in fact, I was probably several hundred back.”
The only other person who had been outside the shoe store as long as Mills was a security guard, who, before Jordan started the meet-and-greet, waded through the crowd and found Mills to escort him back to the front of the line.
“So I was first and was able to shake MJ’s hand, meet him,” Mills said. “Michael was very kind to a 14-year-old and said, ‘I heard you were first in line. How long have you been playing basketball?’ and gave me my autograph, and I was able to walk down the stairs to the parking lot in awe of the fact that not only was I able to talk to Michael Jordan, but he was kind enough to even inquire about my own situation.”
Mills said waiting for 12 hours was “absolutely” worth what was such a monumental moment that it had him speechless during the car ride home.
“Michael Jordan was such, not only an American icon, but he was such a global icon, and especially for kids who grew up in inner cities,” Mills said. “I thought that Michael’s impact, not only on basketball, but on culture, was revolutionary.”
Gallery: The time Michael Jordan played at the Mabee Center in 1982