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In 1975, a twelve-year-old Michael Jordan pitched two Little League no-hitters on his way to winning a state championship. He was a young star, already with dreams of a major league career. But the next season, Jordan was bumped up to a higher age group (thirteen- to fifteen-year-olds), which played on a larger diamond that neutralized his arm. His new coach, Dick Neher, benched him. But Jordan found ways to keep himself occupied. Here, a story—from Roland Lazenby's new biography, Michael Jordan: The Life—about the hazards of calling a young Michael Jordan a name he didn't like.

Because he wasn’t playing much, Jordan turned to amusing himself and others. “He was a loosey-goosey guy,” Neher said. “He kept all the guys loose.” Always a joker, the young Jordan stepped up the pace of his antics, putting shaving cream in his teammates’ batting helmets, tapping people on the shoulder and hiding, or any other prank he could dream up. Jordan’s old friend David Bridgers was on the team as well. “He was Mike’s number one fan,” Neher recalled. “They called him the white Michael Jordan. He and Mike were the best of friends, but they’d get in a physical fight nearly every practice. They were both so competitive; they’d pick on each other. And Bridgers was a good athlete.”

Neher looked up one day at batting practice to find Bridgers on top of Jordan, whaling away. Jordan, who had been catching, began talking trash as Bridgers whiffed on some pitches. He told Bridgers that if he tried swinging at the ball with his big ears he might actually have a chance of getting a hit. “Mike was lying on the ground, with all his equipment on, and David was on top of him just pounding away on the mask,” Neher recalled. “Like hockey players. They used to get into it all the time.”

Neher separated the two. He recalled the tears rolling down Bridgers’s face. When the coach heard what had caused the brouhaha, he laughed and asked Jordan if he’d looked in a mirror lately. Jordan’s own unusual ears had been the subject of [his older brother] Larry’s taunts during their backyard battles. Neher had nicknames for all his players. So he nicknamed Jordan “Rabbit” in honor of the jug handles on the side of his head, and the anger was apparently diffused.

“The kids liked that,” the coach said. “We were messing around with Mike. Mike’s ears lay real close to his head, just like a rabbit. So we all were standing around one day trying to decide, ‘Why don’t we call him Rabbit?’ Those ears lay real close. Everybody laughed. Mike was fine with it. When they were in Chicago, [his father] James told the reporters that Mike was nicknamed Rabbit because he was so fast. That didn’t have nothing to do with it.”

Jordan did get into the lineup in a big game that first year. Two of the team’s catchers couldn’t play when Neher’s undefeated team was facing another undefeated club sponsored by Mutual of Omaha. Jordan talked the coach into letting him catch, despite the fact that his throws from behind the plate could only reach second base on the hop. “Mike said, ‘Coach, I’ll catch.’ He was so little and skinny, but he had huge hands,” Neher recalled. “I said, ‘Come on, Rabbit, there ain’t no way. You can’t get the ball to second base. That’s 128 feet down to that bag.’ He said, ‘Coach, I’ll do it.’ That’s the kind of kid he was.” 

One of Neher’s assistant coaches suggested they teach Jordan how to “skip hop” the ball accurately to second base on the bounce. The assistant coach told Jordan to throw the ball tight, just over the pitcher’s head. Jordan picked up the technique right away. He delivered the ball low on the bounce, right where the second baseman could put a tag on a sliding runner. 

Neher recalled warm-ups before the big game that day: “We were taking infield, and the Mutual players were all standing by the fence watching. When they saw Jordan throw on the bounce, they started laughing. They went crazy and started razzing him, ‘Oh, look at that spaghetti arm. We’re gonna run on you tonight, Mr. Spaghetti Arm.’ Mike flipped up his catcher’s mask and looked at them. He grinned and said, ‘You run and I will gun.’ We all laughed. That was funny. In the second inning, they sent a man and Mike threw him out. They sent three or four. Mike threw ’em out, and they quit running. We laughed about that. After the game, Mike said, ‘I told you I could do it.’ ”

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