VHF radio station 71 crackled as Capt. Rick Cowell announced, “A boat is turning into the inlet and will be arriving at the Big Rock Landing scales in fifteen minutes.” For once, no boat name was needed. The police had been guarding the docks day and night, barricades were placed in front of the landing, and for days Morehead City, North Carolina (population 10,000), had been buzzing. Now it was time to see His Airness, the Greatest of All Time, Michael Jordan.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Catch 23, an 80-foot Viking in a Carolina blue wrap, backed into Big Rock Landing in downtown Morehead City, on the second afternoon of the 62nd Annual Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament. The charity-based tournament, which runs through Saturday, is one of the premier marlin tournaments in the world, with 205 boats vying for a purse of more than $3 million. But the former UNC phenom and Chicago Bulls legend was still the main attraction.
Front doors flung open as residents streamed to the Morehead City waterfront, which had been roped off to encourage social distancing. The crowd was smeared in Carolina blue, Chicago Bulls red and black, and Calcutta yellow, and some people took to the rooftops of surrounding restaurants to get a glimpse of the six-time NBA champ.
“Lord, have mercy, I have never seen anything like it,” said Capt. Dale Britt, a Big Rock board member and former president who has captained a tournament boat for thirty straight years.
With every hoist of the 442-pound blue marlin, landed by Catch 23 angler Danny Young, and puff of Jordan’s ever-present cigar, the crowd went bonkers. Shouts of “Go Heels” erupted, probably a first at a fish weigh-in, as Jordan, whose presence at the tournament was considered top-secret by city officials, beamed.
The coronavirus pandemic forced organizers to alter the tournament experience, including heavy investments in live streaming. But the payoff was worldwide as 80,000 viewers from five countries tuned in to see Jordan and the Catch 23 on the Big Rock live stream.
“It’s been a while since I have been to Morehead City,” Jordan said. “It’s only about 100 miles from [where I grew up in] Wilmington. It’s always great to be back.”
Jordan’s presence at such a charity-oriented event was apropos: The Jordan Brand last week announced a ten-year, $100 million initiative to support social justice and increased access to education. The Big Rock Foundation has given more than $6 million to help build domestic violence centers, support local schools, and improve healthcare clinics, among other donations.
Jordan thanked the crowd for supporting the tournament, and at one point donned a Big Rock hat straight off of tournament employee and University of South Carolina rising senior Parker Rudolph’s head, drawing perhaps the largest cheer of the afternoon. “I have been around the tournament for a while, and there has never been that kind of energy before,” Rudolph said.
Of course, not everyone in the crowd was there to see the NBA legend. As Jordan stepped back onto the Catch 23, one woman looked at her two young children. “They have no idea who that is,” she said with a laugh to the person cheering beside her. “They just want to see a big fish.”