It was impossible to look at James Jordan and not smile–inwardly at the very least. Here was the fellow who had won the lottery, the working stiff who would never have to work another day in his life. Except for one thing: unlike most lottery winners, James Jordan could claim to have in some way earned his good fortune. He had hit the genetic lottery, fathering a child who could one day become the world’s greatest athlete. And praise whatever god one holds dear, it came to pass. He not only had watched it happen but made it happen–if one believes the later testimony of the son himself. He certainly helped establish a solid foundation that could be built upon.

The deepest incentives that drive a person are open to interpretation, and the more the subject insists on a single explanation the better off everyone else usually is to look elsewhere. But in the relationship between Michael Jordan and his father there seemed to be a real give-and-take, a cause and effect. It wasn’t that Jordan became a great athlete because his father demanded it (as is the case all too often; see last week’s Sports Illustrated cover story on tennis player Mary Pierce), and it wasn’t that he made his greatness a present to his father, as a way of granting recognition (remember Britt Burns’s performance while his father was dying). It seemed simply that Michael Jordan became a great athlete because, well, that’s what he was, and his parents had worked to give all their children the confidence and the self-esteem to pursue their true natures.

James Jordan had the stooped shoulders and the humble bearing of a father who had busted his ass to make do for his family. But he also had the placid, accepting smile of someone who had been unchanged by the struggle, and who had found his reward. He could be seen on the fringes of the media, waiting for Michael to finish up, wearing that bemused smile on his face. He had dreamed the dream all fathers dream–that maybe this child will be the one to make our lives comfortable, to make the world somehow a better place–but he didn’t pursue it, he merely dreamed it, and damn if it didn’t come true. Not because he willed it to happen, but because he did a good job raising his children and, it seemed, it was meant to be. “That’s my boy,” his smile seemed to say, but there was no pride of ownership to it. He seemed quite content that Michael belonged not to him but to everyone.

That contentment seems, in large part, to have given Michael his confidence, his ease with the media and his early willingness– later an expectation–to take the ball when the game mattered. That contentment enabled James Jordan to behave in much the same way when he stepped into the spotlight during the playoffs last spring. Michael came under attack for late-night gambling in Atlantic City during the series with the New York Knicks, and James said the trip had been his idea–as any good father would. When Michael stopped talking to the media, inflaming speculation about his gambling habits, James spoke for him, and he did so with a rare candor. Asked if Michael had a gambling problem, James said no, he has a competition problem; if he didn’t, you all wouldn’t be writing about him. This was more incisive and insightful than anything written or said by the sports reporters covering the Bulls and the playoffs, and all the more notable because they get paid to keep a cool, objective distance from their subject while James, being a father, is supposed to be blinded by his loyalty and unused to the attention. He stepped into the spotlight, said his piece, and stepped out. How many fathers are capable of such on behalf of their children?

Aside from the odd cameo appearance in an advertisement, this was one of the few times James Jordan sought the limelight. He didn’t seek to share his son’s fame. What self-respecting father does? Fame hadn’t been for him, but he had done his job–done it well–and it was therefore for his son. And while he wanted to be there to share the experiences, he never horned in. He was there, sitting next to Michael, when Michael tearfully embraced the NBA championship trophy in 1991. But he appeared in few of the photographs that went out over the wires that night. Such a skill he had for drifting into the background, for allowing his son the maximum independence. Yet there seemed no doubt that the solid values he instilled were part and parcel of what made Michael Jordan great.

Of course, we’re on shaky ground here, attributing athletic greatness to family relationships. The way any family works is a messy, complicated business. But the rich and the famous and the great are there for us to objectify and hang our meanings on, for us to use in an attempt to make sense of life, and the Jordan family seemed to live up to all the weight and speculation we placed upon them. That’s in large part why James Jordan’s death was so upsetting: not only did it shatter a seemingly perfect family, we seemed in some way implicated.

Early on, some sought to make sense of the murder by uniting it with Michael’s gambling ties. Michael is wrong to blame the media for that. That speculation, crass and callous as it was, appeared in equal measure in the media and in everyday conversations. More poignant, and more upsetting, was what most of us were thinking: that because of Michael’s fame and riches, because of the importance we placed upon him, he was the target–if not the actual victim–of a kidnapping. It is the unspoken fear of all in the limelight. In the past, athletes have been for the most part spared because the relatively small amount of money they made was not worth the risk. If one was going to kidnap someone, better it be a newspaper heiress than an athlete’s daughter. Now, however, with the increased money across the board and around the world for athletes, and with their increased exposure, they are probably most at risk–an unwelcome reminder that perhaps everyone needed after all went well at Barcelona. For a couple of days, those of us prone to worry remembered what the 1972 Munich Olympics had been like, or imagined what a horror the Lindbergh kidnapping had been.

Was it only me, or did I detect an almost tactile sense of public relief when it was found James Jordan’s murder was a “random” killing? It didn’t diminish what most of us felt, but it did give us a feeling of release: not only was Michael not personally involved but neither were we. It could have happened to anyone; it happened to a man with a benign smile and a sense of accomplishment based not on money so much as on pride, on doing a human’s most difficult duty–raising a child–and doing it well. James Jordan had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and had run afoul of the persons who prowl every street of the nation, every corner of the world.

But what relief is there to be gained in a murder being unrelated to any larger conspiracy, in being, simply, senseless? A man was killed for the car he was driving and the money and valuables he had in his possession. It happens every day. But how does any father–Michael Jordan included– explain such a thing to his children?