The CEO who beat Michael Jordan one-on-one, and how he did it
In 2003, John Rogers, a former Princeton guard, legit took down His Airness
Michael Jordan’s days of victimizing the Gary Paytons, George Karls and Reggie Millers were over.
So, in 2003, just a few months after his tenure with the Washington Wizards had come to an end, Jordan spent time laying waste to a bunch of old heads who had dropped $15,000 each to attend the Michael Jordan Senior Flight School camp in Las Vegas.
The campers brought a wide array of experience: the basketball novices who received the trip as gifts, the ballers who were proud of their top dawg status in their local rec leagues and the former college players who thought they could still bring it.
It didn’t matter to Jordan, who each year spent a session during the camp taking on volunteers in a game of one-on-one, game to three. If you were bold enough to raise your hand to step on the court to play him, it was his intent to treat you to a quick and complete embarrassment.
As the session came to a close on this day, Jordan requested one last victim after having already destroyed more than 20 campers.
John Rogers, attending his third straight camp, sheepishly raised his hand. Jordan called him to center court.
The tale of the tape:
Jordan was 40, a 6-foot-6, six-time NBA champion, five-time NBA MVP and 14-time NBA All-Star with a career 30.1 points per game scoring average. As a basketball player, Jordan is considered by many to be the greatest of all time.
Rogers was 45, a 6-foot former Princeton point guard who averaged 3.5 points in the 23 games he played in during his college career. As a businessman, Rogers, the founder and CEO of Ariel Investments (often described as the largest minority-owned investment firm), is considered to be one of the nation’s leading financial executives.
This wasn’t the first time Rogers competed against Jordan. When Jordan was considering a return to basketball in 2001 following his retirement in 1998, Rogers was one of the local players invited to play in the pickup games that helped Jordan build his stamina.
“I was there for about a half-dozen games, but eventually got cut when some of the top college players who were finishing their seasons came home,” Rogers said. “I got switched off on Michael from time to time during those games, and I remember he was going up for a shot once and I thought for sure I was going to block it. I whiffed.”
Rogers would get his revenge two years later.
From Isiah Thomas to Maurice Cheeks to Tim Hardaway, the city of Chicago has produced a long list of talented basketball players. You won’t find Rogers on any of those lists, but he played against many of those greats.
A scoring point guard in high school at the University of Laboratory Schools, Rogers had interest from a few Division III programs as a senior in 1976. But his classroom brilliance had him eyeing Ivy League schools. And on each campus visit, he made sure to meet with the school’s basketball coach.
At Penn, that was future Hall of Fame coach Chuck Daly. “Spent an hour with him,” Rogers recalled. “You could tell Chuck Daly was not interested in me at all.” But Rogers’ visit to Princeton left a different impression. He came away impressed by the school’s history, which includes Bill Bradley going on to a Hall of Fame career with the New York Knicks and Armond Hill becoming a first-round pick by the Atlanta Hawks that year.
“The people at Princeton were kind to me,” Rogers said. “It felt like a really special place with a great history of basketball excellence.”
Rogers was one of nine recruits entering Princeton in 1976, but soon realized there were only four guys on the freshman team who were expected to reach the varsity squad — and he wasn’t one of them. Rogers, however, got lucky when an extra varsity spot opened after a player left school. Rogers, having played his way from the seventh man to the starting point guard by the end of his freshman season, earned the varsity spot as a sophomore.
He played a total of just seven minutes in four games for Princeton as a sophomore, scoring two points. His college coach, the legendary Pete Carril, was harsh. “In a 5-on-5 game, Rogers is legally blind,” Carril said of Rogers. “He has no vision, and I can’t teach vision. So he can’t play here.”
Despite that rather harsh assessment, Carril, who rarely passed on compliments, did admire one quality in Rogers’ game.
“He said I was a good one-on-one player,” Rogers said. “Because I was good at driving and making tricky shots with either hand.”
As Jordan checked the ball to the bespectacled and slightly balding Rogers at the start of their 2003 game, he attempted to get inside his opponent’s head.
“Don’t be mad at me, I’m just good,” Jordan said.
Jordan hitched up the right side of his shorts as he dropped in a defensive stance.
“Y’all think I had this camp just so you can beat me?” he said.
Jordan had yet to complete that sentence as Rogers took two power dribbles to his right and drove in for a double-clutch layup as Jordan challenged.
“It went in and I said, ‘Oh, this is a nice feeling,’ ” Rogers said. “I didn’t want to embarrass myself, I didn’t want to shoot an airball. I thought going in it would be great to make one basket, so I’m thrilled.”
Campers roared. Jordan, known to let campers score a bucket before crushing them, just smiled. Rogers, walking toward the 3-point line with a one-point lead, offered one of those “nice try, kid” pats to Jordan’s stomach.
“That’s just something that I always do,” Rogers said. “Just a habit.”
The game is make-it, take-it, so Rogers got the ball again and faked as if to launch a jumper, then took two power dribbles to his left before launching his body into Jordan’s chest. This created enough separation for him to let fly a left-handed circus shot that kissed off the glass.
Rogers 2, Jordan 0.
Few people had high expectations for Rogers as a basketball player when he entered Princeton, but toward the end of his junior year, he demonstrated a few flashes of talent. He scored 14 points against Yale and a career-high 20 against Brown.
It was startling to Carril.
“A reporter from a local paper asked [Carril] about my play,” Rogers recalled. “And he told him, ‘If Johnny Rogers could pass or dribble a little bit, he could have been playing a long time ago.’ ”
Rogers started only three games as a junior (and played in five games total), but he was named captain of the Princeton team as a senior. That season, the Tigers would go on to be the co-champions of the Ivy League before missing the NCAA tournament by losing a one-game playoff game to Penn 50-49.
“He was the guy who would take charges and dive for loose balls,” said Craig Robinson, the two-time Ivy League Player of the Year who played a season with Rogers. “His hustle allowed him to become our captain.”
Although Rogers had one clear career desire at Princeton — “I told the coaches that I wanted to be a basketball coach when I graduated,” Rogers said — three years after graduating, Rogers founded Ariel Capital Management (now Ariel Investments), a Chicago-based company that manages portfolios worth more than $10 billion. Rogers was recognized in the book The World’s 99 Greatest Investors in 2014, alongside the likes of Warren Buffett and Peter Lynch. He has served on the boards of McDonald’s, Nike and The New York Times, and served as the co-chair of the Presidential Inaugural Committee after the election of his longtime friend, President Barack Obama.
After launching his business, Rogers also found ways to maintain his love for basketball. Along with Robinson and other former Princeton players, he formed a squad that played in rec leagues throughout Chicago and beat teams that boasted talented players, including Juwan Howard and Michael Finley. That squad later recruited Arne Duncan (the former Harvard standout who was later appointed the secretary of education by Obama) into the fold and taught him the Princeton offense. Their 3-on-3 teams, meanwhile, went on to win several regional, national and world 3-on-3 basketball titles.
“When we played 3-on-3 tournaments, I’d be eating a cheeseburger while John would be scouting opponents and the courts we’d be playing on,” said Kit Mueller, a two-time Ivy League Player of the Year (1990, 1991) who is the second all-time leading scorer in Princeton history.
“He’s addicted to basketball and addicted to winning,” Mueller said. “It consumes him to find every little thing that would give him an edge.”
Up 2-0 with a chance to win the game, Rogers drove to his right again against Jordan, who was still playing soft defensively. But Rogers missed the clear look.
Years later, Rogers is still upset that he didn’t pitch a shutout.
“It’s a shot I normally make,” Rogers said. “The ball just spun out.”
Jordan, finally with the ball, teased Rogers for wearing Adidas just before launching his first shot from beyond the 3-point line.
Jordan’s second shot beyond the arc was also good. Rogers, who assumed the shots beyond the arc were worth two points each, thought the game was over and began to walk away. But Jordan called him back.
It was 2-2.
The game continued with the two trading misses. Finally, Rogers got the ball back with another shot at glory.
“I’m thinking I’m going to see where he is defensively, and follow my instincts,” Rogers said. “I thought about shooting a jump shot, but decided to drive to the basket.”
Rogers took two dribbles to his left and, again, drove into Jordan’s body before launching a prayer.
“I can still remember watching the ball go up as I was falling out of bounds,” Rogers said. “I can hear him say, ‘Oh, no’ before the ball went in.
“He knew that was one of my patented shots.”
The two embraced as the crowd — which included actor/comedian Damon Wayans (who played a Senior Flight School camper who got zipped by Michael Jordan in a 2004 episode of the My Wife and Kids TV show a year later) — roared in approval. Rogers had earned everyone’s respect.
“Take that picture down,” Wayans said, pointing toward the wall at an image of Jordan, “and put up Rogers right there.”
With the game over, Rogers faced a more pressing matter: securing the footage.
“I asked for it immediately, and it seemed like it took forever,” Rogers said. “I was worried it would get lost. I kept bugging the camp and finally, maybe two months later, they sent me the tape.”
With the tape in hand, Rogers dubbed copies for his closest friends, who now had visual proof of the game he had told them about.
“He was pretty proud of it,” said Mueller, one of the recipients. “And I don’t blame him — he beat Michael Jordan!”
Robinson, the brother of former first lady Michelle Obama and current vice president of player development with the Knicks, was also eager to see video proof.
“When you hear him say, ‘I beat Michael Jordan one-on-one,’ you’re thinking Michael’s just messing around,” Robinson said. “You see the tape, and see it’s legit. …
“Is he a legend for doing that? Absolutely. It’s something few people can say they’ve ever accomplished. Do something like that today, and it would go viral.”
Rogers was walking down the street last year in Chicago when a random man stopped him. “You’re that guy,” he said. “I recognize you.”
Similar reactions have come during stays at hotels he frequents. “They would happen to come across it on YouTube,” Rogers said. “They would tell me, ‘I had no idea.’ ”
The video is out there. The Wall Street Journal got a copy of it from Rogers and posted an edited version in 2008.
“It’s awkward at times because I’m a low-key kind of guy,” Rogers said. “I go on the road and do a lot of speeches, and the person who introduces me will invariably bring it up as kind of a lighthearted point of my resume.”
Rogers, 62, has had a lot of sports highlights in his life. He has played basketball multiple times with President Obama (Rogers has known the former president since the 1990s), beat 176 competitors at the Warren Buffett-sponsored NetJet poker tournament, and is now working with USA Basketball as it introduces 3-on-3 basketball to the Olympics (several former Princeton players were scheduled to represent the USA in the 2020 Games in Tokyo).
So where does the victory over Jordan rank in all of his accomplishments?
“Playing Jordan is right up there,” Rogers said. “But had I never made the basketball team at Princeton, I never would have had a chance to play for Coach Carril and none of what followed — the 3-on-3 tournaments, the Jordan camp, the friendships I made through basketball — would have ever happened.”
Rogers, who is five years removed from basketball after having hip replacement surgery, is a realist when it comes to his game against Jordan: that day he was more lucky than good.
“We all know that if I had played him 100 times, he would have beat me the next 100 times,” Rogers said. “But it was a memorable moment that I’ll always cherish.”
One that lives on with video evidence.
“In all,” Rogers said with a laugh, “I’ve watched it a million times.”