MIAMI -- When word got out that Michael Jordan's son was going to play basketball at the University of Central Florida, the news spread quickly around campus. But very few students knew what he looked like, which allowed Marcus Jordan to enjoy a sense of anonymity he had never experienced in Chicago, where his NBA legend father is still considered royalty.
He remembers sitting on a bench outside a classroom last fall, overhearing people talking about Marcus Jordan, not realizing they were sitting right next to him. He smirked. Those days are over.
The UCF Knights are 8-0 for the first time since the school went Division I in 1984, Jordan is a big reason, and he can't hide anymore. There is a buzz on campus, and crowds of 6,000 fans (including Michael Jordan himself) are showing up at games. The younger Jordan is averaging a team-leading 16.3 points per game, and making headlines for more than just his lineage. Last week, the Knights knocked off No. 16 Florida 57-54, making Saturday's Orange Bowl Classic matchup against the University of Miami more intriguing.
Jordan, a 6-3 shooting guard, was a role player as a freshman; but this season, he has raised his profile significantly. He is averaging 48.4 percent shooting from three-point range. He scored 28 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the season-opening win over West Florida, and he scored 18 against the Gators.
He and his teammates are flourishing under first-year coach Donnie Jones, a longtime assistant of Billy Donovan's at Marshall and Florida who had gone on to become head coach at Marshall. When Jones found out the UCF job was vacant last March, he jumped at the chance, even though it would mean leaving his native West Virginia. He had watched the Orlando school grow from afar in Gainesville, knew it had the nation's third-largest student body (53,000) and a spanking-new basketball arena.
"I just knew how much potential this school had, and I wanted to be part of it," Jones said.
At his interview, he handed athletic director Keith Tribble a detailed blueprint of how he would make UCF relevant, using mostly athletes from the Sunshine State. Jones spent 11 years as a Gator assistant and had a reputation as a relentless recruiter. He took several recruits from Florida to Marshall, and led the Thundering Herd to a 24-10 record last season.
Jones is also known for his up-tempo style, and a 40-minute press that forced the UCF players to get in tip-top shape over the summer. Jones said he paid close attention to how Donovan ran his program, and he is trying to follow suit. That is particularly true as it relates to coaching the Jordan brothers -- Marcus' older brother, Jeff, transferred to UCF from Illinois and will be eligible to play next season.
The Gators roster included three sons of famous athletes -- Joachim (son of Yannick) Noah, Al (son of Tito) Horford and Taurean (son of Sidney) Green -- and that helped Jones learn how to handle the Jordans.
"I saw up close three guys playing in their fathers' shadows, very similar to what the Jordan sons go through," Jones said. "The dads' influence in all cases has been very positive. These kids understand focus, coaching, team, work ethic and winning. The key is to let their fathers play a key role to a degree."
Jones said he hears from Michael Jordan regularly, but he never steps over the line, never offers coaching advice. "He's just concerned about his boys, like any other dad, except that, obviously, he is maybe the best player who ever played the game."
Jones had a long talk with Marcus Jordan at the start of the season, told him "your identity is created by what you do every day, not by your name." Jordan said he has had to deal with unrealistic expectations for as long as he could dribble a ball.
"When I was young, it was really tough because people would put me down and I thought I'll never be as good as my dad, but it made me play harder," Jordan said. "Either you like my game, or you don't, but I'm not trying to be my dad. Watching Jeff go through it first really helped."
Jordan said a benefit of being the son of a Hall of Famer is increased basketball IQ: "I have been around the game at a very high level for my whole life, so I tend to know how to react in different situations, as does my brother."
Though they share the same competitive spirit, the younger Jordan, a lefty, has a different playing style than his father.
"Marcus has a strong body, and he's a great competitor, but he has his own way of playing," Jones said. "... He's only 19, and still has a high ceiling for improvement. He can have a terrific college career, and our goal is to keep him in the now, not in the yesterday or tomorrow."
Last year, Marcus made national headlines when he wore Nike Air Jordans out of loyalty to his father, even though UCF had contract with adidas. He eventually relented, and UCF later bought out the adidas deal and switched to Nike.
This year, he is happy to be making news for his play. Jordan said he picked UCF for two reasons -- because his best friend AJ Rompza played there, and because he wanted to put the program on the map.
"No one in Chicago had really heard of UCF, but I knew it was a diamond in the rough," he said. "I liked that I could get immediate playing time and be part of something brand new. Beating Florida was huge. They mentioned it on ESPN and all over the place. But we have much bigger goals. We want to win our conference and go to the NCAA Tournament. By the end of this season, people will know who we are."