Signs at the city limits acknowledge the North Carolina Azalea Festival, not the hometown of Michael Jordan.

He is a presence at the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science, a first-floor display case chronicling his life from kindergarten to the Bulls, including a college anthropology paper detailing his 1984 Olympics experience. Dr. James Peacock gave him a B-plus and advised him to seek a publisher, with one caveat: "Suggest [you] delete comments about Coach Knight ..."

The regular breakfast group at Whitey's Restaurant -- Howard, Bruce, Stacy, Louie, Robert, Larry and Bobby -- sure, they like Mike, but they point out that Wilmington has produced a number of fine athletes: tennis player Althea Gibson, Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon, football players Sonny Jurgensen, Roman Gabriel and Clyde Simmons and baseball player Trot Nixon.

Larry -- retired Wilmington firefighter Larry Brown -- lost most of his eyesight rescuing three people from a burning building years back. He sort of defines "hero" to his breakfast buddies.

Newsmen David Brinkley and Charles Kuralt were from Wilmington, the boys note, as is actress Linda Lavin. And the table talk this day centers on Kristen Dalton, the 22-year-old Wilmingtonian who represented the U.S. in the previous night's Miss Universe pageant.

Proprietor Whitey Prevatte has a unique link to MJ. He signed his first paycheck in 1980 when Jordan worked on the maintenance crew at the recently shuttered El Berta Motor Inn, which adjoins the restaurant.

"Three thirty-five an hour," Whitey declared, displaying a framed copy of a check for $119.76. "Minimum wage at the time. It's a little higher now, so I tell his momma if Mike wants to come back, we could probably pay him a little more."

"Momma" is Deloris Jordan, who was a customer while working as a teller at United Carolina Bank up Market Street.

"She called me up and asked me if I might have anything for Mike," Whitey said. "I said, 'Deloris, you send him over, and we'll find something.' That woman is a jewel of a person. Now she travels the world raising money for the needy."

Whitey thought enough of her son -- "nice kid, good worker, dependable" -- to offer input on his college choice.

"I told Deloris, if he were my son, I'd send him to Carolina," Whitey said. "That Dean Smith always impressed me as a fine man and a fine coach."

Parker recalled the Laney players meeting all the college coaches who came by for a look at MJ.

"[Jim] Valvano, Lefty Driesell ... Roy Williams [then a North Carolina assistant] spent so much time down here, we thought he was working at Laney.

"Then Dean Smith showed up, in this powder-blue suit, and it was over. If Dean Smith shows up, Carolina really wants you."

So basketball's gain was baseball's loss? Not really.

"He never made an all-star team for me, and his talent didn't jump out at you the way it did in basketball, but give me nine Mike Jordans and you'd have to bring your 'A' game to beat me," said Dick Neher, Jordan's coach for three years.

Neher, a proud former Marine, worked at the General Electric plant with James Jordan, Michael's father.

Neher's walls bear witness to a lifetime involvement with youth baseball, and he was a meticulous record-keeper. Mike "Rabbit" Jordan batted .275 for Parker's Drugs as a toothpick-armed 14-year-old outfielder/first baseman (with a little pitching and emergency catching).

Rabbit? Neher believed nicknames helped foster team harmony. Jordan was known as "Rabbit" because of the peculiar cut of his ears.

"I don't think he ever would have had enough bat speed to play in the big leagues -- he had this big, sweeping swing, so he couldn't catch up to a good fastball," Neher offered in an oft-repeated scouting report.

But those intangibles.

"Terrific competitor, great teammate, kept everyone loose," Neher said. "One time I had to use him as an emergency catcher. He was having trouble making the throw to second while we were warming up, and the other team was all over him -- 'We're going to run on this rag arm.' Mike took his mask off and looked over at them with this big smile on his face. 'If you run, I will gun' -- the throw got down there on one hop, but I think he nailed four out of five."

Todd Parker has to smile as he points out MJ's inscription in their senior yearbook: "To a guy I think is the toughest white boy in the state ... good luck in the future."

Said Parker: "It was surreal watching him, what he'd become, and thinking you'd been out there with him. You bet I'm proud of him. I wish he hadn't gone off to play baseball. The Bulls would have won eight in a row if he hadn't.

"And I wish he didn't come back to play for the Wizards. That shot against Utah was the perfect ending."