His first cousin's fame shines so brightly that even his silhouette has become instantly recognizable, but Noland Pearsall preferred the shade cast by the back of a beachwear store in a little seaside S.C. town, family and friends said.
A buck in his pocket meant Pearsall didn't have to seek another, said those who loved the tall, restless man known as "Tree." He was found dead of natural causes Sunday at age 51 on an empty house's porch in Atlantic Beach.
Everybody in town knew he was Michael Jordan's cousin, but his superstar kinship was just a novelty to those who enjoyed his easygoing manner.
"Tree was a landmark," said Atlantic Beach native Erica Lewis as she smoked a cigarette Tuesday in front of town hall, just a few feet from one of Pearsall's favorite resting spots.
"He could meet you for the first time, and he'd tell you about everyone in Atlantic Beach. And everything he'd be telling you - he wouldn't be lying."
Though Pearsall grew up in New Jersey, he spent one summer in Wilmington, N.C., at the home of his mother's sister - the Jordans' home, said Pearsall's two brothers, Macie Pearsall and Michael Bellamy. There, they said, the already-tall teen played basketball with his little cousin Michael, who was five years younger.
"He said [Michael] had to be tougher than what he was, and he showed him how to use his body, use his feet," said Macie Pearsall, 53, who retired from the Air Force after 22 years and now lives in Johnson City, Tenn.
Pearsall's name was not familiar to Jordan publicist Estee Portnoy, but she noted he has family throughout the Carolinas. Pearsall's brothers, however, said Jordan long remembered his tall older cousin.
"I remember Michael talking about how good he was," said Bellamy, a UPS driver from Atlanta who said he last saw Jordan when he still played with the Bulls, before the championships of the early '90s.
"But later on, Michael became the star. He might have picked up some pointers from Tree."
Pearsall's family later moved to North Myrtle Beach, where his mother, Ruth Bellamy, worked in the cafeterias of local schools, family and friends said. Pearsall was recruited to play basketball at Southeastern Community College in Whiteville, N.C., but after a few years it became too expensive to keep him there and he dropped out, his brothers said.
Pearsall ended up back in Atlantic Beach, choosing to live without a permanent home, doing odd jobs whenever he needed a few dollars and generally becoming a fixture in the small town.
Police officers liked him because he was never a troublemaker, said Police Chief Randy Rizzo, and many of the town's residents gave him an open invitation to rest in their backyards or porches.
If the money was good, Pearsall was always up for a job, said Jacqui Gore, an Atlantic Beach town clerk who said she had known Pearsall since the 1970s.
If there was no work to be done, then Pearsall was up for a chat.
"If you didn't know him, you'd think he was talking crazy," Gore said, recalling his witty riddles. "But if you knew him, everything he was saying was real."
Bellamy and Macie Pearsall said they would travel to Atlantic Beach several times a year to check up on him, and always found him in a different spot. After dinner, they might give him a few bucks, they said, but money was just never important to him.
"He was his own person," Macie Pearsall said. "He had to do whatever Tree wanted to do."