John Feinstein Blog: Michael Jordan Makes It Hard To Want To ‘Be Like Mike’
Michael Jordan was in the news the other day — sort of. He wasn’t doing anything to improve the fortunes of the truly bad NBA basketball team he owns and he wasn’t announcing the opening of a school he’s funding — something David Robinson has been doing in San Antonio for years — or his involvement in a new program to help kids dealing with deadly diseases.
As the saying goes, that’s not how Jordan rolls.
Instead, he was promoting some kind of video game. Even now, at 50, it seems that much of Jordan’s life is devoted to promoting product — most notably the product that remains Michael Jordan, even now more than 10 years after he last played in the NBA.
Jordan made some comment, no doubt to draw attention to himself and the video game, that he would have beaten LeBron James one-on-one when he was still at the peak of his playing powers. Then he said the only person who might have beaten him one-on-one was Kobe Bryant and that was because, “he stole all my moves.”
Always with Jordan there’s a putdown that comes with anything approaching a compliment.
This sort of thing, making declarations that can’t possibly be proven one way or the other but might be fodder for radio talk-shows or internet debates, borders on pathetic. Jordan is, without doubt, the most electric player to ever set foot on a basketball court. In my lifetime the only player who was more unstoppable on offense was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But he didn’t play defense the way Jordan didn’t and he didn’t have Jordan’s insatiable hunger to win.
Red Auerbach often said if he was starting a basketball team the first player he would take was Bill Russell, because no one made players around him better than Russell did and that was why the Celtics won 11 titles during his 13 seasons as the team’s center.
“But the best PLAYER,” Red always said. “That was Jordan.”
If I had any doubts on the issue, they went away the instant Red said that.
And yet, much like his friend Tiger Woods, there is a sadness and an anger about Jordan that is evident whenever he ventures out of his cocoon to open his mouth publicly — even for something as trivial as selling a video game.
His Hall of Fame induction speech was one of the truly sad moments in basketball history. Yes, history. Here was the game’s greatest player taking his spot in the place where he will be remembered forever as he once was and all Jordan could do was take swipes at people.
His high school coach. The kid who beat him out for the varsity when he was a sophomore. Dean Smith. Let me repeat that DEAN SMITH! Among others. What made it worse was that Jordan followed Robinson onto the podium and Robinson had just given about as classy and gracious a speech as anyone in the room had ever heard. Then came Jordan spilling bile and anger all over everyone.
The question was raised that night and it continues to be raised as Jordan ages un-gracefully: how did this happen? How did someone with so many gifts end up so disliked? Michael Jordan disliked? How can that be? Once, everyone wanted to “be like Mike,” — right?
When people try to analyze why Woods is who he is the answer is pretty simple: it’s the way he was raised. His father taught him from an early age to trust no one; to never give anything away for free and to step on the neck of anyone you are competing with in any form of competition. It helped make Woods the greatest golfer ever. It also helped make him a remarkably unhappy person.
Jordan’s different. His father, James, was as different from Earl Woods as the sun is from the moon. He was friendly and generous and appeared to have a genuine friendship with his son that went well beyond the fact that Michael had made him a wealthy man. One can certainly understand why Jordan still carries hurt and anger with him over his father’s death but, sadly, he is not the first or the last person to lose a parent he adored prematurely — even if the manner of James Jordan’s death was horrific.
No, that’s not why Michael Jordan stopped lighting up the world and his own life somewhere along the line. I think it comes back to a crucial decision he made shortly after leaving North Carolina to turn pro in 1984.
He chose David Falk over Dean Smith.
There may not be two more different men ever born than Falk and Smith. Falk is an agent, a man who likes to boast about how much money he’s made and about negotiating contracts in which he outwitted a general manager or sneaked something by someone to get his client more money. The very first time I ever dealt with him he flat out lied to me — and then got very angry when I called him on the lie.
Smith is not only one of the most decent, moral men I’ve ever met, he has been an outspoken advocate on issues like civil rights and a nuclear freeze and on doing more to help the poor since he was a young assistant coach. He always believed the job of a coach was to do more than win games or help players improve their jump shots. He wanted those who played for him to graduate from North Carolina and go on to be good people — not just good basketball players.
Smith wasn’t thrilled when Jordan chose Falk as his agent. Years ago, he told me that the first time he met Falk — when he and his boss, Donald Dell came to Chapel Hill to recruit Sam Perkins — that he told Eddie Fogler, then one of his assistant coaches, “I don’t trust the young one.”
Smith’s gut feelings were usually right.
Falk loves to take bows for coming up with the idea for the ‘Air Jordan,’ sneaker. Falk brags about coming up with a marketing plan — for the most marketable athlete of his time. Smith DOESN’T brag about helping to de-segregate restaurants in Chapel Hill in the 1950s. Why doesn’t he brag?
“Because you should never talk about doing what’s right, you should just do what’s right.”
David Falk could no more understand the meaning of that sentence than I can understand Swahili.
If Jordan had stayed close to Smith, he still would have had to deal with the pitfalls of mega-celebrity and the death of his father. But there’s no doubt in my mind that some of the decisions he made would have been different. There’s no doubt in my mind he would have had SOME notion that he should use his fame to do more than make money. And there’s no doubt in my mind he would have been better prepared emotionally to deal with the day when he could no longer be Michael Jordan.
And you can bet he never would have said what he said to Smith when his old coach asked him to help campaign against one of the Senate’s last noted segregationists, Jesse Helms. Jordan turned down Smith’s request and when Smith asked him why he said, “because Republicans buy sneakers too.”
Jordan’s sold a lot of sneakers. He’s still out there pitching product every chance he gets. My guess is he’d be a lot happier if he had sold less and listened — to Smith — more.