It’s like a death in the family. I mean, MJ is gone. For a decade and a half he’s lived in a section of the collective consciousness marked Ubiquitous, alongside Sinatra and Picasso and Brando. Unleashing Baryshnikovian dunks, slicing through Nike commercials with his American prince manner, and winning, always winning. The cult of Jordan got its first spark from his undeniable artistry, but grew to mythic and hypnotizing proportions because rooting for Jordan paid such handsome dividends. Fandom is filled with heartbreak— crushing defeats, sudden trades, mortality clipping the wings of yesterday’s invincibles. To sit on the sideline is to embrace helplessness. Your hero battles, you do nothing. Hollywood guarantees everything will end up okay. In sports you know only that your guy will lose— if not today, then some soon tomorrow. Jordan cut through that. He won so often it was ridiculous. From the first time we noticed him, as a UNC freshman, beating Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown with a last-second shot, to the final time we saw him, getting out on top, a triumph over mortality itself.
Yes, he never made it hard to root for him. Never made us accept him along with his controversial opposition to some war or his strong public stance on something like apartheid. Never demanded we enjoy anything more than his style and his shoes. He’s bigger than basketball, so measure him against men like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, men bigger than their sports, men with an impact so nuclear they changed society. Louis, heavyweight champion while Hitler was mulling over squashing Europe, opened a world of pride for black Americans. Robinson and Ali moved mountains in society so large that the reverberations can be heard almost daily. They were senators representing the world of sports and they are inseparable from the political history of their generation. Jordan is a man of rare dignity and an even rarer pursuit of excellence, but his political impact has been zero. Certainly, the opportunities of Louis and Robinson have evaporated with time, and the self-sacrificing example of Ali seems an impossible standard. But Jordan has the fame, charisma, and grace of a Mandela. Any cause he might have championed— from something as morally simple as supporting the candidacy of fellow North Carolinian Harvey Gantt, who lost two close Senate races against Satan’s cousin, Jesse Helms, to any stand against any sort of American injustice— would have been taken seriously because it was endorsed by Jordan. Yet as careful as he has been at vacuuming every possible penny into his pocket— did he really have to do ads for Ray-O-Vac? Ballpark Franks? Long-distance ads costarring Tweety Bird?— he has been equally diligent about leaving every bit of political potential on the table. Couldn’t the world’s greatest endorser have sold us something besides shoes?
Pulitzer prize winner David Halberstam records much of what Jordan did do, as well as the doings of many of the major figures of his life in Playing for Keeps, his 400-plus-page look inside Jordan’s life from the jayvee basketball squad he dominated after being cut by the varsity (“the entire varsity began to come early so they could watch him play”) to those last seconds in Utah last summer when the Jazz decided not to double-team him and, suddenly, Jazz defender Bryon Russell was the loneliest man in the world, out there isolated one-on-one with Michael Jeffrey Jordan. It’s an epic, detailed vision of the landscape that shaped and was shaped by Jordan, though strictly about basketball— the game and the business— with scant information on Jordan’s life away from the court (on his days off, Halberstam uncovers, he takes the kids to school, and he runs a lot of boring errands). In the absence of an interview with MJ, Halberstam relies on the words of Jordan’s friends and associates to fill in the tiny crevices of the big story you already know. He also looks inside the locker rooms of the Bird Celtics, the Isiah Pistons, and the Magic Lakers, as well as the offices of Nike, the NBA, and ESPN to fill out his trip inside the practice sessions where Jordan schooled Pippen into greatness, the weight room where Jordan worked to extend his career, the Bulls team bus where Jordan took on Bulls GM Jerry Krause with his sharp tongue (dissing Krause in front of his teammates, extending the world of “the school yard, where some boys are popular, and some seem to be born to be targets”). Halberstam, in this book, is more of a reporter than a historian— he’s especially verbose on the byzantine dispute between Jordan and Krause that eventually broke up the mighty Bulls dynasty, and he’s light on Jordan’s place in history. Sports fans who love behind-the-scenes maneuvering get their fill, as do those who live for well-recounted tales of great games, such as the greatest pickup game ever played, during a 1992 Dream Team practice. Once Charles Barkley began talking trash to Jordan and:
The game became raw and physical, all territorial and all ego. Michael Jordan more than anyone else set the tone. He simply took over the game, driving to the basket every time he got the ball, rebounding, stepping in the passing lanes for steals, hounding [Magic] Johnson on defense, screaming at everyone, opponents and teammates alike, pushing himself. There was one stretch where he made twelve points in a row, though some witnesses claimed that it was actually sixteen. When a call went against his team, Johnson yelled out, “What is this, Chicago Stadium? Are you going to get all the calls here, too?”
“I’ll tell you what it is,” Jordan shouted back. “It’s the nineties, not the eighties.”
The play on both sides was frenzied . . . a level of ferocity almost unmatched in basketball history. . . . It was, [coach Mike Kryzyewski] thought, like being in a house and hearing a terrible hurricane outside, then opening the door and seeing that the storm was even more powerful than envisioned.
[After Jordan’s team won 36-30, a journalist asked,] “ ‘You just have to win every time, don’t you?”
Michael smiled that wonderful, radiant smile. “I try to make a habit out of it.”
Near the end, Halberstam makes excuses for Jordan’s apoliticality, his silent unwillingness to confront society, suggesting, “He was clearly not very good at it. Some people had a natural feel for it, grievance was in their souls, while others did not.” But also because of “a fear that he might taint his value as a commercial spokesman.”
It is so difficult to be a capitalist with a cause. But I cannot accept that there is no grievance in Jordan’s soul. Can his intelligence and legendary warrior spirit be limited only to hoop contests and golf? Is his burn to compete against the Knicks greater than his burn to compete against real enemies like racism? We will know the full answer eventually, as his prime selling years dwindle and his tongue, once so visible, loosens, maybe enough to let us know what he’s thinking in between backdoor cuts and back-end profits. But for now we just know that he has grabbed more than $250 million in nonsalary income in this decade, generated $10 billion for the economy, and wasted so much more. The premier shoe salesman of all time, he is a fitting member of the Show-Me-the-Money era. That is no compliment. He was bigger than basketball, but, in the end, our beloved was just a ballplayer.