”That was God disguised as Michael Jordan,” said Larry Bird after the Chicago Bulls star scored 63 points against Bird’s Celtics in a 1986 play-off game. And when God retires, the world grinds to a halt. Jordan’s farewell to basketball, announced on Jan. 13, was stop-the-presses news, bumping minor incidents like the impeachment of the President back to page 37.
God is in fact somewhat less universally admired than Jordan, the most famous man in the world. Adventurers who stumble into remote African villages or nomadic encampments in Mongolia find small children wearing the No. 23 Bulls jersey. His image is everywhere, and his miracles, like conjuring up last year’s NBA championship with a last-minute steal and picture-perfect jump shot, are recited like chapter and verse. And then there’s his awe-inspiring Midas touch. FORTUNE magazine estimated his cumulative economic impact — tickets sold, NBA broadcast contracts fattened, products endorsed — at $10 billion.
It’s probably easier to go to pieces than to come to terms with this phenomenon, this heroic, fiercely proud, immensely charming, soft-spoken man endowed with transcendent athletic skill, will, and grace, who’s also a cultural and commercial juggernaut. Faced with this daunting task, David Halberstam’s new book Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made sometimes resembles Lives of the Saints, sometimes a dire prophecy about worshiping golden calves (as opposed to sterling Bulls), sometimes a detective report that tails everyone who has ever crossed Jordan’s path. But it’s a solid and compelling book, even if it doesn’t offer any major surprises about its hero and barely touches his private life (Jordan had initially agreed to be interviewed in 1997 but backed out). Despite its zigzag approach, it zeroes in on Jordan’s defining moments, on court and off, and Halberstam’s crosscutting, anecdote-fetching method plays to the strengths exhibited in his other books (including The Best and the Brightest, Summer of ’49, and a previous basketball book, The Breaks of the Game).
He’s fascinated by character, with a psychologist’s eye for telling tics, nuances, and turning points, and he’s especially intent on character in a moral sense. The thumbnail biographical sketches in the book — for instance, of Jordan’s coaches Dean Smith and Phil Jackson — resemble parables of old-fashioned integrity or (in the case of some agents, owners, and players) parables of corruption by power and money. In fact, the whole book takes shape as a paradoxical parable. The underlying theme is that Jordan, the greatest player in the history of the game, drew unprecedented crowds, publicity, and money to it, which didn’t corrupt him but did corrupt the sport. It’s unlikely that younger stars, with their contracts and TV commercials handed to them on a platter, can ever match his devout and disciplined mastery.
So Jordan emerges simple in essence and ambiguous in context. The simple essence is his relentless will to be better than anyone else, to win and win with a vengeance, reflected in anecdotes showing him practicing, playing, and thinking harder than his rivals. But for all his devotion to the game, Jordan had a lot to do with the way it blurred into tawdry entertainment, symbolized by the new corporation-sponsored arenas with their electronic crowd noise, circus acts, dancing girls, skyboxes, and sky-high ticket prices.
In fact, Jordan hated the new United Center that replaced Chicago Stadium, but he also made the sneaker commercials, signed the spin-off deals, and tailored his marketed image by carefully avoiding controversy. The opposing loyalties may have driven him to high-stakes gambling (Halberstam dismisses it as another example of his craving for all-or-nothing competition) and his retreat to minor league baseball, which Halberstam sees, coming after the murder of his father in 1993, as a quest for lost innocence, humble beginnings, and steep odds. He came out of it a more tolerant team leader for the Bulls and an even more versatile player.
In the end what will be remembered is the beauty — the quicksilver moves, the soaring dunks, the rarefied perfection. For Phil Jackson and others, Jordan raised basketball to an art form, with a genius like Michelangelo’s. The comparison may be even truer than they intended. Those Renaissance artists were not only hard workers, but also cutthroat competitors. Michael would feel right at home among them. A-