My Complicated History with Mike

With Michael Jordan set to be inducted into the Hall of Fame tomorrow, the tributes are pouring in from all sides. As a Wizards fan, my feelings on Jordan are more complicated than the romanticizing allows for, but as a basketball fan, I could read about Jordan the basketball player all day long. There, he was perfect.

With that in mind, if anyone's interested in whiling away the waning hours of the day with some fantastic Jordan tributes, look no further.

Rick Telander recounts an encounter with Jordan in 1995, and explains:

Jordan had a respect for the past, for tradition, that transcended his often smart-assed ways. When he kissed the Bull at center court before the Stadium was demolished, he meant it. When he said he liked Gleason, because the World War II vet was ''old-school and Chicago,'' he meant it. [...]

''I wish I could show you a film of a dunk I had in Milwaukee,'' he said excitedly. ''It's in slow-motion, and it looks like I'm taking off, like somebody put wings on me. I get chills when I see it.''

We all did. All the time.

Our own Eammonn Brennan, who apparently works for every website on the internet, remembers the good stuff:

At this point, all that really matters to Bulls fans about Michael Jordan -- or all that should matter, anyway -- is what he did on the court for his 15 years in a Chicago Bulls uniform. All you need to know is what you can see. All the memories, the decade of not just dominance but of some sort of God-like jaw-dropping iron-will to never lose, that, in turn, led to even more dominance. All of this was punctuated by the sort of grace and athletic beauty never seen in the game of basketball before ... that's what matters. The Michael Jordan that gave people joy. That's the Michael Jordan we choose to remember.

Robbi Pickeral of the Charlotte Observer corrects a widely held misconception: Michael Jordan wasn't cut from the Varsity his sophomore year in high school (umm.. WHAT?):

Ruby Sutton has a distinct pet peeve when it comes to the subject of her former pupil, Michael Jordan: the oft-told story of how he was “cut” from the Laney High varsity basketball team as a sophomore, spurring him to greatness.

“Back then, (most) 10th-graders played JV; that's just the way it was. Nobody ever ‘cut' Michael Jordan,” Sutton, who still teaches physical education, said this month, shaking her head as she retold the story for at least the 100th time.

“Him not making the varsity that year was not his motivator – he was motivated well before that. He just always wanted to be the best.”

David Stern offers a eulogy of his own to the Chicago Sun-Times:

Because of his presence at a particular time in the history of our league, the multiple championships of the Bulls, his extraordinary competitiveness, his athletic prowess and marketability, Michael stands at a special place in the development of the NBA as a global sport,'' Stern said. ''After all of the other accolades come in, all well-deserved, what stands out especially meaningful to me is the fact the league grew tremendously on a global basis when Michael and the Bulls were coming into prominence.

'[What impresses me about] the way Michael got to be great was the fact he had to overcome losses to other teams like Boston or Cleveland or Detroit that had dominated the Bulls. So it isn't as though he stepped fully grown onto the NBA stage. He grew into his greatness, and his journey was fascinating to watch. Stars on other teams were shining brightly. But Michael, after those [six] championships [in eight years], shone the brightest of all.

Finally, I mentioned this in commentary, but True Hoop examines Michael Jordan in full, and it's excellent:

He saw just about everything as an excuse to work harder. He didn't make his varsity team ... so he worked harder. He didn't make the playoffs, so he worked harder. He couldn't beat the Pistons, so more work. He chafed in the triangle. He missed shots. He made mistakes. He lost athleticism. 

But always, always, always, he was a relentless competitor. 

We saw that maybe most of all in his career bookend as a Washington Wizard. Against all better judgment, and in defiance of the best advice about how to handle his balky knees, he forced himself out there night after night, not worrying so much about what it would do to his body, his image, or anything else.

...And that's where I come in. The Wizards. My favorite team in the world. Michael Jordan was forced upon me when I was a freshman in high school. It sounds kind of silly to say that "the greatest player of all time" was forced upon me, but that's how it felt at the time.

When he took over the team as president of basketball operations, I was legitimately excited. He lent a sense of nobility to a franchise that, in my lifetime at least, had been a running joke. Suddenly, we had a legend pulling the strings for us, and whenever he'd show up for games, the entire crowd would be buzzing. Wizards and Bullets crowds rarely "buzzed" in his absence.

That said, hindsight has taught me that no, no matter how famous your GM is, it's not really acceptable for him to show up to 20% of your team's games. Michael Jordan was a dickhead. I learned as much as his tenure unfolded, and when he left, his laissez-faire management philosophy was revealed for what it really was: he just didn't care to invest himself more than he had to. Both here and in Charlotte that's been borne out to be a failed strategy.

And then there was the comeback. We never asked for that. I didn't want any part of a washed up superstar; that just made it impossible to sneak up to the front row. And then, of course, he set back the franchise five years: traded Richard Hamilton, decimated Kwame Brown's self-worth (judging Kwame is unfair unless you consider that his idol would verbally berate on a daily basis), and signed a bunch of stop-gap veterans in hopes of stealing the 8th playoff spot. Last season the Wizards played truly putrid basketball, but at least it was fun sometimes.

In Jordan we got a player who retained his lofty aspirations, but no longer had the athleticism to will his team to achieve them. We would walk and talk like a championship team, with Jordan our superstar, except the execution was completely absent, because none of the necessary development had taken place organically, and Jordan was just plain old. Instead, he spent most of the time pissed off and blaming anyone but himself, and forced everyone to treat things as if the Wizards were a championship playing mediocre basketball. They weren't; they were a mediocre team playing mediocre basketball. Jordan refused to accept that. Like I said, a dickhead.

For an unbiased look at his time in D.C., read some of the excellent Jordan coverage from the Washington City Paper--the only outlet that could cover him fairly, without fear of jeopardizing access. On his last night in D.C., after he'd been fired, Jordan went out to a local nightclub:

Salud. Another round. Luke, a tall no-nonsense waiter, is Spank's best, the one always deputized to fetch Jordan's entourage all their comped beverages. He's waited on Jordan, by his estimation, 30 to 40 times in the past three years, and, he says, never gotten a tip. This night, as on every night, Luke was working for Jordan, for $1.88 per hour. (Jordan could not be reached for comment on his nightlife activities.)

Luke says he's always had trouble relating to Jordan on a personal level. But with each Cape Codder that night, Jordan came closer to resembling just a guy who had lost his job.

The lights came on at 2 a.m. The diplomat kids looked that much more desperate, the fake breasts looked that much more fake, and Jordan looked that much more hammered. "I've never seen him more drunk in my life," Luke says. "He normally stays here 20 minutes to an hour. But he stayed 'til closing. That never happens. And he still didn't tip me."

None of which is to denigrate him as basketball player; his legacy there is beyond reproach. Which brings me to his final home game as an NBA basketball player. It happened with the Wizards, and we were playing the Knicks. I don't remember who won or lost, but I remember what happened after the game.

The Wizards showed a 5 minute highlight reel that was 90% Michael Jordan on the Bulls. No lurching post-up game, dominating the ball for ten seconds, before he'd invariably settle for an 18-foot fall away on the baseline; this was the Michael Jordan. 90% percent of the highlights came from his time on the Bulls, and his mastery of the game was on full display. The stadium lights were dim, and when they came back on, I was crying a little bit. It was that special.

And then Wizards' owner Abe Pollin and Michael Jordan met at center court, where Pollin presented a large charitable donation on Michael's behalf. Pollin took the microphone and spoke to the crowd, thanking Michael for all his contributions to the team, and his hard work in building the franchise. Then, we figured, Michael would take the microphone and thank us, too, for supporting him with sold out games and undying affection. Instead, he waved to the crowd, bowed his head, and left the court without saying a word.

And that's what Michael Jordan will always mean to me: a player that was so good he could literally make you cry, but up close and in the flesh, a pretty cold-hearted guy. Michael Jordan may have been the greatest player of all time, but as a Wizards fan, I'll take Gilbert Arenas any day.

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