Michael Jordan will play in his last NBA all-star game this weekend, which is almost enough reason to watch. For the prudent fan, an NBA all-star game without Jordan would be about as compelling as a professional bowling tournament.
Jordan is one of those rare athletes with a blend of personality and skills that transcends the game and make fans out of people who never cared before. What Ali did for boxing, Jordan did for basketball and Tiger Woods is doing for golf. Even casual fans recognize something that is an order or two above when they watch these athletes at work. Jordan touched the old, atavistic longing to tell tales, sing songs, and stand in awe before heroes and their deeds.
And besides that, he was a hell of a basketball player.
There will be a lot of hype written and spoken — especially over the television — about Michael Jordan’s last season. And a lot of fans will be numb to it. We hear it all the time. We hear it about players who didn’t have Jordan’s gifts and, in fact, we’ve heard it about Jordan. He’s retired before. Once to try baseball and once … well, to retire. That was the most recent retirement. It didn’t last but this one, almost certainly, will. He is 40 years old but the other night, he shot five over his age. So he can still play … he just can’t play like Mike.
Athletes, of course, are grossly inflated figures and you feel this especially in the days after watching seven astronauts, whose names barely anyone knew, perish in the cold upper atmosphere. That tends to put things temporarily in perspective.
But one reason for Michael Jordan’s appeal is that he was always almost purely an athlete. I can’t remember him ever threatening to run for governor or taking any kind of political stand or using his sports-generated celebrity to do anything more than sell sneakers and other consumer goods. If you can handle Bob Dole selling Pepsi and Viagra then you ought to be okay with Michael selling sneakers. Would that actors would stick so conscientiously to their knitting. (I wonder, if the world’s greatest juggler or sword swallower came out in favor of war in Iraq … would that cancel out Dennis Hoffman or Sean Penn?)
Jordan has kept his private life remarkably private. We knew that he gambled for a lot of money. But, then, he made a lot of money. And he didn’t become of slave to gambling like, say, Pete Rose. Hard to imagine Jordan becoming a slave to anything. Too much dignity.
Lately, there has been news of a messy family situation. A mistress, a child out-of-wedlock, hush-money, and threats of divorce. He has done a good job of not talking about it for the salacious satisfaction of the public. What little you do know feels like a lot more than you want to know. When he was at the height of his career, Jordan’s father was murdered. He handled that with fortitude. While he may be a star, he has never been one of those needy personalities. He plays basketball, you see. Plays it better than anyone and that was enough.
Every fan had a favorite Michael moment — some impossible shot that he made and, probably, made look easy. Mine was the one where he changed hands going for a lay-up in traffic in the playoffs against the Lakers. But there were dozens — hundreds — of others. The highlight film would run longer than Lawrence of Arabia.
But there was more to Jordan than the dazzling one-on-one (or one-on-two or, even one-on-three) stuff. He could stop your heart that way but you could also watch him for the sheer, steady, working-man professionalism he brought to the job with him. He was routinely named a defensive all-star in a time when a lot of hot-dogs consider peasant’s work to guard their man. He was deadly from the foul line. He could — and would — pass when he had too. John Paxson made a memorable shot to win a championship when he was left all alone behind the three-point line. Jordan could even decoy better than anyone.
He knew he was the engine that drove the Chicago Bulls and he didn’t pretend otherwise. In press conferences, he referred to his “supporting cast.” Arrogant? Sure, but his team-mates didn’t mind. With him, they won championships. Without him, they’re role players again.
And nobody liked winning like Jordan. That he could do it with such grace was a wonder to watch but you feel sure he’d have done it without ever leaving the floor if that had been what it took.
He played sick — had one of his best games ever when he had the flu and should have been in bed — and he played hurt. And, now, he is playing old. But he has never quit playing with both intensity and joy.
The people who follow basketball passionately — and, also, the people who run it — know how much Jordan meant to the game. And they ask, constantly, “Who will be the next Michael Jordan?”
Somebody needs to tell them, gently, “Guys, don’t hold your breath.”
— Geoffrey Norman writes on sports for NRO and other publications.