So here we have the first 40 for 40 that was an original 30 for 30. I think what I said in the 30 for 30 pretty much stands up for the last 10 years. Of course there was a recent surge of Jordan hysteria thanks to the recent Last Dance documentary on ESPN. I watched the 10 part series as religiously and as excitedly as anyone. But while the miniseries was billed as “never before seen inside look at Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls,” I’m not sure I actually learned anything new. Growing up I read every Michael Jordan biography, basketball card, and magazine article. I watched every highlight video and documentary. I actually was hoping to learn more about the other Bulls in the documentary. I learned things about Pippen, Rodman, Kukoc, and Kerr. But all the Jordan stuff was pretty much old news. Except for the flu game actually being bad pizza/food poisoning, that I had not heard before. I was kind of bored and disappointed at the supposed controversies and conversations after each episode.
No one really denies the Rings, or the MVPs, or the scoring titles, they speak for themselves. But a lot gets made of MJ as a demanding, contemptuous, and condescending teammate, and even more has been made of “Republicans buy sneakers too.” But the overall take away for me was Michael Jordan as American Capitalist Ambassador to the world. And I have to admit that aside from attempting to copy all of his moves on the basketball court, that is maybe where Jordan has most influenced me. And while I was fully aware of how far I was going to explicitly “Be like Mike” on the court or even just lounging in my Nikes, the cultural impact was more subtle and invisible. The image of MJ as dominant, as rich, as unquestionably superior, as bending down to allow the mere mortals to touch and observe him before ascending back on high, that is the mental image I have for success. To be isolated from the world in an Ivory tower. I hadn’t thought of it before but that is the mentality that has come to define the American way and it’s place in the world. We are living in the world Mike Built. It was subtle and obviously began with basketball but it dovetailed with the end of the Cold War and the Pax American of the late 90’s. It’s probably a stretch, but I will go ahead and say that the American response to 9/11 would have been much different if not for Michael Jordan. And I don’t know if that would mean better or worse.
On a more personal note, I broke my leg in 1990 (It’s a long story). When I finally got my cast off and was back to running around I was suddenly influenced by an unseen force. For reasons I couldn’t fully explain, I started asking for “Chicago Bulls” gear for Christmas. I started wearing longer shorts and baggier clothes. I started wearing shorts under my pants. I became obsessed with Nike. I started begging for a pack of basketball cards every time we were in the check out line at the store. My tongue started hanging out of my mouth for no apparent reason. And of course I started playing basketball all the time. I’m not sure if I even knew the name Michael Jordan, but at some point he entered my consciousness and then consumed it. And by the time the 91 playoffs began I was the world’s biggest MJ fan, which of course necessitated that I was a little white kid that can’t play basketball.
Maybe it was my grandparents? My mom’s mom was from North Carolina. My mom’s dad was from Chicago. And it was at their home that I distinctly remember watching the 1991 NBA finals game 5 when the Bulls won their first championship. From there on the Bulls and Jordan won every championship they went to, and they went to 6 in 8 years. In a world as uncertain as ours MJ was the one that never let me down. That had a lasting impact. MJ was the safest bet in the world. How could he not become the great global icon and symbolic ambassador for America?
But as great as the Bulls 2 threepeats were, ironically, I think it was the 4 seasons that MJ didn’t end with a championship that really made me love #23.
I was really inspired by his time playing baseball. I liked how he almost embraced this villain like role after the “Bag it Michael” SI cover story. And then when he did return to the game of basketball it was like all was suddenly right with the universe again. It kind of reinforces a notion of destiny, that some people (or maybe all of us) are meant to do one special thing that the world needs, and only they can do. It’s like Luke Skywalker using the force in real life.
And as much as everyone else wants to pretend it didn’t happen because it “tarnished the legacy,” I loved the Jordan with the Washington Wizards. It was total arrogance. He was betting on himself. And who could blame him when he had been such a sure bet just a few years before. At this point in my life when it has been over 2 years since I have stepped foot on a basketball court, Jordan’s time with the Wizards takes on extra significance. The predominate narrative is that Jordan’s ego got in the way and he couldn’t build a team that was anything more than Jordan and the Jordanaires (and I mean you hire Doug Collins as your coach, what do you expect to get?) and his goal was to artificially inflate the value of a franchise he was promised a minority stake in. You can certainly question the team building decisions (both with Washington and with the Hornets). But what I always saw was someone closer to Obi Won Kanobi who had to go out taking on his former apprentice (Anakin/Vader) so that he could become pure energy and be at one with the force. Michael Jordan playing the game of basketball past his prime because he loved the game of basketball so much, he couldn’t stay away.