Michael Jordan and Me

Benjamin Markovits

I grew up in Texas with two obsessions: basketball and Romantic verse. Satisfaction of both lay readily at hand. We had a hoop out back overlooked by the kitchen of a curry-house which sent its smell of spice and soapy water across the court. (Another neighbour once took a shotgun to the lights when I had stayed out late, banging the ball on the cement; I came back the next night and played in the dark.) Around the corner stood Half Price Books, which in my childhood lived up to its name. Both obsessions had their heroes: Byron among the Romantics – principally, I think, for his rudeness, but partly because he captured the essence of my other, still breathing hero, Michael Jordan. ‘Half dust, half deity’, Byron wrote of man’s estate, but I applied his meaning more specifically. ‘Alike unfit to sink or soar’ seemed to describe that hanging space, a few feet off the ground, in which Jordan lived.

Jordan has presided over some of my happiest and loneliest years, a figure on the box in the evening and in the papers in the morning – a kind of home-town weather, looked up regardless of where a traveller happens to find himself. He inspired me, among other things, to try my own hand at professional basketball, though I lacked the talent to play in America. In that first aimless summer after university, Interrailing through Europe, sneakers in my bag and a ball in hand, I hoped to fill the position variously titled ‘small forward’, ‘swingman’, ‘three spot’. And he followed me there, as I stayed up till five one morning at a sports bar in Hamburg to watch him win his fourth championship.

G.H. Hardy once said, regarding Don Bradman, that it is a highbrow in the worst sense of the word who doesn’t appreciate the true swell. Jordan is the true swell, handsome and fashionable, nice to strangers and children, and generally acknowledged to be the best player in history – not as an article of faith but as a matter of definition – in what is considered by Americans to be the most difficult and graceful of games. Yet unlike Ali, a black American of comparable charm and skill, Jordan has never made politics part of his appeal, and his popularity among both highbrows and ordinary joes is harder to explain. He is famous only for being almost perfect at what he does, and gracious in his perfection.

This was the root of the worry and surprise (not to mention pleasure) that greeted his announcement last September: that, aged 38, he would return for a second time to play basketball, joining the team he had owned, the Washington Wizards. He’ll spoil things, people said, as they said the last time he came out of retirement, but now with greater conviction. But though I had my doubts, I kept quiet. I had never seen him play before in his splendid flesh. This would be my chance. So I booked my flight to Washington and bribed a local friend to join the queues already lining up for tickets, to see the man whose statue in Chicago proclaimed him the best there ever was, the best there ever will be.

Basketball offers the scope for such a claim. It is the most democratic of games, allowing each player a free and equal hand with the ball. Broadly speaking, and unlike in soccer, say, everyone does everything. Jordan not only holds most of the scoring records, he is one of the best passers the game has known, and possibly the best defender, too. His genius used to make a nonsense of practice. Generally, players are divided into big and small. At 6'6" and 15 stone, Jordan belonged to the latter category, but he insisted on joining the big men at what is called their ‘post’ work. Big men become big by reaching seven feet in height and 20 stone in weight – but Jordan beat them at their game as well.

Had beaten them, I should say. No longer, it seemed, as October rolled on, and the season began. He looked tired and slow during his first game back. A battling performance left him with a shot to win in the final second – and everyone gasped a little as it banged awkwardly off the rim. I turned to bed with an even greater sense of loneliness: who would have thought that the gods of our youth would grow old? Ordinary human weakness had crept into his game. No one could understand why he had joined the Wizards, of all teams – a woeful collection of busts and left-overs that had won fewer than a quarter of its games the previous year. Jordan had failed as an executive, firing overpaid players, but leaving little behind. There was an air of bravado about his return, an old man shucking shirt and tie to clean up the mess he had made for himself. Only now he seemed to lack the skill for the job. Well, he deserved a deeper faith than that, and I would bide my time.

Time helped little, at first. In November, the Wizards proved no better than the year before – slightly worse in fact, as Jordan’s team-mates stood in awe of their former boss, and left him to muddle on by himself. He still came near the top of the league in scoring, but only from the excess of his opportunities. ‘Floor Jordan’, a writer dubbed him, bound to the hardwood he once sprang from so lightly. He had never lost so much in his life, eight games on the trot. And somehow this bothered me more than anything. Jordan, a man skilled in all ways of contending, had the gift of winning even when his side was outclassed, and I had supposed it would last into his middle age. I had seats for the ninth game, against a young Boston Celtics team whose stars had grown up idolising their diminished opponent.

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