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.

Washington’s MCI Center stands at the edge of one of the smallest Chinatowns in North America – a short stretch of road between banks and thirtysomething bars. A tout smoking menthol cigarettes told me not to worry, ‘the man wasn’t born to lose – he’ll get themselves righted before long.’ And then, as I settled at the edge of my seat in the ‘nose-bleed’ section, I saw him: glossy-headed, a little heavier than before, but instantly distinguished from his team-mates by the prowl in his gait. Lord Peter Wimsey said that you can never mistake a fellow’s back; the same may be said of Jordan’s walk. It’s not lighter, or swifter than his peers’ – not now. But these qualities matter less in basketball than balance, a rhythm that develops in men used to timing their steps to the bounce of a ball. Jordan’s most casual footfall suggests infinite possibilities of withheld movement. He can stop, or turn, or leap from any instant in his gait. At full speed, he still moves as if kept under his own tight rein – as if he might yet, at any moment, unleash himself.

Jordan’s presence in that crowded dome cannot be overstated. A figure no larger than a thumb to much of the audience (myself included), he seemed to draw all the lights glittering over the hardwood and to step in their sparkle. Every time he touched the ball, twenty thousand watchers held their breath. Shoot it, Mike, they said. Come on, show them what you’ve still got. Whenever he scored, we erupted; whenever he failed, the air slackened with sighs. We pressed our knuckles against our palms, sweating like gamblers, baffled and faithful at once. As I squirrelled my way to better seats, ducking security guards and soda salesmen, I recalled another occasion, five years before, over which Jordan had presided.

I had landed a job playing ball in Landshut, a small market town north of Munich. (The local Hitachi firm sponsored the team, but our uniforms came late, so most of the year we advertised our old sponsors: a yoghurt company. This did not induce fear.) NBC Europe carried news of American basketball at six o’clock each Wednesday – practice began at six thirty. Whenever Jordan played, we all came late to work. Even the old pros, journeymen who had chased the game across several continents for a buck, lingered to watch him, their gymbags neglected in the doorway. We were not a happy team, I should say, and folded half-way through the season, owing to financial troubles.

One night Jordan scored fifty-odd, one of the nights he couldn’t be stopped, when a game of ten men became an instrument for his individual fancy. Everyone came to practice slightly drunk on him, talking loudly, saying the same things. Old hacks at the edge of retirement, kids looking to make a name before moving on. Me. Shouting over each other, desperate to persuade, though everyone already agreed: did you see Michael do this or that, we crowed – yes, that’s just what I meant to say; that’s just what I’ve been trying to tell you. That genius is different, not only in degree, but in kind, from excellence, from you and me. He seemed proof of some obscure, barely conscious faith: that human kind was capable of something other than our hard-fought, muddling mediocrity. Everyone stayed late that night, showing off, dunking from a dozen feet out, to prove we had a touch of whatever Jordan had, if only a touch.

By half-time at the MCI Center, I’d managed to sneak into the front rows, just behind the basket – close enough to see the sweat running into Jordan’s eyes. Hard-fought mediocrity would have delighted the Wizards, stuck at the bottom of the league at two and nine, free of relegation only because the NBA allows its cellar-dwellers to remain where they are. But something about Jordan’s play that night persuaded me they would not linger: something to do with the extent of his will, the scope of his influence over the game. He played poorly, I should say: missed easy shots, chased the game, dragged his shorts with tired hands below his knees at every break, winded, his legs growing heavier by the minute. Even at the breathless end – a tie game, the ball in his hands – he struggled to get his shot off and struck the back rim, utterly spent.

And yet, clear to us all, the game was his, belonged to him. He played with an appearance of inside information, privy to intentions his opponents had yet to form, anticipating decisions they concluded only as he thwarted them. He subtly fashioned even the Celtics’ designs, stole one pass with his back turned. The Wizards seemed simply an extension of him. At one point, I saw him lift his team-mate – 6’ 8”, 18 stone Popeye Jones – into place, and then spin off him to get free.

They won that night, in overtime. Jordan, knowing his legs were gone, allowed his team-mates to step into the free space around him. Even the memory of his talent demanded attention, and that attention allowed the rest to slip in. The streak was over: Jordan had won again. Twenty thousand of us walked out happy.

Imagine the power of Jordan’s charm to an American boy, the charm of a man who lived his life entirely as he might have imagined it in his own boyhood. No one in his family had ever breached six feet in height. He used, he said, to hang on gym bars to stretch himself out, and grew at last, light and long-armed, with hands that could pluck a basketball like an apple from the air. A country kid, he won an athletic scholarship to the State University of North Carolina. At 19, in the national title game, in a crowd of lights and cameras, his team trailing by one, he stepped into a pass in the corner, and sank the championship shot as the seconds ran out. How slow he seemed to move, with such deliberation, as if the principle involved were infinitely more important than the outcome, the principle of shooting a basketball: dip the legs slightly, rise to the shot, elbow square and straight, ball resting on the withheld palm, then flick the wrist, straighten faithfully, while man and ball begin to sink. The way a man shoots a basketball is a record of decades of solitary passion, in backyards and empty gyms, as he looks to make a hard thing easy. In the next two years, Jordan won an Olympic Gold and turned professional, discovering, perhaps to his own amazement, that he was not only the best college player in the country, but the best player.

Many of us can remember our first disappointment, when we come across someone who is stronger, cleverer, sexually more adept; and later, when we find the world is full of them, we learn to accept our diminished proportion and give up playing the games we know we’ll lose.

For an athlete, that acceptance comes late. He tears up the playing fields of primary school, then reaches the big boys, and after a few learning pains, discovers they’re not so big, or fast, or strong, after all. They begin to shrink around him. A young ball player should be forgiven his air of bewildered arrogance. He lives his life in a natural progression from childhood, unbroken by the disappointment of awakening. At each stage the world parts before him; until the last, when he turns professional and discovers the others who are like him. Then he learns to be beaten much too quickly for his own good.

As I learned. Lonely as I had never been, stuck in small-town Bavaria, the track outside my digs leading only to a turkey farm and grain fields. We were an odd collection of men: a local high-school kid with half a moustache he had never shaved; an Argentinian who played his college basketball in Indiana; two Croatians; a lumbering PhD student from Berlin; a young engineer from Munich; an Ivory Coaster; and our superstar, a black man from San Antonio who once got a try-out, he said, for the Spurs – a man who had lived so long on the road that he had constructed his own religion out of the Bible, and spent bus-rides studying the statistics of holy battles. We were learning to cope with the ordinary truth sport brings out more clearly than any other endeavour: there is always somebody better.

Except Jordan never learned it. He came third in scoring his first year for the otherwise unremarkable Chicago Bulls; and in his second, after an ankle injury that wasted most of his season, he returned for the play-offs to score 63 points against a great Boston Celtics team. (Half-centuries are rare in basketball; Jordan has nearly forty of them.) His opponent Larry Bird, considered at the time to be the best player in the league, said afterwards that he had seen God come down to Earth as a basketball player. Jordan had teased him that afternoon, in the silly excess of his superiority, using the ball in his hands like a string to irritate a cat. Or rather, he seemed not so much a man among boys as a boy among men – a slightly puppyish creature, all legs and arms, untouched by disappointment or fatigue, forcing his stubborn and older companions to play with him. The trouble was that his own team-mates could not keep up – and the Bulls lost both that game and the series.

His career, like any artist’s, spans distinct periods; in his case, they are defined by his relationship to the team. His first incarnation in the league belongs to his abundant period, in which he tested the rare limits of his individual talent. When teams discovered no single player could mark him, they sent two or three or four defenders at him, and he worked out ways between or around or over them, and scored and scored and scored. But his club kept losing in the final stages, against the ‘bad boys’ of Detroit, uglier but more disciplined opposition, who won consecutive championships in the late 1980s. Word went round that Jordan didn’t know how to win. He is a genius, the journalists said, and the greatest athlete of his generation; but he isn’t a basketball player. He must learn to trust those less talented than himself. The first championship, when it came, was seen not only as a lesson in such faith, but as a broader triumph: of grace over power.

After the first retirement, and his quixotic attempt to take up professional baseball in his early thirties, the second period began. Jordan, wiser, half a step slower, had learned to blend into the game, to infuse rather than become the team. These four years (during which time the Bulls won three championships) saw one of the great teams in history. Chicago assembled an almost perfect complement of talent, of gruff and grace, touch and tenacity. In his first full season back, the Bulls won 72 of a possible 82 games, a league record. I was in Germany then, looking for basketball jobs. After the final game of the championship, I walked in the early morning through the Hamburg streets with this image of Jordan: bent over, cradling the victory ball in his arms again after a painful three-year gap, and wondering how often he would know the joy of such excellence again. The answer was twice.

The end, two years later, was nearly perfect. But by the time it came, I had quit basketball in some bitterness and returned to university. A boy’s life, I discovered, proved strangely joyless for a man. A year playing professionally in a Bavarian backwater had taught me just how far my talents, boundless in imagination, stretched in reality: the second division south in the German basketball federation was just about the limit. The meaningless repetitions of the game had worn me down. At the time I quit, basketball seemed a haven for children who could not face the rest of life, and were blessed, by nature, with an alternative. I have never met a set of men who impressed me as much by the great merit of their craft, both natural and acquired, as the mediocre stars of that middling league.

An athlete, I discovered, must train his desire like any other muscle, and extend the field of its influence. These men, lazy every other minute of their lives, takers of lifts and free rides, TV watchers and frozen-food eaters, shirkers as soon as the coach turned his eye, were capable of concentrations of effort that left me, physically, gasping. Repetition sharpened them, and dulled me. They were good at what they did; so good, that the reaches of excellence above them are almost unimaginable.

Jordan practises as furiously as he plays, runs drills as if his life depended on them. Practice, as I found to my cost, establishes the hierarchy in a team. Anyone can rise to an occasion, but to beat all rivals at the season’s thousandth ‘suicide’ (a running drill, in which players run to the foul line, touch it, return to the end line, touch it, sprint to mid-court, touch it, return to the end line, touch it, sprint to the far foul line, touch it, return etc) requires a truly indefatigable sense of purpose. Jordan’s unrelenting aggression has driven weaker team-mates out of the game entirely, undermined their self-belief to the extent that their simplest skills, ingrained since childhood, deserted them. (Something of the kind happened to me.) He has ruined opposing clubs, defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers, for instance, so often and in such heart-breaking fashion that coaches resigned and players retired or were sold. Whole teams were fashioned simply to stop him, and failed.

Jordan’s teams won even when they had no business winning, when they were outmatched – as they were in June three years ago, in the last game anyone thought he would play. I lived in Britain at the time and stayed up to watch that championship match on TV – a gesture towards my childhood. Embittered by basketball, I drank cold tea and pinched myself awake, huddled in front of the flickering box in my college room, hoping he might sweeten the game for me again.

Jordan had carried his side single-handed. Scottie Pippen, his only team-mate of comparable talent, could barely move with a stiff back. In the final minute, Jordan drove through a forest of opposition and laid a high slow shot off the glass to tie the score. On the next play, he snuck up on the opposing star and stripped the ball, embraced it briefly, and dribbled slowly up the court as the seconds ran down. He waited, strode sharp and hard to his right, and then, with the lightest tap of farewell on the bottom of his marker, rose to the shot that would clinch victory, leaving his arm in the air – turning the classic of form into a gesture of final triumph. There seemed (once more) nothing left for him to prove. The question that occupied most of my generation was why, at the approach of forty, he should return to the game from which he had taken such a perfect leave. In the event, the reason was simple. He had an itch to scratch, he said.

There has always been something boyish about him – to his credit and to his shame. Boyish, mostly, in his loyalties: to the State University of North Carolina, where he first made his name, whose blue shorts he wears under every outfit, tracksuit and suit alike; whose former students he recruits to play beside him. Loyal to Nike, the company that promoted him, for whom he draped an American flag across his Olympic uniform to hide the Reebok label, as he stood on the winners’ platform. When he first retired, he tried his hand at baseball – a first love – and spent two years ‘shagging flies’, as they say, for a minor league squad in Birmingham, Alabama. The only mark of his celebrity was the big, comfortable bus he bought the squad for road trips. When he came back, he changed his jersey, from the famous 23 to 45 – in honour of his murdered father. But after a series of uncharacteristic struggles, he switched to his old number.

The fact that he has begun to succeed once more – turning a terrible team into a good one, no more than that – is now seen as one of the great achievements of his career. After his triumph against Boston in November, he began to win again and again – nine on the trot, equalling a franchise record. He has now entered the third stage of his career, in which his direction of the team is so complete that he can smooth himself into the corners and let the rest get on with it. In the course of the streak, for the first time in his career, he allowed his team-mates to outscore him. Jordan has learned to delegate. He has learned what his early critics feared he never would, to become not only the greatest athlete of his generation, but the greatest basketball player. One cannot watch a game today without seeing his influence: on cross-overs, turn-arounds, fade-aways.

After that nine-game streak, the Wizards lost Christian Laettner and Rip Hamilton, their rising star, to injury. Two quick defeats and one of the worst performances of Jordan’s career, a six-point effort in a blow-out against Indiana (only the second time ever he has failed to score ten), had the critics talking again. They played Charlotte next, a rising young club from Jordan’s home state. It’s received wisdom that the worst time to catch Jordan is after an off game.

He sank his first four shots just to show he was in the mood. He scored 24 points in the first quarter alone, 51 in the whole game – the 39th half-century of his career. The Wizards won. I caught the game on TV, saw Jordan breathing heavily between smiles: the look of a man whose itch was being scratched. The night after, against the best team in the Conference, he scored 45 points, 22 of them consecutively, setting a club record, and falling one short of the league record – the famous 23 on his jersey – which he himself set when playing for the Bulls. Look, he seemed to say in the press conference afterwards, do I still have to explain this? You should know by now.

It’s worth remembering a time when Jordan’s legend was still in doubt – when he seemed to be only another great player. On the eve of his second championship, against the Portland Trail Blazers and Clyde ‘the Glide’ Drexler, another swift tall man who could jump to the moon, the press compared the rival stars. Drexler, they said, is a better three-point shooter – better, that is, at launching the ball from beyond the three-point line across 24 feet of court, an arc of at least forty feet – into its little pot at the end of the rainbow. Jordan responded, enigmatically, that Drexler was a better shooter only than he himself ‘chose to be’. The next night, good as his word, he knocked down six three-pointers in the first half, setting an NBA record for long-range shots on the way to victory.

Everyone has the moments they remember him for. The time he leapt from a dozen feet out towards the hoop, raising the ball high in his right hand as he rose to the rim, towering over the defence, and then, from sheer excess of high spirits and natural gifts, shifting the ball to his left hand, turning his back to the goal and flipping the ball above his head and in, as he came down. This, incidentally, in a championship game. The time he jumped over a man – 6'9", as it happens – on his way to a dunk, and hung, with his hand on the rim and his feet draped around the defender’s shoulders, suspended in mid-air, caught half-way between sinking and soaring.

But what I remember most clearly is Jordan motionless. I remember rising to my feet, in a crowd of twenty thousand rising to their feet, at the end of the game against the Celtics – pulled up as it were by twenty thousand invisible strings attached to him. The score was tied; there were ten seconds left on the clock. Jordan stood in a glitter of lights at the top of the key, as still as any stone, waiting for the time to run down before he made his move, the basketball held lightly against his belly. Cameras flashed and fizzed. Our palms sweated of course, and we held our breath; but what I recall isn’t the nerves, but the sheer delight of waiting to watch him move, counting the seconds and wondering: what will he do next?