Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Like Mike

When I tuned in to the Basketball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony last Friday, I was thinking about how much more I had in common with John Stockton than with Michael Jordan. Two hours later, as Jordan was wrapping up his induction speech, I was sobered by how much I really did have in common with the NBA's most iconic player.

The reaction to Jordan's Hall of Fame speech has been everything from predictable stale celebration to venomous outrage, with a little "this is what you get from someone with relentless competitive drive" in-between. I parted ways with the Air Jordan kool-aid crowd a long time ago, but I wasn't offended by his speech. At first I thought it was pretty funny, but by the end I realized the whole thing was kind of sad.

At the beginning of his speech, Jordan played by the script, doling out credit to those around him and displaying sincere emotion as he stood on the threshold of Basketball's Happy Hunting Ground. But as he continued with his anecdotes, and as the list of "I told you so" targets began to lengthen, the subtext of the speech grew into more of a tragedy than a celebration. When the cameras focused in on his high school teammate, the one who'd been picked ahead of him during Jordan's sophomore year, the oddity of his presence didn't quite set in. When Jordan chided his college coach for keeping him off the cover of Sports Illustrated, I thought he was still just ribbing. When he ranted about the Bulls' former General Manager, I laughed, knowing he was definitely off-script. But by the time he finished calling out former Jazz guard Byron Russell--a largely anonymous foe Jordan finished off over ten years ago--I recognized something I'd never noticed when I was twelve and hanging his posters on my wall, something that I never expected to go along with the myth and the success and the competitive spirit. What I saw was confounding insecurity.

Whenever I get turned down for a job, a school program, or even get rejected by a girl, there is a certain defiance that kicks in. A little part of me that says, "You just wait. One day you'll know what you missed out on." Even if I know I'm better off in the long run, wounded pride is a tough pill to swallow. It can take a long time to go away, too, especially if it takes a long time to make it to the next job or the next girl. In the heat of the moment, you may think about how satisfying it would be to confront your old opponent and wave your success in their face, to gloat in your ultimate triumph. But when you do overcome, most of the time you've gained enough perspective to find peace with your past. You just move on.

When Michael Jordan took the podium last weekend, he'd won six NBA titles, multiple league MVP's, multiple scoring titles, and was widely considered the greatest basketball player of all time. Yet in spite of all that, there was one thing he seemed to lack:


For a while I wondered, if he's so unhappy after accomplishing all he did, what would have happened to him if he hadn't been blessed with all the natural talent and athleticism that helped him to the pinnacle in the first place? But then I realized: the pressure and insecurity and competitiveness stemmed from that talent, and the responsibility and expectation of success that it carried. Whenever Jordan failed at anything, it ate at him because he knew he had something special, and he felt that people around him weren't acknowledging it. And somehow, his incredible accomplishments still haven't measured up enough to his expectations to give him any peace on the subject. For some reason, on the threshold of Basketball Immortality, Jordan felt like telling the world "I told you so" instead of, "what a ride, huh?"

He's still searching for something. Happiness, maybe. Who knows if he's going to find it. I just wonder what his example means for the rest of us.

In some ways, I feel like last weekend was the first time I ever saw the real Michael Jordan. Last spring, during last season's playoffs, I read "The Jordan Rules" by Sam Smith, about the Bulls' first title run back in 1991. The book got a lot of bad press at the time because the Michael Jordan it portrayed was a lot more flawed and egotistical than the Air Jordan we saw in the Gatorade commercials. It was ironic to read the book while Kobe Bryant was barreling his way to his first non-Shaq title; I couldn't help but wonder if Kobe has a lot more in common with Jordan than we give him credit for. Ten years from now, we might see Kobe at that podium saying something similar.

When the ceremony started, I felt like Jordan was the player I wanted to be, while Stockton was the player I was in reality. By the end of the proceedings, after hearing Stockton stumble through his humble remarks, I saw that in some ways, Stockton is the man I want to be, and Jordan is the man I am. Stockton doesn't care what the world thinks of him. Jordan cares way too much, and sometimes, so do I.