Michael Jordan biographer on the ‘painful lesson’ the basketball great learned with the Wizards

September 3, 2014

(Joel Richardson / TWP)

When Roland Lazenby — author of the new biography “Michael Jordan: The Life” and numerous other sports books — came to the Varsity Letters sports reading series in New York this summer, one intrepid Wizards fan hazarded a question. Lazenby had just wrapped up what largely came across as a defense of Michael Jordan, the person, who — since the end of the era of “Space Jam,” the McDonald’s commercial with Larry Bird, and “It’s Gotta Be the Shoes” — has seen less than favorable coverage.

“What do you make of Jordan’s time with the Wizards?” the Wizards fan asked, momentarily giving the underground bar where Lazenby spoke the same sort of hushed anticipation as a Thanksgiving dinner where someone mentions Uncle Larry’s affair, or the Cheever Letters, or whatever family secret no one’s brave enough to mention without being more than a few Scotches or eggnogs in.

After all, Jordan’s public descent from The Greatest to a mediocre NBA general manager who called a teen-aged No. 1 draft pick a pejorative slur that rhymes with Bob Saget’s last name began in Washington, with the Wizards.

A Wizards fan myself, I found Lazenby’s response (repeated below) interesting, as well as his Robert Caro-esque treatment of Jordan’s life and family, starting with Jordan’s great-grandfather.

A couple of weeks after the Varsity Letters reading, Lazenby was gracious enough to spend some time discussing Jordan, the Wizards, and even the possibility of a Kevin Durant homecoming. What follows is an edited version of our conversation, abridged to keep this from reaching tl;dr status.

Colin Wilhelm: You start out your book examining Michael Jordan’s family, starting out with his great-grandfather Dawson. Why did you choose to do this?

Roland Lazenby: I wanted to understand the family and the culture that Michael Jordan came from. In so many ways Nike did this breakthrough level of marketing with Michael Jordan, obviously, but the process of that sort of divorced him from his cultural background….To really understand him is to reconnect him with that cultural background.

Dawson Jordan — who was 5 feet 5 and crippled, his great-grandfather, who was born in 1891 and died when Michael was 14 — he was the patriarch of the family. He lorded over the Jordan family….So I wanted to bring all of that together to really explain the family culture of Michael Jordan.

CW: What’s one part of the Jordan mythology that’s more myth than fact?

RL: So much of the mythology is about his competitiveness, and everywhere I turned [pauses and laughs] ended up confirming the mythology. In so many ways when we have mythology, sometimes, the idea is that something is a myth, but what that means is it’s simply grown in the public mind. And Jordan’s competitiveness — it’s really fun to track that, and to watch it emerge in a variety of youth sports.

It was always his competitive nature that seemed to allow him to bulldoze whatever barriers got in his way. That tremendous competitiveness, which was even just emerging then, really helped him to sort of find his way to dominate.

CW: How much of the book do you spend on Jordan’s time with the Wizards, and what do you make of it?

RL: Well, I have a chapter on that. Jordan had never held a job. He infuriated his father — he refused to do any work. If he had to mow the lawn, he would take his allowance and pay someone else to do it. He only had a job for one week of his life. And he quit it. The irony is Michael Jordan works one week as an adolescent, and his pay stub from that one week of work is in the Cape Fear museum. How that happens, I’m not quite sure.

CW: What did he work as?

RL: He was cleaning swimming pools around a restaurant/hotel kind of thing with a swimming pool, and he had other sort of janitorial duties.

One, he hated water. He had some drowning incidents in his life, he couldn’t stand water. But the second thing was he admitted he did not want his friends to see him doing common labor, which is a frequent thought for adolescents….

Jordan went to the Wizards as a student in the Phil Jackson school of internal team relations. And Phil Jackson has capsized two franchises. He’s been very successful winning, and a lot of NBA coaches do this ‘Us versus Them’ thing, where ‘Those people in the organization, they’re not really worth much, we’re the team.’

If you look, [Jordan] did amazing things for the Wizards. They cleared up all the cap space. The thing that amazed all of Jordan’s close associates and observers — the great Johnny Bach being one of them, who was an assistant coach in Washington at the time — they all knew that when Jordan decided to play again, it was amazing to them, because it was very obvious the Wizards were not a team that could win. Jordan knew he could not win, and in his life he loathed any such situation.

But he was trying to find some way to relate. He had obviously infuriated the late Abe Pollin, the longtime owner of the Bullets, who then became the Wizards. Abe Pollin, this huge figure in the D.C. community, a philanthropist and a guy that loved basketball. But let’s face it, the Wizards were awful. And Abe Pollin was such a good guy, he never fired anyone. He was so loyal he would just tolerate [pauses] incompetence. The Wizards were a team that, their main marketing campaign was, ‘Well, our team’s not very good, but here are all the other teams coming to town that are going to be fun to watch.’

And it’s just sort of nauseating, and of course Jordan wanted no part of that mind-set. He wasn’t real cooperative. He had negotiated things where he had less engagement; you know, fundamental flaws in his plan from the start. Yet he made a team that had lost tens of millions, when he played he made $50 million or thereabouts in profit for Abe Pollin. But the old guy was so infuriated by Jordan and his management group and their aloofness, perceived disrespect, that the guy who never fired anyone fired Michael Jordan….

It was a very painful time and a very painful lesson for Jordan. Probably painful for the Wizards. It was ugly. Nobody benefits from ugly….

Jordan obviously still pursues a greatness agenda. The hard part of that is that he was so great, so magical, so otherworldly as a player that virtually anything he’s done in any other capacity has infuriated people, because they expect him to be superhuman in anything.

CW: This is an unauthorized biography; have you been given any feedback on the book by Jordan since it came out?

RL: I [have] not, and I didn’t expect any. I’ll go down to training camp in Charlotte. He’s always been friendly to me. I went and told him I was doing this, shook his hand. Nobody wants a biography, especially Jordan….I don’t know if he’ll remain friendly or not.

CW: So in closing, you’ve covered the NBA for decades, and in the spirit of totally unwarranted speculation, what do you think the chances are that Kevin Durant ends up with the Wizards in two years?

RL: Oh I think the NBA operates in themes. It is an entertainment business. Whoever presents a theme — it’s just the nature of popular culture. For better or worse, LeBron [James] has given us the ‘Going Home’ theme….

I don’t know, will [Oklahoma City] be depleted, will it be time to change the paradigm, will the Wizards finally have their act together? It looks like they are making great progress that way. But these are fragile things, the progress that NBA teams make. It doesn’t take much to lose progress….

The Eastern Conference has been a low bar now. It’s going to get a little better perhaps this year. That may frustrate things in Washington, or it may confirm them. That’s got to be settled this season. You know, the idea is you build on your win total, you make progress in the playoffs, your key figures grow up and get better at playing together. All those arrows are pointing up for the Wizards.

Colin Wilhelm is a New York-based writer and irrational Gilbert Arenas defender. He writes much more briefly @colinwilhelm.

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