WHEN NOTHING ELSE MATTERS
Michael Jordan's Last Comeback
By Michael Leahy
Simon & Schuster. 435 pp. $26
In more than a decade of writing about sports, I've been ignored, patronized, spun, counter-spun, stood up, lied to, pelted with platitudes and, yes, assaulted. (The place: Shea Stadium, 1993. The perp: Bret Saberhagen. The weapon: a Super Soaker filled with bleach.) What I've rarely been, as I stood with tape recorder in hand in front of a half-naked superstar, is enlightened.
"When Nothing Else Matters," by Michael Leahy, explores the strange symbiosis between sportswriters and their subjects. Leahy covered Michael Jordan for The Washington Post during his star-crossed comeback with the Washington Wizards. (I've never crossed paths with Leahy, inside the arena or out.) His beat wasn't the team but Jordan himself, and this makes for an illuminating look at the NBA's sweat-drenched "mythmaking machine." If there's a slice of biography in this book, it is very much unauthorized. Leahy's only one-on-one interview with Jordan came while the then-retired star was still ensconced in the team's front office. When Leahy was assigned to cover Jordan, his aides-de-camp quickly dangled the promise of more and better access to His Airness if he promised not to write a book.
But Leahy is quick to point out that this kind of inside access is a double-edged sword. "They can tell their friends and colleagues that they have the athlete's private cell-phone number and can get him on the phone when big stories break," he writes. "But what sportswriters in that situation never tell their readers is that their access lasts only as long as their cooperation does. . . . And it is a short fall from being a sportswriter to being an adjunct publicist."
Instead of trading his objectivity for a few juicy quotes, Leahy did what every good journalist should do: He reported. He stepped back from the superstar's inner circle and simply watched. He observed Jordan from afar, participated in the daily media scrum and cultivated other sources on the team. While it wasn't easy, or even comfortable ("It's very peculiar, even squirrelly when you think about it -- to be forever stealing looks at a single human being"), Leahy ultimately came up with a deeper and more nuanced portrait than he could have assembled from the cliches that tumbled from Jordan's own lips.
That said, "When Nothing Else Matters" is hardly an exposé. Sure, there are ugly moments, such as Jordan's dressing down of rookie Kwame Brown. As an executive with the Wizards, Jordan made Brown the first overall pick in the NBA draft, the first high-schooler ever given that honor. When a confused and out-of-shape Brown proved to be out of his depth among the pros -- literally a boy among men -- Jordan briefly took him under his wing. But when Brown's lack of progress threatened to hinder Jordan's on-court comeback, the legend lashed out at his onetime protege in practice. "You don't get a foul call on a goddamn little touch foul," shouted Jordan, punctuating the outburst with a stream of homophobic slurs. Tough love or simple bullying? The latter, Leahy contends, but Jordan's mean streak would hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has read Sam Smith's 1991 bestseller, the dishy "The Jordan Rules."
While then-Wizards coach Doug Collins calls Leahy "a stalker," the boundaries of the author's inquiry seem to be well drawn. He speculates on Jordan's family life only to the degree to which it became public through a divorce filing and a spate of lawsuits from spurned lovers. And when Leahy reports on Jordan's high-stakes -- but completely legal -- casino gambling, the money isn't the issue; the writer is quick to note that, to Jordan, being down half a mil is like the average working stiff losing $600. What's on display in Pit 21 at the Mohegan Sun Casino was Jordan's obsessiveness, his inability to walk away from a losing hand, his stubborn insistence that luck would again turn his way, simply because it always had. "What did this say about how helpless he seemed to be against the pull of his appetites?" Leahy wonders.
At its best, "When Nothing Else Matters" is the fourth act of a Shakespeare play, the one where the hero's tragic flaws are revealed. And during his comeback, Jordan is Macbeth in high-tops, with the same drive that made him a legend now undermining him as he struggles to ignore a chronic knee injury that ultimately would end his season.
A more costly case of self-delusion arises over matters of money and power. To make his comeback, Jordan naively leaves his front-office position without any guarantee of a return, formal or otherwise. This allows Wizards owner Abe Pollin to exploit him as the franchise's cash cow -- the team sold out virtually every home and road game during Jordan's comeback -- and then muscle him out of management once his playing days are through. "When I think of Pollin from this period, I have this image of a smiling crocodile, waiting," Leahy writes. In the executive suite, it turns out, Jordan is Kwame Brown.
Leahy fleshes out the story of Jordan's bittersweet final seasons with revealing cameos of the supporting cast. Former Bulls coach Phil Jackson, one of the most misunderstood characters in sports, is often portrayed as the hardwood version of Obi-Wan Kenobi, but Leahy sees through his thin veil of Zen. "Jackson's passion for transcendentalism never had made him gentle," he explains. "He didn't shy away from bruising people when he thought they stood in the way of his winning."
Contrast Jackson with Collins, a clipboard genius who is clueless when it comes to dealing with his players. He sees how much Jordan's game has slipped, but Collins cannot bring himself to tell the emperor that he has no clothes. "His public pain said nothing so much as this: He had lost the team," writes Leahy of Collins's public self-immolation at his final news conference. "He had lost it while abiding by Jordan's wishes."
By keeping his distance, Leahy paints a portrait of Michael Jordan as an ESPN-age version of John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, a fallen hero trying in vain to recapture his youth. And the picture isn't pretty. "We . . . don't want a god looking as though losing will leave him despondent at 40, that he is so desperate to win he'll mock and harass greenhorn teammates not much more than half his age," Leahy explains. "A new view of Jordan had taken hold: He clung too hard. He would never let go."
"When Nothing Else Matters" tells the gripping tale of an aging superstar moving reluctantly from the one place where he was in complete control to a world where the rules weren't as clear-cut. It was only after he laced up his Air Jordans for the last time that the icon came to see the flip side of the Faustian deal he had struck with the guys with the cameras and the notebooks: The fealty inspired by a game-winning jump shot -- and a juicy quote afterward -- may be real, but it is far from lasting.