Michael Wilbon: No Chance of Taking the Air Out of Michael Jordan on His Induction Night

Michael Jordan let his emotions show on Friday during his induction speech, crying at the beginning and firing off zingers throughout.
Michael Jordan let his emotions show on Friday during his induction speech, crying at the beginning and firing off zingers throughout. (By Stephan Savoia -- Associated Press)
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By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, September 13, 2009

SPRINGFIELD, Mass.

For the better part of 25 years, Michael Jordan was praised to the heavens, but his public utterances were another story. His image, many said, was too managed. Too much corporate input, his critics said, from Nike to Gatorade to Wheaties. He wasn't real enough. He never let his hair down, if you'll pardon the expression. Never took stands, never spoke his mind, never let his adoring public see what made him tick, or let them understand what fueled his ruthless passion for basketball, for competition in general, and for, well, stomping all over other world-class opponents.

Well, in the ultimate curtain call Friday night, Jordan let it out publicly, for the first time in his career that most of us can remember. He wept at the beginning, then made us laugh, then called out a few folks including some nervous Hall of Famers, then warned us not to laugh about the assertion that he might come back to play basketball again at 50. It wasn't a speech so much as it was an entertaining rant, something you saw pretty often if you were one of Jordan's golf partners or card-playing friends or, to be honest, a sportswriter with an off-the-record relationship with him.

You can't accuse Jordan of picking on people who aren't his own size. The men who felt the needle Friday night included Pat Riley and Isiah Thomas, both of whom where sitting right in front of him. Even when the story was affectionate it had a little thorn at the end. Jordan said he still can't get over Dean Smith, whom he loves like a father, keeping him off the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1981 because Smith keeps a lid on all freshmen.

Speaking of another of his old coaches, former Bulls assistant Tex Winter, Jordan told the story of a game the Bulls were losing until he scored the final 18 or 20 points of the game. As Jordan came off the court, Winter looked at him and said, "Michael, there is no 'I' in team." Jordan said he shot back, "But there is an 'I' in win."

It's now a rather famous anecdote in the life and times of Michael Jordan that he was cut from the varsity when he was in high school. You think that's merely a footnote more than 30 years later? You think Jordan's forgotten the details or is willing to let go? Guess whom Jordan invited to the Hall of Fame Friday night? Leroy Smith, the kid who took his spot on the high school team. Jordan said he's still saying "to the coach who picked Leroy over me: 'You made a mistake, dude.' "

Bryon Russell, the Utah Jazz defender Jordan shoved aside as he rose for his last glorious championship shot for the Bulls, in 1998, had four years earlier made the mistake of telling Jordan he would shut Jordan down if he ever un-retired. You think that last shot in Salt Lake City evened the score? It's never even. Jordan called out Russell late in his speech Friday night, said he would come after Russell right now if he ever saw him in a pair of basketball shorts. "You heard him say it, didn't you, John?" Jordan said to John Stockton, a fellow inductee and Russell's teammate in Utah. As if Stockton wanted to be dragged into it.

He took a shot at Jerry Krause, the Bulls' general manager during the championship years, which pleased 90 percent of Chicagoans but came off to people in the hall as unnecessary. There were also shots at Knicks nemesis Jeff Van Gundy and a respectful jab at Riley.

Adrian Wojnarowski, writing for Yahoo Sports, said: "This wasn't a Hall of Fame induction speech, but a bully tripping nerds with lunch trays in the school cafeteria. Somehow, he thinks this is a cleansing exercise. When basketball wanted to celebrate Jordan as the greatest player ever, wanted to honor him for changing basketball everywhere, he was punitive and petty.

"Yes, there was some wink-wink teasing with his beloved Dean Smith, but make no mistake: Jordan revealed himself to be strangely bitter. You won, Michael. You won it all."

My brother, Don, called me first thing Saturday morning, having watched Jordan's induction, and said, "Why did Michael, who's the most beloved, the most revered athlete in history need to have a chip on his shoulder on the night he's inducted into the Hall of Fame?" Something you should know about my brother: He named his only son Jordan.


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