By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, September 13, 2009
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.
The answer to my brother's question and to Wojnarowski's annoyance is because that's how he became Michael Jordan. Without that specific personality trait -- the need to win at everything all the time, forever -- he's somebody else, probably not in the Hall of Fame, probably accepting of Leroy Smith and Bryon Russell.
Jordan said himself toward the end of his speech that he took all these perceived slights as challenges and turned them into wood that made the fire rage. Michael Jordan has always known who he is and what he needed to be Michael Jordan. It's just that few people knew this particular side until Friday night and almost nobody knew he was going to let the wall down when he did.
Oh, there were some annoyed Hall of Famers and NBA people in the house Friday night who undoubtedly wanted comments that were typically safe and syrupy. But I love Jordan unplugged. For a quarter-century people said they wanted Jordan unvarnished. Yet when they got exactly that, they thought it was too rough.
Do we really need everybody to be the same? For anybody who loves basketball, the Hall of Fame ceremonies were more than, well, ceremonial.
There was more than enough graciousness before Jordan took the stage. David Robinson, during his speech, was measured and eloquent. It was a reminder that we never heard enough from Robinson as a player, perhaps because he played in such a small market or because humble doesn't sell like arrogance and self-promotion.
Stockton, who barely made a peep in a 19-year career, delivered a speech that was so smart and so funny he might as well have been Jon Stewart. Who knew? Jerry Sloan, for my money the toughest guard who ever played in the NBA, told me just before his speech, "This is the first time I've ever felt intimidated in my life."
Sloan hates ceremonies or formalness of any kind, and knew he would struggle with his emotions considering the recent losses in his life. Still, the room was completely silent when Sloan talked about attending an elementary school where all eight grades were in the same room. And he made more than a few of us, including Jordan, cry when he broke down upon mentioning the recently departed Norm Van Lier, his back-court mate and dear friend with the Chicago Bulls.
But of course, Jordan was the reason people came. Jordan was the reason the ceremony had to be moved from the Basketball Hall of Fame down the street to the much larger Symphony Hall. Jordan even quipped he was the reason the price of a ticket was jacked up to $1,000. Jordan was the reason I sat on an ESPN set just inches off the stage for a live telecast. Jordan, as he was since he hit that jump shot for North Carolina to beat Georgetown in March of 1982, was the reason we all got dressed up, sat up straight in our seats and waited to be engaged, to be entertained, to see something we could talk about for two or three more days. And damned if Michael Jordan didn't do exactly that one more time.