Sunday, August 09, 2009

When Nothing Else Matters: Michael Jordan's Last Comeback | Michael Leahy

This novel chronicles the three years of Michael Jordan's comeback (from 2001 to 2003), written by Washington Post journalist Michael Leahy.

It seemed like a storybook ending. After his game winning shot in 1998 to beat the Utah Jazz and take home his sixth title, Michael Jordan retired for the second time. He had accomplished so many accolades over the course of his career:

Rookie of the Year
Five Time NBA MVP
Six Time NBA Champion
Six Time NBA Finals MVP
Ten Time All-NBA First Team
Nine Time All-Defensive First Team
Defensive Player of the Year
Fourteen Time NBA All-Star
Three Time NBA All-Star MVP
Ten Time Scoring Champion

All the hardware meant nothing to Michael Jordan. It was the love of the game, the desire for competition and the need for being 'it' that brought him back to the NBA to play out his last two seasons for the Washington Wizards.

This novel reveals some interesting things about Michael, both on the court and off. However, it's the feeling you get at the end of the book that you KNOW WHY Michael came back. You UNDERSTAND because Leahy takes you into his mind and shows you his thought processes (or at least as much as one can from a third party perspective). This is what makes this book so unique and enthralling.

Leahy gives us insight into Jordan's methodical approach to games and his constant search for information to use to his advantage. He takes you through his arguably inhumane treatment of his teammates and consequently, his lack of locker room friendships. Players had to prove themselves to Michael, and if they did not, they were constantly ridiculed. Jordan turned everything into a contest - something that could be bet on or used for bragging rights. It was about the competition and the adrenaline. Michael needed this, for whatever reason.

The book also shows you some interesting tidbits behind the scenes. It shows David Stern's role in the Jordan comeback. There is some insight into Doug Collins (Jordan's self-appointed coach) and his relationship with his #1 draft pick, Kwame Brown. Leahy details the relationships Jordan had with his teammate stars: Rip Hamilton and Jerry Stackhouse. Of particular interest to me, was how Jordan advocated trading for Stackhouse due to his grit. I think Jordan respected Stack because he would not back down to him, and he saw a lot of himself in the youngster. Unfortunately, the two players styles did not co-exist.

The book portrayed the different lives of NBA players - stars, average players and marginal players. It gave me some insight into front office politics and the manipulation of media by Jordan. This was probably the most fascinating part of the novel - a good insight into the mutually symbiotic relationship between the game and the media.

The book chronicled the personal relationships of Jordan, including the Karla Knafel affair and the divorce to Juanita Jordan. It showed the ownership struggles between Abe Pollin and Michael Jordan, leading to MJ's eventual firing after the 2002-03 season.

The book was extremely compelling and produced a balanced viewpoint on the Michael Jordan comeback years. The novel was able to look from the outside and realize that the story was ultimately about a game that men play to entertain society - to give people a break from their lives. It detailed the absurdity of even Michael Leahy's life - missing out on holidays and children's birthdays to chronicle what music Michael Jordan was listening to before his games or what side bet he had with members of the media. The greed of owners was presented and the inevitable struggle of an aging idol was presented - coupled with the fall in esteem from fans, media and owners.

Ultimately, the feelings I get from this book about Jordan are mixed. On the surface, he was unable to cope with his changing body. Underneath, he was unable to adapt his selfish actions and grasp the larger picture. He was the greatest player to ever play basketball, but that wasn't enough to make up for his treatment of bosses, teammates, media, fans and society in general. Eventually, these things will catch up to you - especially when you cease to be everyones financial meal ticket.

Jordan got what was coming to him - but I still can't help but feel sorry for him. His greatness in basketball couldn't make up for his ignorance of life. You can choose to blame him or the system that churns out young kids and gives them responsibilities they may not be able to handle (or both). Either way, when you look at Michael Jordan's story holistically, you can't help but feel something personally. My childhood delusions were once again cleared - Jordan was only a man with strong desires and amazing basketball abilities. Michael Leahy's novel brings us back to reality.

"[Rival players] are going to take it to him," (Jon) Barry said.  "Going to try to take the throne.  There's going to be no mercy.  There's never mercy in this game, but there's especially not going to be any for him.  He showed none.  He was the king in exile, and now he's back and they want payback and want what he has.  And until they take it, they can't have it, so they're going to take it to him."  73

"Though the NBA did not reveal the identities of referees until shortly prior to a game, Jordan wanted their names brought to him on a card 45 minutes before tipoff, so he could have an idea how tightly or loosely a game would be officiated.  There was so much to do in thate hours before a game, he told aides.  Didn't people understand that?  He wanted no autograph signings, no posing for photos, no interviews, no distractions.  Anything that took him out of his pregame routine was a potential hindrance to his play."  90-91

"THere is an immutable law in basketball: someone must fall for someone else to rise.  Those at the top stay there only by beating down those just beneath them." 121

"In his prime, arriving in a city to find that its big gun at guard had suddenly come down with an injury or illness, he often privately dubbed the fooe's malady 'Jordanitis.'  It was basketball's version of an early TKO: He had scared the foe into sitting on his stool, instead of coming out to fight him.  These were victories inside the victories, and they mattered no less to him than the real thing." 121

"Jerry Krause, in trying to bar Jordan from playing at the end of the prvious season so as to extend his rehab, had told his star that his return to the court was a matter for the club, not Jordan, to decide; that Jordan was the Bull's 'property.'  An insulted Jordan played anyway, and never really forgave Krause.  Good political sense dictated avoiding the issue if one wanted to remain in Jordan's good graces."  165

"The NBA's so-called luxury tax - the levy imposed on high-spending teams whose player salaries exceed a ceiling reflective of a defined ration of league revenue - already had likely disappeared for the season, in large part because the jump in revenue from Jordan's presence allowed for larger aggregate player salaries, thereby pushing the year's salary cap beyond even the most profligate teams' expenditures.  Three NBA big spenders originally projected to be hit by the tax - Dallas, New York and Portland - consequently would pay nothing, saving their owners an estimated $60 million."  170

"Tweaked is sports parlance, a nice catchall word used when nobody has the slightest idea what is going on with an athlete's body.  Tweaked is to be employed when the grimacing athlete isn't writing.  Anything tweaked is thought to be no serious cause for concern, nothing more than a momentary pain." 227

"...if the NBA allowed a time-out every possession and the team could huddle up like a football squad, the Wizards would have a chance of winning every game; that no one in the league was better at freeing up someone for a shot than Collins." 229

"By then the media looked restless, as if Jordan wasn't getting around to what they most wanted him to talk about.  Finally, a reporter raised the subject: 'This is for Allen.  You played against Michael and Kobe both this year.'

Jordan was already smirking.

The reporter went on: 'Can you compare the two guys, and maybe think back on Michael before the retirement and compare the two ]Jordan's and Bryant's] games?'

Jordan sliced in.  'I wouldn't answer that question if I were you.  but go ahead.'

Iverson looked heistant.

'That's an unfair question,' Jordan went on. 'Truly.'

'You heard what he said,' Iverson said to the reporter.

'Next,' Jordan commanded, and the question was officially rejected."

"Once Bryant became preoccupied with a matchup, it threatened his ability to see the rest of a game." 255

"He was guarded in those last seconds by the 6'9" [Jerome] Williams, one of the league's toughest defensive players..." 279    HAHAHA

"He had, as John Hefferon observed, a 39-year-old's knees but a 25-year-old's dreams."  287

"To spend two seasons following a professional team is to understand that, in every moment, the game exists to pry away fan's dollars.  That's it; that's the deal.  The next thing to understand is that ball teams, like casinos, need you not to mind having your money pried away.  It is not that you don't hknow the prying is happening.  It's that you know and that you have decided there is some feeling that comes over you in the arena that makes it all right that your money has been lifted in the form of that C-note for the seats, the twenty for parking, the fifty on drinks and munchies.

I always wondered what could draw people, night after night, to what is after all just a game.  but in a world marred by so much imperfection and loss, on frigid winter days when the sun died too early and a man felt the chill of his life's regrets, it was nice sometimes just to drive to the arena with the defroster on and contemplate the possibility of seeing Michael Jordan perform brilliantly, to imagine fallaway jumpers rippling nets, again and again.  There is a benefit to being reminded that we are not so hardhearted that we cannot be moved like small children, that there remains room in our lives for something as mysterious as magic.  That is why we always have had sports, loved sports.  And there are winners there, unambiguous winners.  It can be uplifting, when, in truth, not much else is.

When the fans screamed as they screamed that night, they signaled their happiness with the delirium, which the reasonable among them understood could not be described and would not last.  Wha6tever pleasant sensation they had likely would be gone by the time they left the arena and found their cars.  But they had it for an instant.  And then Jordan came out of the time-out and hit another jumper and a couple of his teammates hit shots and now the din in the arena sounded like a wail, a plea, as it always does when the home team struggles in a tight game.

There is something achingly prayerful about it - I don't mean anything religious - but prayerful just the same, the screamers wanting something to lift them for a few seconds, to remind them that obstancles are not always insurmountable.  People pray with their shouts.  And if, afterward, they don't precisely know what they felt or why, they remember vaguely this stirring, and that keeps them coming bck to the games and to a Jordan, which perhaps is something worth having your money pried away for, every once in a while." 355-356
"There is no greater exercise in corporate self-love than an NBA All-Star weekend.  Every league event is designated to tout the product and trumpet the sterling character of the All-Stars.  Nearly all the players, it is pointed out, have a favorite charity.  A few emphasize the importance of reading to children.  The league distributes publicity sheets in case media attendees forget.  Sports commentators working for the networks demonstrate an uncanny instinct for self-preservation, by not straying from the spirit of the publicity sheets.  Over the years, they have been particularly supportive by not mentioning any of the following: charges for drug possession, gun possession, domestic battery and sexual assault, along with nightclub scuffles, civil suits or hush-money payments made to conceal extramarital affairs - anything, in short, that might raise a question about a star or the product.  The commentators sunnily emphasize the positive." 357

"If you were talking to refs, you needed to know how to talk to them for maximum benefit.  Never scream, never embarrass them, if you can help it, he advised.  Talk conversationally, tease them, gently lecture them and do it discreetly, so they do not feel exposed in front of a crowd or television audience.  You get the most that way." 367

" 'For some reason, Michael gets a satisfaction out of humiliating people,' [Tex Winters] said.  'I think it might be part of his competitive nature.  I think he competes even there... [in] personal relationships.' " 386

"Either the shout of 'Zipper' or the motion of a zipper being opened meant that the Wizards would be isolating a portion of the court for Stackhouse, who would try to beat a defender on-on-one.

The Wizards understood that the Lakers knew these plays.  All NBA teams, especially late in the season, know their opponents' offenses and basic play-calls.  They know their opponents know theirs.  They don't give a damn.  The attitude becomes, if you can stop us, you win that possession.  We think we can score on you even if you know where the ball is going." 39

1 comment:

Granville said...

Curious, after reading "When Nothing Else Matters", if you're in any way surprised by Jordan's almost obliviously petty HoF ceremony comments yesterday.

It certainly wasn't surprising to me. It reminded me of Jordan's careful cultivation of his image, his punishment of media who wrote stories that honestly were fair game for someone in the public eye and not even especially vicious. Because for the first time maybe since he was a teenager, he didn't have anything to sell to the people watching. No shoes to sell (well, he's still got a stake in that, but it's no longer based on what people think of him), no image to protect. That tight cocoon that's described so well in here... well, that's gone now. There's no need to tread softly anymore.

And hey, he can stand up there and do nothing but stare sullenly at Jerry Krause with his middle finger up for 20 minutes straight for all I care. He's probably earned the right to do that.

But the last speech I heard of this magnitude by a Chicago sports star was by a frail Walter Payton a few months before he died when he said "Nobody promises you tomorrow." I've thought about that line so many times since then. It's probably the only philosophical lesson I've ever drawn from an athlete. What a remarkably stoic way for a human being whose body set him far beyond 99% of the population to confront its failings. What an amazing way to look at what anyone would have to admit is being dealt a really bad hand. And through some tough times that have come in my own life since then, dealing with death which just always seems so unjustified, I've actually found myself saying the same thing: Nobody promises you tomorrow. It's like an affirmation and a admission at the same time.

It just seemed so... so unnecessary. So pointless. Almost self-indulgent. Like everything he said mattered about 4,000 times more to him than to anyone else on the planet. Like a person describing in minute detail the sandwich they had for lunch. Hey, good for you and all... but after five minutes I'm looking at my watch. After ten I'm wondering if there's something seriously wrong with you. After fifteen, I'm fairly well convinced you're suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

And as you mention at the end of your post... in some ways, I feel sorry for him. There's no doubt he changed basketball more than any other human being probably since it was invented, and that degree of fame has definitely stunted him as a person. Leahy mentions this: Dean Smith, his old coach, had a number of passionate concerns outside of basketball, from civil rights to being an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. It worried him, per Leahy, that Jordan hadn't developed any interest outside of basketball, that he had retired from the game and seemed to lack any kind of personal development. Leahy compares this to Magic Johnson, who had his own doomed comeback but since then has really become a well-rounded person with passions beyond what he used to do for a living.

I don't think anyone on this planet can relate to what it was like to wake up as Michael Jordan for twenty years. If that was the "real" Jordan in a brief snapshot, I'm not sure I'd like to know.