Basketball great Michael Jordan turns 50 on Sunday
David Aldridge: Jordan was epitome of "that desire to win that mutated into obsession"
Jordan was the best player, most determined and toughest mentally, Aldridge says
Aldridge: "His will was second to none. He took everyone on, and ultimately beat them"
To contemplate Michael Jordan turning 50 on Sunday is to witness one’s youth floating out with the tide, the water as merciless in its mission as Jordan was in his prime. He is in the sweet spot of the old “Saturday Night Live” sketch featuring Mike Myers, “Middle Aged Man,” about a guy who was older and wiser, and who obsessed about people looking at his gut.
Jordan has been laid low these days because the team he owns, the Charlotte Bobcats, are one of the NBA’s worst, and because he has been terrible at building a franchise.
There is no doubt some schadenfreude at work here, with those who couldn’t defeat Jordan as rival players or executives, or those who covered the league and watched the deferential treatment Jordan and the Bulls received. They now delight in burying him.
What a bunch of morons.
We all led comfortable lives because of Jordan: Me, all the sycophantic TV guys and writers in Chicago, everyone who worked at NBC in the ‘90s, everyone who played against him and who wrote about him. That doesn’t mean you canonize the guy; it means you acknowledge that his excellence contributed directly to your well being, like the NASCAR driver who thanks the guys who designed the car.
The NBA in the time of Jordan was at its zenith as a cultural force and a ratings behemoth, capable of drawing in what television people call “casual viewers,” who didn’t know a pick and roll from a pimento roll, but who nonetheless turned on Jordan and the Chicago Bulls when they were winning championships.
Athletes tend to get watered down with time, their rough edges rubbed out by biographers and historians who often fail to apply the rigorous discipline of their craft to sports, so much do they want to remain fans.
Mickey Mantle’s alcoholism was never front and center until it had almost killed him. God, I hope that never happens with Jordan. There are those who were appalled by his Hall of Fame speech, in which he sneered at those who had ever doubted him. I thought it was great. He finally showed everyone who he really was.
There has been far too much hagiography written about Jordan, both in the past and now, far too much hero worship for a man who was, at his core, not an especially empathic person. That is not written pejoratively, for almost all the great athletes in any sport were singularly driven individuals who didn’t play well with others. Do you hear stories of Tiger Woods yukking it up in clubhouses with his opponents?
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas were each reviled by at least a few teammates for their brutal verbal takedowns of lesser players –and almost everyone in their respective locker rooms were lesser players.
Jordan was merely the ultimate example of that ruthlessness, that desire to win that mutated into obsession.
He finally won a title when he was surrounded by teammates who endured as much as they enjoyed, who could take his relentless prodding and testing and fight back, either verbally or on the court.
Make no mistake – many of them made millions of dollars and became Hall of Fame credible playing next to him. Jordan’s Bulls came to town, won the game, took over the fans, took your pride, took your girl, took everything that wasn’t nailed down. But it came with a price.
But I liked that about Jordan. He was the best player I ever saw, the most determined, the toughest mentally, the most confident, the least insecure. His will was second to none. He took everyone on, and ultimately beat them.
That is the Jordan that is worth remembering, no matter what he winds up doing in Charlotte: Young and handsome and dynamic and so willing to cut out your heart and show it to you.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Aldridge.