Jon Greenberg, ESPN Staff WriterSep 12, 2009, 08:00 AM
- Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.
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The greatest athlete of our time travels on private planes and in very fast, very expensive foreign cars.
When he goes somewhere, it's on his schedule and it's always in style.
However he travels, Michael Jeffrey Jordan does not take the high road, as he proved in an oddly compelling speech Friday night.
Jordan's Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech in Springfield, Mass., was Jordan at his most honest, his most real. He cried, thanked his friends and family, rebuked his so-called enemies and proved that he is -- forever and ever -- the most competitive person alive.
In this sometimes funny and sharp-edged speech, the world's most ubiquitous and successful corporate pitchman proved he was still human. He wasn't selling Nike or Gatorade or batteries or hot dogs. He wasn't pretending he was a basketball executive.
After an earlier news conference where he did his best to sound humble, Jordan's big speech was littered with his own tears and his own jokes, and most were good-natured, but he made it a point to recognize those who have inspired him over the years. It was certainly befitting his reputation, and it wasn't all that funny.
The greatest athlete of our time made sure to point out the high school coach who didn't put him on the varsity his sophomore year. (He was never cut, per se. That's an urban myth akin to Catfish Hunter's nickname origin.) He pointed out the guy who made the team "over" him, who was in the audience; his college roommate, Buzz Peterson; the NBA vets who froze him out in his first All-Star Game, two of whom were there, George Gervin (who presented David Robinson) and Isiah Thomas (who presented John Stockton); Jazz guard Bryon Russell, who was guarding him on his final shot in a Bulls uniform; and, of course, former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, with whom he had real conflict during his career. Krause, forever the outsider looking in, made the mistake of claiming he was skipping Jordan's induction because former coach Tex Winter, the originator of the triangle offense, wasn't inducted.
Onstage, Jordan adroitly, and unnecessarily, noted Krause wasn't invited before going on a diatribe about how organizations don't win championships, great players like him do -- a reversal of a much-traveled portion of a longer, more balanced quote credited to Krause. Jordan was right, of course, but why bring that up on the stage in front of basketball's upper echelon? Because Jordan is the ultimate alpha male and this was his alpha male moment. He doesn't get those anymore, not in public. This was it for him.
Jordan, not known for being cheap, even commented on the high prices the Hall of Fame charged for this evening because of his induction, noting that he had to pay for his tickets. It was a small sniping comment for a man who could be the first athlete to be worth $1 billion, but he hates people making money off him, unless he's getting a cut.
Michael Jordan isn't just the son of Deloris and the late James. He hasn't been for 20 years. He is the modern sports hero we've created, the fans and the media, through our unyielding appreciation of his athletic superiority, and from the masses (like myself) who bought Nikes because he endorsed them and drank Gatorade because he pitched it. He is the perfect blend of American win-at-all-costs attitude and our thirst for name-brand recognition.
People call Jordan "arguably" the greatest athlete of our time, and really, his only peer is Muhammad Ali. It's amazing how both Ali and Jordan perfectly encapsulated their separate eras. Ali came to power in the turbulent 1960s, when true democracy flourished. He gave up his championship to stand up for his black nationalist beliefs. He was loud and opinionated, and quite a character, for better or worse.
Jordan, cool and refined, once refused to endorse a Democrat against Republican Sen. Jesse Helms in North Carolina, cooly noting that "Republicans buy sneakers too." He was the true child of the Me Decade.
Sure, Jordan has given more money to charitable causes and met with more sick kids than we'll ever know. He shouldn't be thought of as Gordon Gekko in gym shoes. He took advantage of what was out there for a good-looking, charming athlete. In fact, he is probably the only athlete to gain control over his image from his team and his sponsors.
The buzz preceding the speeches was how unfair it was to Robinson and Stockton, not to mention coaches Jerry Sloan and C. Vivian Stringer, that they had to share their day with Jordan. It was said that Jordan should get his own day at the Hall of Fame, as if he played a different sport. It was media deification at its finest, the kind of attitude that burnished Jordan's public lifestyle and the mythmaking apparatus that pads his wallet. Not that he doesn't deserve it. The Man could play basketball better than anyone, anywhere.
If you listened to Robinson's and Stockton's speeches, you could see the difference between the two and Jordan. Robinson made a home for himself and his family in San Antonio, where he runs charter schools and works in the community. He was a star player and a better person.
Stockton, wearing what looked like a $150 rented tuxedo with a crooked bowtie, lives in Spokane, Wash., where his father still owns a popular local bar. He was every bit the competitor Jordan was, just less gifted, less talented. Jordan has the highest scoring average of all time, Stockton the most assists and most steals. Stockton now spends his time with his family and scrimmaging with Gonzaga players.
Stockton and Robinson have made comfortable transitions into adulthood through retirement, and both gave wonderful, emotional, heartfelt speeches.
I was at the gym during Robinson's speech, watching and listening on the elliptical. I'm not afraid to say I teared up. Robinson was often criticized for being too soft on the court, too cerebral. He was, in a lot of ways, the anti-Jordan, as a superstar. The Admiral spent the entirety of his speech thanking people. When he spoke of his family, he gushed over his three boys, calling them his best friends, encouraging them to reach their own goals.
When Jordan, who is divorced from his longtime wife Juanita, brought up his three children, he told them he felt sorry for them, because of the tall shadow they have to live with. His oldest son, Jeffrey, seated next to a very pretty girlfriend of his father's, recently quit the basketball team at Illinois to focus on his studies. Marcus Jordan is in his freshman year at Central Florida, where he too will play. Needless to say, they know they'll forever be second-class to their pop. How could anyone live up to his standards?
It was a telling Jordan moment: honest, seemingly loving and full of hubris. It was not the words of a father, but of a competitor.
Jordan's lackluster post-Bulls basketball career has done nothing to obscure his spotless legacy as a basketball player. There will never be an athlete of his magnitude again, because he is the archetype of the hero athlete and the living embodiment of success. He is the Michael Jordan of being Michael Jordan.
So this Hall of Fame induction was unnecessary -- he's been first-ballot since 1991 -- but his speech proved again that heroes best exist in myths and stories, not on a dais with a shiny suit.
Michael Jordan the Chicago Bulls guard was invincible. Michael Jordan the Man is vulnerable, complicated and ultimately human.
I miss Jordan the Hero. I don't really want to know Jordan the Man.