VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – The American media recently made a big to-do over Michael Jordan turning 50. Among noted outlets, Sports Illustrated devoted the greater part of an issue to His Airness. And ESPN the Magazine likewise allocated huge space to the beginning of Mike’s sixth decade on earth.
It was all supposed to be a celebration, I think.
However, to read the in-depth stories about Jordan, and to hear TV and radio talk show hosts comment on them, MAS feels the whoopdeedoo somehow veered off course and turned into a pity party.
In the mag pieces, the party-throwers seem to accentuate a certain wistfulness about Mike these days. They note a sense of emptiness since his retirement, a lack of fulfillment.
All the championships rings, MVP awards, endorsement millions, the mansions, the private jets and worshiping multitudes are apparently somehow not enough. There remains a troubling void within MJ.
One writer describes him as “adrift.” Another even as “strangely bitter.”
Hard to believe, but many scribes and talk show hosts actually come across as feeling sorry for Jordan.
At the root of his inability to just relax and bask in the afterglow of a spectacular career, they all say, is his “competitiveness.”
The articles point out that Michael is still, in a number of ways, competing with today’s players. And not just by beating the No. 1 draft choice of the Charlotte team he owns — Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — in a game of one-on-one.
For example, Jordan says he could shut down LeBron James because of James’ tendencies.
When LeBron has the ball and goes right, he drives to basket most times, Jordan says. MJ adds that if James goes left, he’s more likely to pull up for a jump shot.
He recently said James would not be as good if he had played in Jordan’s era. Michael also picked Kobe Bryant over LeBron “because five (championship) rings are better than one.”
MAS thought James handled the situation perfectly. LeBron said Michael is entitled to his opinion but added he thinks “it’s unfair to judge a player’s career on championship rings.”
“If that was the case,” said LBJ, “I could say I would take Bill Russell’s 11 (rings) over Jordan’s 6. It’s the situation you’re in, the team you’re on and the timing.”
It is ironic that the thing Jordan was once so greatly admired for — his ultra-competitiveness — is now considered his curse.
MAS was one of the few who wondered in print if the demeanor demonstrated by Jordan as a player was really necessary or even connected to his winning titles.
His scowling countenance, bellicose mannerisms and bullying of teammates (he punched several in practice), opponents and officials seemed untoward and over-the-top to MAS. Perhaps even unhealthy.
Few in the media dared point out that aspect of His Airness’ personality, of course, lest they be reviled as some sort of puppy-drowner. Instead, most glorified Michael’s uber-intensity.
Now, they are changing their tune — ESPN the Mag noted that Jordan can be “a breathtaking a—hole, self-centered and cruel.”
Even Jordan now admits, “I can be my own worst enemy.”
Thus it is that all the celebratory pieces on Jordan’s 50th birthday dwell on his reluctance to live in peace with the fact that the torch of NBA greatness has been passed. And on his inability to just enjoy his exalted place in that lineage.
The writers seem transfixed on the fact that Jordan is still struggling to deal satisfactorily with his retirement as a player.
“You learn to live with it,” explained Michael. “It’s a process.”
The amateur Dr. Phils of the sports journalism world like to point out that Jordan’s whole life has been about proving things to people — to those around him, strangers and himself. And that rage still burns. So, Jordan searches for releases: owning an NBA team (his struggling Bobcats), on the golf course and at the blackjack table (he has famously said “I don’t have a gambling problem; I have a competition problem.”)
Jordan is certainly not alone in finding it hard to cope with life after sports. Few athletes can just go cold turkey when the fun and glory end — it can be incredibly difficult.
The struggles of other luminaries, however, are not chronicled like script icing on some sort of perverse birthday cake for all to see, as are Mike’s.
Let’s be clear on one thing: Michael Jordan doesn’t need anyone to feel sorry for him. Still, I hope Jordan can eventually somehow chill and move on now, no matter how hard.
He says he’s trying to take small steps — like going on a recent cruise trip with his new fiance. And learning to acquiesce where it’s OK to do so.
But Jordan adds, “I’m still living with the same old drives. One day you may look up and see me playing the game at 50.”
Let MAS play the role of, well, your retirement sponsor, Mike: Just DON’T do it!
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