"Tell the truth."
It is one of the first principles you learn from your parents. You may get in trouble for what you have done, but never for the confession itself. You get older, and truths get harder to define and their edges begin to blur, but the principle remains the same. It is one of the reasons I write, and it is why I cannot join others who have called out Michael Jordan's Hall of Fame speech as classless and rude, because at the end of the day, Michael told the truth.
I grew up wanting to be like Mike. He was ubiquitous for kid who
turned 9 years old when the Bulls won their first ring. He helped me
choose what to eat, drink, and buy, but I didn't need the relentless
commercials to sell him to me. It was the way he played, the way he
won, the things he could with a basketball that no one else could do
that made him special. He was a unmatched player and a great
pitchman-the latter made him obscenely rich but would have never been
possible without the former. Society has many false gods, but we
recognize and reward excellence when we see it. It's the reason no one
cares what Etan Thomas or Spencer Hawes have to say about politics, but
Lebron James gets pressured to take a stand on Darfur. We value our
athletes by how well they play the game first, and everything else
comes after that.
I first read The Iliad in high school, and even then I was struck
by how much of Michael I read into the hero Achilles. It's a shame that
he is most remembered in conjunction with an idea of weakness, his
vulnerable heel, because Homer's Achilles is a
consummate warrior. Like Jordan he was unquestionably the greatest among
greats, but more to the point they share a defining emotion, rage. The
Iliad is the story not of Achilles himself, but his anger, and the
story of Jordan's competitive success is a narrative of slights, both
real and perceived, used as competitive fuel.
In Greek mythology heroes
possess flaws in proportion to their greatness. Hercules, the
strongest of the Greek heroes, suffered fits of madness that led him to
kill his wife and children. Achilles was stronger than all living men,
but his wrath was larger too. Slighted by the leader of the Greeks,
Agamemnon, Achilles withdrew from the war and watched as his friends
died in battle. It took the death of his best friend, Patroclus, to
set his anger aside and return to war, but the damage was done. Great
power, in the Greek world, always comes at a cost.
Today in America we expect the opposite, and expect our heroes to
possess outsized virtue in proportion with their great talents. We
present our athletes with a difficult proposition-compete relentlessly,
but remain civil. Hate losing, but always be a good sport. We pay lip
service to the idea these two halves of "sport" are equal but the truth
is the competitor always comes first, and we reward those who compete,
while paying lip service to principles of sportsmanship. Michael
Jordan is in the Hall of Fame because of his competitive greatness. He
knows this, and that is why he gave the speech he did. He was speaking
as a player, and for him to have gotten up there and given a scripted
message of thanks would have been just another sell from Michael Jordan
the pitchman. It was Jordan the ruthless competitor who earned a place in the Hall, and if we are honest with ourselves, it is his story that needs to be told.
The story of Jordan's greatness is not easy, pleasant or civil. It is a story of excellence forged by rage, and the speech Michael gave showed to the world the scars he still bears from a
career of keeping that fire hot. Achilles died at
Troy-the story goes that before the war, he heard a prophecy that said
he had two choices. If he stayed at home, he would enjoy a long life,
and his family and friends would love him, but after a short while time
would pass and none would live who remembered his name. If left for
Troy, he would die in battle, but his glory would live on forever.
Achilles chose to go, his wrath fueled his glory, and his name lives on
today. Michael made the same choice. His anger fueled him, took him
to heights he would never have known, but not without cost. Retired
for years, in his mind he is still a threat to return, and he dares us
all to doubt. The fire still burns, too hot to douse, and he is unable
to leave the game or his anger behind.
These days, the only place I still want to be like Mike is on the
hardwood, but I thank him for the honesty to tell us what being like Mike actually entailed. Someday, when a child of my own is old enough to dream,
I'll pull out the highlights and begin to tell the beautiful, tragic,
and human tale of the best there ever was.