Like Mike

"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.

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Achilles is about to kill Penthesileia, the Amazon Queen at Troy.

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.

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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.

Comments

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  • GB, thanks for the comment.

    There definitely was ugliness in Jordan's speech, and I can't defend that. But I also feel like, for better or worse, his speech was from the heart and he spoke honestly. He was true to his muse; the fact that that muse is ultimately a vindictive, petty place that relied on rage for motivation is his own problem and a separate issue. So while I can't defend what he said, I can appreciate where it came from.

    If Jordan's career has taught us anything, it's that the man can sell anything but his pitchman persona was a strategic calculation on his part. He could have given us the Space Jam treatment for 30 minutes too, but he didn't. Maybe years from now he'll regret the way he acted and show more humility and contrition, but he isn't there yet. I think there's a part of him that's still on the hardwood and hasn't been able to fully let go.

  • I agree with you on those accounts, and I wouldn't be surprised if MJ looks back on that speech in 20 years and wishes he had been more magnanimous. But selfishly, I'm glad he gave the speech he did because it showed a side of his personality we all knew about but had never seen him own (the part in the beginning about "what don't you know about me" got at this), and that made for great copy.

  • The fact of the matter remains that at any HOF induction we gather to celebrate the athlete not the human being. We are not giving out a Nobel peace prize, oh wait, Yasser Arafat(a terrorist) got one of those.

    If you recall Jordan started off his speech by asking, "What is it that you don't already know about Michael Jordan". We already know about his exploits on the court. In his own tortured way he tried to explain to us how and why he became Michael Jordan.

    In this pc world filled with hypocrits, Jordan delivered something revealing and more meaningful than the same old hollywood script, no matter how uncomfortable it might have been to watch.

    It was quintesential Jordan, and he should be applauded for that.
    It was his speech, not the publics and certainly not the pompous, pious and hypocritical media's.

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