Bulls legend Michael Jordan turning 50, still in the moment
BY MARK VANCIL For Sun-Times Media February 14, 2013 9:36PM
Michael Jordan does what he did best - dunks in spectacular fashion in the NBA Finals. The victim in this photo was the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 5 in 1991. Getty Images file
Updated: February 16, 2013 6:31PM
His was a passion play performed by a mystic.
Phil Jackson’s attempts to introduce Buddhist practices to his Bulls teams provided a clue to the true source of Michael Jordan’s preternatural gift. While the media defined the game in terms of numbers and physical attributes, Jackson talked about “cleansing breaths” and visualization techniques. He introduced ritual as a way to convey the spiritual depth of present moment awareness. When asked about Jackson’s unusual instruction, Michael shrugged.
“I had been doing some of those things my whole life,” he said. “I just didn’t know there were names for it.”
The planets lined up for Jordan in a way they might have lined up for others, only we don’t know who they are. That’s because they weren’t Michael Jordan. To wit:
◆ When Michael was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Deloris and James Jordan, his mother knew the family had to move. “I don’t know why,” she said some years later. “I just knew this child couldn’t grow up there.”
◆ The Jordan house was a perfect backdrop for a child of Michael’s gift. A strong-willed and disciplined mother combined with a charismatic father, who had a military background. It was a home built on fundamental values with little room for softies or miscreants. Two stories paint the picture. Michael was the fourth of five children and the first Jordan to miss a day of school. He was suspended the first day of his freshman year in high school for walking across the street to a convenience store. The next day, Deloris parked within eyesight of teller’s window with her son in the car – all day. “It must have been 95 degrees outside,” said Michael. “The window was down about six inches. She just dared me to get out of that car. You wouldn’t have put a dog into a car that hot all day.” Another time, Michael packed a suitcase. He raised the second-floor window and put the suitcase on the floor below it. When he heard someone approaching, he slid under a daybed in the hallway and fell asleep. “When I woke up the window was closed and the suitcase was gone. It didn’t hear anyone asking about where I was.”
◆ He wasn’t a basketball star until his senior year in high school. He wanted to attend UCLA. Much like Adidas four years later, he never received an offer. Family and friends pushed him toward the Naval Academy or a smaller school so he “could actually play.” Jordan did his own calculus: More NBA players come from the University of North Carolina. Three years under Dean Smith amounted to a finishing school.
◆ The U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics. Jordan left North Carolina in 1984, just as the Games headed into the glitter capital of the world, Los Angeles. Smith handed Jordan over to Bob Knight, the bombastic and crusty perfectionist. Leon Wood, a teammate on the USA team, said at the time, “I’ve talked with other athletes who’ve been watching some of our games. A lot of them are saying Michael is the best athlete they have seen here – in any sport, from any country.” Knight was more succinct. Michael might be as good as any player he had ever seen.
◆ Jordan could have gone to Houston or Portland in the 1984 NBA Draft. He landed in Chicago, a blue-collar team in a blue-collar town with a blue-collar history defined by Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier. The Bulls coach at the time, Kevin Loughery, was the next man in a long line of them that might as well have been pulled out of central casting. Loughery had coached a young Julius Erving. He knew exactly what he had in Jordan. Loughery handed him the ball. Jordan proceeded to lift a perennially underachieving team of veterans into the playoffs. Loughery did his part to polish the diamond. Michael hit his first game-winning shot in his eighth professional game. Said Loughery following the win, “Statistics are misleading. I yelled at him a lot because he was playing poor defense most of the night.”
◆ David Falk was young, competitive and driven when he met the Jordan family. Falk had a chip on his shoulder, the son of a butcher from a middle-class upbringing, he worked 80- to 100-hour weeks to climb over pedigreed competitors from Harvard and Virginia Law. In Michael, Falk recognized the future of sports marketing. Michael wanted to sign his initial shoe deal with Adidas. The company never made an offer. Falk, along with James Jordan and Michael, visited Converse, the king of basketball at the time. Converse made it clear that with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Erving on the roster, a rookie should be happy with a deal. Weeks later, James and Deloris forced Michael to fly out of Portland to meet with Nike. Falk did the next part. Jordan did the rest. Less than a decade later, Converse was bankrupt. Brand Jordan reached $1 billion in revenue in 2009, exactly 23 years after Nike did.
◆ In his visual autobiography, For the Love of the Game described the final twist of fate. “No one from my family is over 6 feet tall. Here I am, 6-foot-6. Where did that come from? Why was I the chosen one to be over 6 feet, something totally out of character for my father and mother? You could go back generations and find one person maybe as tall as 6-feet-2. But it’s not enough that I’m bigger than norm for my family. I have this special ability . . . So I think now, why me?”
Spiritual leaders call the confluence of seemingly random events “synchrodestiny.”
Dark circles had formed under his eyes. In jagged lines that ran up and down both arms, crossing over and into bruises, the scratches extended to the back of Michael’s shoulders. The remnants of a second consecutive NBA championship and an eight-year sprint foretold an unimaginable future.
In the summer of 1992, on the floor of San Diego State University, a throng of international journalists flooded through the gym doors as the original Dream Team concluded practice. In a country emerging from recession, and a world ever more curious and connected, Jordan embodied the zeitgeist.
We peeled away from the masses into a stairwell on the far side of the gym. Michael slumped against the cold cement walls, his mind a world away from the one he occupied.
“I’m going to shock the world,” he said softly. “I’m going to quit basketball and go play baseball. I’ve already talked it over with my father. I’d be playing this summer if it wasn’t for the Olympics. If I come back next season, the only reason is because Larry [Bird] and Magic [Johnson] never won three in a row. That would separate me from them. After that, I’m playing baseball.”
The world shocked him first. The brutal murder of his father occurred a little more than a year later, after another end-to-end championship run. The callous conspiratorial theories that emerged in the media were evidence of the culture’s increasingly unhealthy obsession with fame and fortune.
But Michael’s innate gift is of complete presence in every moment he occupies. With rare exceptions, fear originates in the past. It is metabolized in the present then projected into the future. But the past and future aren’t real. One is over and the other hasn’t arrived. Jordan embodied the concept. He never looked back, and he never leaned forward. He remained cemented in the moment he was in. The result was a performance miles out of sample and thoroughly authentic. He went to play baseball without any consideration of meaningless concepts related to his legacy, or the effect on sales of shoes. He didn’t think of failure, he couldn’t have cared less about perception. He was his own counsel. The difference between then and now is the difference between the LeBron James “taking my talents to Miami” sideshow and Jordan’s return to the NBA from baseball. It’s a substantive difference. Michael’s one-page fax contained two words: I’m Back.
“I believe my father knew,” Michael wrote in For the Love of the Game. “I believe he saw things unfolding in a way that no one, not me, not the Chicago Bulls, or anyone else saw. I believe that’s a father’s gift. I only wish I could talk to him now. How much of all this did he really see?”
The suite at the Salt Lake City hotel had its usual suspects and amenities. Two bedrooms, a long table with cards and players, and a baby-grand piano. In a little more than 24 hours, Jordan’s career to that point would culminate in a one-minute flourish that encapsulated everything that had come before: A quick basket after a timeout; a decisive defensive play; then a game-winning shot in silhouette.
With his back to the piano he would play the next night with a cigar in his mouth and a glass of champagne above the keys. Michael listened, yet again to the question asked from yet another angle. For the umpteenth time, I tried to pry open his mind about the unusual capacity for last-minute heroics. I repeated the situation: five seconds to play, down by a single point, time out. What are you thinking? What is going through your mind?
Finally, he moved up to the front edge of his chair.
“Are you asking me if I’m thinking about missing the shot?”
Well, I responded, it is the ultimate kill-or-be-killed moment. No gray, only black and white. Make it you win. Miss it you lose.
Michael slumped back into his chair. The look on his face was that of a child.
“Why would I think about missing a shot I haven’t taken yet?” he said.
I had my answer.
“That’s why you are Michael Jordan,” I responded.
As David Falk wrote in his book, The Bald Truth:
“In hindsight, and I’ve said this many times, if you reverse engineered Michael Jordan down to the shot he hit to win the NCAA title as a freshman at North Carolina, being named Player of the Year in college basketball, his great parents, all the success in the Olympics, his worth ethic, smile and intelligence, it would still take a spark of lightning to ignite the mixture. The mixture alone wasn’t enough.
“That’s why in the 25 years between 1984 to 2009, every entity from the NBA marketing department, to the shoe companies to Madison Avenue have been like Ponce de Leon searching for the fountain of youth. Only in this case everyone has been looking for the next Jordan.”
The lightning occurred at the quantum level. It was a spiritual gift in much same way that the sum of Steve Jobs can’t be explained by a combination of intelligence and creativity. To this day, Michael can talk about the finer points of men’s and women’s fashion. He cares about the finest points of the creative process with regard to every design and technological innovation related to Jordan Brand shoes, accessories, marketing and advertising. Similarly, Jobs cared about the color and placement of screws on the inside of his machines. The two shows were the same in that sense – original, authentic and predicated on standards of their own making.
Critics often miss the point. Jordan didn’t set out to become the world’s greatest basketball player any more than Jobs set out to become a billionaire. Fame and fortunate were never the point, merely byproducts of a relentless pursuit of excellence. It’s revealing that both have been criticized for being ruthlessly and cruelly demanding.
That’s likely because few can imagine demanding of themselves anything approximating the baseline expectations Jordan and Jobs assigned to themselves.
“I can’t say there isn’t an ego boost or a higher sense of confidence in yourself when you have had as many lights shining on you as I’ve had,” Jordan writes in For the Love of the Game. “But I never believed all the press clippings and I never found comfort in the spotlight. I don’t know how you can and not lose your work ethic.
“Evolution knows no bounds. Unless they change the height of the basket or otherwise alter the dimensions of the game, there will be a player much greater than me. . . I listened, I was aware of my success, but I never stopped trying to get better.”
Michael Jordan is a mystic among us.
Mark Vancil covered the Bulls for the Sun-Times and The National Sports Daily. He has written four New York Times bestselling books with Michael Jordan, including Rare Air , I Can’t Accept Not Trying , For the Love of the Game and Driven From Within . And in a moment of synchronicity, Mark’s only son Jonah was born on Michael’s 40th birthday.