Thursday, February 28, 2013
On February 17, Michael Jordan turned 50. In a barren sports week, many media outlets used the milestone to remember and reevaluate Jordan's half century (and I guess fill time, too).
The coverage continued a narrative that has grown since Jordan retired one last time in 2003, exponentially so following his 2009 Hall of Fame induction speech. After two decades of adulation for unequaled on-court performance, the media have reimagined the world's greatest basketball player as the scorched remnants of a once great house, gutted by a competitive fire that spared neither friend nor foe.
To hear some tell it, Jordan is Daniel Day-Lewis' There Will Be Blood antihero, Daniel Plainview, a personification of ego and the offspring of extreme ambition and capitalism. Like Plainview, Jordan's drive to self-realization alienated family and friends along the way.
These depictions of Jordan miss the point. To fixate on the sad solitude in Jordan's present is to recklessly ignore why he achieved greatness in his glory days. The narrative of 50-year-old Jordan's malaise suggests he should want to change something in his past to reinvent his present and future. But why should he?
The stories of Jordan's maniacal post-practice shooting games and golf wagers spinning out of hand are legendary. But they are inseparable symptoms of the chronic competitiveness that drove Jordan. And that drive is just as inseparable from his achievements.
Oh sure, we would like to believe that malicious personality traits do not reward athletes for seemingly ill-gotten gains. At least we tell our kids that. But the system is not designed this way.
In reality, sports are one of the purest forms of zero sum competitions. There are only a few thousand major college basketball scholarships available at any given time. There are only a few hundred NBA roster spots. There are only a couple dozen All-Star nominations annually. And there is only one championship each year. None of these rewards can be shared, so any edge to help win them appeals to players, costs be damned.
You see, hidden behind the "over-competitive" Jordan mythology lies another way in which he differs from the rest of us. Michael Jordan was more committed to winning NBA titles than most of us are to anything else.
The vast majority of us bring an exit strategy into any endeavor as a trusty sidekick, a means by which we can salvage something before reaching complete devastation and failure. But at some point in his basketball life, Jordan disabled his ejector seat. When quitting is off the table, there are no limits to how intensely someone will fight. A few bad impressions or hurt feelings certainly seemed like a bargain to a championship-bent Jordan.
This self-destructive level of commitment is not unique, however. Consider the endless collection of performance-enhancing-drug-using athletes so committed to excelling at their sport that they disregard their futures. Jordan's willingness to sacrifice relationships to win is no different than an athlete sacrificing his longevity to higher peak performance with PEDs.
But the harm of these choices is not solely caused by some alpha males with misplaced priorities and a lack of perspective. We adore sports for somewhat basic primal reasons.
One irresistible part of sports is their spectacle. As much as analysis or tradition enhance these games, athletic competition appeals to use because it suggests the best man can achieve with 100% dedication and pits two potentially equal sides against each other to demonstrate it.
Athletes, along with celebrities, are our royalty. They receive the wealth and glamor to prove it, so there should be no surprise when these high stakes games attract those willing to combine good genes with unyielding self-sacrifice, whether their costs be physical or emotional pain.
A more likeable Jordan, one who didn't trade in outright nastiness, wouldn't have won six titles and defined the NBA. We might not like his personality or we might pity the pains he goes through rebuilding his personal life, but we all got what we bargained for.
Today, the boom of cheap cameras and social media have made our athletes more human. These people now resemble, well, people instead of pictures on a television or numbers in a box score. The iconic Jordan of the 1980s and '90s was a cartoon from Madison Avenue. We never really knew the real man away from the red 23 jersey.
But strip away the games, and we only have the man to consider. Without his armor, the gladiator's scars aren't pretty; they only remind us both of what his victories cost him. You can fault Jordan for his flaws, but realize it's your own guilt speaking.
Were we not entertained?