Normally, there’d be something odd about all of basketball spending NBA All-Star weekend getting all misty, awed, wistful, and click-bait slideshowy about the 50th birthday of the man who owns the league’s worst franchise, and who is known as one of the most capricious and nastiest narcissists in sports history. This was not quite one of those Dictator Birthday Spectaculars—150,000 terrified civilians performing choreographed-praise semaphore in some totalitarian urinal of a soccer stadium while brainwashed children sing odes to a blank-faced hemorrhoidal birthday tyrant and the military marches its missiles around for seven hours—but also not totally not that kind of thing. That the 50-year-old in question is Michael Jordan explains a good part of it, naturally: He is the greatest basketball player ever, and that being more or less beyond dispute does not make it something basketball fans are less excited to talk about. But in the decade since Jordan's last NBA game, talking about His Airness has become a different and stranger thing than it was.
It's not that Jordan lacked complexity back when he was great and vicious and dazzling as a player. Jordan was known both as an impossible-to-solve athlete who dominated the NBA and a businessman who first crafted and then actually personally became a vanquishment-oriented, global luxury brand. He berated and belittled teammates, gambled and philandered extravagantly, and did all the other things that professional athletes do. He coupled his unreal physical grace with heavy anger and gnashing narcissism. Whatever illusions once existed about Michael Jordan not being a warped, rageful asshole—the Ayn Rand ideal of a prime mover come to an implausibly elegant and predictably brutal life—were clearly illusions even at the height of his beauty.
But he scored points, and he beat back gravity for longer than most humans could even dream of and won championships and sold sneakers, and so the complicating parts of the story—a story whose trajectory was up and up and up—were confined to the margins. There was a book written about what a seething bile geyser Jordan was, and there were whispers and rumors, but fans understood and accepted that the ugly stuff was part of the deal. This amazing basketball machine ran spectacularly well, but it was fueled by garbage, ill will, vanity, and rage. This was probably not that much fun for the Bulls backups getting sucker punched at practice or double-or-nothinged on queasy team-plane bets they didn't want to make, but it was not a bad deal for the rest of us, really. All we had to do was watch, which was easy and mostly fun.
Mostly, but not quite entirely. When Jordan came back, after four years in a second retirement, as a 38-year-old player-owner on the lousy Washington Wizards team, he was still pretty good. But in his diminished state, that internal garbage furnace ran smokier and smellier. Jordan was as driven and nasty as ever, as adept at cultivating and reaping grievances as ever, but it was all plainer and coarser—his struggle was visible, revealed as something less complex and many times smaller than his old transcendence had led fans to suspect. All Jordan ever wanted was to win, with a totalizing and consuming force, but time and circumstance and his own epic vanity had eroded the old veneer, and so there it was: a man pushing 40, fumingly jamming inputs into outputs to decreasing effect. It was time to stop.
When he did stop, it got worse. Jordan was a hard-liner during last year's lockout, a militant's militant during a time of spectacular employer militancy against what used to be his peers. In a long article for ESPN The Magazine, Wright Thompson spent time with Jordan at his home in Charlotte and revealed the greatest NBA player in history as a surly, bored 50-year-old jock, slow-poaching in curdled self-sentimentality and expensive wine, yelling at his friends about how badly he used to own them at pool while his pretty young fiancée makes herself scarce. It's tough not to feel bad for Jordan after reading it. He wrung so much out of himself in pursuit of various victories, churned and burned through everything he could defeat, and wound up burnt and emptied out in some loft-style condo development, screaming at his television and falling asleep watching movies he's seen dozens of times. No more worlds to conquer and all that.
It's less poignant when you remember all the people without condos and billion-dollar brands and the massive portfolio and personal highlight reel that is All Jordan Has Left. But there's still something sad about Jordan, in his present Olympian loft-style isolation and even in retrospect. Because Jordan was great, and because we wanted to watch him be great, his interests and those of the people watching him aligned for a long time. But people watch basketball for different and fundamentally less dark reasons than Michael Jordan played it: We do it for pleasure; he did it to dominate, and then he did it because he couldn't bear not to dominate. Jordan was a thrill to watch—his individual transcendence was so profound that we could catch a contact buzz off it even through the television, a 39-second YouTube video, or a freaking .gif. Those memories make for a nice place to visit. But for all the time he spent in an airborne state of grace, Jordan has also shown us, just by being his hard, harsh self, that it's an impossible place to live—high-ceilinged and well-decorated, sure, but irradiated into visible toxicity, and haunted and very cold.
Previously: National Shouting Day