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To Michael Jordan on His 54th Birthday

A few words on the greatest of all time, the things he has won, and what it means to want more than anything else in the world.

by David Roth
Feb 17 2017, 9:35pm

...If you got 'em. Photo by Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

My main problem, because I was an idiot and only recently even a teenage idiot, was that Michael Jordan kept embarrassing the goofy basketball players I cared about. This was not the only thing that was happening, but Jordan's signature rending of generations of accumulated expectation and his capacity for case-by-case suspension of some extremely well-established physical laws did not appear to me as the authentically awesome things they were. Or, more honestly, they somehow became more tiresome as they grew more awesome. The louder the sounds of adulation grew, the harder it was for me to focus on the thing I wanted to watch, which for some reason was the doomed and drowsy misfits posing, earthbound and gaping, in the impossible posters that Jordan made.

And so while I saw Michael Jordan do some amazing things and even understood them as such, I experienced them more as temporary humiliations for Chris Morris and Chris Dudley, a series of repeated injustices visited upon the already pained-looking sacrificial big man Sam Bowie, over and over and over again. That simple and silly partisan unreasoning, or that plus the aforementioned idiocy part, was why I hated Michael Jordan when he was the most widely and deservedly loved athlete who has ever lived. But that was not all of it.

The other thing that put me off about Jordan has held up better than the primary one, although we have already established that this is a very low bar to clear. There seemed to be something incomplete about him; there was the ghost of something strange about his inevitability, and it was not just my natural inclination to resist the inevitable that made him not just hard to love but hard to comprehend. Jordan's commitment was so complete, his hunger so insistent, that it seemed somehow to have crowded everything else out. His play was transcendent in a way that never seemed to deliver much in the way of delight, or at least less delight than relief. His brand was about flight and escape, and his ubiquitous advertisements sold him as not just bulletproof and brilliant but somehow fulfilled. I just could not credit it.

The genius I could credit, because there was no gainsaying it. The genius was inescapable, both in the sense that it was impossible to miss and because no team I cared about was ever able to escape his judgment. But the smile never fit, it was always uncanny and a little wolfish. The Gatorade ad for him began with one of those sweet-voiced commercial guys singing, "Sometimes I dream/that he is me," and shots of kids goofing around with their tongues out, but even then—from my perspective way out at the irrational edge of a vulnerable and irrational time in my life, at a moment when stepping into a champion's identity should have had an intoxicating allure—it looked like a trap. Jordan was not smiling because he was happy in the way I wanted to be happy; he was smiling because he had won, and so either at the fact that he had pushed some of his own unhappiness onto someone else or because he had delayed his own reckoning with it.

There were stories about what he was really like, about what his appetite to win had consumed in him. He was distant when he was not cruel, he was a bully when the stakes were small and a tyrant when they were steeper; he gambled on everything, because he could never win enough. He was not just a competitor but a compulsive compiler. He wanted everything, and while he was great enough to get what he sought he never really seemed to have any idea what to do with it. This is a thing that greatness can do to people, and it is a reason why most happy people, at some point in their lives, realize that they would prefer to be good—to be kind, to be present, to be a friend or a partner or a helpmeet, instead of being a conqueror. Everything in the culture says that getting is the thing, that the goal is always to have and win and be the most. There is a side of that pursuit that lives in shadow but is never quite invisible, and which has a deeper and more complicated truth than the grand and embellished edifice that faces out. It is simple arithmetic: to have everything, to defeat everyone, to excel and outpace always, is to be very much and very willfully alone.

When Wright Thompson caught up with Jordan years ago, in his strange dotage as the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, he found a star gone cold, that old gravitational need crushing towards a vacuum. Expensive wine went into the void, expensive games of golf, but nothing ever came out. Jordan called his old teammates late at night, to tell them about all the times he'd beaten them at what were never really friendly games of anything. He had won everything, and realized too late that it was all he had.

Or not everything. On his birthday, which is also mine, and also on every other day, Michael Jordan can take solace in knowing that he has his many pairs of totally insane jeans—girthy, damaged, impossible jeans.

No one else has these jeans. No one else would know where to get them. They, like everything else he has won, are his alone.

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