Over the weekend, I stopped what I was doing to read this brilliant ESPN piece on Michael Jordan by Wright Thompson. The article, a transparent window into the soul of this great athlete, left me a bit sad for Michael.
You have to understand that I grew up in Chicago during the apex of Jordan's athletic career. To this young boy, Michael defined sports and life in many ways. I had the privilege of playing on the basketball team at our little Christian school. I am not athletic, but for several years basketball was the air I breathed. In our world, there was no other sport.
You have to understand that in Chicago, this sport was not always popular. My grandfather told me of getting seats at the old Chicago stadium close to the floor. Before Jordan, these were seats you couldn't give away. The stadium during Bulls cames was empty and cavernous. Chicago is largely a Cubs town and a Bears town. (Sorry Sox fans, but this is truth.)
But Jordan transcended sports. His exploits seemed superhuman. He could take off from the free throw line and dunk. He had a 48 inch vertical. He stayed up in the air longer than the other guys. He could score at will. And you didn't want to get him mad because he'd get even with you by torching you for 50 pts (ask New York Knick fans).
Our whole family were rapid Bull's fans. I remember fondly spending game nights at my grandparent's condo. The ladies would sit in the living room and the guys would spend the night in the den, not only watching the Bulls, but breaking down every play. Sometimes the post-game chatter was more fun than the actual game. Even my mom was into it. I remember the time we wanted to see the Bull's play, but couldn't get tickets at the United Center. So we travelled up to Milwaukee's Bradley Center and scalped tickets from a guy on the street. My mom was the one who negotiated the price, telling the guy, "C'mon, I've got three kids in the car, they are crying. Can you help us out here?"
And I still have, in my parent's house, video tapes of the first Finals series against the Lakers. In Chicago, we followed Jordan's every move. We knew his life story. We cried when his father, James, was found murdered at a North Carolina truck stop. We forgave him when he left basketball to fulfill a childhood fantasy to play baseball for the White Sox. And when he faxed the media a two word statement: "I'm back," all of Chicago stopped and pumped their fists.
That's why it's kind of unsettling for us to see Michael at 50 years old. That competitive spirit that fueled his passion for excellence at the game seems to have no outlet. I don't know if there is a pinnacle higher than the one Michael Jordan has reached. Blessed with the rare combination of gifts and drive, rewarded with billions of dollars, served by a coterie of capable staff, Jordan is, for all intents and purposes, on the top of the world.
And yet, having conquered all, Jordan seems restless. A wanderer. The same gnawing drive that compelled him to punish his body and will himself to the top now haunts him. There are no more rungs to climb. No more battles to fight. No more victories to achieve.
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