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Wright ThompsonSenior Writer
- Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN and is executive producer of TrueSouth and co-executive producer of Backstory. He is the author of New York Times bestselling The Cost of These Dreams.
Editor’s note: This piece on Michael Jordan was originally published in the March 4, 2013, issue of ESPN The Magazine. Watch episodes five and six of “The Last Dance” on Sunday, May 3, at 9 p.m. ET. on ESPN.
FIVE WEEKS BEFORE his 50th birthday, Michael Jordan sits behind his desk, overlooking a parking garage in downtown Charlotte. The cellphone in front of him buzzes with potential trades and league proposals about placing ads on jerseys. A rival wants his best players and wants to give him nothing in return. Jordan bristles. He holds a Cuban cigar in his hand. Smoking is allowed.
“Well, s—, being as I own the building,” he says, laughing.
Back in the office after his vacation on a 154-foot rented yacht named Mister Terrible, he feels that relaxation slipping away. He feels pulled inward, toward his own most valuable and destructive traits. Slights roll through his mind, eating at him: worst record ever, can’t build a team, absentee landlord. Jordan reads the things written about him, the fuel arriving in a packet of clips his staff prepares. He knows what people say. He needs to know, a needle for a hungry vein. There’s a palpable simmering whenever you’re around Jordan, as if Air Jordan is still in there, churning, trying to escape. It must be strange to be locked in combat with the ghost of your former self.
Smoke curls off the cigar. He wears slacks and a plain white dress shirt, monogrammed on the sleeve in white, understated. An ID badge hangs from one of those zip line cords on his belt, with his name on the bottom: Michael Jordan, just in case anyone didn’t recognize the owner of a struggling franchise who in another life was the touchstone for a generation. There’s a shudder in every child of the ’80s and ’90s who does the math and realizes that Michael Jordan is turning 50. Where did the years go? Jordan has trouble believing it, difficulty admitting it to himself. But he’s in the mood for admissions today, and there’s a look on his face, a half-smile, as he considers how far to go.
“I … I always thought I would die young,” he says, leaning up to rap his knuckles on the rich, dark wood of his desk.
He has kept this fact a secret from most people. A fatalist obsession didn’t go with his public image and, well, it’s sort of strange. His mother would get angry with him when he’d talk to her about it. He just could never imagine being old. He seemed too powerful, too young, and death was more likely than a slow decline. The universe might take him, but it would not permit him to suffer the graceless loss and failure of aging. A tragic flaw could undo him but never anything as common as bad knees or failing eyesight.
Later that night, standing in his kitchen, he squints across his loft at the television. His friend Quinn Buckner catches him.
“You gonna need to get some glasses,” Buckner says.
“I can see,” Jordan says.
“Don’t be bulls—-ing me,” Buckner says. “I can see you struggling.”
“I can see,” Jordan insists.
The television is built into the modern stone fireplace in his sprawling downtown condo, the windows around them overlooking Tryon Street. An open bottle of Pahlmeyer merlot sits on an end table. Buckner, a former NBA guard from near Chicago and a Pacers broadcaster, is in town for an upcoming game.
They’ve been talking, about Jordan’s birthday and about the changes in his life, all seeming to happen at once. Jordan feels in transition. He moved out of his house in Chicago and is moving into a new one in Florida in three weeks. He’s engaged. Inside he’s dealing, finally, with the cost of his own competitive urges, asking himself difficult questions. To what must he say goodbye? What is there to look forward to? Catching an introspective Jordan is like finding a spotted owl, but here he is, considering himself. His fiancée, Yvette Prieto, and her friend Laura laugh over near the kitchen island. Jordan relights his cigar. It keeps going out.
“Listen,” Buckner says, “Father Time ain’t lost yet.”
The idea hangs in the air.
“Damn,” Buckner continues. “Fifty.”
He shakes his head.
“Can you believe it?” Jordan says quietly, and it sounds like he’s talking to himself.
A DAY BEFORE, Jordan had flown to Charlotte from Chicago, a trip he’s made many times. This flight was different from all the others. When his Gulfstream IV, which is painted to look like a sneaker, took off and turned south, he no longer lived in the city where he had moved in 1984. The past months had been consumed with a final flurry of packing, putting the first half of his life in boxes. He has felt many emotions in his 50 years: hope and anger, disappointment, joy and despair. But lately there’s been a feeling that would have disgusted the 30-year-old version of himself: nostalgia.
The packing and cataloging started several years ago, after his divorce. One night at his suburban Chicago mansion, he sat on the floor of his closet with Estee Portnoy. She manages his business enterprises and, since the divorce, much of his personal life — his consigliere. It was 1 in the morning. They were flummoxed by a safe. Jordan hadn’t opened it in years, and he couldn’t remember the combination. Everything else stopped as this consumed him. After 10 failed attempts, the safe would go into a security shutdown and need to be blown open. None of the usual numbers worked. Nine different combinations failed; they had one try left. Jordan focused. He decided it had to be a combination of his birthday, Feb. 17, and old basketball numbers. He typed in six digits: 9, 2, 1, 7, 4, 5. Click. The door swung open and he reached in, rediscovering his gold medal from the 1984 Olympics. It wasn’t really gold anymore. It looked tarnished, changed — a duller version of itself.
The memories came to him, how he felt then. “It was very pure, if I can say it right,” he’d explain later. “It was pure in 1984 … I was still dreaming.” During the Olympics, he was deep in negotiations with Nike for his first shoe contract. He traded pins with other athletes. Eight years later, when he was the most famous person in the world and the Dream Team was forced to stay outside the Olympic Village, he’d be disappointed when that separation kept him from swapping pins again.
Jordan saw an old pair of shorts that didn’t fit anymore. He found first-edition Air Jordans. In his cavernous Nike closet, he counted nearly 5,000 boxes of shoes, some of which he marked to keep, others to give to friends. There was his uniform for the Dream Team. An employee found letters he’d written his parents as a college student at North Carolina, and what struck her as she flipped through the pages was how normal he seemed. Despite all the things that had been gained in the years since, that person had been lost. The kid in the letters hadn’t yet been hardened by wealth and fame and pressure. He told his parents about grades, and practice, and the food in the dining hall. He always needed money. One letter ended: P.S. Please send stamps.
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For a rage-filled day and a half, he thought he’d lost two of his Bulls championship rings, No. 3 and No. 5. He tore the house apart screaming, “Who stole my rings? Who stole No. 5?”
“You talk about a mad f—ing panic,” he says.
Following the final title, the Bulls presented him a case with room for all six rings, but Jordan had never put them together. Now as he found them spread around the house, he slipped each one into its slot. He began plotting amendments to his will that if the missing rings emerged for sale after his death, they should be returned immediately to his estate. Buying a duplicate wouldn’t be worth it, because even if he didn’t tell anyone, he’d know. Finally the missing rings were found in a memorabilia room, and the set of six was complete. He could exhale and continue packing.
He discovered old home movies, seeing his young kids. They’re all in or out of college now. Warm-ups had collected dust alongside his baseball cleats and a collection of bats and gloves. The astonishing thing to him was how much he enjoyed this. “At 30 I was moving so fast,” he says. “I never had time to think about all the things I was encountering, all the things I was touching. Now when I go back and find these things, it triggers so many different thoughts: God, I forgot about that. That’s how fast we were moving. Now I can slow it down and hopefully remember what that meant. That’s when I know I’m getting old.”
He laughs, knowing how this sounds, like a man in a midlife crisis, looking fondly at something that’s never coming back.
“I value that,” he says. “I like reminiscing. I do it more now watching basketball than anything. Man, I wish I was playing right now. I would give up everything now to go back and play the game of basketball.”
“How do you replace it?” he’s asked.
“You don’t. You learn to live with it.”
“It’s a process,” he says.
THE REMEMBERING CONTINUES in Charlotte, with Jordan and his best friend, George Koehler, crowding around an iPad map, trying to find Jordan’s first house in Chicago.
There’s circular poetry about George being here. When Jordan first landed in Chicago in 1984, he stepped out of O’Hare and found that the Bulls had neglected to send anyone to get him. Still a country boy, Jordan was nervous and uncertain. A young limo driver saw him and gave him a ride. That was George, and he’s been with Jordan ever since. They’re together much of the time. Jordan trusts Koehler completely. Koehler might have more famous athletes programmed into his phone than anyone on the planet, since one of the best ways to find Jordan is to call George.
“Where you looking at?” George asks, pointing.
“Essex Drive,” Jordan says, finding his old street. “I remember going up to that McDonald’s and getting my damn McRib. When I first got there.”
There was a finished basement in that place. Charles Oakley lived behind him. So did another Bulls forward, Rod Higgins, who runs the Bobcats’ basketball operations. The basement had a hot tub and a pool table that could be converted for pingpong. They’d play for hours, listening over and over to the first Whitney Houston album. Last year Jordan was sitting on the Bobcats’ bench with Curtis Polk, his lawyer and a team executive, when Polk received a text saying Houston had died. Her death really affected Jordan, not because he and Houston were close friends, but because it made him aware of his own mortality. It made him measure the distance between 50 and pingpong on Essex Drive.
“They had some battles down there,” George says, laughing.
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“Me and Oak,” Jordan says.
Higgins is standing with them and is looking at the map too.
“I used to kill him in pool,” Jordan says, nodding toward Rod.
“I got a different version,” Higgins cracks.
“Kill or be killed,” Jordan woofs. “Losing is killing.”
There’s an unspoken shadow over the stories about that town house on Essex Drive. James Jordan remodeled the basement for his son. Did all the work himself, because he’d never let Michael pay for something he could do on his own. The first winter, while Michael was out of town for the All-Star Game, his pipes froze. His dad ripped out the walls, replacing the pipes himself, patching and repainting when he finished. He spent two weeks fixing his son’s home. James and Mike — that’s where all this nostalgia has been headed, from the moment it began.
Dear Mama and Pops … Please send stamps.
GEORGE KOEHLER LOOKS down at the ring on his finger. It’s from the Bulls’ first championship. Jordan gave replicas to family and close friends.
“I don’t know if I ever told you the story why I wear this ring,” George says.
“Nope,” Jordan says.
“I made a promise to your dad,” George says.
George was always scared he’d get robbed, so he kept the ring at home. James, known to everyone as Pops, busted him: “Where’s your ring? My son didn’t spend his money to have you put that s— in a drawer.”
“I can hear him saying it,” Jordan says, smiling.
Pops told George that if someone stole his ring, “we’ll get you another one.”
Jordan roars over the word “we.”
“I like that,” he says, his shoulders heaving. “That sounds like him too.”
“After what happened to him,” George says, “I wear the ring.”
Memories come back. The day Pops was killed, he was scheduled to fly to Chicago. He’d called George the night before to ask for a ride. George waited at O’Hare, but Pops never came out. A half hour passed, and George called Mama J, his name for Deloris Jordan. Just wait, she said. Pops probably missed his plane. Two or three hours later, the next flight from Charlotte landed. Pops didn’t get off the plane. George dialed Mama J again, and she said that something must have come up and that Pops would call. Pops never called.
“F—er,” George finally says, clearing his throat, “made me cry.”
George tries to change the subject. He is attuned to Jordan’s moods and knows that when Michael gets sad, he becomes quiet, withdrawn, turning inward.
“You know how many jump shots I took to get this thing?” George jokes.
“Played your ass off, George,” Jordan shoots back.
But the ghost of Pops is in the room now. “He never met my fiancée,” Jordan says. “He never got to see my kids grow up. He died in ’93. Jasmine was a year old. Marcus was 3 years old. Jeffrey was 5 years old.”
“Where do you most feel your dad’s presence?” he’s asked.
Five seconds pass, then 10. Silence. He leans back into his chair, limp, his paunch noticeable for the first time. The sky outside is gray. He scrunches his mouth, rubs his neck. Suddenly he looks older, his eyes glassy, and even 20 years after his father was murdered — robbed of a Lexus and two championship rings given to him by his son — it’s clear that Jordan still needs his dad. He finally answers.
“Probably with him,” Jordan says, nodding toward George.
On the floor, leaning against the wall, waiting to be hung, is a framed print Jordan moved here from Chicago. It’s of an empty arena, dark and quiet, with a bright white light coming out of the open tunnel doors, beckoning. Really, it’s about dealing with losses: with aging, with retirement, with death. In it, Jordan is walking toward the light and there’s a ghost walking next to him, with a hand on his shoulder. It’s his dad.
“The thing we’d do,” he says, “we’d stay up all night and watch cowboy movies. Westerns.”
Jordan still watches them obsessively, and it’s easy to imagine he does it to feel the presence of his father. One of his employees joked that she’d rather fly commercial than on Jordan’s Gulfstream because a passenger on his plane is subjected to hours of shootouts and showdowns.
“Name a Western,” George says. “He’ll tell you the beginning, middle and end.”
“I watch ’em all the time,” Jordan says. “I watch Marshal Dillon. I watch all of ’em.”
“I think his favorite Western is my favorite Western,” George says.
“You and I have three we really like,” Jordan says.
“Outlaw Josey Wales,” George says.
“That’s my favorite,” Jordan says.
“Two Mules …,” George begins.
“… for Sister Sara,” Jordan finishes.
“The other one I like is Unforgiven,” George says.
“My father loved that,” Jordan says.
THE OPPOSITE OF this creeping nostalgia is the way Jordan has always collected slights, inventing them — nurturing them. He can be a breathtaking asshole: self-centered, bullying and cruel. That’s the ugly side of greatness. He’s a killer, in the Darwinian sense of the word, immediately sensing and attacking someone’s weakest spot. He’d moo like a cow when the overweight general manager of the Bulls, Jerry Krause, would get onto the team bus. When the Bulls traded for the injury-prone Bill Cartwright, Jordan teased him as Medical Bill, and he once punched Will Perdue during practice. He punched Steve Kerr too, and who knows how many other people.
This started at an early age. Jordan genuinely believed his father liked his older brother, Larry, more than he liked him, and he used that insecurity as motivation. He burned, and thought if he succeeded, he would demand an equal share of affection. His whole life has been about proving things, to the people around him, to strangers, to himself. This has been successful and spectacularly unhealthy. If the boy in those letters from Chapel Hill is gone, it is this appetite to prove — to attack and to dominate and to win — that killed him. In the many biographies written about Jordan, most notably in David Halberstam’s Playing for Keeps, a common word used to describe Jordan is “rage.” Jordan might have stopped playing basketball, but the rage is still there. The fire remains, which is why he searches for release, on the golf course or at a blackjack table, why he spends so much time and energy on his basketball team and why he dreams of returning to play.
He’s in his suite at the Bobcats’ arena, just before tip-off of another loss, annoyed that one of his players is talking to the opponents. Tonight he’s going to sit on the bench, to send a message that the boss is watching. He used to sit there a lot, but he got a few phone calls from NBA commissioner David Stern telling him to chill with the screaming at officials. Mostly he watches in private, for good reason. Once, when he was an executive with the Washington Wizards, mad at how the team was playing, he hurled a beer can at his office television, then launched whatever he could find after it, a fusillade of workplace missiles. Now, 10 years later, he mostly just yells.
“I’m going downstairs,” he says.
“Be nice,” someone in the suite says.
“I’ll try,” he says, and is out the door.
THE INNER CIRCLE stays behind, gathered in Suite 27, just across the concourse from the executive offices. They’ve all been around for years, some from the very beginning. Estee Portnoy is here, and George. Rod Higgins and Bobcats president Fred Whitfield, an old friend from North Carolina, come and go. They’re waiting on Jordan to return after the game, killing time, handling work stuff, telling stories.
Back when they used to shoot a lot of commercials, Jordan’s security team would wait for him in his trailer while he was on set. A woman named Linda cooked Michael’s meals, and he loved cinnamon rolls. She’d bake a tray and bring it to him. When it came time to film, he’d see the guards eyeing the cinnamon rolls and he’d walk over and spit on each one, to make sure nobody took his food.
“Man, I wish I was playing right now. I would give up everything now to go back and play the game of basketball.”
In the late ’80s, Jordan looked in Whitfield’s closet and saw that half of it was filled with Nike and the other half filled with Puma. Jordan bundled the Puma gear in his arms, tossing it onto the living room floor. He took a knife from the kitchen and cut it to shreds. Call Howard White, his contact at Nike, he told Fred, and tell him to replace it all. Same thing happened with George. He bought a pair of New Balance shoes he loved, and Jordan saw them one day and insisted he hand them over. Call Howard White at Nike.
“He demands that loyalty,” Whitfield says.
“Anywhere we go,” Portnoy says, “he looks at people’s feet.”
“First thing he looks at,” Whitfield says. “He looks down all the time.”
“You know what’s funny?” Portnoy says. “I do the same thing now.”
“I do too!” Whitfield says, laughing.
A group from Nike comes into the suite, along with a team from the ad agency Wieden + Kennedy. Around these people, you see most clearly that Jordan is at the center of several overlapping universes, at the top of the billion-dollar Jordan Brand at Nike, of the Bobcats, of his own company, with dozens of employees and contractors on the payroll. In case anyone in the inner circle forgets who’s in charge, they only have to recall the code names given to them by the private security team assigned to overseas trips. Estee is Venom. George is Butler. Yvette is Harmony. Jordan is called Yahweh — a Hebrew word for God.
Jordan is used to being the most important person in every room he enters and, going a step further, in the lives of everyone he meets. The Gulfstream takes off when he steps onboard. He has left a friend in Las Vegas who was late, and recently left two security guards behind. He’s been trying to leave George for years but can never beat him to the plane. He does what he wants, when he wants. On a long trip to China in the Nike plane, he woke up just as everyone else was taking an Ambien and settling in to sleep. Didn’t matter. He turned on the lights and jammed the plane’s stereo. If Michael is up, the unwritten rule goes, everybody is up. People cater to his every whim, making sure a car is waiting when he lands, smoothing out any inconvenience. In Chicago there was someone who kept gas in his cars. Not long ago he called his office from Florida, fuming, stuck at a gas station, unable to fill up.
“What’s my billing zip code?” he asked.
It was down in Florida, where he was spending time with Yvette’s Cuban family, that he got a taste of the life he’d traded for the jet-set circus of modern celebrity. They weren’t fawning – her grandparents, who speak little English, aren’t basketball fans — and he sat at a dinner table, with people laughing and eating home-cooked food. That’s what it was like growing up in Wilmington. “It’s gone,” he says. “I can’t get it back. My ego is so big now that I expect certain things. Back then, you didn’t.”
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The people in the suite know about his ego, and his moods, and his anger. They know better than most. George jokes a lot about the bite marks on his ass. But they also know Jordan, and if they’re being honest, they love him. They know how kind he can be, having roses sent on Mother’s Day to every mom who works for him. They see him gutted after meeting with another Make-a-Wish child. They see him swell with pride over any success of his children. They’ve been inside the machine, seeing firsthand the siege of fame, the hardness and cynicism it demands. So they think all the stories of Michael being Michael are funny, even endearing, while someone from the outside can hear the same story and be horrified, seeing a permanent adolescent spitting on food or cutting up clothes.
His friends, for instance, watched the Hall of Fame speech and laughed.
IN THE THREE and a half years since Jordan built his induction remarks around all the slights that pushed him toward greatness, the speech has become Exhibit A for those who believe Jordan is, as one basketball writer put it, “strangely bitter” and “lost, wandering.” They’re not wrong, not exactly, but something was obscured when the speech became a metaphor for swollen ego and lack of self-awareness.
The speech itself, if you watch it again, is an open window into what Jordan is like in private: funny, caustic, confident, sarcastic, competitive. He sees himself not as a gifted athlete but as someone who refused to lose. So standing at the podium — after he composed himself, wiping away tears nine times before he even began, sniffling well into the first section — he said that he had a fire inside and that “people added wood to that fire.” Then he listed every doubter, cataloging all their actions, small and large. He started with his brothers and worked through high school to college to the NBA. He took a shot at longtime nemesis Jerry Krause: “I don’t know who invited him … I didn’t.” It was petty but also startlingly honest.
The unspoken thread that runs through the criticism is that Jordan didn’t understand what was required of a retired athlete, a mixture of nostalgia and reflection. The five-year wait is supposed to give those emotions time to sprout and grow. People wanted the Jordan on the floor of his closet, not the one who did whatever it took to win. That’s the allure of a Hall of Fame speech. It reveals that these icons were sort of like us all along. Jordan didn’t give that speech, and the reason is both simple and obvious. He didn’t see himself as part of the past, or as someone who’d found perspective. He wasn’t nostalgic that night. The anger that drove his career hadn’t gone away, and he didn’t know what to do with it. So at the end of the speech, he said perhaps the most telling and important thing in it, which has been mostly forgotten.
He described what the game meant to him. He called it his “refuge” and the “place where I’ve gone when I needed to find comfort and peace.” Basketball made him feel complete, and it was gone.
“One day,” he said, “you might look up and see me playing the game at 50.”
Chuckles rippled through the room. His head jerked to the side, and he cut his eyes the way he does when challenged, and he said, “Oh, don’t laugh.”
Everyone laughed harder.
“Never say never,” he said.
HE’S TRYING TO change, taking small steps. For the past few years, he’s gone on sailing trips because Yvette loves them, even though he hates the water. The first time, he went stir-crazy on the boat. This most recent trip, he felt his rage dissolve. It was a victory. He didn’t watch basketball. Every morning he’d wake with the sun and plant himself in the fishing chair, popping his first Corona by 8 with his friends, reeling in big yellowfin tuna, which hit a trolling bait like a submarine. They make great sushi. Jordan was happy. “Drinking and eating and drinking and eating and drinking and eating” is how he described the vacation to a friend, going through cases of his favorite tequila, fully unplugged, which lasted until he flew home. Then he was around the game again, and the old urges began to eat at him.
In Charlotte, he starts thinking about 218.
Every morning since returning from the islands, he’s been in the gym. At mealtime he texts his nutritionist to find out what he can and can’t eat. Ostensibly, the reason is that he stepped on a scale after leaving the excess palace of Mister Terrible and saw this number staring back: 261. Nine days later, sitting in his office and surrounded by basketball, he’s down to 248. He’ll claim it’s about health, or looking good for his 50th birthday party. But in his mind, there’s a target: 218, a familiar and dangerous number in Jordan’s world.
That’s his playing weight.
When he mentions that Yvette never saw him play basketball, he says, “She never saw me at 218.” On the wall of his office there’s a framed photograph of him as a young man, rising toward the rim, legs pulled up near his chest, seeming to fly. He smiles at it wistfully.
“I was 218,” he says.
The chasm between what his mind wants and what his body can give grows every year. If Jordan watches old video of Bulls games and then hits the gym, he says he’ll go “berserk” on the exercise machines. It’s frightening. A while back, his brother, Larry, who works for the team, noticed a commotion on the practice court. He looked out the window of his office and saw his brother dominating one of the best players on the Bobcats in one-on-one. The next morning, Larry says with a smile, Jordan never made it into his office. He got as far as the team’s training room, where he received treatment.
“You paying the price, aren’t you?” Larry asked.
“I couldn’t hardly move,” Jordan said.
There’s no way to measure these things, but there’s a strong case to be made that Jordan is the most intense competitor on the planet. He’s in the conversation, at the very least, and now he has been reduced to grasping for outlets for this competitive rage. He’s in the middle of an epic game of Bejeweled on his iPad, and he’s moved past level 100, where he won the title Bejeweled Demigod. He mastered sudoku and won $500 beating Portnoy at it. In the Bahamas, he sent someone down to the Atlantis hotel’s gift shop to buy a book of word-search puzzles. In the hotel room, he raced Portnoy and Polk, his lawyer, beating them both. He can see all the words at once, as he used to see a basketball court. “I can’t help myself,” he says. “It’s an addiction. You ask for this special power to achieve these heights, and now you got it and you want to give it back, but you can’t. If I could, then I could breathe.”
Once, the whole world watched him compete and win — Game 6, the Delta Center — and now it’s a small group of friends in a hotel room playing a silly kid’s game. The desire remains the same, but the venues, and the stakes, keep shrinking. For years he was beloved for his urges when they manifested on the basketball court, and now he’s ridiculed when they show up in a speech.
His self-esteem has always been, as he says, “tied directly to the game.” Without it, he feels adrift. Who am I? What am I doing? For the past 10 years, since retiring for the third time, he has been running, moving as fast as he could, creating distractions, distance. When the schedule clears, he’ll call his office and tell them not to bother him for a month, to let him relax and play golf. Three days later they’ll get another call, asking if the plane can pick him up and take him someplace. He’s restless. So he owns the Bobcats, does his endorsements, plays hours of golf, hoping to block out thoughts of 218. But then he gets off a boat, comes home to a struggling team. He feels his competitiveness kick in, almost a chemical thing, and he starts working out, and he wonders: Could he play at 50? What would he do against LeBron?
“It’s consumed me so much,” he says. “I’m my own worst enemy. I drove myself so much that I’m still living with some of those drives. I’m living with that. I don’t know how to get rid of it. I don’t know if I could. And here I am, still connected to the game.”
He thinks about the things Phil Jackson taught him. Jackson always understood him and wasn’t afraid to poke around inside Jordan. Once during his ritual of handing out books for his players to read, he gave Jordan a book about gambling. It’s a Zen koan Jordan needs now, in this new challenge: To find himself, he must lose himself.
Whenever he obsesses about returning to play, he tries to sleep, knowing that when he wakes up, things will be better. He knows he won’t get to 218. He knows he won’t ever play pro basketball again. He knows he’s got to quiet these drives, to find a way to live the life he worked so hard to create, to be still.
“How can I enjoy the next 20 years without so much of this consuming me?” he asks, sitting behind his desk as his cellphone buzzes with trade offers. “How can I find peace away from the game of basketball?”
Jordan steps into his loft, which is dark and modern, with exposed ductwork and a sparkling backsplash in the kitchen. The design feels masculine, vaguely Asian. A pool table with tan felt is to the left, cigar ashtrays scattered around the place. There’s an hour until the Bobcats-Celtics tip-off in Boston, which he’ll watch from his favorite chair, a rich brown, low-slung lounger.
“Where you at?” he calls toward the rear of the condo.
Yvette’s voice sounds bright and cheerful.
“Hey, honey,” she says, “I’m back here.”
She’s 34 years old, has worked in a hospital and in real estate, and is happiest with the domestic life that Jordan lost long ago. This past year, Portnoy got a birthday present from her boss, as usual, but for the first time in 16 years, she also got a card. It was from the store Papyrus. She recognized it, and inside, Jordan had signed his name. Estee laughed, mostly at her own surprise over such ordinary behavior. Yvette had done what any person would do when a birthday approached. She’d bought a card on her own. She didn’t staff it out.
Whatever changes he’s made are because of her, and she offers him the best hope to rediscover pieces of the boy who wrote those letters from college. Two Easters ago, Yvette went with him to North Carolina to visit family, which is spread around the state. She’d been bugging him about taking her to Wilmington, to show her where he grew up.
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Like most people, she sometimes struggled to imagine him before. She wanted to meet the Mike Jordan who needed his mom and dad to send stamps. This required about seven hours of driving, which he didn’t want to do. Finally, he gave in. “It’s amazing what women can talk you into doing,” he says. “Make you change. Ten years ago, we’d have been arguing all f—ing day. I would’ve won. This time, this stage where I am, you win. That’s progress.”
Tonight, the guys are ordering Ruth’s Chris to go, and Yvette and Laura are making salads. Friends gather around the kitchen island, and the place is filled with laughter. They’re washing lettuce. It’s easy and loose. Jordan is killing Buckner about drinking all his wine, everyone erupting at the volleyed barbs, and later, when George hands Quinn an expensive bottle of merlot with a bendy straw in it, Yvette falls into hysterics. It was a joint George-Yvette operation, from the sound of her giddy cackling.
She pushes Jordan, making him try new things. The home in Florida is almost finished, and it will be theirs together. In conversation among his staff, the golf club estate has been called a “retirement home,” and Jordan’s friends like to imagine him in the huge outdoor living area, lounging on a big couch, relaxing.
Their wish for him is peace.
He seems to have it tonight, at least for a moment.
“Baby,” Yvette says, “can you get us some wine?”
Jordan ducks into the climate-controlled wine room and comes out with one of his favorites. The cork pops softly. Glasses line the counter, and he pours wine into each one, handing them off as he finishes.
“Here ya go, ladies,” he says.
OVER THE NEXT seven hours, all of it spent watching one basketball game after another, he’s again pulled inward, on a Tilt-a-Whirl of emotion, mostly shades of anger, from active screaming to a slow, silent burn. He transforms from a businessman returning from the office — Honey, I’m home! — to a man on fire. The first sparks come from a SportsCenter debate, one of those impossible, vaguely ridiculous arguments that can, of course, never be won:
Who’s a better quarterback, Joe Montana or Tom Brady?
“I can’t wait to hear this conversation,” he says.
He stretches his legs out on the ottoman, wearing sweats and socks, and as one of the guys on television argues for Brady, Jordan laughs.
“They’re gonna say Brady because they don’t remember Montana,” he says. “Isn’t that amazing?”
Aging means losing things, and not just eyesight and flexibility. It means watching the accomplishments of your youth be diminished, maybe in your own eyes through perspective, maybe in the eyes of others through cultural amnesia. Most people live anonymous lives, and when they grow old and die, any record of their existence is blown away. They’re forgotten, some more slowly than others, but eventually it happens to virtually everyone. Yet for the few people in each generation who reach the very pinnacle of fame and achievement, a mirage flickers: immortality. They come to believe in it. Even after Jordan is gone, he knows people will remember him. Here lies the greatest basketball player of all time. That’s his epitaph. When he walked off the court for the last time, he must have believed that nothing could ever diminish what he’d done. That knowledge would be his shield against aging.
There’s a fable about returning Roman generals who rode in victory parades through the streets of the capital; a slave stood behind them, whispering in their ears, “All glory is fleeting.” Nobody does that for professional athletes. Jordan couldn’t have known that the closest he’d get to immortality was during that final walk off the court, the one symbolically preserved in the print in his office. All that can happen in the days and years that follow is for the shining monument he built to be chipped away, eroded. Maybe he realizes that now. Maybe he doesn’t. But when he sees Joe Montana joined on the mountaintop by the next generation, he has to realize that someday his picture will be on a screen next to LeBron James as people argue about who was better.
The debaters announce the results of an Internet poll, and 925,000 people voted. There was a tie: 50 percent said Montana and 50 percent said Brady. It doesn’t matter that Montana never lost a Super Bowl or that, unlike Brady, he never faded on the biggest stage. Questions of legacy, of greatness, are weighted in favor of youth. Time itself is on Brady’s side, for now.
Jordan shakes his head.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” he says.
JORDAN PLAYS HIS new favorite trivia game, asking which current players could be nearly as successful in his era. “Our era,” he says over and over again, calling modern players soft, coddled and ill-prepared for the highest level of the game. This is personal to him, since he’ll be compared to this generation, and since he has to build a franchise with this generation’s players.
“I’ll give you a hint,” he says. “I can only come up with four.”
He lists them: LeBron, Kobe, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki. As he’s making his point, Yvette walks into the living room area and, in a tone of voice familiar to every husband who argues sports with his buddies, asks, “You guys need anything?”
When someone on TV compares LeBron to Oscar Robertson, Jordan fumes. He rolls his eyes, stretches his neck, frustrated. “It’s absolutely … ” he says, catching himself. “The point is, no one is critiquing the personnel that he’s playing against. Their knowledge of how to play the game … that’s not a fair comparison. That’s not right … Could LeBron be successful in our era? Yes. Would he be as successful? No.”
The Bobcats game starts and the Celtics jump all over them. The officials aren’t helping, and Jordan sits up, livid, certain that the Celtics are getting all the calls
because they have the stars.
“COME ON, MAN!” he screams.
“You ain’t getting that one,” Buckner says. “But you used to get away with s— other people couldn’t get away with.”
There’s a hard silence in the room. Jordan’s voice lowers.
“I don’t believe that,” he growls.
“Bull. S—,” Buckner says. “Let’s not get carried away now. You and Larry.”
Jordan ignores him: He’s locked in.
“That’s a foul!” he yells. “See what I mean? THAT’S A FOUL!”
It’s a nice night, and Jordan moves out to his balcony, on the seventh floor, looking down the barrel of Tryon Street. The TV is up in the right corner. He smokes a cigar. The Bobcats tie the game, then fall behind again.
“I’m my own worst enemy. I drove myself so much that I’m still living with some of those drives. I’m living with that. I don’t know how to get rid of it. I don’t know if I could.”
“Getbackgetbackgetback,” Jordan yells at the TV. “Match up, MATCH UP. Where you GOING? DIVE FOR THE BALL!”
They’re going to lose — he’s going to lose — and he is quiet on the couch. It’s over. He doesn’t talk for a minute, then mutters something, then is silent for another half a minute.
He changes the channel to the Heat-Jazz game. During the broadcast, he is the answer to a trivia question. This is the court where he made his most famous shot, and he points to the place where he took it. He remembers how tired he felt at the end of that game. A cellphone rests on Jordan’s chest. His legs stretch out on a tree-trunk coffee table.
“What’s Bird up to?” Jordan asks.
“Down in Naples,” Buckner says.
“Playing golf every day?” Jordan asks.
“Bored,” Buckner says.
“Think he’ll ever get back in?” Jordan asks.
“He’ll damn sure get back in it,” Buckner says. “He didn’t say it, but I just know him.”
The announcers gush about LeBron, mentioning him in the same sentence with Jordan, who hears every word. Those words have an effect on him. He stares at the TV and points out a flaw in LeBron’s game.
“I study him,” he says.
When LeBron goes right, he usually drives; when he goes left, he usually shoots a jumper. It has to do with his mechanics and how he loads the ball for release. “So if I have to guard him,” Jordan says, “I’m gonna push him left so nine times out of 10, he’s gonna shoot a jump shot. If he goes right, he’s going to the hole and I can’t stop him. So I ain’t letting him go right.”
For the rest of the game, when LeBron gets the ball and starts his move, Jordan will call out some variation of “drive” or “shoot.” It’s not just LeBron. He sees fouls the officials miss, and the replays prove him right. When someone shoots, he knows immediately whether it’s going in. He calls out what guys are going to do before they do it, more plugged into the flow of the game than some of the players on the court. He’s answering texts, buried in his phone, when the play-by-play guy announces a LeBron jump shot. Without looking up, Jordan says, “Left?”
The outdoor heater makes the porch warm. Hours pass, creating distance from the Bobcats loss. Nobody says much. George plays Bejeweled on an iPad. The air is filled with the sounds of basketball: horns, squeaking sneakers, the metallic clang of the rim. These are the sounds of Jordan’s youth.
He holds a cigar and relights it every now and then, the whoosh of the butane torch breaking the silence. The heater’s flame is reflected on three different windows, shadows flickering on Jordan’s face. He never says it, but it seems as though he’s playing the game in his head, using his rage for its intended purpose. He still knows how to play. He could shut down LeBron, if his body wouldn’t betray him, if he could hold off time, if he could get to 218.
GEORGE GOES TO bed. An hour later, the last game of the night ends. Buckner says goodbye and rides the elevator down. Yvette and her friend Laura headed toward the back of the condo long ago.
Jordan is alone.
He hates being alone, because that means it’s quiet, and he doesn’t like silence. He can’t sleep without noise. Sleep has always been a struggle for him. All the late-night card games, the trips to the casino during the playoffs, they’ve been misunderstood. They weren’t the disease, they were the cure. They provided noise, distraction, a line of defense. He didn’t even start drinking until he was 27 and complained of insomnia to a doctor. Have a few beers after the game, he was advised. That would knock off the edge.
The house is dark. It’s almost 1 a.m., and he opens the iPad app that controls the loft’s audio-visual system. Every night he does the same thing, and he does it now: Turn the bedroom television to the Western channel. The cowboy movies will break the darkness, break the silence, allow him to rest.
It’s just like the old days, him and Pops. Jordan climbs into bed. The film on the screen is Unforgiven. He knows every scene, and sometime before the shootout in the saloon, he falls asleep.