Who knew that a man who hardly said anything controversial in 25 years in public life could cause such a buzz in his Hall of Fame induction speech? But Michael Jordan's remarks Friday night in Springfield at the Basketball Hall of Fame have stirred quite a debate.
There are essentially two camps: those who think Jordan's comments were a candid, funny, raw, refreshing and perfectly representative of the ruthlessness with which he played; and those who think one's Hall of Fame induction speech should be much more deferential, gracious and appropriate than Jordan's was.
Someone took the opportunity to criticize Jordan as a "competitive sociopath."
My reaction was to be surprised at the reaction of people who were so stunned. What did they think separated Jordan from merely great athletes? Almost certainly it was the controlled rage with which he played every single night of his life and probably 90 percent of the practices in which he participated. A less ruthless Jordan would have been, well, Clyde Drexler...
If it sounds as if I'm praising Jordan for this trait, I am. It's as much who he is as the wagging tongue. I covered most of Michael Jordan's career, from the NCAA title game in 1982 when he and the Tar Heels beat Georgetown to his two years with the Washington Wizards, which he didn't even refer to during HOF weekend (no surprise there either). Starting in about 1994 I had more access to Jordan than most reporters, and by 1997 it simply evolved that we became friends. But I always knew that everything, to Jordan, was a slight and he never forgot anything.
Quick story: In the early 1990s when Alonzo Mourning was on a tear and evolving from good young player to NBA All-Star, my sports editor George Solomon told me to follow Mourning for a few days and write about him, seeing as there is always interest reader interest in a Georgetown alum who was becoming a star. I went to Chicago for the first stop because it was always great to measure an up-and-coming player against the reigning champion Chicago Bulls and because I could sneak home for a minute and see family in Chicago -- and I could see Jordan play, which was always like going to the theatre.
Anyway, I went to the Bulls locker room, chatted with Jordan for a few minutes, asking him during that time about Mourning and what he thought of his development. It dawned on Jordan I had come "home" (his and mine) to write about Mourning, not the Bulls, not MJ. And Jordan took great delight, beginning in 1982, in beating Georgetown players. He never let Patrick Ewing forget who won that NCAA championship game. But this was something Jordan could use on some non-descript night to get into his pre-game rage.
"So you came home to write about one of your Georgetown boys?" Jordan said, becoming annoyed. "You didn't come to see me; you came to see that Georgetown kid? Suppose he doesn't score tonight? What you gonna write in The Washington Post then?"
Jordan was full-on by then and I'd seen this enough to know to pretty much shut up -- though I did say, "What do you mean, 'suppose he doesn't score?' "
Jordan said, "What don't you understand about, 'he ain't gonna score'?" I felt bad that Mourning was going to pay for this slight more than me.
Keep in mind Mourning was averaging about 20 points per game and Jordan, a guard, wouldn't be the guy guarding him ... not exactly.
I wish I could remember the exact game and find the box score, but I recall that when Jordan left the game the Bulls had a huge lead and Morning had three points. The Bulls defense had smothered Mourning, and Jordan had a couple of those swoop-in strips on double-teams Mourning never knew were coming.
In the locker room afterward, Jordan called me over and said quietly, "Listen, don't be rough on Mourning in your story. ... He's going to be a great player. ...His left hand isn't there yet though. He can't go left. I knew we'd overplay him and not let him go right and he couldn't really score on our defense. ...But don't go crazy criticizing him; he'll figure it out ...okay?"
Yep, got it.
There were times Jordan would talk to me at the Berto Center where the Bulls practiced. More than once we sat in the complete dark while he put his shoes on because the lights of the gym hadn't been turned on yet.
One morning we talked just about Dean Smith, Phil Jackson and Jordan's own father, James, who had been murdered. We'd lost our fathers at about the same point in life (me at 27 him at 30), though for very different reasons. Proving ourselves to our fathers was central to both of us. So no, not everything was trash talking or making a competitive point. I was trying to remember over the weekend if I ever heard anybody get the best of Jordan in a verbal exchange, and I came up with one example, just one.
At dinner one night in Washington when Jordan was running the Wizards -- so this was the 2000 season, I'm guessing -- one of Jordan's older brothers, Larry (a damn good player himself at one time), was on the wrong end of some needling from Michael.
Larry's probably, oh, 5-foot-8 or 5-9, though MJ always calls him "5-4, 5-5" as he did during his induction speech.
Anyway, Larry waited politely until his younger brother finished a rant and said, "Michael, if you hadn't had that growth spurt., your ass would have wound up working at Pep Boys."
The laughter seemed to last forever. And nobody at the table laughed harder than Michael Jordan.
Thank Michael Wilbon for the story.