August 24, 2010
Right off the top: "Jordan Rides the Bus," which premieres tonight at 8 p.m. to kick off the fall slate of ESPN's acclaimed "30 for 30" documentary series, isn't really a basketball movie. Most the film's 51 minutes deal with Michael Jordan's retirement from the NBA after the 1992-93 season and his decision to pursue a professional baseball career. The flick is much more about breaking balls than crossovers.
Frankly, "Jordan Rides the Bus" isn't particularly compelling, especially when lined up next to some of the other excellent "30 for 30" presentations - it doesn't have the dramatic flourish of "Winning Time," the challenging scope of "No Crossover" or the poetic narrative of "Guru of Go." There are no new interviews with Jordan himself. There's no one moment that wows you. At times, the tale of Jordan's stint with the Birmingham Barons feels procedural. Boring, even.
There's something bigger here for hoops fans, though, because the film also attempts to examine (if not directly answer) the question of why the quintessential basketball figure of the past quarter-century chose to walk away from the immortality he'd earned on the court.
In a personal statement featured on the film's Web site, director Ron Shelton, an ex-minor leaguer himself, says he has "a unique appreciation" for just how great a challenge Jordan accepted. At the time, Jordan's willingness to submit to the tyranny of the quotidian ("The bus rides, the lack of days off, the daily routine of it all can be brutal") as a farmhand with the Chicago White Sox's Double-A affiliate captured Shelton's imagination. Nearly two decades later, there's something that still sticks in the craw of the writer/director behind "Bull Durham" and "White Men Can't Jump" - how severely we've miscast Jordan's choice of the come-up.
At a personal level, I've always felt that this chapter in Jordan's life was misunderstood. Instead of being an exercise of his ego, it was quite the opposite. ... There's nothing like this in sports history: The greatest player of all time in one sport submits himself to the gauntlet that mere mortal athletes have to go through daily.
The thesis is given voice in the film by David Falk, Jordan's former agent, who notes the "enormous amount of courage [it takes] to walk away from being a king and sort of walk with the common man." Shelton smartly leavens the line by juxtaposing it with a clip of Jordan signing frantic fans' autographs at the ballpark, and then follows it with a low-angle, "Citizen Kane"-style shot of Jordan that makes him look like a striding colossus in sunglasses. The choices highlight the obvious: No matter how many ex-Barons swear by Jordan's "just one of the guys" commitment and hard work, he could never actually be common people, underscoring the unique nature of the endeavor.
And make no mistake, it was unique. Other legends have stepped away in the primes of their respective careers for one reason or another - Ted Williams and Willie Mays leaving the diamond to serve in the military, Muhammad Ali losing three years in the ring for his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War, Barry Sanders retiring from the NFL at age 31 because losing was killing him, etc. But none of those quite fit; Jordan falling back after a three-peat to go bush league doesn't have a clean analogue.
(I do think Jordan's journey might map onto Joseph Campbell's monomyth framework - his father's challenge to play ball as the call to adventure, then-Barons skipper Terry Francona as his guide, Birmingham as belly of the beast, etc. - but trying to hammer it out here would probably be an analytical overstep. Plus, you don't want this wordpile to spin into an MJ/Siddhartha/Odysseus tale of the tape.)
The unprecedented nature of the story seems to make it fertile ground for a film that can teach us something. By the time the credits roll, though, viewers who were already up on the basics of Jordan's stretch in the minors aren't likely to feel they've learned much more about the episode. (Quickly: He stinks at the start, he improves as a hitter and quiets some haters through relentless work in the batting cage, and he bounces back to the Chicago Bulls after balking at being a replacement player during baseball's 1994-95 work stoppage.)
But if they're open to it, basketball fans might feel like they've gotten something valuable - a rare glimpse of Jordan the Athlete's failings, and not just to stay north of the Mendoza Line.
The film opens with Jordan as conquering marauder, his indomitable will on display as his Bulls defeat Charles Barkley's Phoenix Suns in the 1993 NBA Finals. NBC announcer Marv Albert extols Jordan's virtues as he celebrates the Bulls' third straight title, both on the court and in the locker room. The focus then shifts to Jordan as dutiful son, pouring champagne on his father James as they pose together for photos.
But just as quickly as we're introduced to Jordan: Master of the Universe, the rug's pulled out from underneath him. The joyful father-son moment is interrupted by a voiceover from Michael's childhood friend, David Bridgers: "I first found out about it when I was sitting home, watching TV. They found Mr. J. in a creek, face down."
We see Jordan weeping at the funeral that followed James Jordan's murder. (Daniel Green, one of the men convicted of the July 23, 1993 crime, recently claimed he would be exonerated.) The stage is set for change; now that Michael has lost his compass, we can understand his need for reorientation. Jordan references fulfilling his father's wishes ("My father presented the challenge to me before he died - it was to try to play baseball - and I just wanted to try") as a primary reason for his midstream change.
One other potential explanation for his exit - that NBA Commissioner David Stern put Jordan on ice in response to his high-stakes gambling issues - is summarily dismissed. Former Bulls teammate Steve Kerr calls it "the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life ... because Michael was the golden goose," and Stern would never willingly sacrifice Jordan-as-meal-ticket for 18 months. Longtime Chicago Tribune scribe and "The Jordan Rules" author Sam Smith dismisses the "ludicrous" notion of MJ's banishing because "it's not possible to keep a secret in the NBA."
The brief exploration is unlikely to satisfy conspiracy theorists and the relative lack of depth in the discussion won't add much to fans' understanding of the situation, but discussing the gambling angle also allows Shelton to take the press to task for their repeated references to Jordan's baseball pursuit as ridiculous and for the speculative connection of MJ's gambling to James Jordan's death. "There's no question that when Michael's father died, it was right around when all the gambling was swirling around," legendary hoops writer Jack McCallum says. "And we in the press, somehow being who we are, just couldn't help looking to somehow put that together."
Mostly, though, the narrative steers toward Jordan needing to restore his hunger. Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and then-coach Phil Jackson both say that Jordan told them burnout was the main reason for his retirement; in a clip, Jordan says he "needed a change, and I totally needed a break - I just felt I was being engulfed by the success that I'd gathered at that time." He talks about how he lost a "sense of motivation and the sense ... to prove something as a basketball player." Late in "Jordan Rides the Bus," he explains how his time in Birmingham rekindled the fire:
... the new players who were 10 years younger than I am, maybe some of them 11 ... they had an attitude toward the game that they truly loved. Because it was just a game, it was a dream that they were fulfilling. I kind of lost that in the realm of what was happening with me and with basketball. I mean, I was on a pedestal for so long that I forgot about the steps to get to that.
The experience made Jordan a better leader, according to Jackson:
... To be a really good team, you had to bring out all [of your teammates'] gifts and help [them] be better players. And I think he was capable of doing that much better in his second career as an NBA basketball player. I think he was much more generous with his time, I think he was much more encouraging as a teammate.
Jackson's assessment offers some interesting shading to Jordan's legacy in Chicago and maybe adds a brighter shine to his second run in Chicago, (already damn shiny, what with its three rings and the all-time-great 72-10 run in 1995-96). It also casts Jordan's previous triumphs, including the first three-peat, in a slightly different light.
Though he was undoubtedly a more dominant physical force as a younger man, in the Zen Master's eyes, he wasn't necessarily the best he could be. He was lacking. He had to grow. How often do we think of Michael Jordan - not the GM, not the owner, not the man off the court, but the player - in those terms?
It's an interesting perspective that opens all sorts of doors to analysis of what constitutes the perfect player and contextualizes Jordan circa '93, as destructive a force as he was, as an incomplete monarch who had to learn the right way to rule to become the G.O.A.T. That fascinating piece of food for thought makes "Jordan Rides the Bus" worth a watch for hoop heads, in spite of its failings.