August 25, 2010
I'm not in the business of repairing Michael Jordan's legacy. I'm here to tell you what I know, after taking in so much of this game, at this level. What people choose to take in and/or decide to pass over is of no concern to me.
Just last spring, my evisceration of Michael Jordan was read aloud, nearly verbatim, on the AM radio dial in my hometown. For those that don't know a single thing about me, what I stand for, whom I've pored over, and where I'm from? That column could be their only reference point. And I'm OK with that, because that's part of who I am, that's what I've seen, and that's what I wanted to tell you.
But Jordan, because he's interesting, goes a bit deeper than that. As all the people that are worth our time should.
And with the Charlotte Bobcats' recent signing of a clearly overweight Kwame Brown(notes) fresh in our minds, it's time to revisit some of what was Jordan's past with the overmatched once-first overall pick.
No, not the expertly reported part, written by Michael Leahy, about Jordan calling the impressionable youth a word that starts with "F" that should be on no man or woman's lips, no matter the subject, no matter the intent, no matter the level of tolerance of the speaker, and no matter the sexual orientation and/or joking manner of the spewer in question.
And, no, this isn't to mock Kwame Brown once again. This isn't to reintroduce what quite a few people -- myself included -- took from reading this brilliant Sally Jenkins piece so many years ago. The parts about Kwame Brown peeling his expensive suits off following a game, and tossing them into a corner. Or the part about him acting incredulous that a French restaurant didn't deign to serve French salad dressing.
I read the Jenkins column again last week, for the first time in years. And upon the re-read, it was clear that I missed something. Looking once again to revel in Jordan's cruelty, and Brown's unnerving mix of arrogance and incompetence, I missed this part:
Brown couldn't do anything right. "He couldn't catch it, couldn't throw it, couldn't shoot it right," [Wizards forward Popeye] Jones says. In a series of three-on-three drills, the Wizards banged him -- hard, intentionally. "He got pretty beat around," Jones says. Center Jahidi White knocked him to the ground -- and fell on top of him. Brown lay there, stunned and bruised.
"Get up, you aren't hurt," White said.
Brown got up, aching, holding his back. His gray practice shirt was soaked through. Nobody had any sympathy for him. Not even Popeye Jones, the veteran who'd looked out for him the most. "It's time for you to grow up," Jones told him, coldly. "Now. Today. Stand on your own two feet."
[Wizards coach Doug] Collins, still not satisfied, ordered a set of punishing sprints. Brown hesitated. "I hurt my back," he said.
Collins wheeled. Now it was his turn. "Stop being a baby and start growing up and playing, and earning the respect of your teammates," Collins shouted. "They're tired of you. They're tired of you getting knocked down, and laying around. They're tired of you holding your back. And holding your head. And holding your thumb. You're the one who has to be in that locker room, and meet them eye to eye."
Brown stared at his feet. "Do you want to play or not?" Collins snapped. No answer.
"Get off the court," Collins said disgustedly.
He sat in front of his locker trembling and crying. This is it, he thought, the league's not for me. I'm horrible. The coach thinks I'm horrible. The whole team thinks I'm horrible. I can't even play. Then he got on a treadmill and ran as hard he could, for almost an hour.
After a while, Jordan came into the locker room. He sat on a bench with Brown, and put his arm around him, and hugged him. "You're going to be all right," he said. For several minutes, he talked to Brown in soothing tones. "Doug is tough, but in a few years you'll understand how good he is," he said. They still believed in him, Jordan affirmed. "We put our necks out for you," he said. "We think you have the ingredients to be a great power forward for a long, long time."
To Brown, it meant everything. "He showed me a side you never read about," Brown says. "The M.J. who comes over and picks you up and talks to you when you're down and out."
If that's too long a quote for Jenkins' taste, I apologize. That's a long passage, but it's a long column. And so, so worth your time, if you haven't indulged already.
Jordan is the guy who drives people to tears. Jordan is the guy who attempts to harm. Jordan is the man who acts like a boy. That's part of him.
But it's not all of him. And while he's mostly wrong, outside of knowing how and when to lead a team to wins on the court, he can be right. This isn't to say that he'll lead the Bobcats to greatness -- his track record more or less laughs that one off -- we should understand that, at the heart of this, he is a freakish competitor that will do anything he can in order to win. Now.
And if that means talking up Kwame Brown, telling him that it's going to be all right when it's quite clear that everything's gone wrong, then he'll do it. This also means he'll be petty and cruel to someone like Brown, but it also means that he's trying to work this from all angles. All of them, when it comes to trying to knock some sense into a person like Kwame Brown, destined to fail.
The bottom line, here, is desperation. Jordan -- then, now -- is desperate to win at all costs. And while I'm teetering toward sacrilege, here, there is something in this that reminds of LeBron James(notes). And Kobe Bryant(notes).
No, not the tactless and immature way that James skipped his way away from responsibility and toward Miami. Or the thoughtless way that Bryant flirted with the Clippers and Bulls before signing with the Lakers after forcing Shaquille O'Neal's(notes) trade away from Los Angeles, only to demand a trade a few summers later.
It's the way, whatever way it takes, that they want to win. Whether they've been there before, as in the case of Jordan and Bryant, or not.
And that's something I cannot disagree with. I can rightfully rant and rail against the pathetic way these men sometimes go about trying to get to the top of that mountain, but I can't admonish the goal. The hope. And that drive.
So, yes. Michael Jordan just signed an out of shape Kwame Brown, and avoided the press conference to introduce him. He might think he can still turn him into something special, or it might be a spot of misplaced guilt over what went down nearly a decade ago. The impetus behind this part of the package doesn't matter.
The impetus behind the entire movement does, though. It's the desperation to win. The execution that follows should be analyzed to no end. But the initial spark behind this obsession should never be questioned.