SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – The tears tumbled, flooding his face and Michael Jordan had yet to march to the microphone at Symphony Hall. He had listened to the genuine stories and speeches of a remarkable class. He had watched a "This is Your Life" video compilation of his basketball genius. Everything flashed before him, a legacy that he's fought with body and soul to never, ever let go into yesterday.
Yes, Michael Jordan was still fighting it on Friday night, and maybe he always will. Mostly, he was crying over the passing of that old Jordan, and it wouldn't be long until he climbed out of his suit and back into his uniform and shorts, back into an adolescent act that's turned so tedious.
This wasn't a Hall of Fame induction speech, but a bully tripping nerds with lunch trays in the school cafeteria. He had a responsibility to his standing in history, to players past and present, and he let everyone down. This was a night to leave behind the petty grievances and past slights – real and imagined. This was a night to be gracious, to be generous with praise and credit.
"M.J. was introduced as the greatest player ever and he's still standing there trying to settle scores," one Hall of Famer said privately later.
Jordan didn't hurt his image with the NBA community as much as he reminded them of it. "That's who Michael is," one high-ranking team executive said. "It wasn't like he was out of character. There's no one else who could've gotten away with what he did tonight. But it was Michael, and everyone just goes along."
Jordan wandered through an unfocused and uninspired speech at Symphony Hall, disparaging people who had little to do with his career, like Jeff Van Gundy and Bryon Russell. He ignored people who had so much to do with it, like his personal trainer, Tim Grover. This had been a moving and inspirational night for the NBA – one of its best ceremonies ever – and five minutes into Jordan's speech it began to spiral into something else. Something unworthy of Jordan's stature, something beneath him.
Jordan spent more time pointlessly admonishing Van Gundy and Russell for crossing him with taunts a dozen years ago than he did singling out his three children. When he finally acknowledged his family, Jordan blurted, in part, to them, "I wouldn't want to be you guys."
Well, um, thanks Dad. He meant it, too. If not the NBA, he should've thought of his children before he started spraying fire at everyone.
No one ever feels sorry for Isiah Thomas, but Jordan tsk-tsked him and George Gervin and Magic Johnson for the 1985 All-Star game "freeze-out." Jordan was a rookie, and the older stars decided to isolate him. It was a long time ago, and he obliterated them all for six NBA championships and five MVP trophies. Isiah and the Ice Man looked stunned, as intimidated 50 feet from the stage as they might have been on the basketball court.
The cheering and laughter egged Jordan on, but this was no public service for him. Just because he was smiling didn't mean this speech hadn't dissolved into a downright vicious volley.
Worst of all, he flew his old high school teammate, Leroy Smith, to Springfield for the induction. Remember, Smith was the upperclassman his coach, Pop Herring, kept on varsity over him as a high school sophomore. He waggled to the old coach, "I wanted to make sure you understood: You made a mistake, dude."
Whatever, Michael. Everyone gets it. Truth be told, everyone got it years ago, but somehow he thinks this is a cleansing exercise. When basketball wanted to celebrate Jordan as the greatest player ever, wanted to honor him for changing basketball everywhere, he was petty and punitive. Yes, there was some wink-wink teasing with his beloved Dean Smith, but make no mistake: Jordan revealed himself to be strangely bitter. You won, Michael. You won it all. Yet he keeps chasing something that he'll never catch, and sometimes, well, it all seems so hollow for him.
This is why he's a terrible basketball executive because he still hasn't learned to channel his aggressions into hard work on that job. For the Charlotte Bobcats, Jordan remains an absentee boss who keeps searching for basketball players on fairways and greens.
From the speeches of David Robinson to John Stockton, Jerry Sloan to Vivian Stringer, there was an unmistakable thread of peace of mind and purpose. At times, they were self-deprecating and deflective of praise. Jordan hasn't mastered that art, and it reveals him to be oddly insecure. When Jordan should've thanked the Bulls' ex-GM, Jerry Krause, for surrounding him with championship coaches and talent, he ridiculed him. It was me, Jordan was saying. Not him. "The organization didn't play with the flu in Utah," Jordan grumbled.
For Jordan to let someone else share in the Bulls' dynasty never will diminish his greatness. Just enhance it. Only, he's 46 years old and he still doesn't get it. Yes, Jordan did gush over Scottie Pippen, but he failed to confess that he had wanted Krause to draft North Carolina's Joe Wolf. Sometimes, no one is better with half a story, half a truth, than Jordan. All his life, no one's ever called him on it.
Whatever Jordan wants to believe, understand this: The reason that Van Gundy's declaration of him as a "con man" so angered him is because it was true on so many levels.
It was part of his competitive edge, part of his marketability and yes, part of his human frailty.
Jordan wasn't crying over sentimentality on Friday night as much as he was the loss of a life that he returned from two retirements to have again. The finality of his basketball genius hit him at the induction ceremony, hit him hard. Jordan showed little poise and less grace.
Once again, he turned the evening into something bordering between vicious and vapid, an empty exercise for a night that should've had staying power, that should've been transformative for basketball and its greatest player. What fueled his fury as a thirtysomething now fuels his bitterness as a lost, wandering fortysomething who threatened a comeback at 50.
"Don't laugh," Michael Jordan warned.
No one's laughing anymore.
Once and for all, Michael: It's over.
- Michael Jordan