To Be Like Mike "The Life" focuses on what the basketball legend lived, not what he signifies

Michael Jordan: The Life

Roland Lazenby (Little Brown, 2014) 691 pages with photos, notes, bibliography and index

Michael Jordan is many things to many people. He is a basketball legend, a global corporate icon, a dominant competitor, an aesthetic ideal, and a purportedly deracialized symbol. He has filled arenas, television screens, movie theaters, and academic works. David Shields once called him “our one transcendental signifier, our one universal beloved.” Billions of people have been told that they should dream “to be like Mike.”

Roland Lazenby isn’t particularly interested in these things. As the title of his Jordan biography indicates, Lazenby’s focus is on The Life that the Basketball Hall of Famer has actually lived—not what he signifies. In doing so, Lazenby necessarily encounters the familiar sign posts of the Jordan mythography: the indignity of being relegated to the junior varsity team as a high school sophomore, the NCAA Championship-winning shot as a college freshman at North Carolina, the gambling problem, the first retirement, the “flu game.” Though at the start of the book Lazenby dramatically calls him “Michael, the archangel of rims,” the author documents these hagiographic incidents with a pragmatic, almost clinical tone. They happened, so he must recount them, but he resists participating in the mythmaking. Jordan’s athletic and personal dynamism jump off the page, to be sure, but Lazenby refuses to linger in these moments. Instead, he marches on to the next detail, the next interview, the next account of Jordan’s life and times.

In part, Lazenby does this because he has a lot to cover. The Life begins long before Jordan’s life does, with the story of his great-grandfather, Dawson Jordan, born in rural North Carolina in 1891. Thanks to the toughness and business acumen of Dawson and his descendants, Lazenby writes, Michael spent his “formative years … with four generations of Jordan men, a substantial accomplishment considering the societal factors that had long threatened the lives of African-American males.” Documenting the trials and tribulations of those generations amidst a broader history of Jim Crow-era North Carolina, it is 50 pages before Lazenby chronicles the arrival of a basketball hoop in the Jordan driveway. Though the reader may seek the “God of Basketball,” Lazenby declines to hurry the apotheosis.

Lazenby’s reluctance to signify Jordan also has something to do with the nature of biography, and sports biography in particular. Unlike autobiography, which announces its subjectivity, biography is primarily based in research. Like sports writing, it gains authenticity from the purported objectivity of verifiable data as it spins its narrative. Sports biographies, usually written by journalists carefully trained to document without bias or undue speculation, often feel teleological for this reason—each event necessarily contributes to the known outcome that is the famous athlete. As Lazenby’s narrative progresses chronologically, from the Jordans’ driveway and Laney High School to the University of North Carolina and the Chicago Bulls, the spaces between games are filled in with countless interviews and historical details. There can be no question about the comprehensiveness of Lazenby’s research and reportage. But there is also something hollow at the center of his portrait of Jordan.

This hollowness resonates, at least in part, because of the one aspect of Jordan’s popular mythos that Lazenby does perpetuate: the notion that Michael Jordan is perhaps the most competitive person ever born. Rather than a self-selected trait, Lazenby characterizes that competitiveness as born from psychic injury. To do so, the author refutes what he calls “the Jordan family fable,” a happy tale of James and Deloris Jordan’s stable home which he calls “a false narrative in many key aspects.” Paramount among these aspects are the allegations of Michael’s sister, Sis, that their father, James, sexually abused her as a child. These allegations, first made public in Sis’s 2001 book, In My Family’s Shadow, contribute to Lazenby’s portrayal of James Jordan as a troubled man who, though he became supportive of his Michael’s athletic exploits, often scorned him as a young boy. In turn, it is from James, Lazenby argues, that Michael inherited his distinctive and sometimes troubling hyper-competitiveness. James Jordan’s “mean words … activated deep within [Michael] some errant strain of DNA, a mutation of competitive nature so strong as to almost seem titanium.” Though the true miracle of Michael’s DNA may have been the high school growth spurt that made the 6’6” youngest son a full foot taller than his father and two older brothers, it is in this notion of Jordan’s biologically ingrained competitiveness that Lazenby finds the strand that binds his biography together.

As Lazenby exhaustively documents, Jordan felt trapped by his fame, limited socially to a small circle of friends and business associates, outside of which he was merely a “walking and talking conglomerate.”

Lazenby takes pains to explain that the expression of Michael’s indomitable will was not limited to his performances in games. Time and time again he quotes friends and teammates who describe Jordan’s practice habits in violent terms. “He would destroy you in practice,” says one teammate. “Michael will cut your throat out,” says another. Lazenby describes Jordan as “wrapped in silent fury, [a] blinding yet unarticulated rage,” alienating teammates and coaches alike with his refusal to let down his guard, to treat any competition as anything less than urgent, whether it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals, an off season shoot-around, or a game of cards. While there is some public precedent for positioning this kind of competitiveness as a natural extension of the attributes necessary to overcome the discrimination faced by African-American men, as Johnny Sample famously asserted in Confessions of a Dirty Ballplayer (1970), Lazenby particularizes Jordan’s fury as innate, not culturally influenced. At the height of his wealth and fame, “even [in his private life after] Jordan had walked away from basketball,” Lazenby writes, “his competitiveness raged on, to the point that he truly craved action, always looking for the next buzz, [to] feel that certain edge.” For Jordan, Lazenby suggests, no-holds-barred competition was an end, not a means.

Alongside this rather unsympathetic portrayal of Michael Jordan’s private interpersonal demeanor runs Lazenby’s account of “Air” Jordan’s corporate ascent. While Jordan’s own drive may have led to his accomplishments on the court, Lazenby credits little more than good fortune for this overwhelming success in the business world. A lover of “all things Adidas” who wore team-issued Converse sneakers at UNC, Jordan was nevertheless identified by Nike agent Sonny Vaccaro as someone who could incarnate a new paradigm in sponsorship, someone who “should be marketed as [one] might market a tennis player, as an individual, more than as a basketball player … marketed through team connections.” Immediately after Jordan led the 1984 United States Olympic basketball team to Gold in Los Angeles, Vaccaro persuaded Nike to pour its entire $2.5 million basketball budget into signing the two-time All-American. Before he had played a single minute for the Chicago Bulls, Jordan was set to make more from corporate sponsorship than from his NBA salary.

In this moment, however, generally resistant as Lazenby is to measuring Jordan’s larger significance as an American idol and global icon, the author comments on his importance as a racial signifier. “This was not just an unprecedented offering in terms of finance,” he writes. After all, “America had witnessed the emergence of a progression of iconic black athletes, from Jackie Robinson to Willie Mays to Bill Russell to Wilt Chamberlain to Jim Brown to Muhammad Ali,” none of whom had been offered sponsorships of this magnitude at any point in their careers. As to the reason why, Lazenby asserts: “The term ‘post-racial’ hadn’t entered the vocabulary yet, but it could have described what [Nike] sensed about Jordan.” That Lazenby uses this fraught term without irony or further examination makes apparent the limitations of his attempt to tell us who Jordan is, without focusing on what he means. While the notion that an athlete can become “post-racial”—in the sense that who they are is not defined by their race—makes a certain amount of sense when considered within the ostensibly meritocratic competitive structure of sports, for Lazenby to invoke it in describing Jordan’s marketability speaks to either naiveté or disingenuity. It is undoubtedly true that Nike calculated that Jordan was an “articulate” black man, capable of charming a majority-white American consumer society then, and still, structured by endemic racism. Surely the corporation was pleased by his decidedly neutral political inclination—exemplified later in the famous “Republicans buy sneakers too” comment—and calculated that he was unlikely to remind white Americans, as Ali, Brown, Robinson, and Russell had, that African-American suffering could not be ignored. But to jump from those Civil Rights-era sports icons to Jordan is to ignore another African-American athlete who was, at least for a time, similarly considered “post-racial”: O.J. Simpson. Simpson was himself a seemingly politically-neutral star athlete and successful corporate pitchman until his infamous murder trial “blackened” him both figuratively and quite literally on the cover of Time magazine. Though not to same degree as Simpson, Jordan too was notably racialized in media coverage of his gambling debts, and in the attendant unfounded conspiracy theories that suggested that he was forced to take a break from the NBA in the mid-1990s. That these complications to the notion that Jordan could be considered “post-racial” are not explored speaks either to the caution produced by the sales considerations of mass-market publishing, or to Lazenby’s own post-political authorial outlook. Either way, given the depth of knowledge about Jordan he has gained from his extensive research, this lack of reflection is a shame.

It is also true, of course, that what Michael Jordan means is not always clear to the man himself. After all the accolades and three championships in the early 1990s, the brutal murder of Jordan’s father forced him to reconsider whether the dizzying heights of basketball dominance fulfilled him. Retiring from basketball, Michael spent two years pursuing James Jordan’s sporting passion as a minor league baseball player with the Chicago White Sox AA affiliate, the Birmingham Barons. When he returned to the Bulls in 1995, Jordan wondered if he could be the same player again, asserting that “according to some people, I’m … failing to live up to Michael Jordan. But I have the best chance of being him because I am him.” While the immediate context has to do with the sharpness of Jordan’s basketball skills, his comment provides a glimpse into the psyche of a man seeking to calibrate his performance of self to meet public expectations. As Lazenby exhaustively documents, Jordan felt trapped by his fame, limited socially to a small circle of friends and business associates, outside of which he was merely a “walking and talking conglomerate.” On the basketball court, Jordan had a concrete identity and a protected forum for his competitive drive. Off of it, Sonny Vaccaro comments, “he became another Michael.”

In light of Jordan’s bifurcated sense of self, it is telling that The Life has much less to say about Jordan’s “afterlife” beyond basketball, or even his second un-retirement with the Washington Wizards. While the “God of Basketball” retired in 1998 after winning three more championships with the Bulls, the other Michael continued on. As Lazenby puts it, “in the minds of so many, Jordan should have simply inhabited that final perfect tableau … for the rest of his known life.” The irony is that in this book, Lazenby seems to have joined the many. The author continues on with Jordan, but he finds less to document. In part this is because he seems to have had little access to the man himself: absent a structured framework of NBA-mandated player media access, it appears Lazenby either didn’t seek or was denied the chance to interview Jordan in depth about his career as an NBA executive. This is not necessarily a bad thing: as Lazenby himself points out in The Life’s acknowledgements, David Halberstam’s insightful biography of Jordan, Playing for Keeps (2000), was written without access to his Airness. But Halberstam, unlike Lazenby, is invested in parsing what Jordan means for American society and his millions of fans, not merely providing “new information” or “new context.” Without that investment, the details regarding Jordan’s largely unsuccessful post-playing career largely convey the mundane actions of an unhappy billionaire, with occasional anecdotes from old friends and enemies, especially Jordan’s former nemesis and bullying target, ex-Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause.

Ultimately, Lazenby is content to define Jordan by his pathological competitiveness, as reified publicly in his 2009 Hall of Fame induction speech. In it, “Jordan chose to unburden himself and reveal his competitive heart, to address all of the things, real or imagined, that had driven him.” The result was a speech that seemed so bitter as to be “surprising, and even disappointing” to those who knew Jordan, and “shocking” to the public. For Lazenby, it merely affirms that “the things that had spurred Jordan on in his life were hugely negative,” that this man who brought billions of people joy was in fact defined by anger and hurt feelings. Even still, Lazenby imagines at the end of The Life that respite from this negative drive is possible, if only Jordan can reconcile himself to the memory of his father insulting him as a child. The Life of Michael Jordan is unfinished, after all. Like Lazenby’s larger work, however, this closing tableau rings a rather flat tone. Whatever his personal feelings or psychic demons, Michael Jordan is one of sports narrative’s great figures and should be measured as such. Construed globally, Jordan’s significance stretches beyond basketball contemporaries like Magic Johnson and Julius Erving, reaches past other American sporting heroes like Babe Ruth and Johnny Unitas, and measures alongside international cultural icons like Michael Jackson, Pelé, and The Beatles. In many ways, Jordan transcends the details of his own life, providing bounteous meanings for hundreds of millions of people. To dismiss or ignore those meanings is to miss the reason for wanting to know the man in the first place.