Some books, quite pointedly, make a push to get to a place other books do not, and right from its early pages it’s clear that Roland Lazenby’s biography of Michael Jordan is in full-press mode to be the best volume ever written on perhaps basketball’s greatest player.
Not many people, of course, can come close to the claim of being the clear-cut peak performer in their respective field. But Jordan’s reign as basketball’s paragon was very long and then there was his performance. Fans regularly watched Jordan do outrageous things — the whole hanging in the air bit is still a stumper — but it was the man’s drive, his all-conquering, and maybe even manic, competitiveness that thrilled and fascinated as much as anything.
There can be a lot of mileage to be had in unfolding enigmas, and it is the mysterious side of Jordan that the prolific, veteran sportswriter Lazenby is focused on revealing. We’re talking dense, granular stuff, the ins and outs of a middling athletic boyhood in North Carolina, his stellar collegiate career at Carolina, his reign in Chicago, the sweat and blood of searing playoff series, the locker room politics, and the practice contests with Jordan coming off more like the fastest gun in town straight out of a “Gunsmoke’’ episode than a shooting guard.
It’s fascinating to watch the modulations in Jordan’s attitude lead to changes in his game. In the early 1990s, when the Bulls’ complex triangle offense faltered, Jordan had his own recourse. “[Forget] the triangle. Just take the ball and score. Get everyone to clear out,” is how Jordan describes his “it’s time to take over” attitude.
Later, in 1995-96, when the Bulls morphed into the best single-season team in NBA history with a staggering 72 wins, we see a more selfless Jordan, his assassin’s eyes even more focused, having learned that in making his teammates that much better, he had weapons beyond his earlier arsenal.
Celtics fans will like the segment on the 1986 playoff battle with the Bulls, which most people remember for Jordan ladling in 63 points at the Garden. But as Kevin McHale coolly counters, “People forget we swept that series. It was 3-0 and we went home.” What such tidbits speak to is the learning curve of going from the most talented guy in the gym, to the guy who becomes the peerless winner of a generation, and the progression from individual star to team leader.
Athletes may or may not be geniuses of a kind, but if they are, Jordan is right there with a handful of others — Wayne Gretzky, Ted Williams, Joe Montana. And while this book gets into the juicier sides of the Jordan legend — the feuds with Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, his gambling problems, the stint as a minor league baseball player, and the horror of his father’s murder — it’s the square-peg-and-round-hole aspect of someone unlike anyone else, blessed unlike anyone else, having to exist and thrive in a medium of players and people who might as well belong to a different species, given the gap between their talent and temperment and Jordan’s.
Lazenby’s a born researcher and some serious legwork went into gathering all of the quotes and facts here, which add up to a kind of Jordan-centric encyclopedia, even if no outright shockers are lying in wait.
Jordan could be downright Ruthian in that his external exploits were singular enough that they beckon us to look inward in a search to understand how he could function at a level that seemed so far beyond the normal bounds of his sport. For all of the physical gifts, we see that it’s the mental aspect of sport — and a drive conceivably beyond that of any other athlete — that elevated His Airness to his lofty plane.
Colin Fleming is a freelance writer, fiction author, and arts critic based in Boston.