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Urban Rhythms

Liking Mike

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 11/7/2001

I've finally found something to love about Michael Jordan: He's coming out of retirement with his legendary skills corroded by three years' worth of rust. He's playing for the Washington Wizards, a team that last season exemplified lumbering incompetence. And many, if not most, of his new teammates are simply not ready for prime time.

And so at last, the great Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest professional athlete of all time, is an underdog. And I love underdogs.

My heroes are gentle madmen like Don Quixote, who tilted at windmills, and Elwood P. Dowd, whose best friend was a giant white rabbit named Harvey. I grew up on the legends of King Arthur and his knights, who were each of them ruined in their futile quest for perfection, and of the doomed Greek heroes outside of Troy, who were used and tossed aside like pawns by the bored gods of antiquity.

For most of his storied career, rooting for Michael Jordan was too much like rooting for Mr. Establishment. Wealthy, beloved, and talented beyond imagining, Jordan bestrode the mortal basketball courts like Superman in a world without kryptonite.

In June 1998, both Time and Fortune magazines put Jordan on their covers and marveled at his remarkable success.

"Can you describe his [Michael Jordan's] personality? His politics? His sense of humor? His likes or dislikes?" the Time story asked. "Bitter sitcom writers, accustomed to having edgy material rejected, use this analogy: Bugs Bunny is funnier, smarter, and more interesting than Mickey Mouse, who has no known personality except for being vaguely likable and harmless. [Yet] Mickey is worth a trillion dollars. Be like Mickey."

This, I suppose, was Time's idea of a compliment: describing Michael Jordan as vaguely likable and harmless, the human equivalent of Mickey Mouse. But, as Fortune noted in its story, blandness pays. Fortune calculated that Jordan has added $10 billion to the economy since he entered the NBA in 1983, an amount encompassing sales of Jordan-brand products; NBA ticket, merchandising, and television revenues; and his value as a product endorser.

This was Jordan in his heyday, and cheering for him was like cheering for Big Oil, Big Tobacco, or the New York Yankees. There was more romance in rooting for his overthrow.

Yet all we could do was snipe from the sidelines. Critics like myself carped about the apparent commitment to profits over principle in Jordan's indifference to the working conditions of the poor souls who manufactured his brand-name shoes, and in his refusal to lend his name--magic in North Carolina, where Jordan grew up and went to college--to efforts to unseat that state's rabidly conservative U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. Charges that he gambled on games didn't stick. Accusations that he and a handful of other superstars had attempted to break the NBA player's union failed to tarnish his reputation. The man was unbeatable, on the court and off.

But now, Michael Jordan is 38 years old, which is like being 55 in basketball years. Each night he's going up against a new crop of superstars who may have worshiped him in diapers but now want to earn their stars by toppling the king. After every game, Jordan limps to the locker room with great big bags of crushed ice taped onto his aching knees.

Yet in four games Michael Jordan has averaged 22 points, six rebounds, five assists, and 2.3 steals in 34 minutes. Three times he has led his team in scoring, and three times in assists. Because of him--and only because of him--the lowly Wizards were on national television twice during the first week of this young NBA season. That's one side of Jordan's comeback, and say what you like, it's pretty amazing.

True, Jordan's Wizards, while they've managed to win two of their first four, look a lot like they did last season--which is to say, clumsy, inept, inconsistent, and not ready for the spotlight. In each of those games, you could see that Jordan wanted to lift this team up onto his back and carry it to victory, using his boundless talent, his limitless willpower, and his proven track record as a leader. But he has failed twice, and this makes him worth watching in my book.

Even those who've never read Cervantes' Don Quixote probably know how the gallant hero attacked a windmill and was beaten to the ground. But you may not know that Don Quixote also managed to win a few battles here and there, even though he was old, delusional, and hopelessly outgunned everywhere he went. And you also may not know that Don Quixote's madness managed to touch a few hearts along the way.

Forget about his fabulous wealth and storied reputation. Poor, mad, delusional Michael Jordan has embarked upon a truly quixotic quest. And in doing so, he's touched at least one heart.

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