Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Book Review (#74 of 2014) Michael Jordan: The Life by Roland Lazenby

Michael Jordan: The Life
Lazenby was apparently able to roll together chapters from previous books about Michael and the Bulls together with new information into this comprehensive 700 page biography of the Greatest of All Time. It spans from Jordan's ancestry all the way to his caustic Hall of Fame acceptance speech and failures as Charlotte owner.

I grew up in the Jordan Era, had The Dunk on my wall, wore Nike everything, and watched Bulls games on NBC and WGN religiously. This book includes every anecdote and story I ever heard about MJ's early career-- pretty much anything that was ever put in print or on the air. Lazenby has exhaustively gone through public record for much of this; a weakness of the book is that he seems to lack personal access to Jordan over his 30 years of covering him. That is probably just as well, plenty of other journalists were close to Jordan and protected his secrets. But the depth of Jordan's relationships with others aren't explored, it is not an expose like The Jordan Rules was. But critics wrongly assail Lazenby on this point as Jordan does not open himself up to just anyone, and neither do those who know him well-- Jordan never forgets a slight and does not care to make amends.

The strength of this book is looking at Jordan's family tree beginning with his great grandfather, who came of age in the post-Civil War South. Speaking of him still brings tears to Jordan's eyes, the man was tough and relentless and Lazenby has the reader believe that his resolve runs through Jordan's DNA. Jordan's ancestors faced discrimination and hardship that helped mold his family into a unit and created opportunities for Jordan. They could never have imagined a black man from the South being an icon for billions of people worldwide.

Every man has a wound, usually from his father. James Jordan wounded Michael early in life when Michael was trying to help him work on cars. "You don't know what the hell you're doing. Go back inside with the women," would drive Jordan to push to win his father's affection over that of his brothers. I did not know what a douche James Jordan was, a pedophile, thief, and serial philanderer. It's very sad that Michael seems to idolize him, even though Michael learned he could not be trusted in business. Michael's mother, on the other hand, comes across as "solid," and "professional," and Nike preferred working with her than with James.

Despite an unbelievably competitive nature on the court, Jordan is his mother's "laziest child," paying others to do his chores and holding a paying job for only one week. His competitive light came on only in sports. The legend of Michael being left off his high school varsity team is explored, that is somewhat of a complicated story but the logic made sense at the time.

The Jordan era didn't have AAU, where all the best kids travel and play three games a day and can't take the time to care about winning all that much-- it's rather about showcasing their individual talent. Lazenby floats others' hypotheses that Jordan would not have the competitive fire if he had grown up in the modern era like LeBron James.

Jordan didn't really have another coach/person motivate him by intentional wounding until Bobby Knight did it on the '84 US Olympic team. (Knight comes across as a real douche in the book as well.) His time at UNC served him well, and Dean Smith comes across as an honest person who cares about his players but has the same ego and competitive drive as any major college coach.  Jordan resented the Carolina Way, how fast break dunks that showed up the other team were punished and seniors were given the limelight. "The System" limited his individual ability, but helped him play in Tex Winter's triangle offense and be somewhat of a teammate.


I was interested in the back story on the Bulls' seasons, Phil Jackson's mind games, and Jordan's mind games with himself. People comment over and over how Jordan, often privately, goes out of his way to make time for the common person and autograph seeker. This wears on him, he's a prisoner in his hotel room for much of the book. But despite the inner rage that makes appearances mostly on the court, Jordan is shown as having a sense of humor. His friends are journalists, drivers, equipment men, etc. But you get the sense he's not really close with anyone. Even Phil Jackson betrays him (and gets away with it) by being a key source about Jordan's caustic personality in The Jordan Rules. That I found interesting.

I was a teenager and a bit less interested in the '96-98 era and was disgusted by the Wizards run. I enjoyed Lazenby's insights into the back story of '96-98, how Jordan and the team embraced Phil Jackson's meditation and other unusual methods, how an inebriated Jordan would disrespectfully  harass GM Jerry Krause on the team bus after games. The inner demons, invented and real, that drove Jordan on the court. Jordan could never be taught to not call his teammates "my supporting cast," and that's what they knew they were.

The depth of the book becomes pretty shallow in Jordan's later years, however. His divorce is mentioned almost as an afterthought. One never gets the full sense of Jordan's philandering, but there are stories of games of pool in topless bars, all-day golf excursions, and plenty of fine cigars and booze to fill the time. Lazenby makes MJ's playing for the Wizards seem like a benevolent deed, not something Jordan did because he couldn't succeed at anything else and his ego just wouldn't let his position within the game go. The book is fairly critical of his time as "The Loser" as owner of the team with the worst single-season record in league history. In some cases, perhaps Jordan is reaping bad karma from having been so critical of Krause and Reinsdorf and holding grudges when they traded his friends or made other necessary business decisions.

Jordan's demons are on display in this book, compiled from public statements by and about Jordan as well as information from other books. The older he gets, the worse it gets. He both acknowledges the uniqueness and blessing of being the only truly worldwide global icon, but also seems to blame the world for it and feels begrudged like everyone owes him something. If you want to know as much as can be known about the man's career, then check this book out. 4 stars out of 5.

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