Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
It really came as no surprise when Michael Jordan chose supply-side brutality over athlete solidarity as a leader of the owners’ hardliner cabal in NBA lockout negotiations. As Jordan showed with 2009’s Hall of Fame speech, him being an asshole is more than some jock-ish twinge. Without it, not only would he never have been the player he was, he may not have been a professional athlete at all.
Today’s stars may look up to him, but Jordan isn’t interested in being anyone’s mentor. He’s mostly concerned with making sure none of them approach his accomplishments. It takes a scripted video game ad to wrench any unilaterally polite comments out of him, even when his Jordan Brand—a Nike subsidiary that operates like warlord territory—writes many of them hefty checks.
All things are not like basketball for him. Instead, Jordan is hard-wired to blandly totalize all the wonderful, or banal, activities his life has afforded him. Winning titles is certainly a more profound experience than playing cards, or hanging out in Vegas with Charles Oakley, but in all of these, the same contours emerge. To paraphrase the late Lamont Coleman, you know what he’s about. The Michael Jordan empire isn’t one measured in rings, dollars, or promotional opportunities, but in anecdotal slaughter.
Since retiring for the third time, Jordan has—without necessarily realizing it himself—been reduced to a clown, a bloated, irascible figure with a fondness for paint-splattered denim. The Jordan Brand is sustained by what MJ stood for, or wrought, as a player. His free-standing ventures have been laughable, including his embarrassing stint as Wizards GM and head-scratching tenure as owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. No one really wanted to believe that Michael Jordan had come to this, that the consensus G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time—only Ali and Gretzky can claim a similar distinction) had turned out to be such a loser. And an ineffectual one at that: Jordan has been a buffoon, not in the least bit defiant or fiery. We missed the player, but it seemed as if his very soul had been sapped in the transfiguration.
“He’s an owner now,” is the current line on Jordan, ratifying the belief that MJ has simply ported his on-court attitude over to this next phase of his professional life. With MJ, making others miserable precedes any particular activity; this sudden desire to throw his weight around as an owner is a personal breakthrough.
When Jordan asserts himself as a hardline owner, in effect, he’s reclaiming his identity, effectively branding himself as the same MJ we always liked, or loathed—the spite and the grandeur are inseparable by now. He’s never going to excel at running basketball teams, but at very least he can stab at the enemy like in the old days. Irrelevance is far preferable to emasculation. Jordan has found his niche as the only owner capable of towing the hard line without coming off as a sniveling kook.
If Dan Gilbert and Robert Sarver suffer for their efforts, Jordan is enhanced by them. The ruler is back. The past roars yet again. It’s a genius bit of marketing, a brilliant way to create the illusion of clout. Jordan can only leverage Jordan by accepting that he will never be anything more than that vessel for rage—at least, never again. His playing days, in this sense, were a happy accident.
Yet there’s another dimension to Jordan’s newfound business swagger. In these labor negotiations, he finds himself in a position to directly face off against the entirety of today’s active players. Screwing over or insulting one of his employees hardly gives him his pick of opponents, or puts the league’s best at his disposal. As the owners’ self-appointed heavy, he’s not just finding his place among their ranks and, in the process, resolving the cognitive dissonance between past and present. Michael Jordan finally has a chance to take on all the would-be challengers to his legend. His peer group, in this case, isn’t the owners—it’s those players he continues to perceive as a threat.
Granted, he can’t take them on the court any longer, but he’s put himself in a position to go toe-to-toe with them and do maximum damage to their well-being, their futures. Jordan was the first player to shape the league in his image, to demand ungodly sums of money. Let no one forget, or eclipse, that resume. Once a player, always a player. At least as long as that remains the source of his power. That legacy needs to always reign supreme; it’s the trump card that turns Jordan’s misanthropy into a higher purpose, forcing everyone to respect what’s basically a pathology.
Jordan, though, isn’t calling the shots in these negotiations. He may have put himself out there, but he’s ultimately a puppet, an extremist indirectly serving the interests of bigger fish. It may be a symbolic coup for him, except that as this whole drama plays out and Jordan remains uncompromising and durable in this role, this second-class status raises some troubling questions. Gilbert or Sarver are natural born gadflies. Jordan is attempting to once again become respectable, if not respected. But at what price?
An aimless, stormy man is the familiar fate of those who depend much on youth. The G.O.A.T. would never settle for being someone else’s battering ram, or willfully letting himself be lead into live fire. Jordan himself may have only pride, but for the rest of us, his legacy has dignity. If that starts to fall away, then basketball itself is the thing that suffers most. We want to feel that the man who brought the game to its highest level, whatever his motivations, can at least keep that career beyond reproach. Anger is one thing; but to think that there might have been an element of gullibility, even weakness, in this absolute showing of greatness, is a “say it ain’t so” moment.
Jordan authored a career that rarely admitted vulnerability. This fall, he runs the risk of making us question its sincerity. When the G.O.A.T. can be mere goat, the sport, and the world, are rendered that much more unforgivably ordinary.