News & Politics » Sports Section

Sports Section

by

comment

"Losing it is as good as having it."

Robert Stone meditates on that theme in the Gatsby-esque closing to his recent novel, Damascus Gate. "It meant," he writes, "that a thing is never truly perceived, appreciated or defined except in longing...and that everyone loses everything in the end." It means, I think, that something cannot fully be put into context until it is lost, at which point one either processes it or lets it rule his emotional life like a despot.

What I'm doing is backing into the admission that I was not really prepared for the retirement of Michael Jordan. It put me--and, I know, many other Chicago fans--in a serious funk. I had thought I was prepared. In the days before Jordan officially announced the move, a friend asked what my response would be. "I would be totally satisfied," I said. "Of course, that doesn't mean I wouldn't love to see him play another year." That element of hope was the crack in the facade. When the announcement finally came down two weeks ago, it had a very dark effect. Perhaps it was the snow, the cold, or light deficiency syndrome or something else, but the idea that we would never see Jordan play competitive basketball again seemed intolerable. It was then, while shuffling past a bookshelf where Damascus Gate sat sideways atop some other books waiting to be filed, that I remembered the novel's final passage. "Losing it is as good as having it." It will have to be, won't it?

Looking back on the full arc of Jordan's basketball life (let's dismiss any thoughts of a possible comeback, shall we?--they'll only be an aggravation), what strikes me again is the pure mythos of it. Not that Jordan is a deity deserving of worship and adoration--the sports world, thank goodness, has matured beyond that childish level, even if it does remain tied to the related idea that athletes must be role models--but when one steps back from his story for a moment, there is a mythical aspect to it that even a Joseph Campbell might gawk at. Getting cut as an underclassman from his high school basketball team--that's pretty typical. But then making the game-winning shot in his freshman year to give his veteran coach his first college basketball championship--that's the sort of prodigious feat that seems to bode greatness. The thing is--and it's essential to keep in mind--a feat like that can also be the high point of a person's life or career (as anyone who remembers Indiana's Keith Smart can attest). Jordan came to Chicago, was given a free hand to dominate an otherwise talentless and moribund franchise, and grew to be, if anything, too great; he desired a championship as the ultimate proof of his worth, but a one-man team was never going to win a title, even if it might allow him to produce moments like the original "shot" in Cleveland against the Cavaliers in 1989. What still transfixes me about that shot is the way Jordan fakes left with the ball to get Craig Ehlo to commit himself, then pulls it back to the right, squares his shoulders with the basket--all while flying in the air--and rattles the shot in. Joined with two role-playing veterans, Bill Cartwright and John Paxson, with two younger players almost as talented and hungry as he was--the Castor and Pollux duo of Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant--and eventually with a coach, Phil Jackson, capable of finding new ways to challenge him as a person and as an athlete, Jordan and the team grew to championship level, though first they had to slay the ogre, the bad-boy Detroit Pistons, an assigned labor that gave them the inner toughness all heroes require.

All writing, it seems to me, is an attempt to hold on to whatever is being lost, to whatever a person knows will be lost over time, and when I think back to those heady days of late 1990, when the Bulls were first flexing their full strength and just crushing their opponents, I remember an image that has come to me again and again over the years. It is of Jordan typically erupting out of a crowd for a left-handed slam dunk, and the way that red sweatband on his left forearm, rising out of the tangle of players, suggested a banner being carried into war.

In the midst of that first championship series in 1991, there was what has remained Jordan's most famous move, the switch-of-hands lay-in against the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA finals. There is a reason why this is the move most associated with Jordan. It's his entire playing persona in essence, the two sides of his competitive spirit: Thanatos and Eros. He goes up to dunk the ball with authority, rouse the home crowd, and crush the other team's heart. It's an aggressive, destructive impulse. Then, seeing Sam Perkins prepare for a block, he transforms himself in midair from sledgehammer to butterfly, switches the ball from right hand to left, and lays it in with a soft little kiss of spin off the backboard. It is Jordan the win-at-all-costs competitor turning into the art-for-art's-sake aesthetician, with the two sides united by his flair for improvisation. Other athletes--usually ugly, relatively unskilled athletes--have had as much determination and made themselves great: Pete Rose comes quickly to mind. Some have been as talented and have displayed as much artistic flair: for instance, Julius Erving. Not one has united those disparate qualities the way Jordan did, and that move was the Janus symbol of the two sides of his playing persona. It opened the door to the Bulls' era of dominance.

Having learned to trust his teammates, especially Paxson, in the 1991 finale, he went on to survive a tough seven-game series with the New York Knicks in the 1992 playoffs before scalding the Portland Trail Blazers with his shrug-inducing three-point-shooting performance in the first game of the finals. Remember, however, that it was the second team that rallied the Bulls from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter of the finale while Jordan was on the bench, though he returned to finish the job for the first major sports title won in Chicago in 29 years. The year 1993 marked Jordan's harshest trial with the media, as they went into one of their periodic frenzies over his gambling. So Pippen had to carry the Bulls through the middle rounds of the playoffs. Jordan again rose to the moment in the finals, though in what Jackson later called a defining moment all five starters--Cartwright, Jordan, Pippen, Grant, and Paxson--touched the ball on the way to Paxson's game-winning, title-clinching three-point shot on their final possession.

It was a pretty nice career up to then, though nothing all that extraordinary in the world of sports. A great athlete achieves greatness and wins three championships; it's happened before. From there, however, the mythic element in Jordan's story goes haywire. His father's murder, coming on the heels of his harsh treatment in the media spotlight, caused him to retire. An attempt at baseball only proved the limits of his own determination where natural athletic ability was concerned. Fortunately, the baseball strike and the replacement-player fiasco of spring 1995 chased him back to basketball. Who can forget what giddy days those were in the city, and how Jordan's return gave Chicago fans a sense of the necessity to savor each moment? There was a difference in Jordan too; a year and a half in the sports wilderness had taught him humility. He won a game at the buzzer in Atlanta only a few days into his comeback, then scored 55 in New York but decided that game with a last-second pass to Bill Wennington. He lost the first game of the second round of the playoffs to the Orlando Magic when Anfernee Hardaway and Nick Anderson lured him into a trap that produced a last-minute steal and a game-winning basket by Grant, now an opponent. To me, perhaps Jordan's greatest media moment was his marathon interview session in the locker room after the Bulls lost that series; he displayed his humility and expressed his determination to return himself and the Bulls to the top.

It was a different, less talented Bulls team than the one that had won three championships, but many of the same sorts of pieces were in place--Steve Kerr instead of Paxson, Luc Longley instead of Cartwright--and one last addition produced a sum that was greater than the individual parts: Dennis Rodman, the most notorious of the Pistons' bad boys, now rehabilitated, reconciled, and turned (more often than not) toward the light. The '95-'96 Bulls won a record 72 regular-season games and cruised to the championship over the Seattle SuperSonics in what I think was Jackson's greatest season as a coach. Certainly it appeared to be Jordan's crowning achievement as a player. Yet he wasn't done. Back for the 1997 finals against the Utah Jazz, he produced another set of shot-and-assist bookends, winning the first game with a buzzer beater over Bryon Russell, then dishing out of a double team to feed Kerr for the game-wining shot in the finale. In between, there was his courageous performance in the fifth game in Utah, when suffering from stomach flu he scored 38 points including, again, the basket at the end that put the game away. And in 1998, in the Bulls' first finals rematch, he finished the series as only he could: down three with 42 seconds to play, he drove for a quick lay-in to get the two-for-one possession advantage, stripped Karl Malone at the other end, and made the final shot, again over Russell, to win the game and the championship--nothing but net. To think that at the end of such a career his last moment could be his grandest, his greatest, his best! What dramatist would try to get away with that?

It's mythic, but I think it's wrong to search for any lesson in this tale. Rather, it serves only to remind me of what I got into sportswriting for in the first place. I was a sports maniac as a child, but in college I gave it all up, falling under the influence of Henry James and William Gass in the belief that the world created by any worthwhile artist was better and more deserving of study than the imperfect world we slog through day by day. Yet I returned to sports, because in sports I found an in-between realm that could be more dramatic than any drama. The absolute outcomes of victory and defeat weren't contrived for effect--they were real. Improbable as sports outcomes could be, they were authentic. Someone just arriving in Chicago from another country and acquainting himself or herself with the Jordan story would be tempted to call it a fairy tale. Yet we saw it, and we have the videotape.

That is where the Jordan myth differs from, say, the Babe Ruth myth. The only footage of Ruth's 1932 "called shot" at Wrigley Field is inconclusive (though it's good enough for a believer like me). With Jordan it's all there on tape: not just the game-winning shots and other feats, but his style, creativity, and determination. And a good thing, too; otherwise, future generations probably would deny the facts and insist it had to be some sort of embellished saga, polished by retelling over time.

In writing about Jordan over the years I have been helped by tape and even more by photos. Photojournalism, it seems to me, is where the realism of sports is first elevated into some level of art, the world as perceived by the photographer. Two shots have become my favorites. One is in my basement, taped to a framed print of Norman Rockwell's famous painting of the depressed Cubs dugout; also in the frame are my 1984 and '89 Cubs World Series tickets. The photo is of Jordan and was taken by the Tribune's Charles Cherney during the 1990 conference finals against the Pistons, who beat him up and tried to intimidate him throughout the series. Jordan is seen having just returned to the bench. He is crumpled and submissive, his head and right arm pitched forward, his left arm resting across his thighs, his legs twisted back underneath him. He is alone, as if everyone else were afraid to touch him, as if his teammates were ashamed to comfort him after letting him take the punishment on himself. It's a pose of honorable but utter defeat worthy of Rodin, and when I first taped it to the frame that held the Rockwell picture it seemed to me the image of the great Chicago athlete forever denied the teammates or some other element required to make it to the top; it epitomized the anguish of Dick Butkus and Ernie Banks and Ron Santo and Luke Appling and, nowadays, of Frank Thomas. I have left the photo up, over the years, as a reminder of what Jordan had to overcome to get where he was going.

My other favorite photo is a relatively new one. I've seen it in a series of shots, each with its own unique pleasures. The shot, or shots, come from the final moments of last year's clinching Bulls victory. All the photos were taken from the far end of the floor, behind Jordan, and all show him shooting the game-winning basket over Russell and, in deep focus, the expressions on the faces of the Utah fans in the stands behind the backboard. Many of the fans, especially the women, have their hands in front of their faces as the ball approaches the hoop. A man and a woman standing side by side both have their hands locked behind their heads, their elbows raised, as if taken prisoner by the moment. Mouths are agape, arms are crossed, but not one of those Utah fans looks hopeful. They know the shot is going in. There is very little change in their expressions between the photo with 6.6 seconds left that appears in Sports Illustrated 's Jordan commemorative issue and the one with 5.6 seconds left, the ball having just gone through the hoop, that appeared on the back page of the Tribune's January 13 sports section. It's the moment Johnny "Red" Kerr has called "sinking the dagger," which is something Jordan executed any number of times and that defined his career. One should study the photos long and hard to appreciate what Jordan did in this moment: kill the hopes not just of every screaming die-hard fan in the arena but of every player on the opposing team who had worked so hard for so long to deny Jordan that moment and claim victory for himself. As a player, Jordan was beautiful, creative, determined, and smart, but most of all he was merciless. A Chicago athlete didn't have to be content with being a nice-guy loser; he or she could be a sportsman and a winner at the same time.

There is one more thing I like about these photos of Jordan's last shot. Amid all those Utah fans, just to the left and below the backboard is a little kid in a red T-shirt and black Bulls jersey. As the shot approaches the hoop, he looks determined, clenched for action, as if he himself were elbowing for a chance at the offensive rebound. Then, once the shot's gone through, and as the fans around him wear the same dreadful expressions, he has his arms raised, as if to say, "It's in, it's ours, the championship is ours!"

For athletic achievement and cultural impact, Ruth, Jordan, and Muhammad Ali are the three greatest athletes of the century. I'll allow no debate on that. Yet Jordan, I now believe, outdid Ruth, outperformed him, at least on the field of play if not in the national imagination. Ruth was in large part what made New York New York in the Roaring 20s; he defined his time and place. By contrast Ali, while great, never really belonged to any one city or even any one people; he was a citizen of the world. Michael Jordan was ours, ours in Chicago, ours to take pride in, ours to delight in. Yet, with his retirement comes the once again painful reminder that no human being every really possesses another. He was the greatest athlete we can expect to see in our lifetimes, and now all we have left are the videotapes and the photos and the memories and, yes, sometimes the words.

Losing it is as good as having it; it's certainly better than never having had it at all, as any Cubs fan born since 1908 or any White Sox fan born since 1917 knows full well.

Add a comment