In his massive and utterly definitive biography, "Michael Jordan: The Life," Roland Lazenby wastes no time establishing his subject's significance. "The convergence of culture and technology," he writes in the prologue, "had thrust him into this unparalleled role as the soaring godhead of a global sports and merchandising empire who left just about everyone agog at his spectacle." Wisely, Lazenby never stops to debate whether Jordan is the greatest basketball player of his or any other time; anyone who buys a biography of Jordan longer than most works about Abraham Lincoln wouldn't entertain such an argument anyway.
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"Michael Jordan: The Life" is instead the most comprehensive attempt yet made to explain the factors that have gone into producing the most famous basketball player and marketing phenom in the history of world sports.
I don't think any previous biographer has focused on the influence of family in fashioning Jordan's indomitable will to win and competitive spirit. Lazenby — who also wrote an insightful biography of Jordan's former coach, "Mindgames: Phil Jackson's Long Strange Journey" — makes the case that the one factor that most shaped Jordan's character was that "(t)hrough most of his formative years, he lived with four generations of Jordan men, a substantial accomplishment considering the societal factors that had long threatened the lives of African American males." He pays particular attention to the influence from his mother's family: "Although the Peoples are little known and seldom mentioned in the Jordan story, there's no question that the family's drive and work ethic factored into Michael's mother's approach to her own life and then to that of her own famous son."
How competitive is Jordan? After he had become the biggest star in the NBA, he was playing some one-on-one with his brother Larry back in North Carolina. During a break, he looked down at his brother's feet and told him, "Just remember whose name is on your shoes." Lazenby reports that even while playing for the United States in the Pan-American games in Venezuela, Jordan trash-talked Spanish-speaking players who may not have even understood him.
Young Jordan's competitiveness wasn't confined to basketball. "I love baseball," he said while at Laney High School in Wilmington, N.C. "It's my number one sport." When he hit a home run that tied an important Little League game, he recalled years later, "I've never experienced anything in sports like hitting one out of the park." In 1975, 12-year-old Michael pitched two no-hitters and led his team to a Little League state championship. Luckily for the future of the NBA, his baseball skills began to erode as he got older. He even seemed to will himself to be tall enough to play basketball. "The tallness is within you," his mother would tell him.
The only surprising thing about Jordan's college career is that he wasn't a household name before the Bulls drafted him in 1984. Some critics blame his North Carolina coach, the legendary Dean Smith, for his "controlling approach," though Jordan "would come to call Smith his second father." The Tar Heels won only one championship while Jordan was there, but it still seems confounding that Jordan was only the third pick in the NBA draft. The Houston Rockets got a blue chipper in Hakeem Olajuwon in the first pick, but Portland's selection of Sam Bowie over Jordan "would go down as the greatest blunder in draft history."
The second half of Lazenby's biography is a virtual feast for Bulls fans, recounting in glorious detail all six of their championships with Jordan as well as the process through which Jordan became the first black athlete embraced by Madison Avenue and, essentially, "took over American basketball." At the peak of Jordan's popularity, an astounding 40 percent of all NBA merchandise sales was Bulls-related.
Of the first championship, a victory over the Lakers in Los Angeles to cap off the 1990-91 season: "The moment was met by a numbed silence from the Forum crowd, recalled Bulls broadcaster Jim Durham. … 'The one thing I'll remember is the Bulls dancing off the floor and everyone else just sitting there watching it.'" After the 1991-92 win over the Portland Trailblazers in front of the home crowd, "'All of a sudden the crowd just exploded,' said (Bulls VP Steve) Schanwald. 'It was a 10,000-goose bump experience. All of a sudden some of the players, Scottie (Pippen) and Horace (Grant), and (Bobby) Hansen, those guys got up on the table so that everybody could see them in the crowd. Then Michael came up and joined them with the trophy, and they started dancing.'" Of Jordan's basket, which beat Utah in the 1998 finals and gave the Bulls their sixth title, "After the final shot, (Jordan) stood there for all to see, poised, arm draped in a follow-through." Jordan was named MVP in all six Bulls championship series, and this book offers Bulls fans a chance to recall the euphoria of each title.
As befits a book that was years in the making, Lazenby dishes mountains of anecdotes and facts. I could spot only one mistake. In winning their second title in the 1992 NBA finals, he writes, the Bulls "powered their way … (to) the first pro championship won in Chicago by a Chicago team since the 1961 Bears." The NFL title was won by the Green Bay Packers in 1961; George Halas' Bears won it in 1963.
Lazenby makes no attempt to hide Jordan's selfishness; to his credit, neither does Jordan. "I thought of myself first," he reflected late in his career, "the team second. I always wanted my team to be successful, but I wanted to be the main cause." It's hard to hold that against him, but when asked to support black candidate Harvey Gantt for racist Jesse Helms' Senate seat, Jordan held back, not wanting to hurt his image as sport's premiere shoe spokesman. "Republicans," he famously said, "buy shoes, too." To which former NFL great Jim Brown derisively commented, "He's more interested in his image for shoe deals than he is in helping his own people."
At least one Republican Jordan didn't mind offending was George H.W. Bush: In 1991, he skipped the Bulls' visit to the White House in favor of a golf trip with his buddies. "No one asked me if the date was convenient," he commented.
For all Lazenby's intelligent analysis and attention to detail, there is still a hole at the center of the book: Jordan himself. I don't know how it would be possible to write a more complete biography of him, and I doubt any future writer will even try, but exactly who Michael Jordan is and what he genuinely stands for aside from marketing deals remains unknown.
Allen Barra is the author of "Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age." Lazenby will appear at Printers Row Lit Fest, June 7-8.
By Roland Lazenby, Little, Brown, 708 pages, $30Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun