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Halberstam on the amazing Jordan


Almost 15 years after Michael Jordan and Buzz Peterson became close friends, the two men were golfing in Chicago when Jordan -- out of the blue -- thanked his college teammate for making him a "very, very good basketball player."

Peterson, who never made it to the National Basketball Association, was mystified: Why would Jordan be thanking him? Because, as Jordan explained, Buzz had been the golden boy of North Carolina high school basketball, so at every practice in college, Jordan was telling himself, "You've got to be better than Buzz. You've got to improve..." Otherwise, Jordan feared that Peterson was destined to be the "big starter" while he moldered on the bench.

The scene on the golf course comes near the end of David Halberstam's new book, "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made," (Random House, 417 pages, $25.95)the story of how Jordan's phenomenal play and will to win propelled the NBA into the ranks of the major money-making sports and built his team -- the Chicago Bulls -- into one of the great sports dynasties of all time.

Halberstam, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam reporting 35 years ago, has written 15 books, five of them about sports -- two on baseball; two on basketball and one on the Harvard crew. In "Playing for Keeps," Halberstam deftly and insightfully alternates between focusing on Jordan, the man and the athlete, and the evolution of pro basketball into a big-time sport, generating millions of dollars in salaries to its stars and big profits to team owners.

What permeates the sections on Jordan are three qualities -- his love of the game, his passion and what Halberstam calls "a certain rage to excel." Jordan "simply hated to lose," Halberstam writes, "on the court in big games, on the court in little games, in practice, in Monopoly games with his friends ..."

The best parts of Halberstam's work are his carefully crafted portraits of the men who have been closest to Jordan, the Bulls, North Carolina basketball and the NBA over the last 15 years. There's the unflappable, loyal and demanding Dean Smith, Jordan's coach at Carolina; NBA commissioner David Stern, whose work behind his father's deli counter on Eighth Avenue in New York, not far from Madison Square Garden, gave him a great affection for people whether they were rich or poor, black, white or Latino; and the Bulls' former head coach, Phil Jackson, a North Dakotan with intellectual interests and a sensitive touch with his team.

Halberstam also has the uncommon ability of being able to build suspense with his storytelling, even when the outcome of his story -- in this case, the 1991 NBA championship -- is already well known.

Here's just one example of Halberstam bringing the action to life: Jordan is being covered by the Los Angeles Lakers' Sam Perkins, an old college teammate, during the final. Seeing Perkins, Halberstam writes, Jordan "in mid-flight, seemed to pause for a moment, and then he switched the ball to his left hand and slammed it home. No one else in basketball could have made that shot."

Even with all that good reading, there's still something missing from this book, and that -- despite Halberstam's Herculean efforts -- is Michael. Although Jordan agreed to talk with the author, the interviews never took place. Perhaps in Jordan's competitive zeal, Halberstam speculates, he was "saving his best stuff for his own book."

As a longtime Halberstam admirer, I enjoyed "Playing for Keeps," but -- perhaps because of the absence of Jordan -- I finished the book feeling somewhat disappointed. In contrast to "The Best and the Brightest," Halberstam's definitive analysis of how the United States became mired in Vietnam, this work feels less authoritative and -- perhaps because so much of pro basketball's growth has been documented -- less original.

"Playing for Keeps" is arriving at a timely juncture: After a 14-year career in which he racked up a league record 31.5 points per game, Jordan this week announced that he was retiring, thus taking his place in the pantheon of legendary athletes like Babe Ruth, Jim Brown, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Thus, with Jordan out of action, the NBA will have to strive even more mightily to recover from the labor strife that has erased more than a third of the season and alienated many fans.

It is indisputable that the league's luster has been badly tarnished by the image of young men in their 20s and 30s, paid on average millions of dollars annually, engaged in a labor dispute to win even higher salaries.

Had Jordan elected to return for this year's abbreviated season, his presence would have certainly softened some of that ill will: Last June, for example, when the Bulls played the Utah Jazz for the NBA title, more than 29 million Americans watched Game 6 on television, 4 million more than watched the World Series the previous fall.

That magnetism has had an exponential benefit to pro basketball, helping buoy the profits of television advertisers, the NBA's marketing division, and sneaker companies like Nike and Reebok, which spend millions of dollars vying for the endorsements of stars like Michael, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal.

Everyone -- basketball fans, the owners, even his NBA competitors -- will miss Michael. His kind of charisma -- that amazing ability to draw and mesmerize a crowd, again and again -- is a rare and (and I choose these words with great care) precious commodity.

William K. Marimow, managing editor of The Sun, was a reporter for 15 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer. That work earned him two Pulitzer Prizes. He studied law as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

Pub Date: 01/17/99

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