Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Michael Jordan is Miserable

I loved watching Michael Jordan play basketball. I loved watching him win the slam dunk contests. I lived in Chicago and cheered on the Bulls during the second three-peat. So what's Michael Jordan, arguably the best basketball player of all time, doing these days?

This ESPN Magazine article by Wright Thompson is a fascinating answer to the question (Warning: there is some uncouth language contained therein). It is fascinating, and it's sad. It's journalistic proof that Jesus' words in Mark 8:34-36 are true and spoken for our earthly and everlasting good:
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?
The conveyor belt of time is moving all of us either toward the glory days or away from them. May Jordan's misery serve you by helping you set your mind and heart on things above (Colossians 3:1-5); on solid joys that moth and rust and aging bodies can't steal away from you.

If you don't want to read the whole thing, I don't blame you. But I would suggest you consider the following excerpts (all boldface emphasis added):

On growing up: 
This started at an early age. Jordan genuinely believed his father liked his older brother, Larry, more than he liked him, and he used that insecurity as motivation. He burned, and thought if he succeeded, he would demand an equal share of affection. His whole life has been about proving things, to the people around him, to strangers, to himself. This has been successful and spectacularly unhealthy. If the boy in those letters from Chapel Hill is gone, it is this appetite to prove -- to attack and to dominate and to win -- that killed him. In the many biographies written about Jordan, most notably in David Halberstam's "Playing for Keeps," a common word used to describe Jordan is "rage." Jordan might have stopped playing basketball, but the rage is still there. The fire remains, which is why he searches for release, on the golf course or at a blackjack table, why he spends so much time and energy on his basketball team and why he dreams of returning to play.
On his Hall of Fame Speech:
The anger that drove his career hadn't gone away, and he didn't know what to do with it. So at the end of the (Hall of Fame induction) speech, he said perhaps the most telling and important thing in it, which has been mostly forgotten.
He described what the game meant to him. He called it his "refuge" and the "place where I've gone when I needed to find comfort and peace." Basketball made him feel complete, and it was gone.
"One day," he said, "you might look up and see me playing the game at 50."
Chuckles rippled through the room. His head jerked to the side, and he cut his eyes the way he does when challenged, and he said, "Oh, don't laugh."
Everyone laughed harder.
"Never say never," he said.
On the glory days...and his fiercely nostalgic longing to return:
When he mentions that Yvette (his new wife) never saw him play basketball, he says, "She never saw me at 218." On the wall of his office there's a framed photograph of him as a young man, rising toward the rim, legs pulled up near his chest, seeming to fly. He smiles at it wistfully.
"I was 218," he says.
The chasm between what his mind wants and what his body can give grows every year. If Jordan watches old video of Bulls games and then hits the gym, he says he'll go "berserk" on the exercise machines. It's frightening. A while back, his brother, Larry, who works for the team, noticed a commotion on the practice court. He looked out the window of his office and saw his brother dominating one of the best players on the Bobcats in one-on-one. The next morning, Larry says with a smile, Jordan never made it into his office. He got as far as the team's training room, where he received treatment.
On the larger-than-life icon, whose life just keeps getting smaller:
There's no way to measure these things, but there's a strong case to be made that Jordan is the most intense competitor on the planet. He's in the conversation, at the very least, and now he has been reduced to grasping for outlets for this competitive rage. He's in the middle of an epic game of Bejeweled on his iPad, and he's moved past level 100, where he won the title Bejeweled Demigod. He mastered sudoku and won $500 beating Portnoy at it. In the Bahamas, he sent someone down to the Atlantis hotel's gift shop to buy a book of word-search puzzles. In the hotel room, he raced Portnoy and Polk, his lawyer, beating them both. He can see all the words at once, as he used to see a basketball court. "I can't help myself," he says. "It's an addiction. You ask for this special power to achieve these heights, and now you got it and you want to give it back, but you can't. If I could, then I could breathe."
Once, the whole world watched him compete and win -- Game 6, the Delta Center -- and now it's a small group of friends in a hotel room playing a silly kid's game. The desire remains the same, but the venues, and the stakes, keep shrinking. For years he was beloved for his urges when they manifested on the basketball court, and now he's ridiculed when they show up in a speech.
His self-esteem has always been, as he says, "tied directly to the game." Without it, he feels adrift. Who am I? What am I doing? For the past 10 years, since retiring for the third time, he has been running, moving as fast as he could, creating distractions, distance. When the schedule clears, he'll call his office and tell them not to bother him for a month, to let him relax and play golf. Three days later they'll get another call, asking if the plane can pick him up and take him someplace. He's restless. So he owns the Bobcats, does his endorsements, plays hours of golf, hoping to block out thoughts of 218. But then he gets off a boat, comes home to a struggling team. He feels his competitiveness kick in, almost a chemical thing, and he starts working out, and he wonders: Could he play at 50? What would he do against LeBron?
On aging:
Aging means losing things, and not just eyesight and flexibility. It means watching the accomplishments of your youth be diminished, maybe in your own eyes through perspective, maybe in the eyes of others through cultural amnesia. Most people live anonymous lives, and when they grow old and die, any record of their existence is blown away. They're forgotten, some more slowly than others, but eventually it happens to virtually everyone. Yet for the few people in each generation who reach the very pinnacle of fame and achievement, a mirage flickers: immortality. They come to believe in it. Even after Jordan is gone, he knows people will remember him. Here lies the greatest basketball player of all time. That's his epitaph. When he walked off the court for the last time, he must have believed that nothing could ever diminish what he'd done. That knowledge would be his shield against aging.
There's a fable about returning Roman generals who rode in victory parades through the streets of the capital; a slave stood behind them, whispering in their ears, "All glory is fleeting." Nobody does that for professional athletes. Jordan couldn't have known that the closest he'd get to immortality was during that final walk off the court, the one symbolically preserved in the print in his office. All that can happen in the days and years that follow is for the shining monument he built to be chipped away, eroded. Maybe he realizes that now. Maybe he doesn't. But when he sees Joe Montana joined on the mountaintop by the next generation, he has to realize that someday his picture will be on a screen next to LeBron James as people argue about who was better.
On being quiet and alone:
He hates being alone, because that means it's quiet, and he doesn't like silence. He can't sleep without noise. Sleep has always been a struggle for him. All the late-night card games, the trips to the casino during the playoffs, they've been misunderstood. They weren't the disease, they were the cure. They provided noise, distraction, a line of defense. He didn't even start drinking until he was 27 and complained of insomnia to a doctor. Have a few beers after the game, he was advised. That would knock off the edge.


I'll leave it to you to contrast the solid, weighty joys Jesus gives his disciples, with the fleeting, chasing-after-the-wind vanity of living for the praise and pleasures and prestige of this world.