Monday, February 07, 2005

A Tale of Two Jordans

Over the course of many lonely rides on the El, I finished two books recently about the crown prince of Chicago: Michael Jordan. Set roughly 10 years apart, "The Jordan Rules" by Sam (my man) Smith, and "When Nothing Else Matters" by Michael Leahy both offer an interesting look at how Jordan's desire and 'appetites' led to both great and disappointing results on the court.

Set during the Bulls' first championship during the '90-'91 , "The Jordan Rules" is set at a time when Jordan was obviously regarded as a great player, but perhaps not able to make others better and take his Bulls to the title. Absurd as it may sound now, Jordan especially faced scrutiny after yet another defeat in the 1990 Conference Finals against the champion Detroit Pistons. And with very few personnel changes in the offseason (despite Jordan's pleadings for more help), the team set out on a season-long journey to the top.

While the term 'Jordan rules' was actually named after Detroit's defensive strategy against him, Jordan's sometimes preferential treatment by the organization served as a the metaphorical meaning of the title. Throughout the season Jordan engages in battles with the likes of Horace Grant, BJ Armstrong, Will Purdue (who received a Jordan punch in the face) and perhaps most publicly with GM Jerry Krause. But as described in the afterward section of the book, Phil Jackson would serve as the 'hero' in this story. His ability to come from basketball obscurity (an underrated Krause move) to accomplish with his team what former coach Doug Collins couldn't (more on him later) gave him this 'hero' title. Jordan's relationship with Jackson was always tense yet respectful, as Jackson tried to get Jordan to share the ball more in the team's now-famous triangle offense. This attempt to curtail Jordan within the offense did not always work, but as Bulls fans can remember came through in the title-clinching game when Jordan repeatedly found an open John Paxson who drove many a nail in the Lakers' coffin.

Beyond the main story-arc, there are backgrounds on nearly every player, from Scottie Pippen's humble upbringing to Craig Hodges' muslim faith. Also includes the expected behind-the-scenes stories of trade and contract negotiations between Krause (and chairman Jerry Reinsdorf) and the increasingly disgruntled and underpaid players that they employed. I was really impressed in Smith's ability to tell these mini-stories within the context of the regular season. They really kept the book interesting in parts where as we know an NBA season can get pretty dull.

Fast forward past 5 more titles and 2 retirements, where Michael Leahy of the Washington Post offers his 'tell-all' portrayal of an older Jordan in "When Nothing Else Matters". An outstanding character study into Jordan's desire for victory in anything and everything, Leahy's book is perhaps the first book to become critical of what Jordan can do to a team. While Jordan's berating of teammates was found frequently in "The Jordan Rules", back then it was with the underlying understanding that he was the best player in basketball. Practicing and playing with such ferocity meant that you either had to bring your best when playing with Jordan or be left behind. In Washington though, Jordan's lust for competition bests his judgement as he moves from the executive office back to the court, extending his desire to win to everything from late-night blackjack to personal relationships with his teammates. His attitude coupled with his inconsistent play led to the self-destruction the Wizards over 2 mediocre seasons.

If Jordan was the main problem behind the Wiz's inability to make the playoffs in each of the comeback seasons, than Doug Collins is 1-A. he was the anti-Phil Jackson, a Jordan enabler, not forcing Jordan to rest his tendanitis-riddled knees despite doctor's orders to the contrary. Worse was Collins' insistence of his team to play in a slowed-down offense revolving around Jordan's array of fallaway jumpers. When Jordan's shot was falling, the team was average-to-good. However when they weren't, blame went from Collins' lips to the ears of the young Wizards for failing to set up Michael properly. Soon players like Rip Hamilton began to question the direction of the team, and we all know what happened to him. While the book doesn't spend as much time covering the second season of the comeback, by then veterans like Jerry Stackhouse and Byron Russell feuded with Collins to the point where the team completely disintegrated right in front of him.

This book delves more into Jordan's life off the court than his Washington teammates, but like in "The Jordan Rules" I thoroughly enjoyed the character profiles of Jordan's 'supporting cast', including Hamilton, Stackhouse, Courtney Alexander and Tyrone Nesby, all who had to come to grips with playing with their boss and completely deferring to him while trying to make a name for themselves in the league. Another interesting character is Wizards owner Abe Pollin, one person who Jordan failed to get the upper-hand over. Of particular pleasure to read was a short aside of how Leahy's colleague Mike Wilbon let his relationship with Jordan lead to him boycotting Leahy's work and never failing to let Jordan use his column to provide a rebuttal for whatever negative press surfaced about him.

You know by now that I treat any pining for Jordan's return to the Bulls organization (mostly by Jay Mariotti) as a joke, and reading "When Nothing Else Matters" did little to dissuade my opinion. While both great (and quick) reads, Leahy's book shows what Jordan would bring to the Bulls now if he were asked back. "The Jordan Rules" reads more like historical tale, a time when Jordan's attitude was backed up on the court, and undoubtedly drove him to become the best player ever. I recommend it especially to Bulls fans who want to relive the glory days.  But as Rip Hamilton said: "He was the best ever as a player. As an executive? I'm not so sure."