Profile: Shooting at the king of the court: Michael Jordan, basketball's troubled star

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The Independent Online
AFAMOUS writer tells of finding himself in a lift (once up, once down) with celebrities. One was Charlton Heston - yes, his shoulders are at least four feet broad and he took up all the horizontal space; the other was the Chicago Bulls basketball star Michael Jordan, who, though but 6ft 6in - short by National Basketball Association standards - did the same thing with the vertical space: an illusion that many who have played against Jordan must know. Both had something more than mere physical presence: they had the unmistakable aura of kingship.

In this respect, Jordan is the athletic king of kings, 'the first great athlete of the wired world', as one profile put it: earnings from the game and endorsement deals dollars 30m-plus a year, fame total, visibility complete, fun absolute. Bigger than Pele, Arnold Palmer, Muhammad Ali? Yessir. Pele was a star before television became the average man's access to the divine; Palmer played a sport that emphasises obsession, not communication; and Ali blotted his copybook with Vietnam politics and Islam. Michael Jordan does everything right; he is the darling of his time; and he does that latest thing, he performs and entertains at the same time. Not just in America, for he is as big in Belgrade, Athens and Paris as there. Wherever basketball is played, Jordan dominates.

You'd think the world was this man's oyster. True. But adumbrations of a coming to grief have hung over Jordan for some years, starting with allegations about his 'compulsive' gambling. Now that grief has struck close to home. On 3 August his father was found floating in a South Carolina creek with a hole in his chest. There have been hints in the media that Jordan's gambling and his father's death may be linked, and that this could be the beginning of the end of Michael Jordan.

Riding on his broad shoulders, the Chicago Bulls have been champions for three years running. A guard, Jordan is the best defender in basketball; on attack, no one has more moves in the air or a more consistent shot. Shaven head, bat ears, tongue hanging out (a trademark adopted from watching his father working on cars), alternating between shiftless grin and fierce glare, Jordan improvises within that microspace known as 'the paint', a narrow cube under the basket thronged with bodies. He is not known as 'Air' Jordan for nothing, and what he does up there, alone, in his huge hangtime (the time a player remains in the air), is something special and beautiful. The ball goes to him and one has expectations: of success, but also of fun: what will he do this time?

On and off the court, Jordan has earned his respect, and his big bucks. As a black athlete, he's one of the few who is also a darling of the white world that runs sports and the media. He hasn't collapsed from an overdose of cocaine, or a dicky heart; he hasn't slept with 20,000 women and been shown to be HIV positive; he hasn't bullied Miss Black America candidates; he hasn't been arrested for bar-room brawls, or for hit-and-run accidents. All these things happened to other black athletes, and the sport in which Jordan competes is - though don't be fooled, competition between blacks and whites is as fierce in basketball as in baseball - the nearest thing to a level (racial) playing field America has.

Now the senseless, ugly death of his father has brought up the old sense of Nemesis: that the mighty of this world can always be brought down by the merest accidental flings of the gods.

The Jordan family is a close one, and Michael is not the product of a stereotypical, late-20th-century background. His grandfather may have been a sharecropper in rural North Carolina, there may have been the privations of pre-war black life in the South, but his father, James, worked his way out of that - though not without setbacks, including a three-year suspended sentence for taking kickbacks when he was head of inventory control at General Electric's plant in Wilmington, NC. Michael's mother, Deloris, was a bank manager, and Michael was educated at the University of North Carolina, a basketball powerhouse but also a place where Michael, a serious student, a member of a black Honour Society honed his human skills.

The background, then, is black middle class, and Jordan may indeed have a passionate intensity, but it was not and is not that of the rebel or the loose cannonball; it was and is that of the now 30-year-old who knows what it takes to make it. That is why the flaws loom so large in the public mind, for a role model (which is what Michael is condemned, by the media and his worshipful public, to be) cannot have feet of clay.

What are these 'flaws'? First, there are the public ones. There is the Michael Jordan who takes his Ferrari on the highways of Chicago at 100-plus miles an hour, and who knows he's immune from prosecution: the cops would ask for his autograph. There is the Michael Jordan who's hyperkinetic, who sleeps little, who's endlessly restless, and therefore always pushing himself a little too hard, who can't stop at 18 holes of golf, who shoots baskets for money after practice. There's the Michael Jordan who's known as 'the Killer' or, as one team mate revealed, 'the most viciously competitive player I've seen'. There's the Michael Jordan who's accused of being temperamental, prima donna-ish, who fights his coaches, who's selfish on the court, who's unrestrained and unrestrainable. Some of this may be true, none of it may be, but for anyone in Jordan's position, these are signs of a personality on the edge: of someone who is on psychological speed.

Then there is the gambling. As US newspapers coyly put it, a liking for cards 'runs in the family'. Jordan's father seems to have been an inveterate gambler as well as local comedian ('always good for a laugh'). On one of the Jordans' periodic sorties to the gambling parlours (this one to Atlantic City, when the Bulls were one game down in the championship finals), it was Michael's father who bailed his son out by saying it had all been his idea. But other occasions include photocopies of dollars 108,000 worth of cheques signed by Jordan found on the dead body of a bail bondsman, dollars 57,000 lost on golf to a convicted felon and money launderer, and the notorious claim by the self-publicising and self-publishing author Richard Esquinas, who claimed Jordan owed him dollars 1,250,000. That was negotiated down to dollars 300,000, but it left its mark on Jordan's career, and when the golf betting came up in court, the NBA gave him the sharpest reprimand it was likely to give the only player of whom it can be said for certain that he will fill any arena, for any club, at any time.

Jordan answered the allegations of gambling addiction with his usual dignity: 'Gambling is legal, betting is legal,' he said. 'My family is not starving. My wife, if I had a problem, would have left me. My family, my mother and father, we are close-knit people. They have monitored me since I was a kid. If I ever had a problem, they never had a problem telling me I had a problem.'

His gambling, like the death of his father, has to be put into perspective. The loss of a million dollars is peanuts to a man making Jordan's kind of money; the loss of his father is a catastrophe for a man who has long depended, for companionship, for advice, for feeling good about himself, on his father. On Thursday, Jordan chided some in the media for speculating that the death might be linked to reports of his gambling.

On the other hand, Jordan is very much a self-made man, one whom the black American film-maker Spike Lee not without reason calls 'Money'. In that sense, too, Jordan is a creature of his time. The man is not only good and fun, but also rich. That means he's 'made' it, in the true American sense. Indeed, he is a marketer's dream. His biography may have been written in a book (Jordan Rules) but it's really been created in television commercials, those central icons of the age: a question of making the face, the character and the life intensely visible, of sending a message down the tube to the millions, especially blacks, who wish to be like him.

In 1985, he had just finished his extraordinary career as a college ball player, and hadn't even entered on his first year as a pro, when he signed his first endorsement contract. Synchronised with the Pointer Sisters singing Jump, artfully filmed, Jordan jumped off the screen into the faces of his audience, apparently freed from the laws of gravity. That sold a lot of sneakers for Nike (414 million pairs in 1992.) So did his public stance: as a good family man, churchgoer, vocal opponent of drugs. But what really worked for Jordan, and something we might not suspect in Britain, where the NBA exists only on satellite and cable, is the nature of basketball.

The sport is an intimate one in which the public gets to know the character and capacity of each and every player. If Jordan got his training in basketball on a cement court his father built behind his house, so do the millions in the inner cities. Young blacks - and poor young whites - will spend hours exercising their fantasies wherever there's a backboard and a hoop.

'In pockets of poverty,' Roger Wilkins, a civil rights leader, once noted, 'kids don't see black men with suits or several college degrees . . . But they know about playing basketball.' Television makes mimics of kids; Jordan, skills and mannerisms, grin and moves, is reproduced, many millions of times over, on every weed-infested lot. America empathises with him; it pays him the ultimate compliment of trying to be like him. Wherever basketball (a cheap sport, available to all) is played, Jordan dominates. Now he has contracts with half-a-dozen major brands, and as Phil Reeves wrote in this paper, he has honed his public image 'with the loving care of a new Porsche owner on a Sunday morning'.

Jordan has enjoyed that Sunday morning for eight years now, with here and there a cloud, with ultimately a thunderburst, in the death of his father, but really there is only one enemy: age and the decline of a body (knees, ankles, feet, joints, muscles) that takes a fearful beating 82 nights a year, plus another 20 if he plays in the championships. There is no doubting he is the greatest basketball player of his day, no doubt that the end of those days is coming.

This is how Jordan sums it up: 'When I feel I've reached my peak and I can feel my skills diminishing, or if other players that I used to dominate have caught up with me, I will step away. There would be a long line of articles saying so-and-so killed Michael Jordan tonight. I'll step away before I subject myself to that.'

All the essentials of the Jordan mystique are there: he's the best, he knows it, he's fiercely competitive, competing is his lifeblood, but he's also very cool, and he's heard about the goose and its golden eggs. They've hatched; and he's not about to kill off the goose.