I ran into an old friend while eating dinner with my mom in my hometown of Prairie Village, Kan. a couple of weeks ago.
I hadn’t seen Michael Turner since my sophomore year in college, or was it my junior year? Who knows, who cares.
Anyway, it had been a while since Turner and I talked. He was married now and looking every bit the older, more mature guy he was now expected to be. He was certainly not the same guy I used to play, and more often than not, lose to in one-on-one. But there are some tendencies that don’t vanish with time. So it probably shouldn’t have surprised me that one of the first things he brought up was how he had spent hours watching Michael Jordan’s highlights during the week ESPN celebrated the basketball icon’s 50th birthday.
I’m sure there were millions of other people from our generation that, like Turner, got a little nostalgic while watching highlights of the man they idolized as kid. There has been and perhaps never will be someone like Jordan. Reminiscing about his career — the otherwordly reverse layups, the trademark fadeaway jumper, the wagging tongue, the last minute shots over Craig Ehlo and Bryon Russell — evoked in me a wave of nostalgia along with a silent yearning to see Jordan, not the Washington Wizards version, but the man who carried the Bulls to six world championships don No. 23 one more time. Even at 50, Jordan’s shadow looms larger than ever in the NBA as Lebron James and Kobe Bryant draw comparisons to the man most people consider the best ever.
While James may one day eclipse Jordan in accomplishments — and his affable personality is certainly superior to self-centered traits that are an unfortunate part of Jordan’s persona — he will never replace M.J. in the hearts and minds of people who got to see him play in his prime. He was special in a way that transcended basketball. His amazing talent, manic competitiveness and insane work ethic combined to create game that flirted with perfection. Jordan turned basketball into an art form and some of us were lucky enough to get to watch him paint his masterpiece.
But, to treat M.J. as a hero to be admired and fawned over would be a distortion of his epic career and a disservice to the people who felt M.J.’s wrath. Jordan’s win-at-all-costs competitiveness brought out the best and worst of the basketball legend. Although for years he masterfully crafted a squeaky clean public persona, the same ruthlessness that helped create the greatest basketball player that ever lived also gave birth to some of M.J.’s most destructive traits.
Jordan was far from the perfect husband and he could be unforgivingly cruel to his teammates. This is a man, after all, who punched teammates Steve Kerr and Will Perdue in the face and, according to the book When Nothing Else Matters: Michael Jordan’s Last Comeback by Michael Leahy, verbally harangued Kwame Brown, whom considered Jordan a childhood idol, with a stream of homphobic slurs during a Washington Wizards’ practice. Jordan could be a first-class jerk, plain and simple. While this doesn’t detract from his tremendous accomplishments, M.J.’s darker side shouldn’t be overshadowed by his impossibly great achievements.
Since Jordan can never go back to being the Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls era, it will be interesting to see if he can find some other outlet for his competive restlessness. I hope, for his sake, he does. The Michael Jordan of legend is gone, but the fighter still remains.
Any views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views of the Ottumwa Courier. Got a sports challenge for Courier sports writer Andy Heintz? He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.