Prologue from ‘Michael Jordan: The Life’ by Roland Lazenby

Posting in accordance with the Fair Use Act, for people considering the purchase of Roland Lazenby’s latest and incredibly successful publication ‘Michael Jordan: The Life’. The following is the book’s prologue. Errors and omissions to be expected.

The defender’s eyes grow wide, as they well should. He’s about to face the kind of kinesthetic brilliance that first motivated humans to invent slow-motion technology – something, anything, that would allow them to review exactly what happens when movement plays tricks on the mind.

The setting is painfully familiar. Something in the offensive structure has broken down at the other end of the floor, igniting a fast break. The entire defense is retreating. The defender has sprinted back down the floor and, as he turns, he sees the blur. The dark form in red has the ball, dribbling and winding his way through the chaos at great speed. He crosses the ball over from right to left and draws it up in two hands just off his left hip in mid-stride.

At this exact moment, the tongue falls out of his face. Sometimes, it shows just slightly between the teeth, but at this moment, the full tongue drops grotesquely, like some comic doll silently mocking the defender. There’s a leering, obscene quality to the expression, as if the coming dunk itself won’t be insult enough. For ages, warriors have instinctively made such faces to frighten one another. Perhaps there’s some of that going on here, or perhaps it’s just what he has said it is – a unique expression of concentration picked up from his father.

Whatever, the twenty-two-year-old Michael Jordan gains full clarity now, flashing his tongue at the defender like he is Shiva himself, the ancient god of death and destruction, driving the lane. Just as quickly, the tongue disappears and, as he strides, Jordan brings the ball up to his left shoulder, then rotates it in front of his face with his two hands as he leaves the floor just inside the foul line. The defense has collapsed to the lane, but the spindly form is already airborne, floating through them, switching the ball to his mammoth right hand as he approaches the goal. For an instant, his arm is cocked, cobra-like, ready to strike as he glides toward the rim, hanging alone, time seemingly suspended, as he calmly measures the finish. For spectators, the singular thunk of the throwdown is deeply stirring. It elicits a Pavlovian response, perhaps almost carnivorous, like watching a lion devour an antelope on the Nature channel.

The arc of the attack has formed a seemingly perfect parabola from takeoff to landing. In time, physics professors and even an Air Force colonel will take up an intense study of the phenomenon, trying to answer the question that obsessed a global audience: “Is Michael Jordan flying?”. They will all measure his “hang time” and declare that his flight is an illusion made possible by the momentum of his speed at liftoff. The more they talk of extraordinary thigh and calf muscles and fast-twitch fibres, of his “center of balance”, the more they sound like men grasping at air.

Jordan’s entire journey from the foul line to the rim lasts barely one second.

Yes, Elgin Baylor and Julius Erving, too, were capable of extraordinary hang time – but they performed mostly before video technology allowed the audience to savor their feats. Air Jordan was something altogether different, a phenomenon of the age, a departure from the past that surely seemed immune to the future.

Of the millions who had played the game, he was the one who could fly.

Jordan himself considered the question in those early months of his pro career, after viewing videotape of himself. “Was I flying?” he asked. “It sure seemed like it, at least for a short time.”

The rarest talent is like a comet streaking briefly across the sky, captured only by the trailing flash of its brilliance. Michael Jordan’s entire mesmerizing playing career left fans, the media, his former coaches and teammates, even Jordan himself, still struggling to comprehend what had happened years after he last played.

“Sometimes I wonder what it will be like to look back on all of this,” he once observed, “whether it will even seem real.”

Was it real? The time would come in his later years when a plumper Jordan with a drawn face would find himself the target of great ridicule and Internet invective over his missteps as an executive or his personal shortcomings, yet even that couldn’t dim the light he had cast as a player, when he was nothing short of otherworldly.

In the beginning he was simply Mike Jordan, just another adolescent from North Carolina with an uncertain future, contemplating a stint in the Air Force after high school. The early 1980’s marked his startling transformation into Michael, the archangel of the rims. In the process, his persona propelled the rise of Nike’s business empire, which soon made him its young emperor, a role that both freed and imprisoned him. He became the very picture of competence. Nobody, it seemed, could do anything quite as well as Michael Jordan played basketball. “His competence was exceeded only by his confidence”, noted longtime Chicago sportswriter Lacy Banks.

The professional game had always struggled against its gritty image: grown men running around in what amounted to underwear. But Jordan elevated all of that with his “flight”. It was subtle at first, the element of “cool” he brought to the sport. He soon enough infatuated a worldwide audience just as American television programming was reaching the apex of its influence. For a generation, his impossibly fetching 1991 Gatorade commercial quickly came to serve as a soundtrack, a mantra: “Sometimes I dream that he is me. You’ve got to see that’s how I dream to be… If I could be like Mike…”

The convergence of culture and technology had thrust him into this unparalleled role as the soaring godhead of a global sports and merchandizing empire who left just about everyone agog at his spectacle. Art Chansky, the basketball writer who had covered Jordan as something of a regular Joe at the University of North Carolina, recalled his surprise later upon visiting him in Chicago. “I was just amazed in old Chicago Stadium, when he had to walk down the aisle between the baseline seats behind the basket to get to the floor, just the effect he would have on people as he walked by. Grown men and women. You know how much they had to make just to afford those seats to begin with? Just the fact that Michael was within a couple of feet of them. I watched their faces, the contortions. It was like the Messiah walking by. Then, in the locker room afterward, the press would be like ten deep around him.”

Messiah, indeed. The worship grew so fearsome over the seasons that longtime Bulls PR man Tim Hallam began referring to Jordan as Jesus. Hallam would turn to a publicity assistant and ask, “Have you seen Jesus today?”.

This evolution had been propelled by a seemingly unshakable good fortune. Ralph Sampson competed memorably against Jordan in college when both were vying to be named the national college player of the year, and he watched with fascination his opponent’s rise over the ensuing decades. Yes, Jordan had all of the physical gifts and an unparalleled work ethic, Sampson acknowledged, but Jordan’s abundance of luck could not be overlooked. He was blessed with the best coaches and joined by great teammates.

“I mean, he worked at the game, and if he wasn’t good at something, he had the motivation to be the best at it” Sampson observed in a 2012 interview on the eve of his own selection for the Hall of Fame. “But he also got put in the right situation with the right team, the right coaches that saw his talent and ability, and they put a team around him that worked. So I think it’s the combination of all that that has made him.”

No one was more aware of the extraordinary chain of events that drove his life than Jordan himself. “Timing is everything,” he offered, looking back as he neared age fifty.

Yet timing and luck were merely the foundation of the mystery. Sports psychologist George Mumford was transfixed the first time he observed Jordan’s animated approach to practice at age thirty-two. Having heard about his great appetites and how little he slept, the psychologist, who had just begun working for the Bulls, immediately suspected that the star was manic depressive or bipolar, or perhaps even both. “He was frenetic, all over the place with this hyper energy,” Mumford recalled of that practice. “I thought, He can’t sustain that.”

Surely, Jordan was in the manic stage of some condition, Mumford thought. Manic depressives display periods of extreme highs, followed by profound lows. Over the coming weeks, the psychologist looked closely for signs of depression in the wake of Jordan’s highs. But after studying him, Mumford came to realize that the animation and hypercompetitiveness were simply Jordan’s normal state. Having played basketball himself at the University of Massachusetts and roomed with Julius Erving, Mumford had plenty of experience around elite talent. But Jordan was clearly something else, Mumford soon decided. The “zone” of high performance that other athletes struggled to achieve was something that Jordan accessed on a regular basis. “Michael did have to find something to motivate himself into that state,” Mumford explained. “The more you have those moments in the zone, the more you want to have them. Most people can’t sustain it. His ability to find that state, his ability to concentrate, his ability to lock in were almost superhuman. He was coming from a different place, man.”

And in games? “He was the eye of the hurricane,” Mumford offered. “The more frenetic things got, the calmer he was.”

Jordan would spend much of his early career figuring out how to harness these gifts and to use them in a team format, because above everything else, he badly needed to win. While his “flight” had first gained the audience’s attention, it was his overwhelming competitiveness that allowed him to keep it. Soon enough, the public’s fascination turned to his relentless drive, which led him to test almost everyone and everything throughout his career. He tested his friends and sweethearts for loyalty, tested his coaches, tested his teammates to see if their hearts and minds were strong enough to share the floor with him. The more he accumulated, the more he tested. He established a record for being quite harsh in this testing. James Worthy, his friend and teammate from North Carolina, described him as a bully.

Jordan would admit as much. “I can be hard,” he acknowledged in 1998. Mostly he tested himself.

It seemed that he discovered the secret quite early in his competitive life: the more pressure he heaped on himself, the greater his ability to rise to the occasion.

It all added up to immense complexity.

Tex Winter, the Chicago Bulls’ longtime assistant coach who worked with Jordan longer than any other coach, said that in his six decades of basketball he’d never encountered a more complicated figure. “Personality-wise, he’s a study. He really is,” Winter said of Jordan as their run together was nearing its end. “I guess I don’t have the intelligence to grasp a lot of things that make Michael tick, that make him what he is. I think I analyze him pretty good, but he is a mystery man in an awful lot of ways, and I think he always will be, maybe even to himself.”

That realization was hammered home for many fans in 2009 by Jordan’s jarring acceptance speech during his Basketball Hall of Fame induction when he offered a harsh assessment of so many major figures in his career, including UNC coach Dean Smith. Former colleagues, media commentators, fans – all expressed surprise and dismay in the wake of Jordan’s induction. He was not what they had assumed he was in those early years when his image seemed so perfect.

They thought they knew him. They did not.

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