I never thought it possible, but I've finally found something I can do that Michael Jordan can't—or can't bring himself to do. I've read The Jordan Rules (Simon & Schuster, $22). This is the book that Jordan's handlers at ProServ, by fashioning his image as an impossibly virtuous and panracial corporate spokesman, more or less ensured would be written. Jordan partisans have tried to discredit the book because it supposedly depicts him as a man out for his points, his image and his way. And they have tried casting its author, Chicago Tribune reporter Sam Smith, as a duplicitous sneak determined to cash in by sullying the man who's the alpha and omega of the Q Rating. Jordan himself has vowed not to read the book.
Well, The Jordan Rules is a revelation, though not in the manner that Jordan or his patrons had feared. Since he was a freshman at North Carolina, the press has known Jordan to be a preternaturally competitive cuss. So, too, does common sense tell us that anyone who is so driven to excel can't possibly be a touchy-feely New Age teammate as well. Nor is it unusual for a team with a superstar to operate under some sort of double standard.
And what, anyway, is so horrible about some of these putatively unflattering things Jordan is portrayed as doing? Smith tells an anecdote suggesting that after leading the Chicago Bulls to the NBA championship last season, Jordan skipped a visit to the White House because he doesn't care for George Bush. Well, good for him. To me, that sounds as if he's independent-minded enough to object to being a prop in a photo opportunity for a politician he opposes. After being denied membership in a Jewish country club, Jordan muses about opening a club of his own with "No Jews allowed." That's a man proud enough to feel and talk about the sting of prejudice. Jordan busts chops all around the locker room, once chiding backup center Will Perdue for not deserving "a Big Ten name." That's one of scores of examples of the man's barbed wit.
In some ways, reading this book made me like Jordan more. Beyond the pull of his puppeteers, he is revealed as being human. He grows, and is humbled, as he closes in on the only thing his dazzling solo acts had been unable to achieve—an NBA title.
Smith, who is an accountant by training, brings balance to the narrative, even if he sometimes seems to be as blinded by Jordan's brilliance as many of the Bulls are. In one breath Smith likens Jordan's play to "Shakespearean sonnets, beautiful and timeless"; not two pages later he's calling him "an artist, the...court being the canvas for his originals." Memo to Spike Lee: See if you can work "a real Renaissance man!" into your next shoe spot.
But it doesn't matter that this tale isn't greatly told, because it's a great tale told well enough. Smith is at his best fleshing out the supporting Jordanaires with sympathy and illuminating detail. Here is guard B.J. Armstrong, struggling not only to establish himself in the league but also to win over his hyperdemanding teammate, scouring the library for books about geniuses in other professions, hoping thereby to better understand the superstar on whose favor he believes his future depends. Guard John Paxson feels shame after drawing a technical foul, because he knows his four-year-old son, watching at home on television, will be disappointed in him. Forward Horace Grant befriends a homeless man, ultimately putting him up for a night in a hotel across from the team's, only to be racked with guilt that this is all he is doing to ameliorate the man's plight.
Even Jordan is caught being a softy. Over the Christmas holidays last year he comforts teammate Scott Williams, whose parents had died in a murder-suicide several years earlier. Later he's moved to tears by a terminally ill little girl who visits him in the locker room. These are things you can't put a Nike logo on, and we wouldn't know about them if Smith hadn't been shamelessly slinking around.
The great revelation of The Jordan Rules is how delicate but ultimately how perfect a balance Jordan and coach Phil Jackson have struck. Jordan challenged the pride of the younger Jordanaires—Grant and forward Scottie Pippen in particular—and goaded them into approaching his level of excellence. Jackson, in turn, never stopped preaching the gospel of team play to his selfish superstar, and he eventually got through to him. When Jordan and Jackson, two complex and absolutely determined men whom you will know by the end of this book as MJ and PJ, have a moment in the huddle late in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, The Jordan Rules reaches a climax of sorts. I won't spoil it for you. Or for Jordan.
And, oh, yes. Michael? We like you. We really like you.