Michael Jordan Views Hall of Fame Induction as Sign of MortalityIt is said that an athlete dies twice. Rarely has there been a more poignant--and somewhat surreal--illustration of that concept than Michael Jordan's Basketball Hall of Fame press conference. Many athletes have been moved to tears upon being selected as Hall of Famers--and many deserving athletes who are on the outside looking in at the Hall of Fame want nothing more than to receive that fateful call announcing that they have joined the immortals of their sport. Jordan, who heads this year's class of David Robinson, Jerry Sloan, C. Vivian Stringer and John Stockton, had a decidedly different take on being chosen:
This is not fun for me. I don't like being up here for the Hall of Fame because at that time your basketball career is completely over. I was hoping this day would be 20 more years, or actually go in when I'm dead and gone. Because now, all along...you always [could] put shorts on and go out and play. Now, when you get into the Hall of Fame, what else is there to do? This is kind of a love-hate thing for me--great accomplishment, great respect that everybody's paying, but for me, I always want to be able to have you thinking that I can always go back and play the game of basketball, put my shorts on. As long as you have that thought, you never know what can happen...Am I? No. But I'd like for you to think that way. Hall of Fame, to me, is like, 'OK, it's over and done with, it's pretty much done, you can't ever put a uniform back on.' It's totally the end of your basketball career. But it's a great accomplishment. I don't walk away from it. But I never envisioned myself really wanting to be up here so quickly. I wanted it to be when I'm 70 years old, 80 years old. I'm 45 and I still think I can play. You guys don't know if I can or can't but at least I've got you thinking that way.
Jordan sounded and looked more than wistful; it seemed like he really wanted to rip off his suit, put on a jersey and challenge Kobe Bryant or LeBron James to a game of one on one right now. It does not surprise me that Jordan feels this way and I suspect that a few other Hall of Fame inductees had similar thoughts pass through their minds but I've never heard anyone explicitly say such things so strongly--Jordan seemed to be dead serious when he said that he would rather not be put in the Hall of Fame until he is either old or even dead. As I watched him utter those words, I had decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand, I appreciate how extraordinarily competitive he is; nothing will ever be as fulfilling or meaningful to him as those moments when he was at the peak of his powers and simply killing anyone who stood in his way. When Jordan retired for the first time and said that he was going to spend more time with his family that statement was plainly absurd, because Jordan is as single-mindedly devoted to what he does best as any other genius is single-mindedly devoted to his passion; a PBS special about Albert Einstein noted that the great physicist wrote out a series of demands that his wife had to follow in order to stay married to him, including to only speak to him when spoken to first by him and to deliver him his food precisely when he wanted it so that he could eat in solitude while he pondered the mysteries of the universe: geniuses--whether in sports, physics or any other field--often place greater value on their work than they do on relationships with other people. When ESPN aired those "SportsCentury" documentaries a decade ago, it struck me that Jack Nicklaus was about the only person who could claim to be the greatest at what he did who appeared to have a somewhat "normal" family life and relationships with other people.
At the same time that I very clearly understand exactly how Jordan feels and why he said what he said, I could not help but think of The ABA's Unsung Heroes, players like Roger Brown, Mel Daniels and Artis Gilmore: induction in the Hall of Fame would mean so much to them, to their families and to everyone who was affiliated with the ABA. Sadly, they will likely never receive the recognition that they deserve, while Jordan--who knew that he would be a first ballot selection--trivialized the highest honor in the sport. I'm sure that Jordan did not mean for his comments to be taken that way--if nothing else, he is way too focused on his own thoughts and feelings to even consider how what he said could be interpreted regarding larger issues--but in some ways what he said was a slap in the face to everyone who has been inducted in the Hall of Fame as well as to people who should have received that honor long ago but have been snubbed. Jordan is not concerned with being a sports immortal because he considers such status to be a given in his case but most people treasure being chosen as a Hall of Famer.
Jordan's bold defiance of the natural order--the aging process that cruelly robs all of us of our youth, our talents and ultimately our very existence--is at once inspiring and sad; it is what made him so great but it could also end up making him a very miserable old man if he does not find an outlet for his competitive juices or a way to channel all of that energy into other endeavors. If Jordan never discovers anything else that provides meaning or value to him then the next few decades of his life could prove to be very empty. When he is 75 years old is he going to be limping on to the court before game one of the Finals and still proclaiming that he wants everyone to think that he can still play? When Jordan says that at age 45, for at least a second you think that maybe he really could still compete, at least for a few minutes in a half court set--but not too long from now, such declarations are going to seem more delusional or pathetic than proud or defiant. Hopefully, Jordan can emulate the path of Jerry West and Joe Dumars and be satisfied to sublimate his personal competitive urges to the task of building a championship team but somehow I doubt that even winning a championship as an executive would mean a fraction as much to Jordan as the chance to play just one more NBA game as a dominant player.
Andrea Jaeger is an elite athlete (the second ranked tennis player in the world in 1981) who has devoted her post-tennis life to helping ease the suffering of ill children; Jaeger is obviously an exceptional example but perhaps Jordan would be more at peace--and could help make the world a better place--if he uses the profile he has acquired and the resources at his disposal to help people who are less fortunate than he is. Garry Kasparov--arguably the greatest chess champion of all-time--is the same age as Jordan and has been retired from competitive chess nearly as long as Jordan has been retired from the NBA but Kasparov has created a second life for himself as a political activist, author and strong supporter of chess as a positive activity for young people.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:44 PM