“People look to their role models to be almost flawless and I guess I’m the closest thing to being viewed positively, very little being flawed in my life. It’s hard to live up to something like that, really harder than basketball. It’s really the biggest job I have.” — Michael Jordan, “The Jordan Rules”
For kids growing up in Chicago in the 1990s, Michael Jordan wasn’t a sports star or a super hero. He was possibility incarnate. When Jordan had the ball in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter—clock ticking down, tongue hanging out—he inspired such confidence that as if by osmosis our own lives became less daunting. As long as No. 23 took the last shot, book reports were writable, Brussels sprouts edible, and middle-school girls kissable.
Following each of the clinching games of the early ‘90s three-peat, I sprinted out my front door to see sparklers light up the parking lot down the street. And during the redux in the latter part of the decade, three more Grant Park celebrations weren’t prepubescent wonders, but certain and quantifiable proof that:
a) good triumphed over evil,
b) destiny was real, and
c) one day I would get to second base.
Michael Jordan was as big a celebrity as the world has ever known, but for the children of Chicago, he was more because he belonged to us. With a clear-eyed absolutism lost on older generations and an intimate proximity unavailable to the rest of the world, we recognized him as an omnipotent force for good; and we clung to him, wrapped him in our pride, and swaddled him in our bottomless gratitude.
Since his final retirement, Jordan devotees have taken on a new mission: protecting his legacy. As each unworthy heir has entered the league with the mantle of “the next Jordan,” it has been our duty to swat them away. There is no next. There is only M.J.
What has become increasingly difficult is guarding the sanctity of our hero’s name. The cruel irony is that His Airness himself, basketball’s unguardable force, is breaking down the defense.
Jordan’s meticulously manicured public persona suffered its share of flesh wounds during his playing days, but none that couldn’t be overcome, like Bryon Russell’s man-to-man defense, with a gentle push to the backside.
Among the cuts: His Air Jordans were reported to be made in Asian sweatshops (Nike’s fault); he mercilessly harassed Jerry Krause, calling the rumpled general manager “Crumbs” because of the specks of doughnut left on his shirt (Krause was fat, and nobody else in Chicago liked him, either); he was a lousy teammate, once punching Will Perdue at practice and ordering players not to pass to Bill Cartwright in the final minutes of games (neither gave back any of the rings they won with Jordan).
Other recent stories have cut deeper. He was the alleged ringleader of the Jordan-Woods-Barkley triumvirate and the gratuitous gambling and sex mélange that came to light after Woods’s family imploded (super rich guys doing super rich guy stuff?). Once a fierce player-advocate, the Charlotte Bobcats owner turned on his former brethren during the recent NBA labor dispute prompting Chicago Sun-Times columnist Lacy J. Banks to label him a hypocrite (an overdeveloped sense of competition?).
And we’ll just call his Hall of Fame induction speech a touch spiteful.
All of that was troubling, but not fatal, at least not to this fan.
Then, in this week’s Sports Illustrated, Thomas Lake chronicled his journey to Wilmington, North Carolina, where he found the Laney High School coach who so famously cut the sophomore Jordan, as the mythology goes. The story is central to the Jordan mystique: Jordan’s rise began with humiliation, his greatness an outgrowth of the desire to prove his coach wrong.
Except, as it turns out, Clifton “Pop” Herring never cut Jordan.
He assigned the 5-foot, 10-inch guard to the junior varsity team so he wouldn’t spend his sophomore season riding the bench.
Today, Herring is an alcoholic diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The disease took hold and his life began to unravel just a few years after he spent mornings and weekends in the gym with Jordan working on his jump shot.
When Jordan’s jersey was retired and his bronze statue dedicated in 1994, Herring was Jordan’s guest in Chicago. Jordan recognized him during his speech in front of a packed United Center. He called Herring the coach who cut him. Twenty thousand Bulls fans rained down boos.
For Jordan, there is no statute of limitations on bulletin board material—real or perceived. Herring would be the victim of Jordan’s massive lie forever, but that alone wasn’t enough. Herring was flown halfway across the country so he would never forget that he had wronged the immortal Jordan. A sick old man didn’t deserve that fate. I was stung. Deep.
Overcome by nostalgia, I drove down to the United Center last week. Two hours before the Bulls and Washington Wizards would tip off, dusk settled over Madison Street. A line formed to snap a picture next to the statue that bears Jordan’s name and likeness.
The admirers were old and young; white, black, Asian and Hispanic; men and women. Flashes popped, lighting up the great statue in its iconic pose: Jordan rises with his legs spread and ball outstretched, magnificent and invincible, above an anonymous defender.
Below Jordan’s accolades and statistics, a quote is inscribed at the base of the statue.
“At that moment I knew, surely and clearly, that I was witnessing perfection. He stood there before us, suspended above the Earth, free from all its laws like a work of art. And I knew, just as surely and clearly, that life is not a work of art, and that moment could not last.”
The words, from “A River Runs Through it,” spoke a hard truth.
Michael Jordan is a jerk.
I walked back to my car and drove home.
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ABOUT BEN STRAUSS: Ben Strauss is a writer born, raised and living in Chicago. He contributes regularly to The New York Times and Chicago Tribune. Reach him on Twitter @bstrauss1.
STORY ART: Profile of Michael Jordan bust (lightly remixed) courtesyJohnSeb/cc; In Kobe/LeBron illustration, Kobe shot came courtesy Keith Allison/cc, and LeBron via Keith Allison/cc as well; shot of Michael Jordan statue at United Center courtesy Glorius Gaduang/cc.