Commentary

Be like Mike? No thanks

Updated: September 16, 2009, 9:13 PM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN The Magazine

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Michael Jordan's Hall of Fame talk was the Exxon Valdez of speeches. It was, by turns, rude, vindictive and flammable. And that was just when he was trying to be funny. It was tactless, egotistical and unbecoming. When it was done, nobody wanted to be like Mike.

And yet we couldn't stop watching. Because this was an inside look into the mindset of an icon who'd never let anybody inside before. From what I saw, I'd never want to go back. Here is a man who's won just about everything there is to win -- six NBA titles, five MVPs and two Olympics golds. And yet he sounded like a guy who's been screwed out of every trophy ever minted. He's the world's first sore winner.

In the entire 23-minute cringe-athon, there were only six thank yous, seven if you count his sarcastic rip at the very Hall that was inducting him. "Thank you, Hall of Fame, for raising ticket prices, I guess," he sneered. By comparison, David Robinson's classy and heartfelt seven-minute speech had 17. Joe Montana's even shorter speech in Canton had 23. Who wrote your speech Mike? Kanye West?

Not that Jordan's speech wasn't from the heart. It was. It's just that Jordan's heart on this night could give you frostbite. Nobody was spared, including his high school coach, his high school teammate, his college coach, two of his pro coaches, his college roommate, his pro owner, his pro general manager, the man who was presenting him that evening, even his kids!

"I wouldn't want to be you guys if I had to," he said as they squirmed in their seats.

He even mocked his own brothers, calling them maybe 5-foot-5 and 5-6. Actually, they're about 5-8 and 5-9. Michael was the one blessed with the height gene, not the tact one.

Jordan had decided that this was the perfect night to list all the ways everybody sitting in front of him had pissed him off over the past 30 years: Dean Smith, Doug Collins, Jerry Reinsdorf, Pat Riley, Isiah Thomas, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, George Gervin and Jeff Van Gundy. It was the only one-man roast in Hall of Fame history. Only very little of it was funny.

Jordan owes a roomful of apologies. But it'll never happen. I know firsthand. He once told me, "You know you don't get no apologies in this business."

He was like that Japanese World War II soldier they found hiding in a cave in Guam 27 years after the Japanese surrendered. The only difference is, Jordan won! What good is victory if you never realize the battle is over?

This is how Jordan really is, I just never thought he'd let the world see it. His old Bulls' assistant coach, Johnny Bach, told me early on, "This guy is a killer. He's a cold-blooded assassin. It's not enough for him to beat you. He wants you dead."

I covered his entire career and saw examples of it throughout. Saw him break Rodney McCray in after-practice, $100 shooting games, humiliate him until McCray lost his stroke. Watched him race his car up the shoulder of Chicago interstates just because he didn't have the patience to wait in traffic. Heard how he'd kept his friends confined to his hotel room at the Barcelona Olympics so he could play cards -- and keep playing until he won. For Jordan, it was never enough to win. He had to have scalps.

Now here he was, in Springfield without a filter or a PR guy to cut him off, while his staff must've been covering their eyes. And suddenly, it hit you: Michael Jordan is the guy who gets up at the rehearsal dinner, grabs the mike and ruins the night.

The thing Jordan doesn't understand is, it doesn't have to be this way. Terry Bradshaw won four Super Bowls and gave one of the greatest speeches in the history of the Hall of Fame. "Folks!" he hollered. "You don't get elected into the Hall of Fame by yourself! Thank you number 88, Lynn Swann! Thank you, Franco Harris! Thank you Rocky Bleier! What I wouldn't give right now to put my hands under [center] Mike Webster's butt just one more time! Thank you Mike!" He thanked linemen, tight ends, everybody but the ushers.

Had Jordan been in his shoes, he'd have said, "Hey, Steve Kerr! Remember when I kicked your ass in that fight?"

Jordan owes a roomful of apologies. But it'll never happen. I know firsthand.

Before his second comeback -- with the Washington Wizards -- I was the first out with the story by a month. Jordan and his agent, David Falk, denied it, said I was crazy, practically said I was smoking something. Then, after a month of lies, Jordan admitted it was all true. I saw him in the locker room before his first game back and said, "You wanna say something to me, maybe?"

And he said, "You know you don't get no apologies in this business."

So I wouldn't hold your breath.

They called it an "acceptance" speech, but the last thing Jordan seems to be able to do is accept it's over. In fact, Jordan hinted that he might make yet another comeback at 50.

I just hope Comeback No. 3 doesn't come with a speech.

Because then I'm really screwed.


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