Jordan's speech just another MJ dagger
Of all the wacky words of the past week -- including Kanye West's stomping on Taylor Swift's Video Music Award, Serena Williams' threat to ball-stuff a line judge and Rep. Joe Wilson's disrespecting President Obama in the middle of a congressional address -- the only ones I can defend came during Michael Jordan's Hall of Fame induction speech. Jordan spoke from the heart. The thing is, his heart's as cold as liquid nitrogen.
If you enjoyed all of Jordan's acrobatic feats, his scoring outbursts and (most of all) his clutch performances, then you can't say you were disappointed in his attitude upon finally reaching basketball's Olympus. They're inseparable. You don't get Jordan the G.O.A.T. without the E-G-O. You don't get his triumphing again and again without his using every sleight -- real or perceived -- to motivate himself.
Deep inside Jordan is "an assassin," as former Chicago Bulls assistant coach John Bach once described him. And so when it was his turn to take the stage in Springfield, Mass., the final act after we heard from a gracious David Robinson, a surprisingly funny John Stockton, a thoughtful C. Vivian Stringer, and an uncomfortable-at-the-thought-of-speaking-about-himself Jerry Sloan, Jordan aimed his sight and gave thanks and payback to every foe and ally who provided him with incentive.
He got the high school coach who cut him and the guy who beat him out for the final spot on the team. He got his beloved North Carolina coach, Dean Smith, for keeping him off the Sports Illustrated cover that went to the upperclassmen instead. He got Pat Riley and Riley's "little" protege, Jeff Van Gundy, for all of their gamesmanship during the Bulls-Knicks rivalry in the '90s. He got his old Chicago general manager/foil Jerry Krause, delivering the final refutation on Krause's ill-advised "organizations win championships" remark. He got every media member who doubted Jordan's ability to win an NBA championship. And he went on an extended riff on Bryon Russell, the man forever frozen in the highlight of Jordan's final shot in a Bulls uniform.
Jordan said that came from Russell's expressing a desire for Jordan to come back from his first retirement so he could guard him. He asked Stockton if he remembered that conversation, prompting the second-greatest reaction shot of the weekend. (The first was Beyonce's how-did-I-get-dragged-into-this? expression following Kanye's mike-grab from Taylor Swift.) Stockton looked as if he had no recollection of that discussion at all, and I wouldn't be surprised if it never actually happened.
Jordan has made stuff up before, most notably when he claimed Bullets rookie LaBradford Smith said, "Nice game, Mike," after lighting up His Airness for 37 points. Jordan returned fire with 36 points in the first half against Smith the next time they played. Years later, he confessed Smith never said anything to him.
When the Bulls played the Cavaliers in the 1993 playoffs and Cleveland guard Gerald Wilkins was asked about his ability to guard Jordan, Wilkins always pointed out that nobody could shut Jordan down, but he had been somewhat effective against him. Jordan scored 43 points in the first game of the series, and afterward said with a smirk, "I guess the 'Jordan-stopper' had a pretty tough night." No one else heard Wilkins call himself a Jordan-stopper. But Jordan did, in his own mind, which shows you just how differently things worked in there.
That's the mindset that created Air Jordan, the basketball player we then proceeded to deify. How could his ego not become inflated to 28 psi when he was continuously asked questions such as "Can you fly?" and "Are you a god?"
Unlike Muhammad Ali, Jordan never ran around proclaiming himself the greatest of all time. Jordan always found a way to tactfully discuss his greatness, acknowledging that he did it better than most, but never putting himself ahead of the legends or the game himself. He usually tailored every word to fit into people's expectations of what someone in his position would say. He even did it earlier in the day of his induction, spending most of his news conference discussing his appreciation for his deceased father, his coaches and the Chicago fans. He was asked and he responded.
For his speech, there were no questions, no prompts. As a result you got Jordan, genuine and unfiltered. It's the way he tends to be when the cameras are turned off and the notepads put away. He cried at the outset of his speech. He had people cringing by the end. But through it all he stayed true to himself and his era.
Shaquille O'Neal made an interesting point during the video tribute: Jordan was a hip-hop version of Dr. J. Maybe Jordan's internal sound system wasn't booming hip-hop tracks -- after he hit The Shot over Craig Ehlo, he referenced an Anita Baker song during his on-court interview -- but Jordan's rise coincided precisely with the ascendance of hip-hop to the top of pop culture. He was drafted the same year Run-DMC (the rappers who did the most to bring hip-hop to the mainstream) released their first album. Jordan won his first Most Valuable Player award in 1988; the first rap song to win a Grammy Award was DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince's "Parents Just Don't Understand" in 1989. By the time he retired, his name worked his way into the lexicon as the standard of excellence (Jay-Z: "I'm the Mike Jordan of recordin'").
At its core, rapping is about verbal battling, using words to put people in their place. That's the cultural shift that mirrored Jordan's career, and you're likely to hear more of it reflected in Hall of Fame speeches from here on as the hip-hop generation makes its way to Springfield. Jordan can't impose his will on the court anymore. He's still as competitive as ever, and his words are all he has left for the fight.