One-on-One With an Icon: David Halberstam Hits the Rim

Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made , by David Halberstam. Random House, 426 pages, $24.95.

Now that he’s gone–he says it’s “99.9 percent” certain–we’re ready for the summing up. But we’ve already been at it for years. Larry Bird, early in Michael Jordan’s career, called him a god in human form. The longtime Laker star Jerry West, Mr. Clutch himself, said Mr. Jordan was the only player who reminded him of himself. Michiko Kakutani, reviewing this book recently in The New York Times , wrote that Mr. Jordan was a “magician,” an “icon” and a “legend.” But my favorite comment came from a member of the Spanish squad that played against the United States in the 1984 Olympics. “Michael Jordan?” a dazed Fernando Martin told an interviewer, “Jump, jump, jump. Very quick. Very fast. Very, very good. Jump, jump, jump.”

Where Michael Jordan the athlete is concerned, I don’t think David Halberstam’s 17th book, Playing for Keeps , has much to add. This long study has the customary Halberstam virtues, but it also has a large problem: We know the story already. How can we not? We’re awash in sports media. Perhaps a kind of willed ignorance of this fact is necessary in writing a book of this kind. Mr. Halberstam’s basic conclusion is that Mr. Jordan was the dominant player of his age because he was the most talented, the hardest working and the one who wanted most to win. Very good. Very fast. Jump, jump, jump. He was also the most beautiful, thanks to a dazzling smile. He took the game “to a new level.” (I counted this phrase and its variants 26 times in Playing for Keeps , but I’ll come back to Mr. Halberstam’s style later.)

Mr. Halberstam starts his story with Mr. Jordan as a young high school player in Wilmington, N.C. (He neglects to mention that baby Michael was born in our very own Brooklyn.) As a freshman, Mr. Jordan was so skinny he was actually cut from the varsity basketball team. But he filled out, and he worked hard, and by his senior year in high school, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which had an excellent basketball program, was certain it wanted him. “There was a kind of underground quality to the early sightings of Jordan,” Mr. Halberstam recalls, “not unlike the early sightings of the young Julius Erving.” Pro scouts and other interested parties began to notice. When Mr. Jordan hit the winning basket in the final seconds of the N.C.A.A. finals as a freshman against Georgetown in 1982, the secret was out.

I’ll skip over the 1984 N.B.A. draft,Mr. Jordan’s high-scoring early years, the Bulls’ first “three-peat,” the Dream Team, the Nike endorsements, Space Jam , the gambling controversies, the horrific murder of Mr. Jordan’s father, Mr. Jordan’s stint with the Chicago White Sox organization and so on.

If you don’t know about these already, it’s unlikely that you’ll be much interested in Mr. Halberstam’s book.

Let’s fast-forward instead to June 1998. There are 6.6 seconds on the clock. The Utah Jazz are trying to force a seventh and deciding game in the N.B.A. championships. Mr. Jordan has just scored to bring the Bulls within one and has quickly stolen the ball back. Turn to the photograph in the insert of Playing for Keeps or go to Barnes & Noble and thumb Mr. Jordan’s own glossy keepsake, For the Love of the Game , and see the same moment from three angles. Mr. Jordan is to the left of the key. He has feinted, causing Bryon Russell the defender to stumble. Mr. Jordan has squared up and released a jumper. Look at the faces of the Utah fans–the mouths open in anguish, the woman in the grayish shirt collapsing onto the broad shoulder of her boyfriend, whose own fists are clenched. It’s like a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder: There, in a distant corner of the frame, is a single Chicago fan, his arms raised up, beaming, living an entirely different moment.

The match-up of Mr. Halberstam on Mr. Jordan is most successful when Mr. Halberstam gets to play to his strengths. During his long journalistic career he has written often and interestingly on business, race and culture. This helps Playing for Keeps stay a move ahead of most sports books. It is the skillful recapitulation of a business and cultural moment. Mr. Jordan’s arrival in the league, as Mr. Halberstam points out, happened to coincide with David Stern’s elevation to N.B.A. commissioner. Mr. Stern and Mr. Jordan, hand-in-glove, with ESPN taping it all and Nike providing the footwear, changed basketball from a marginal sport with a drug problem into a worldwide pop-culture juggernaut. Fortune magazine estimated that during the course of his career, Mr. Jordan earned $10 billion for the league, the broadcasters and the advertisers. Mr. Halberstam observes astutely that Mr. Jordan’s success as a pitch man derives from his remarkable position vis-à-vis America’s most painful divide: “If … he of the brilliant smile,” Mr. Halberstam writes, “was not burdened by the idea of race, why should you be burdened by it either?”

Time for a literary parlor game. Mr. Halberstam is to writing as blank is to basketball? But I have no idea who blank might be. Let’s try something else, let’s give each home-team author a New York streetscape. I’ll show you how it works. Janet Malcolm is Gramercy Park, perfect and fussily precise. Tom Wolfe is Third Avenue (sorry, Tom). Norman Mailer, of course, is 42nd Street, though by now he’s over by the Fed Ex offices on 11th Avenue. In this game, Mr. Halberstam is literature’s Lexington Avenue. His prose isn’t always pretty, but it’s readable. There are snarls, vendors blocking the lanes and many fender-benders (such as the following: “That first summer back, [Jordan] went out to Hollywood to shoot a goofy movie in which he co-starred with Bugs Bunny”). But in the end Mr. Halberstam gets you there. Not even the fact that Mr. Jordan reneged on an interview could stop our best and brightest.

Due to the pressure of publishing schedules, some questions go unanswered. I would have liked to know how long Mr. Halberstam thinks the world Mr. Jordan made will endure. Since the book went to press, the bubble is already showing signs of bursting. Mr. Jordan retired at the conclusion of a long owner lockout. Sneaker companies are beginning to question the wisdom of promoting sports stars. Latrell Sprewell, who was suspended for choking his Golden State coach, has come to the Knicks. In Mr. Halberstam’s eyes, I imagine, this is three-quarters of the apocalypse. But we’ll have to wait for the book tour to find out.

Mr. Halberstam doesn’t try to guess what Mr. Jordan’s second act will be. At his retirement press conference, Mr. Jordan’s wife, Juanita (who appears in only one paragraph in Mr. Halberstam’s book), announced that she expects her husband to stay home and help raise the kids. Others speculate that he will go to work for Nike or McDonald’s. The New York Post says he is studying piano with Ahmad Rashad.

At the same press conference, when journalists asked Mr. Jordan why he was only “99.9 percent” sure he would retire, he responded defiantly: “Because it’s my 1 percent and not yours. I chose to walk away knowing that I could still play the game. That’s exactly the way I wanted to end it.” My suggestion, offered in all humility, is that whatever this great icon, magician and legend turns to next, it shouldn’t have too much to do with math.