Watching the excellent ESPN documentary The Last Dance has inspired me to put together a short post of my favourite books about, or covering, Michael Jordan.
Jordan made his pro basketball debut in 1984 shortly before I was born. By the time I was taking my first steps he was well on his way to becoming a legend. In the 90’s NBA was hugely popular in Ireland largely due to Jordan and of course NBA Jam on the Super Nintendo.
As one of the 20th Century’s most famous and accomplished sportsmen, Jordan has been subject of a vast number of books. For me, the best ones (I’ve read) are:
- ‘Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made’ by David Halberstam
- ‘The Jordan Rules’ by Sam Smith
- ‘Michael Jordan: The Life’ by Roland Lazenby
- ‘Dream Team’ by Jack McCallum
Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made. David Halberstram is a writer I found through this book and I immediately fell in love with his work. I’ve seen Halberstam described as being to sports books what Robert Caro is to political biographies and Paul McGrath is to centre backs (i.e God basically) which I fully agree. He is simply a wonderful writer.
Playing for Keeps was written before Jordan retired for the second (but not final) time. The book is about Jordan the man and Jordan the phenomenon. It’s also very much about the NBA of the 80s and 90s and the people in that world. Its as much about the impact of Jordan as it is about the actions of Jordan. In many ways it picks up the story following on from Halberstram’s other NBA book The Breaks of the Game which covered Bill Walton and the Portland Trail Blazers of the 1970s.
Halberstram gives plenty of backstory on the various supporting players (Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Larry Bird, the wonderfully entertaining Pistons, just to name a few) to create a full, and compelling portrait of the Bulls and the NBA of the time. The Jordan that emerges is complex, headstrong, incredibly hard working and above all driven – driven perhaps like nobody before or since in any sport. Its a detailed, engrossing read and one that I would recommend to anybody.
My only criticism is that it reads at times a bit too much of a love letter about Jordan – although its hard to think of a sportsman who came to define his sport more than Jordan. Like all Halberstam’s books it is wonderfully well written and tells as much about the society at the time (particularly the changing US attitudes to race) as it does the protagonist.
A very different book looking at the Jordan phenomenon is the gossipy and entertaining The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith. The book details the internal workings of the Chicago Bulls during the 1990/91 season as they won their first NBA Championship. Jordan doesn’t come across particularly well. Most surprising to me at least was his attitude to basketball – he seems to really just have wanted to retire and play golf. There are definitely question marks over how accurate it is – the Fire and Fury of its day when the most famous man in America was thankfully just a sports star! Its enjoyable and entertaining, a fun read and a fascinating snapshot of nearly 30 years ago.
Michael Jordan: The Life by Roland Lazenby is a relatively more recent biography of Jordan. It sat on my shelf unread for more than 3 years. Once I picked it up however, I couldn’t put it down. While most other books tend to focus on a specific season or specific aspect of his life, Lazenby does a great job of telling the fuller picture of his life and playing career.
The first part of the book detailing his background, the history of his parents and ancestors is particularly strong with Lazenby’s skill as a biographer shining through. The strength of the book is the intense focus on Jordan’s relationships – with his coaches, family, friends, other players and the numerous other people whose crossed his path. The story is told largely through the stories of those who accompanied Jordan through the various phases of his life..
His parents are presented as complex characters and the darker, but still unproven, side of the Jordan family history is touched on. In particular, I was left with even greater admiration for Bulls coach Phil Jackson’s leadership and management ability. Getting Jordan to work for the greater good of the team took a special coach and Jackson was clearly the right man for the job.
It’s a big book yet I would have liked a bit more on Jordan’s life/career post playing. Being a run-of-the mill owner isn’t quite as interesting as winning 6 Championship rings, but it felt like the book ran out of steam a little bit.
It’s a study of Jordan the man as much as Jordan the icon yet Lazenby wisely avoids over analysing Jordan or guessing as to his motives. But by the end of the book, I was left with a pretty negative view of the man yet the a recognition that such unimaginable wealth, fame and public pressure would be hard for anyone to emerge from unscathed. Highly recommended for a fuller look at Jordan’s life.
Jordon looms large in another great basketball book Dream Team by one of the all time great baskerball writers, Jack McCallum. As the name suggests, Dream Team tells the story of the US Men’s basketball team who captured the world’s attention at the 92 Olympics. It really was some amazing collection of cultural icons with Magic, Micheal Johnson, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley among others. McCallum had amazing access to the players both at the time and years later – including Jordan who seems to rarely talk to journalists for these type of books. Reading it brought back some great memories of watching the Barcelona Olympics as an 8 year old and loving both the Dream Team and the amazing multicoloured, Grateful Dead inspired, jerseys worn by recently independent Lithuania.
A good insight into the players, their relationships with each other and the ultimate impact the team had on basketball. McCallum recounts many entertaining behind-the-scenes stories of the Dream Teamers when they weren’t defeating their opponents by embarrassingly large margins. The backstage stuff is the value of the book – reading about a 40 point victory isn’t exactly thrilling.
One of the highlights is the coverage of “The Greatest Game that Nobody Ever Saw,” the legendary team practice match that Coach Chuck Daly organised at the team’s practice facility in Monte Carlo. The greatest collection of basketball players ever going at each other. McCallum goes play-by-play through this exhibition, and brings to life one of the rare great sports moments you can’t find on YouTube!
For anyone who made it this far, I also have to mention a brilliant article written by Wright Thompson in 2013 called ‘Michael Jordan Has Not Left The Building’ which profiled Jordan as he turned 50. It is available online at: http://www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/page/Michael-Jordan/michael-jordan-not-left-building and is also included in Thompson’s excellent anthology book ‘The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business’