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What’s Michael?

Philip Burrowes

Let’s make this quick, let’s make this painless. A lot of you don’t care about Michael Jordan and think it’s ridiculous that others do. He didn’t come back to change your mind. Somewhere out there, people have indeed let themselves be dictated by his presence, either gravitating towards him or expending surprising energy hoping for his downfall. No, he didn’t come back to fulfill any duty to you either. Michael Jordan isn’t playing professional basketball again because he wants to prove anything to doubters, or because he feels an altruistic obligation to save any organization. Fact of the matter is, he loves the game.

Sure, that’s a trite explanation, symbolizing more than it actually means. It simultaneously conjures up the contradictory images of a reciprocal relationship and obsessive supplication of one to side to other; either Jordan somehow betters basketball or loses himself totally in it. Nobody seriously makes either argument, pointing to his very business-oriented demeanor, individualistic pursuits, and previous dalliances with other fields entirely (primarily, perhaps, baseball). People will debate, however, how much any of those factors have augmented or even superseded his professed “love.”

What made Michael Michael, they might say, was a confluence of physical prodigy, extraordinary congeniality and marketing genius. For them, Michael Jordan as we know him was a product, an amalgam of theretofore independent factors. Teammates did not need him to seem unimposing, Madison Ave. did not truly need him to be physically superior to his competitors, and basketball certainly could have done without a Michael Jordan cologne. Combining all these interests, however, inherently made them feed off the other, and so Jordan came back to fulfill his contracts with each in some sort of benevolent collusion.

Others would contend that what we conceive of as Michael Jordan is therefore totally false, and that expecting him to conform with our delusions will never explain his action. Instead, they single him out as an individual competitor, who simply sought to dominate everything that stood in his way. The trappings of fame and fortune were auxiliary or -- if anything -- merely a secondary manifestation of his desire to control, except in the apparel market and not on the basketball court. Under this logic, his every achievement was an attempt at overcoming challenges posed to him. Returning would be his greatest challenge, with less people than ever believing he could succeed, making it all the more appealing.

Besides the circular logic which supports either claim (he came back for this reason, therefore this is the reason he will come back), there is considerable evidence in Jordan’s track record. He was notoriously apolitical, notably refusing to take a stance against the now-retiring Senator Jesse Helms because Republicans bought sneakers too (he supported Bill Bradley’s presidential bid, but that was after his retirement). While he never came out and said he was the greatest of all time, he did make several pushes for recognition as a star in all respects, including proclaiming he would be named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. As for loving the game, he has generally avoided being the league’s tool, even barring them from marketing his image on clothing, in video games, etc.

None of this conclusively proves either point, however, and indeed could go either way. Why make a political stance when there is no distinct challenge to be overcome thereby? Doesn’t an intense drive make him more charismatic and thereby marketable? The argument against “loving” the game likewise perceives him as maximizing revenue for his employers (if the NBA sells Jordan T-shirts then Nike is losing potential money) and that defying the league undermines convention, which is always a challenge.

His “love of the game,” however, explains away the other conceptions. While it’s true he could simultaneously be acting in pursuit of money and accolades, solely playing for the love of the motions reduces the aforementioned impulses to impure agents. To seek a championship out of desire for that joy while at the same time utilizing it for profit is a base hypocrisy worse than conniving: self-denial. Although such a psychological deficiency is not out of the question for a man who has been under so much media scrutiny in his lifetime, it would simply be rude to suggest. Furthermore, an appreciation of athletics apart from its secondary benefits explains what is otherwise mysterious: playing baseball. It was either a silent challenge or the ultimate challenge, rendering inexplicable either why he began or ended; from a marketing viewpoint it was totally irresponsible. Doing it for fun, as simple as it sounds, makes the most sense.

Perhaps it is too simple. After all, he has long been wary of leaving well after losing his edge, as almost all professional athletes have. Yet we can be sure he didn’t do it simply for the pundits any more than he believes himself a panacea to the Washington Wizards. If it is a conglomeration of reasons which compel him, then it is best his decision. Should it indeed be a hedonistic jaunt, then who is anyone else to stand in his way?