Top critical review
Great start, good reporting, but we don't learn anything new
February 18, 1999
In "Playing For Keeps," David Halberstam tries to shed light on the character of Michael Jordan. On balance, he fails. Somewhere in the middle, the book becomes a descriptive laundry list of Michael Jordan's accomplishments. Any attempt to analyze Michael Jordan the person or his domination of American culture disappears. Mr. Halberstam succeeds though in examining the early part of Jordan's life. His family was strikingly middle class in outlook. His father, James Jordan, was a retired Air Force mechanic and then later a mechanic at General Electric. His mother wanted to see all of her children excel--not just succeed. Yet, in all the reporting about Michael's relationship with his father, we learn little about Mrs. Jordan. It is never clear whether theirs was a good marriage and what effect their relationship had on young Michael Jordan. Halberstam, at times, gets good tidbits of information. First, Michael learned to play with his tongue sticking out as a child. He imitated his father who would work on machines with his tongue sticking out. Second, had Larry Jordan, Michael's older brother, grown past 5'9" he would be an NBA star too. Their sibling rivalry was intense and, at times, brutal. With Larry, Halberstam allows us to see flashes of a future, intensely competitive, Michael Jordan. The most critical and significant contribution Halberstam makes is explaining Jordan's rise to greatness. Yes, he was cut from his high school basketball team because he was considered too short for the varsity. That was his last professional setback besides a year playing minor league baseball. That same year, however, the junior varsity team drew larger crowds than the varsity. By his senior year, few knew about Jordan on the national stage. In the cozy basketball world of North Carolina, however, Jordan's potential was recognized by "the powers that be." He was a scout's dream. Slowly but surely invitations to one prestigious basketball camp after another arrived. After a camp at the University of North Carolina, Dean Smith and his lackeys worked feverishly to keep Jordan hidden. They did not want other scouts discovering him. What Dean Smith did for Michael Jordan was remarkable. He never let Jordan's potential greatness get to his head. Even before Jordan's freshman season started, Sports Illustrated wanted to profile the team. Smith, believing that Jordan had done nothing to deserve the cover, deliberately kept him off. We can safely assume that's the last time Michael Jordan was kept off a magazine cover involuntarily. But the basketball program at North Carolina perhaps most contributed to Jordan's greatness as a person and a player. Jordan was eminently coachable, he had a work ethic unlike any other Smith had ever seen, and he had extraordinary athletic talent and a natural feel for the game of basketball. Halberstam presents Jordan's finest and, at times, most unseemly quality--his intense desire and innate need to win. Not only is this evident on the basketball court, but later in his business dealings too. North Carolina basketball focused on the team. Each player knew his place. As a freshman, Michael Jordan was one of only a handful of freshman to ever start. But Smith made sure Michael knew his place. Michael was responsible for lugging the film projector from game to game. Most importantly, Dean Smith made Michael Jordan realize that he was a spoke in a wheel and that the team itself was the hub. As Halberstam points out, it was that team concept that diminished some of the better players' skills and elevated others who were not so great. It is Michael Jordan's indomitable will and compulsion to win that trumps all and Halberstam's greatest insight into MJ, the person. His will to win makes it quite clear why, in the words of Chicago author Scott Turrow, "That Michael Jordan is better at basketball than anybody is at anything else." It is clear why those last second shots against Georgetown, Cleveland, and Utah went in. Luck, as Mr. Halberstam writes, was never part of the equation. Aside from that, the most interesting observations are offered by beat reporters who covered basketball over the years. In the past, Halberstam has written perceptive and moving books on race. But, in "Playing for Keeps" we never get a sense of how MJ dealt with the issue of race or if it was ever an obstacle. Twenty years ago (even today for that matter), a Black male never could have endorsed mainstream American products like McDonald's, Coke, Gatorade, and Nike. The only thing we learn on this subject is that business, for Michael Jordan, comes before anything else. When Senate candidate Harvey Gnatt asks for his endorsement, Michael Jordan declines. "Republicans wear sneakers too," he replies. Fair enough. But is that one incident or a pattern? How has his experience shaped his outlook on racial issues? For someone interested in organizations, the book is interesting, but not compelling. For a fan interested in the inside workings of the NBA and a basketball team, the book is well-reported. For those looking for Michael Jordan's larger cultural significance, his rise along with the rise of the NBA, cable television, and the new labor economics of sports is well documented (although, Henry Louis Gates, a Harvard sociologist, does even better in a much shorter piece that appeared last year in The New Yorker). But for those searching for the man behind that mask, Halberstam's book surely disappoints. What he does brilliantly in "The Amateurs," he fails to replicate here. Michael Jordan has conquered basketball and the business world. He may be making, however, his greatest move yet. While seeming to reveal something about himself to a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, he reveals nothing at all. Not even Halberstam can match MJ's crossover dribble. Halberstam is caught flatfooted, watching Jordan sky above him and his arms extended in a textbook-perfect follow through. The ball is sailing towards the hoop in a fine geometric arc. In a noisy arena or the quiet of an empty gym, he too hears the sound all too often heard by Jordan's opponents. The sound of defeat.