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David Halberstam One-on-One

David Halberstam's Playing for Keeps examined the phenomenon of Michael Jordan.

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Excerpt from David Halberstam's "Playing for Keeps"

Over the course of his extraordinary career, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and historian David Halberstam has explored as no one else could the dynamic personalities and pivotal events that best define crucial moments in American history. Now, in Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made (Random House; $24.95), Halberstam turns his attention to the NBA and one of its greatest stars of all time -- Michael Jordan.

In the course of chronicling his meteoric ascent from high school phenom to six-time world champion with the Chicago Bulls, Halberstam presents a multi-faceted portrait of Jordan -- the brilliant athlete, the fiery competitor, the shrewd businessman -- and explains the forces that have converged to make an American basketball player into a global icon, perhaps the most famous human being on the planet.

In addition to Playing for Keeps, David Halberstam is the author of a number of bestselling classics about America and sports: The Summer of '49, October 1964, The Breaks of the Game, and The Amateurs. His other bestsellers include The Best and the Brightest, The Fifties, and The Children.

Halberstam joined for a live chat on January 28. Here is a transcript:

Shawn R. from at 3:05pm ET
David: Who had a greater influence on MJ becoming an NBA champion, Dean Smith or Phil Jackson?

David Halberstam at 3:07pm ET
I think it's equal. The base of his game and all the disciplines came from Dean Smith. Dean Smith created the program that gave him all the discipline, a complete game, a love of the game and the integrity to play it in the right way. What was formed there was the complete quality of his game and the integrity of his game.

What Phil Jackson brought to the table, at just the right moment when his teammates were ascending, was a greater confidence in his teammates and a willingness to share the ball in the Tex Winter offense. They're both influential.

Probably, Michael would answer that he got more early on from Dean Smith, and that the finishing, the sandpapering, bringing it up to NBA championship level, came from Phil.

Uncle Buck at 3:08pm ET
David, during the time you spent with Michael and the Bulls, what did you learn that surprised you most about Michael (in particular) and NBA players (in general)?

David Halberstam at 3:10pm ET
Well I'd spent a lot of time with NBA players in the past, so I wasn't too surprised by the world of the NBA players, though it's different now because of the quantum leap in wealth. When I did it last, there was less separation from the media too.

I think what surprised me about Michael was that you know he's an intense competitior, but the closer you are to him, the more you are aware of that intensity, of the fact that he plays hard every game, every night, whether it's a seemingly meaningless game against the Kings in Sacramento or against the Clippers, where he played heroically early in the season in a game that went into two overtimes.

So he plays with great competitive fire and I think the passion for excellence, the more you're around, you get a sense of the endless stories of how good a practice player he is, how hard he's willing to work. He's willing to pay this high price to be the best, and I think that's what sets him apart from other NBA players. Whatever it takes, he'll do it.

Phife at 3:10pm ET
Do you read a lot of other sports books and if so, what are some of the ones you enjoyed the most?

David Halberstam at 3:12pm ET
Larry Ritter's "The Glory of Their Times," which is about the old days of baseball. I like George Plimpton's "Out of My League." "Bang the Drum Slowly" by Mark Harris is a wonderful novel, maybe the best novel ever written about baseball. Roger Kahn's "The Boys of Summer," David Remnick's "King of the World," about Muhammed Ali. Dick Schaap's "Instant Replay"...A book by a guy named Darcy Frey, "The Last Shot."
John from at 3:13pm ET
Hello David! What do you think of the state of the game without Michael? What players do you think will step up and lead the NBA into the next millenium?

David Halberstam at 3:17pm ET
Michael was singular, a genetic fluke. You had a player so beautiful to watch, so artistic in his game, so handsome and so ferociously competitive. The best big game, fourth-quarter player I've ever seen. To put all that together and have that dazzling smile, the most charismatic player in my lifetime.

But that doesn't mean there aren't all kinds of players out there who are fun to watch. I like watching Allan Houston, with his smooth jumper, and I like the young Nets team with Jayson Williams and Van Horn. I think they're going to be a good team. I think the new labor agreement is going to allow them to hold onto that core of players. I like Grant Hill in Detroit, the young L.A. team. There's a part of me that's going to root for Scottie Pippen in Houston. The talent level is teriffic.

Michael, in a way, has taken part of the spotlight away from other players. I loved that game before Magic and Bird arrived. I was thrilled by players like Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley. I can tell you the first time I met Kevin Loughery, and talking about the matchups against the old Baltimore Bullets. Long before the people that we now think brought in the modern NBA, I loved the game.

Michael was sui generis, a breed apart. But now that he's gone, there'll be more sharing of the spotlight, and I think that's good for the game. Peole who were fans of Michael, and not the game, are going to be disappointed.

Amy from at 3:17pm ET
I heard that Jordan did not not cooperate with the writing of this book. Is that true, and if so, how much impact did that have on your writing "Playing For Keeps." And, if he did not cooperate, what was the reason?

David Halberstam at 3:19pm ET
From the very beginning, it was clear that he was underwhelmed. I think the reason was that he was "media-d out." I'm in awe that he can deal with that media monster that exists outside his door. It would destroy most people. I understood that and did not begrudge it.

He did one generous thing, which I appreciated. Whenever one of his close friends who I wanted to interview would call and say, "should I see this guy?" he would say "yes." And I'm grateful for that. And I think it made it a better book, because I'm a great believer in the uses of adversity.

By him not cooperating, it made it more my book and forced me to go out and track things down - the making of the Nike commercials, the rise of David Stern, the rise of David Falk. All these things...if Michael had cooperated from Day 1, the book might have not been as good.

Shawn R. from at 3:19pm ET
David, You've written an extraordinary book. In the time which you spent watching MJ, what intangible quality most impressed you? How would you account for the way in which he could at all times maintain his composure while within his veins were in flames?

David Halberstam at 3:22pm ET
It's toughness of mind, great mental ability. Michael's very smart. There are a lot of athletes who are smart in their sport, but their intelligence drops away when they leave their sport. Michael is smart all across the board. I think the thing that impressed me most was the ferocity of his competitive will, his toughness of mind.

The sense that he was in invincible man, you could not defeat him, whether it was Game 5 of the Utah Finals in 1997, when he was sick, or in Game 6 this year, when he had to carry the team on his back with Pippen out. That mental toughness, that competitive rage, which he focuses so brilliantly. So I'm enormously impressed by that.

I asked Phil Jackson, "If you'd been asked to write about Michael in his early career, instead of later, would it be different?" He said, "Absolutely, what you're left with at the end is not that he can jump high, but the willingness to pay this immense price."

He will write his name on your forehead. You will not write your name on his forehead.

almahern from at 3:22pm ET
Changing the topic to an extraordinary player that came in at a similar time with Jordan, do you think that Charles Barkley will retire without a ring? Furthermore what do you know of the relationship between Barkley and Jordan? Great friends or friendly rivals?

David Halberstam at 3:25pm ET
I think they're both. They're great friends and friendly rivals. Michael competes with everybody. Barkley was MVP in 1993, and that just pushed Michael harder in the playoffs. Michael competes at everything. At one point, Falk told him I was doing this book and that he had sat down for a five- or six-hour interview; Michael told him not to give me all his good stuff because I was competing with his book! I told Michael that one thing he couldn't do was write a better book than me, but with his competitive will, I wonder if that challenge would drive him to spend ten years getting it just right!

I think they're friends. This good twin/bad twin thing, where Michael has this impeccable image, and Charles does not. I think it's a real palship.

Will he get a ring? I don't know. I don't know how good Houston is. Olajuwon seemed to slip a little last year. Pippen gives them a lot. I just don't know how good that team is. With a good L.A. team, a good Seattle team, a good Utah team. Nobody knows who's going where yet. San Antonio, the West has a lot of good teams.

Tracy O. Thompson from at 3:25pm ET
Did you ever have any encounters with Dennis Rodman in your following of Michael?

David Halberstam at 3:26pm ET
Not really. Unpleasant encounters? No, no. Dennis struck me as this really shy, lonely person who does not like to connect to other people, who's really quite inarticulate, who doesn't talk to people, doesn't talk to his teammates. Comes in with his headset on, studies film, gets on the bike. He's created this niche for himself as a kind of anti-hero with the tattoos, the hair, the artificial dramatics. He'll play that role, but essentially, he's a very shy, uncertain young man.
Harris at 3:27pm ET
David, Good luck with the new book. What is next for Michael Jordan? Will he try golf or coaching? What do you think?

David Halberstam at 3:28pm ET
I tihnk he'll play a lot of golf. Not professionally. He's a scratch golfer from what I gather. It's something he can compete at and have fun. It's ideal for him because he can let down the pressure of the basketball world, but do something he loves and be competitive.

I gather he has a clothing line at Nike, and I think he'll work hard at that. I presume he'll try to make a lot of money, and he'll be good at that. Michael's smart. He's very tough-minded. Great discipline.

Vince D. at 3:28pm ET
What teammates were the closest to MJ?

David Halberstam at 3:31pm ET
He wasn't really close to many teammates. Early on he was close to Charles Oakley. Oakley was his cop in the early years.

He was reasonably close to B.J. Armstrong, who he thought was very bright. When he was out of basketball for those two years, he stayed in touch with B.J, talking about the team and the league. B.J. is very smart. He would ask B.J., "Tell me about Latrell Sprewell" or "Tell me about Penny Hardaway" or some of the other emerging players in the league, so he could keep tabs on them.

And I think one of the things he learned was that because of the media machinery that is constantly trying to find things out about him, he had to separate himself socially from his teammates, because his teammates every day were in the path of the media. Every day for 45 minutes before a game and 45 minutes after a game, the journalistic hordes would come in to the lockerroom. They're always trying to find out about Michael. I think he figured that the less they know about his private life, the better.

I don't think he was particularly close...the last two seasons, they had the breakfast club -- Harper and Pippen -- which met every day, but I don't think they were really close, apart from that. Out in Golden State, (assistant coach and former teammate) Rod Higgins was his friend. In life, your friends tend to be more and more in your zone.

So Barkley, because they share certain lifestyles, and he's also close to Ahmad Rashad. And he has a lot of pals from his North Carolina days. But I think he made a conscious decision not to get close to his teammates.

Rasta at 3:31pm ET
Of which of your works are you the most proud?

David Halberstam at 3:33pm ET
"The Best and the Brightest" was a signature book, changed my life and gave me the independence that I have now. And there's a smaller book about rowing called "The Amateurs," that I think is as good as anything I've done. A book about civil rights, "The Children," about which I am disproportionately proud. One thing you have to understand about a writer is that they don't have favorite books. It's like asking someone with children which one they like best.
Gilles Mongeau from at 3:33pm ET
How is the city of Chicago going to cope without the greatest player that ever lived Michael Jordan and the greatest team ever assembled? How will it affect the city?

David Halberstam at 3:37pm ET
I don't know that it's the greatest team ever assembled. It won a lot of championships. Whether Michael is a greater player than Bill Russell - 11 championships in 13 years - he is definitely more charismatic. What's exciting is that Michael did this from the guard position.

I think it's going to be a much longer, harder winter there. The people of Chicago realize how spoiled they've become, because for 100 nights during the worst part of the winter they got to watch this wonderful athlete. Three or four times a week there'd be this great gift. You got to watch Michael, and Dennis, Scottie, etc. And it's over. And it's going to be a hard, slow rebuilding process. And it's a tough winter in Chicago. I spent a lot of time in Chicago before Michael Jordan and we used to say this: How do you know you're in Chicago? Your feet are always cold.

I think it's going to be a longer, grayer winter. It's going to be like coming off an addiction, made harder by the fact that the Bears have bottomed out, so there goes the fall. The White Sox are not so good, and I'm not sure if the Cubs are as good as they appeared last year.

I always thought Michael was one of those gifts of the gods. He was so good that he enhanced everyday life. When Michael was playing, I felt like a kid with an ice cream cone - you didn't want to eat it too fast, you wanted it to last forever. But nothing lasts forever. Ice cream melts.