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Playing for Keeps

Author David Halberstam examines the phenomenon of Michael Jordan in his latest book.

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Jordan's statement

David Halberstam is the author of sixteen books, including The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, The Reckoning, The Breaks of the Game, Summer of '49, October 1964, and The Amateurs. He has received every major journalistic award, including the Pulitzer Prize, and is a member of the Society of American Historians.

In Playing for Keeps, David Halberstam takes the first full measure of Michael Jordan's epic career, one of the great American stories of our time. A narrative of astonishing power and human drama, brimming with revealing anecdotes and penetrating insights, the book chronicles the forces in Jordan's life that have shaped him into history's greatest basketball player, and the larger forces that have converged to make him the most famous living human being in the world.

Chapter 2
The god in youth: Cut from a different cloth

If Michael Jordan was some kind of a genius, there had been few signs of it when he was young. The Jordans of Wilmington, North Carolina, were solid people, a middle class black family. ("Actually upper-middle class," observed Michael Wilbon, a noted columnist for The Washington Post who was black, "but there's a tendency in the media to move black families down a notch in terms of class.") James Jordan and Deloris Peoples met after a basketball game in Wallace, North Carolina, in 1956. She was fifteen, and he was going off to the Air Force, but he told her he would be back some day to marry her. She eventually went off too, to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, but she returned home soon, homesick. Not long after her return, they were married.

James Jordan was very mechanically skilled; it was said that he could repair almost anything. When he retired from the Air Force, still quite young, he had moved his family back to North Carolina, and took a job at a General Electric factory. He started there as a mechanic and in time became a supervisor of three departments. His wife worked as a teller at a local bank. The Jordans enjoyed three incomes: his job, her job, and his not inconsiderable Air Force pension. North Carolina was now integrated after the great civil-rights struggles of the sixties, and the Jordans were eager to become a part of a newer, more modern, postfeudal South; more, they were catapulted forward in no small part by that great conduit of blacks into the middle class, the United States military. Both parents worked in essentially integrated jobs, and their five children attended integrated schools. Both parents were determined that their children be neither blinded nor burdened by race, and their children were under constant orders to treat everyone the same. The less they themselves factored in race as a determinant, they taught their children, the less it would be factored in against them. In order to be treated well, they were to treat others well. They were expected to, and in time did, have friends on both sides of the color line. When Michael was young and someone called him a n-----, it was more the painful exception than, as it had once been, the rule of life in North Carolina. His parents handled the moment deftly; it was a sign, they said, that the other child was ignorant, and Michael was not to lower himself to the level of ignorant people.

The senior Jordans, children of parents who had the most marginal economic and educational opportunities, and beneficiaries themselves of profound legal and social change, were determined that their children would rise to higher levels and finish college if at all possible. When, after Michael's third year in college, Dean Smith, his coach, thought that Michael had learned all he could at Chapel Hill and that it was time for him to turn pro, Deloris Jordan strenuously resisted the idea. She wanted her son to stay and graduate. "Mrs. Jordan," Smith finally said, "I am not suggesting that Michael give up his college degree. I am only suggesting that he give up his college eligibility!"

It was a very disciplined family, one with a good many rules, the first of which was that you were not to waste your talent and you were always to work hard. James Jordan, a military man with a strong sense of order, pushed his sons hard in athletics. But the real driving force, friends of the family thought, was Deloris Jordan. She was the parent who kept raising her expectations for her children, letting them know in different ways that the more that was given to them, then the more that was expected from them. They were not to be defeated by chance obstacles or momentary anxieties. In the back of her mind, she later said, was her own experience of having been allowed to come home from Tuskegee as a freshman, in tears, because she was homesick: "My mother should have put me right back on the train. I wanted to correct that error with my own kids," she once said. When Michael got in trouble in school one day for cutting classes, she took outside a window where she could keep an eye on him, and made him study all day. Of the five children, Michael was by his own account the laziest, or at least the one most skilled at talking his way out of doing his share of household chores, shrewdly leveraging his allowance to buy his way out if possible. His father later joked that it was a good thing Michael found a place as a professional athlete because he was too lazy to hold any other kind of job.

David Halberstam

David Halberstam

Nor was Michael, like his father or his older brother Larry, very good at working with machines. This was a source of some frustration, since being mechanically skilled was considered important in that household. On occasion, James Jordan would tell Michael to "get in the house with the women." James Jordan, whom his son greatly admired, always worked with his tongue sticking out between his teeth, a habit he had picked up from his father; years later, Michael Jordan played basketball with his tongue sticking out through his teeth. In time, thousands of young kids played basketball with their tongues sticking out between their teeth, largely because James Jordan had repaired his car with his tongue sticking out.

The key to Michael Jordan's fierce competitiveness, friends from his junior high, high school, and college days thought, lay in his rivalry with his older brother Larry, a formidable athlete in his own right, though he was packaged in a wrong-sized body. Larry had great strength, athletic ability, and ambition but was simply too small to achieve in sports what his heart and his will and his talent normally would have earned him. "He was a stud athlete," Doug Collins once said. "I remember the first time I saw him - this rather short, incredibly muscled young man with a terrific body, about five seven, more a football body than a basketball body. The moment I saw him I understood where Michael's drive came from." Or as Clifton (Pop) Herring, who coached both at Laney High in Wilmington, once said, "Larry was so driven and so competitive an athlete that if he had been six two instead of five seven, I'm sure Michael would have been known as Larry's brother instead of Larry always being known as Michael's brother." And Michael himself once noted, "When you see me play, you see Larry play."

For a long time, even after Michael began to outgrow him, Larry could jump as high as his brother; in another time, in a school that had a more varied athletic program, said Ron Coley, one of Laney's assistant coaches, Larry would have been a gymnast - it would have been the perfect sport for him. (Eventually Larry Jordan would play for the Chicago team in the 6-4 and under professional basketball league, but eventually he became convinced that the team was just exploiting his connection with Michael and dropped out.)

Younger siblings often measure their places in the universe against the apparently unbreachable and permanent gap that separates them from their older, seemingly more talented and accomplished siblings. In this case, Michael was doing it against a brother who was fighting his own war against his physical size. As a result, every day the Jordan backyard saw some form of athletic combat: day after day the two of them banged against each other on the small court that James Jordan had built. Larry was unbelievably strong, and for years he could dominate his brother; late in their high school years, however, Michael finally began to grow - much taller than anyone in his family. When that happened, Michael believed his father tried to balance things out by complimenting the shorter Larry more than he complimented Michael.

If anything, that drove Michael to work even harder on the court. What was interesting, Michael's friends from those days thought, was the combination of intense rivalry and powerful sibling affection that Michael had for Larry. It was the most loving of protracted sibling struggles. "Michael and Larry had obviously competed wildly as boys, and Larry loomed very large in his life," said David Hart, a North Carolina team manager who was a roommate and a suitemate of Michael's at Chapel Hill. "Michael really loved Larry and talked about him all the time - really revered him. But if Michael had gone far beyond Larry as an athlete, he never let it affect his feeling for his brother - his emotional connection and his respect for his brother were very strong. When his brother was around, he dropped all his mounting fame and his accomplishments and became nothing more than a loving, adoring younger brother." But he could also tease him. Years later when Michael was a star in the NBA, they played in a pick-up game. Michael looked down at Larry's feet. "Just remember whose name is on your shoes," he said. It was the ultimate triumph of the younger sibling.

The first signs of Michael's athletic excellence came in baseball: He pitched several no-hitters for a very good Wilmington Little League team. When he was twelve, he pitched for Wilmington in the eastern regional Little League championship game. The winner would go to the Little League World Series. He pitched a two-hitter that day, but his team lost 1-0. Basketball, a sport that also attracted him, seemed something of a distant dream, largely because he was only about five foot eight and skinny. There was a brief time when, about to enter high school and frustrated with his height, he started hanging from a chin-up bar in order to stretch his body. His growth would come in time, but not from do-it-yourself stretching exercises.

There were already signs that he had a good deal of talent. Harvest Leroy Smith, a classmate and close friend who in those days played basketball with him practically every day, thought he was the best player on their ninth-grade team - he was small, but he was very quick. "You'd see him get a shot off, and you'd wonder how he did it, because he wasn't that big," Smith said, "but it was the quickness. The only question was how big he was going to be - and how far up he would take his skill level." If his skills were slightly less than those of some of the other players, what lifted him up was his competitiveness. "He and I practiced every day together and he always had to win. If it was a game of Horse and you beat him, you would have to play another game until he won," Smith said. "You didn't go home until he had won."

The summer after ninth grade, Jordan and Smith both went to Pop Herring's basketball camp. Herring, who was the varsity basketball coach at Laney, where they would enter in the fall, encouraged both of them to try out for the varsity as sophomores, Smith because he was six foot six, Jordan because he was so quick. Neither of them had yet come into his body, and almost all of the varsity players, two and sometimes three years older, seemed infinitely stronger at that moment when a year or two in physical development can make all the difference. In Smith's mind there was no doubt which of the two of them was the better player - it was Michael by far. But on the day the varsity cuts were announced - it was the big day of the year, for they had all known for weeks when the list would be posted - he and Roy Smith had gone to the Laney gym. Roy Smith's name was on it, Michael's was not.

It was the worst day of Jordan's young life. The list was alphabetical, so he focused on where the Js should be, and it wasn't there, and he kept reading and rereading the list, hoping somehow that he had missed it, or that the alphabetical listing had been done incorrectly. That day he went home by himself and went to his room and cried. Smith understood what was happening - Michael, he knew, never wanted you to see him when he was hurt or when you had gotten to him.

Years later, the Laney coaches realized that they had not handled the decision well, not cushioning it and letting Michael know that his time would come, and they had made it seem even worse when they had taken his close friend. Roy Smith thought the coaches were crazy - he might be taller, but he knew Michael was better than he was. "We knew Michael was good," Fred Lynch, the Laney assistant coach, said later, "but we wanted him to play more and we thought the jayvee was better for him." He easily became the best player on the jayvee that year. He simply dominated the play, and he did it not by size but with quickness. There were games in which he would score forty points. He was so good, in fact, that the jayvee games became quite popular. The entire varsity began to come early so they could watch him play in the jayvee games.

Leroy Smith noticed that while Jordan had been wildly competitive before he had been cut, after the cut he seemed even more competitive than ever, as if determined that it would never happen again. His coaches noticed it, too. "The first time I ever saw him, I had no idea who Michael Jordan was. I was helping to coach the Laney varsity," said Ron Coley. "We went over to Goldsboro, which was our big rival, and I entered the gym when the jayvee game was just ending up. There were nine players on the court just coasting, but there was one kid playing his heart out. The way he was playing I thought his team was down one point with two minutes to play. So I looked up at the clock and his team was down twenty points and there was only one minute to play. It was Michael, and I quickly learned he was always like that."

Between the time he was cut and the start of basketball in his junior year, Jordan grew about four inches. The speed had always been there, and now he was stronger, and he could dunk. His hands had gotten much bigger, Smith noticed. Suddenly Laney High had the beginning of a very good basketball team, and its rising star was Michael Jordan. He was as driven as ever, the hardest-working player on the team in practice. If he thought that his teammates were not working hard enough, he would get on them himself, and on occasion he pushed the coaches to get on them. If anything, the coaches thought he was not selfish enough in his days at Laney, and they pushed him to shoot more - in no small part because he could open up things for his teammates. But the more they pushed, the more he seemed to resist. Finally, the coaches went to James Jordan to enlist him in their cause. "I don't know," the senior Jordan said, "I've made it a policy to stay out of the coaching business - I don't want to intervene, I don't want to be one of these Little League dads. It doesn't seem proper for a father. But I guess I can if you ask me to." In Michael's junior year, Laney went 13-10, and in his senior year it was 19-4, and only a fluke defeat in a regional tournament kept the team from going to the state finals.

Copyright c 1999 by The Amateurs Limited. All rights reserved.