I recently finished reading the detailed recent biography of Michael Jordan (‘Michael Jordan: The Life’) by Roland Lazenby. I grew up watching Jordan play, win dunking competitions, and do things with a basketball no-one else could do. I knew only a little about his background and personal life, so I bought this book hoping to get a deeper understanding of this obviously very talented man.
I have to say, now knowing far more about Michael Jordan than I did before, that I am more than a little disappointed.
It is not that the biography is poor or badly-written; it is written by an experienced sportswriter, and any basketball fan would appreciate the detail key matches and offensive formations are described with. But as it is written by a fan, things get excused which I think would not be excused in anyone else.
Michael Jordan’s family came from poverty, and from slavery only a few generations back. The fact that he became a hero for people of different cultural backgrounds when he did was a wonderful point of unity. He was without equal on the court, and made money from sponsorship in a way no other athlete of his era could dream of. His personal and team achievements on the basketball court are impressive to say the least.
But after reading even this somewhat positive biography, does the reader walk away thinking that Michael Jordan is a ‘nice’ person? Someone easy to get along with? Someone selfless? No, you cannot draw that conclusion. Driven? Yes. Determined? Yes. Focussed? Yes. But a ‘good’ or ‘nice’ person? No.
Michael Jordan has for a long time lived a life of excess, with private planes, golf, and of course gambling. Although it is difficult to be sure of the numbers, he has gambled away more money than most people could ever hope to see in a lifetime. But the biographer and others interviewed for the book explain this away: Michael has a competition problem, not a gambling problem. In other words, it is just because he wants to win so much; it is re-cast as a good thing not a bad thing.
Or in other areas of his life, Jordan refused to help by speaking up on racial issues, despite his wonderful public profile, using the reason that white people and black people both buy shoes. He was not prepared to potentially sacrifice some extra income in order to help make a stand on issues that he could help with.
His family breakup, where his wife and children left him, was mentioned but with no detail. His current relationship with his children is not mentioned, but his newer model girlfriend was seen as a good stabilizing influence on his life. Any coach or team owner who has worked with him has struggled with him keeping grudges and being selfish. There is no extensive network of Jordan-sponsored charity work. Again, the message comes through loud and clear: if you are someone important, a sports star, a hero, then smaller issues like morality and family responsibilities can be overlooked.
Whoever you are, you are not above God’s law. The world does not revolve around you. It is those who have greater power and money and privilege that should be the best examples, not those who are the poorest examples. An AFL footballer said a few years ago that he didn’t want to be seen as a role model; but you cannot abdicate what you already are.
It is natural for us to look for a role model, a hero, a person to celebrate and worship. And of course, whoever you might choose will disappoint you. Michael Jordan is not exceptionally evil, and any person whose life you scrutinize closely will be disappointing. They cannot be a perfect role model, and they cannot save you. Only one Person ever can satisfy you completely, and looking anywhere else will only lead to disappointment. Only Jesus can be a representative, a hero, who is without fault and who can really connect us to God.
All of this has crystallized something in my mind that has turned up again and again in my recent experience: the little things matter. However important your job is, how you look after your family matters. Caring for others, thinking beyond yourself, is a task for all of us. You are a role model to someone; work colleagues watch you, your children absorb how you speak and act to your wife or husband, your church friends observe you. Being ‘important’ or ‘busy’ does not excuse you from your morality and your family responsibilities. It is in the mundane things of life that we show our true character; how we act when the spotlight is not on us.
Don’t judge a person by what incredible talents they have, or how rich they are, or how powerful they have become; judge them based on how they treat those around them, how they speak to their wife and kids, and what they do for others with what they have been given. Don’t get blinded by the impressive; be impressed by the mundane.