Michael Jordan pauses during his induction to the North Carolina Sport Hall of Fame. (Reuters/Chris Keane)
“The thing is that, when you are a popular athlete, and you accept he money and the fame, and you become a front person for those who have the power, and they say ‘be like this guy,’ and kids that are coming up say, ‘well, be like him, I won’t protest against anything, I’ll accept everything, I’ll just try to be a great athlete and make a lot of money.’ So a culture dies when you do that. You’re doing a great injustice to young kids that are coming up, and I never wanted to be a representation of less than a man and have young kids coming up emulating me.”
When Michael Jeffrey Jordan turned 50 years old on Sunday, a series of articles were published about the basketball legend whose athletic greatness was surpassed only by his commercial prowess. From a distance, Jordan’s existence must resemble fantasy: the athlete who accumulated enough wealth to make the ultimate transition from NBA player to NBA owner.
Yet there is little to admire about Michael Jordan at 50. If anything, the more you learn, the more you recoil. We all know the story of the pro athlete who ends up bankrupt. But what happens to the athlete who gains the world yet still stews in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction? This is Jordan. He’s no longer the smiling, gravity-defying movie star from Space Jam. Instead, he’s more like the glowering recluse from Citizen Kane. Jordan’s days are spent managing a Charlotte Bobcats team going nowhere and, just as in his playing days, mining the media for criticism, nursing every slight like precious oxygen, vital for keeping his competitive embers from going cold.
When not surveying sports articles for new enemies, he finds himself mired in nostalgia for the person he was, opening old boxes and shouting at the help in cavernous hallways in search of misplaced championship rings. Jordan still earns $80 million a year in endorsements, and it’s hard not to imagine it piled up in stacks, balancing precariously on a mountain of unopened Nike boxes inside his own personal Xanadu. The same Jordan who everyone wanted to get near, the same Jordan who used his 2009 Hall of Fame induction speech to roast everyone in the room—minus the humor—finds himself more and more alone, leading to this brutal Onion headline. (One can only assume that The Onion is now on the enemies list.)
As an NBA player in the age before the Internet, the worst aspects of Jordan’s personality were always hidden from public view. We didn’t know it, but Jordan represented some of the darkest impulses in sports. Everything that drives young people from play can be found in Michael Jordan’s approach to his teammates. He was the hectoring bully who would “moo” when heavyset general manager Jerry Krause would enter the room. He was the locker room homophobe, who would repeatedly call teenage rookie Kwame Brown a “flaming f—got” as a tool of “motivation.” He punched teammate Steve Kerr, for goodness sake, which must be the hoops equivalent of kicking a puppy. These character deficits, when mentioned at all, were often lauded because of the championships they produced, the end justifying the means. They don’t wear well on a failing 50-year-old team executive.