Fateful tango

Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the world he made

David Halberstam <em>Yellow Jersey Press,

British sport can offer nobody to match the basketball star Michael Jordan, either in terms of his overall career record (in the 1990s, he led the Chicago Bulls to NBA championships in all of the six years in which he played a full season) or in terms of the movie-like perfection of that career's denouement. In what proved to be his farewell appearance, the decisive encounter with Utah Jazz in the 1998 finals, Jordan scored 45 points, carrying a Bulls team in which two of the starting five were battling with illness. In his very last play, with the Jazz leading 86-85 and in possession, he stole the ball and scored with a jump-shot, winning game and series with 6.6 seconds remaining. Compare that to the less than glorious exits of George Best, Gary Lineker, Ian Botham, Nigel Mansell, Lester Piggott or Linford Christie.

Jordan was a deus ex machina for a sport in a slump when he entered the professional ranks in 1984 - so miraculously answering the dreams of sundry hard-boiled businessmen that they could scarcely believe their luck; but also, David Halberstam suggests, himself benefiting as commodity and salesman by arriving just when the smart new NBA commissioner David Stern was revamping basketball's image. Cable TV and NBC were poised to help Stern nudge it ahead of gridiron football and baseball in the nineties, and Nike needed a lethal weapon in its trainer wars with Reebok.

Signing him to a $1m-a-year deal before he joined the Bulls, Nike was soon joined by the NBA and NBC in recognising that "Michael Jordan" could be built into a brand that would in turn lend lustre to its own. Later, as he also endorsed McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Gatorade, cereal, aftershave, underwear, sunglasses and hot dogs, it became clear that this brand was so super-potent that it could not be diluted by over-availability. In all, Fortune magazine calculated, he "helped generate $10bn for the game, its broadcasters and his varying corporate partners".

As embodied in the droll Nike commercials he made with Spike Lee, the Jordan brand fused sporting supremacy with movie-star looks and a cool, playful serenity. Despite the pressure of remaining invincible, of his plethora of poster-boy roles and of being exposed to unprecedented media scrutiny, Jordan comported himself in public with a grace and intelligence that his biographer aptly compares to that of "a young prince".

Halberstam shows that, although not false, this constructed image was incomplete. Jordan was an expert at "trash talk" (sledging), goading himself by feuding with rivals. Far from returning to basketball in 1995 with a renewed sense of fun, as NBA propaganda asserted, he came back from his 21-month baseball sabbatical with an even fiercer "passion to dominate", humiliating young pretenders who had emerged during his absence. One defensive specialist called him a Hannibal Lecter, who viciously "shows you your heart before he destroys it".

And, handily for his commercial activities, his evident intelligence never extended to political issues. When Nike (and hence Jordan himself, notably in the Doonesbury strip) was slated for profiting from child labour in the developing world, he was simply "bewildered", amazed that the lucrative mutual mirroring between product and pitchman could have its drawbacks. Asked to support a black Democrat in his native North Carolina against Jesse Helms, he pointed out that Republicans buy trainers too.

In contrast to Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe - pioneers who expressed views on racial issues - Jordan, Halberstam infers, made his statement about the black condition "not so much with his words as with his deeds". A historian who doubles up as a sports writer, Halberstam lacks the stylistic dash and flair for evoking individual games or passages of play, unlike full-time jock-beat journalists such as Hugh McIlvanney, or the baseball enthusiast Roger Angell. Where Halberstam excels, however (as he demonstrated in his study of the Vietnam war, The Best and the Brightest), is in adapting "new journalism" techniques to orchestrating a multi-levelled narrative, involving a vast cast of characters and several intermeshing subcultures.

As ambitious and omnicompetent as its subject, Playing for Keeps is much richer than a conventional sports biography. The British equivalent would be a life of Roy Keane, containing not only what you would expect - interviews with team-mates and managers in Ireland and England, key games, profiles of Cantona, Beckham, Giggs et al - but also a lengthy, riveting digression on Alex Ferguson's years in Scotland, and chapters on Manchester United's owners, Arsene Wenger's Arsenal, the Premier League, Sky TV, Keane's agent and the companies commercially linked to him, all interspersed with incisive reflections on the changes in football over the past 20 years. Happily for the British reader, this outstanding book transcends basketball, illuminating the ways in which great sportsmen motivate themselves, the psychology of fame and the fateful tango danced by sport and business.

John Dugdale is the deputy media editor of the Guardian and the author of a book on Thomas Pynchon

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