Like many people who can’t distinguish between a bank shot and a hook shot – including my fellow columnist Megan Nolan, who praised it in these pages a fortnight ago – I’ve been unexpectedly captivated by The Last Dance, the documentary series about Michael Jordan (available on Netflix). At the centre of it is a figure who could not have emerged from fiction or film, because if anyone tried to describe or reproduce Jordan’s physical accomplishments, they would not be believed.
He dives, swivels, crouches, jumps, ghosts one way and then the other, before crashing the ball through the basket and spinning away in triumph, all in one seamless, dizzying move. He does not just hang in the air but seems to be able to jump up and down in it. He scores from halfway down the court with perfect equipoise, as opponents swarm at his feet. And he does all this year after year, game after game, even when he is exhausted, even when he is so sick he can barely stand between points.
Paradoxically, Jordan’s grace was fuelled by anger. At times the documentary felt like a collection of stories about that time Michael Jordan felt disrespected and got his own back. Over and again he would find something, or rather someone, to rage at, in order to push his game to some new Olympian peak at the vital moments. Opponents who supposedly insulted him, executives for daring to plan for a time without him, critics who said that he was past his best: Jordan used every slight, real or invented, to water his wrath, like William Blake’s poison tree.
Unlike some intensely competitive over-achievers, Jordan did not seem to be striving to revenge some primal childhood hurt, but resentment and fury roiled him nonetheless. What would he have been without sport, I wonder? A great warrior perhaps – you can imagine him a ruthless and venerated military commander. Without something to channel his anger, his competitiveness might have been dissipated into less satisfying activities, like gambling, which did for a while threaten to become a serious problem for him. This is the alchemy of sport, which can take our lowly instincts and raise them high into feats that bring joy to millions.
I was watching the final episodes of The Last Dance when the George Floyd protests began. While the protests were mostly peaceful, some were accompanied by rioting. The people harmed most by this unconstrained violence were those whom the protesters were there to represent: it was often black shop-owners and the people who depended on them who were left surveying the rubble after the rioters moved on. The violence also risked providing a pretext for a sweeping authoritarian crackdown.
Black leaders rose to the moment. In Atlanta, the rapper Killer Mike made a stunningly powerful address after businesses including a Target superstore were looted and damaged. He pleaded with the people of his city to focus on the political struggle: “We don’t want to see Targets burning. We want to see the system that sets up for systemic racism burned to the ground.” In another eloquent address, Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, berated the rioters. “This is not protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King. This is chaos. A protest has a purpose.”
The rapper and the mayor have evidence on their side. Omar Wasow, a political scientist at Princeton, is an expert on the US civil rights movement of the 1960s, which involved both violent and non-violent elements. In a new paper, Wasow demonstrates that non-violent activism was remarkably successful in winning public sympathy and driving political change. Meanwhile, violent activism was counter-productive, because it strengthened the hand of those looking to thwart their demands. Wasow found a direct relationship between violent protests and the election of Republican politicians who opposed the expansion of civil rights and called for authoritarian measures.
I am not, by nature, someone who rises to anger easily, which is partly why I’m fascinated by those like Jordan for whom anger is such a powerful propellant. Since I don’t need it much myself, I tend to underestimate its political utility. People who don’t get angry tend to be too ready to accept the world as it is, and too timid of the risks of change.
Martin Luther King himself, today often portrayed as a placid figure who floated above politics, was nothing of the sort. He was impatient with “white moderates” who implored him to be patient, and he was a masterful political strategist who thought deeply about how to effect radical change. King believed that anger was useful, though in a limited way. It drew people into his protest movement, but once they got there, it had to be “channelised” into social organisation. Otherwise it remained merely “punitive – not radical or constructive”.
Michael Jordan reached his peak under the leadership of the Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson, who persuaded him that in order for the team to win, its star player should give more of the ball to his teammates. Jordan was not instinctively the most trusting or generous of colleagues, but once persuaded, he and the Bulls finally seized the championship by overturning the Detroit Pistons, who had blocked their way for years.
In retirement, Jordan defined Jackson’s greatness as his ability to draw everyone, no matter who they were, into a collective process. Jackson liked to say that basketball is a metaphor for life and life is a metaphor for basketball. I see his point. Anger might start off as the urge to destroy, but it rarely endangers the status quo until it becomes a determination to build.
This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt