“Michael Jordan: The Life,” by Roland Lazenby (Little, Brown and Co.)
Roland Lazenby’s new biography of Michael Jordan is as breathtaking as a dunk by “His Airness.”
Lazenby, who has covered the NBA for more than three decades, has written a richly detailed, thoroughly researched book about a Hall of Fame player who transcended pro basketball to become a marketing phenomenon and pop culture icon.
Jordan seemingly could fly on the basketball court; he was “the archangel of the rims” who led North Carolina to an NCAA championship and the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles. His amiable “Be Like Mike” image has been enhanced through the years by Nike ads, underwear commercials and his foray into the movies (sharing top billing with Bugs Bunny in “Space Jam”).
And yet, Jordan had a darker side: He was an intense competitor who never forgot a slight and a lover of high stakes that would land him in financial hot water.
“Michael will cut your throat out,” said one of his former coaches, Doug Collins.
Lazenby, who has written books about NBA legends Jerry West and Phil Jackson, digs deep into the Jordan psyche. At 708 pages, this book follows a recent trend of lengthy biographies — Ben Bradlee Jr. (Ted Williams) and Seth Davis (John Wooden) already have weighed in with massive, complete efforts. Lazenby’s work stacks up favorably with those two books, providing depth, nuance and history — without sidestepping the controversies, fractured home life and other inner conflicts surrounding Jordan.
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There is the unsettling story of Jordan’s older sister, Deloris (known as “Sis”), who accused her father of sexual abuses, a story she independently published in her book, “In My Family’s Shadow.” Jordan’s high stakes gambling losses on the golf course and in the casinos also are examined in great detail.
Lazenby also gives historical context, tracing the genealogy of the Jordans and the Peoples (his mother’s family), and noting how Michael was heavily influenced by living with four generations of Jordan men, including his formidable great-grandfather, Dawson Jordan. “Dasson” Jordan made ends meet as a sharecropper and through illicit moonshine distilling.
And then there was that competitive drive that made Jordan the greatest basketball player in NBA history. Even his critics had to agree.
“That sucker showed up every night and he was ready to play,” said former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, who had a contentious relationship with Jordan and at times was the target of his star player’s verbal abuse. “I saw him do tons of charitable things, good deeds. And tons of asinine things, too. He is who he is.”
Jordan prized trust and was capable of “almost staggering displays” of loyalty. Those who were close came to know him as “basketball’s Elvis.”
And yet, he remembered even the smallest slights and used them as motivation. They were, as Lazenby writes, “the nuclear fuel rods of his great fire.”
“They were as organic to his being as his famous tongue,” Lazenby writes.
Jordan never forgot — or forgave — his “freeze out” by NBA veterans during his first All-Star game. But the biggest affront was his first, uttered by his father when Michael was a youth: “Just go on in the house with the women.”
Lazenby writes crisply about this challenge: “This is what offspring of disapproving fathers do. Without even realizing it, they lock in on an answer and deliver it over and over, confirming that they do not need to just go in the house. And they continue to confirm it even after the father has gone to dust, as if they are unconsciously yelling across time in an argument with the old man.”
Lazenby gives the complete story behind the infamous tale of Jordan being cut from his high school varsity team as a 15-year-old (he later starred on the varsity, leading Laney High to a 19-4 mark as a senior), and vindicates Clifton “Pop” Herring, the coach who left him off the roster that season but would later “deftly manage” Jordan’s recruitment by colleges. He also adds clarity about Jordan’s relationship with North Carolina coach Dean Smith.
Thanks to a savvy business deal brokered by Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro just as Jordan turned pro, both the player and the Oregon-based company would reap huge financial benefits.
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Armed with his lucrative shoe deal, Jordan became, as NBA reporter David Aldridge noted, “the first black athlete, not just to cross over, but … to become an icon of popular culture.”
Lazenby will scratch the itch of Bulls fans with his narrative of Chicago’s run to NBA prominence and dominance. He sheds light on the relationship between Jordan and Jackson, and of Tex Winter, the architect of Chicago’s triangle offense that worked so effectively.
In an interesting sidelight, Lazenby writes that Donald Sterling, the disgraced owner of the Los Angeles Clippers whose racial comments resulted in a lifetime ban by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver earlier this month, actually tried to trade for Jordan during the 1998 playoffs. He contacted the Bulls and offered a slew of draft picks, but Chicago officials politely declined.
Jordan was not an easy teammate; he demanded perfection and would verbally abuse teammates he believed were not working hard enough. Opponents were not immune to Jordan’s gamesmanship, either. Even his Hall of Fame induction was controversial, as Jordan unleashed pent-up anger during an uncomfortable, embarrassing speech.
But despite the missteps, Jordan’s legacy remains pristine.
“He created this mythology for us all,” Vaccaro said.
Lazenby expertly sifts through the myths to produce a definitive portrait of Michael Jordan.
Bob D’Angelo is a Tribune sports copy editor.