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When Nothing Else Matters

Michael Jordan's Last Comeback
By Michael Leahy

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It began derailing after season one. His world was FUBAR by then. A promising young teammate, Richard Hamilton, had dared to stand up to him in a mutual searing of egos, and found himself traded. The mounting dissension on the team called to mind a word that Michael Jordan and some of his old Chicago Bulls associates exchanged during the Bulls' glory days to describe something or someone gone bad indefinitely. It was a code word, an acronym. FUBAR: Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. By his last season, the Washington Wizards were hopelessly FUBAR.

Michael Jordan's three years in Washington -- about a year and nine months as an official executive and two seasons as a player -- were troubled from the start. Before his comeback began, The Washington Post dispatched me to watch him for an entire season, and much of a second. I valued the experience, even the awfulness, which I hesitate admitting because I realize it sounds peculiar and a little perverse. But if you wanted to know what forces -- money and a sense of entitlement, most of all -- coarsened professional sports in the last gasps of the 20th century and the beginning of the new millennium, it behooved you to have been witness to the Wizards and the Michael Show.

Not everybody around me thought so. The Wizards coach, Doug Collins, called me a "stalker." Someone at my own paper, a sportswriter friend of Jordan, let it be known that he wouldn't talk to me, wouldn't read me. The coolest, savviest person was always Michael Jordan. Looking for a solution to the problem my presence caused, unable to banish me like an irksome teammate, he quietly turned toward his people for a solution, leading one of his publicists to advise me that I would perhaps enjoy more cooperation from Jordan if I could assure her that I would not be writing a book. Besides orchestrating deals and advancing fables, the protectors of a sports god have only a few essential duties: to shelter Him from taxable income and any unseemly truths, not always in that order -- and to keep people like me away. Seduction is part of the game, and writers are often easy prey, anxious to have the cachet that accompanies being regarded as a Jordan favorite.

"He's Jordan's guy," someone would say of a journalist who made it known he was a Jordan friend. You never heard such an admission, or description, outside of sports journalism. No one ever refers to a top political columnist in this country as, say, "Bush's guy" or "Clinton's guy" or "Kerry's guy," because for a political columnist to be regarded as anybody's guy would be the ultimate insult. By contrast, the sports industry is filled with athletes' buddies and mouthpieces.

Michael Jordan offered them the celebrity's form of friendship: small morsels of self-serving information in exchange for the tacit understanding that they'd never write or say anything critical about him. So you didn't read much, say, about how he called a teammate a "faggot."

Understand this: Truth, or complete truth, is a deferred commodity in sports when it comes to idols. It isn't only some of the media that stay quiet. No one is more responsible for hiding truths than a team's management and ownership. The big truths are placed in a lockbox as long as the god makes the franchise a lot of money. And Michael Jordan made a lot of money for a lot of people.

But ownership at least saw a tangible benefit. For the media, the rewards were scant. Jordan sometimes would tell his media favorites about a teammate or club official he'd lost confidence in, or a trade he wanted to see happen. In special cases, he'd invite them to parties. He wouldn't give them much, but they'd be grateful just the same.

The consequence? The consequence is that sometimes sportswriting is a fairy tale, and that you're reading this because you hope it's not.

Now that it is over, I can tell you this: You can have all the money and power in this world, and while it might protect you against all sorts of intrusions, it doesn't insulate you from somebody like me. I am not gleeful about that. It just is. I am the paid voyeur with a press pass following you from city to city, and staring at you in locker rooms and other public settings, and glimpsing too many of your quasi-private moments in hallways, and asking you questions in Wilmington, Washington, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Indianapolis, New Jersey, Houston, Milwaukee, Miami, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Boston, Atlanta, San Antonio, Philadelphia, L.A., New York, Dallas, Everywhere, and who has nothing to lose if my omnipresence has come to make you uncomfortable.

Nothing to lose is the key. A subject can't possess a hold over you, can't be allowed to block you from writing what you know by hinting that he'll never talk to you again if you cross him. There can't be anything the celebrated athlete can take away from you -- notably special access to him. I had nothing special, and so nothing to lose. It freed me. How did it work each night? people ask me, and I never know how to answer that, because I never really abided by any of the norms -- the protocol, the emphasis on limiting the number of questions that weren't about the game that evening, the silly deference to officials dissembling, the interest in numbing questions about that "turning point" in the second half, the discretion not to ask anything the subject didn't want posed, the nodding of a head to some babble being spouted by a self-serving coach, the complicity of some of the media in what was seldom more than a public relations exercise by that coach, that star, the Washington Wizards executives and NBA officials.

It was that babble that so offended, and that babble that triggered the urge to know what was really happening.

Copyright © 2004 by Michael Leahy



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