Everything in today's culture is set up for more talk, fuller discussion, freer expression and, God knows, the exchange of opinions. Especially sports. We chat, we tweet, we Facebook, we supposedly embrace debate. And with all that in place, athletes wind up saying more and more and more ... with most of it amounting to absolutely nothing. The moment a figure of prominence gives an authentic point of view, actually states an opinion, people lose their minds.
And that brings me to Michael Jordan and some relatively vanilla comments he made the other day. Asked by people promoting something he is contractually tied to, the video game "NBA 2K14," he gave a full and thoughtful answer. Opinionated but surely not provocative. He said what I hope Jordan would say.
On the topic of one-on-one basketball, the greatest one-on-one player in the history of the damn game said he would love to have been able to play men including Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in their primes. Sports talk radio stations spend hours per day during the NBA season talking about exactly this subject. That's an entire Saturday of conversation in any urban barber shop worth a damn. If you haven't wondered what 1988 Jordan would do versus 1971 Julius or 2003 Kobe or 2013 LeBron or (if you're old enough) 1963 Elgin then you're not a real hoops junkie anyway and should just move on. (I'm not even sure which Jordan to pick: '88, '90, '93?) Jordan added, "I don't think I would lose," which has somehow offended some folks' dainty little sensibilities. What, if you've paid any attention to Jordan's career, do you think he should have said, "Oh, I'd have no chance against LeBron."
The first half of Jordan's career he was eviscerated for not being candid, for not expressing his opinion often enough or strongly enough on various topics from politics in the state of North Carolina to the price of basketball shoes. And now, as perhaps the most important figure the game has ever seen, he gets ripped for stating his point of view, even on something completely unimportant (but fun to talk about) that he mastered, like the art of one-on-one basketball.
So now Jordan finds himself in another little storm, one that led him to tell me in a telephone conversation Wednesday, "You know I meant no offense to any of the guys I mentioned, right?" He added Oscar Robertson's name this time and said, "Each person I mentioned feels he would win those battles, and of course those are the guys you think of. Some of them I dreamed of playing when I got older, but they were past their primes by then. And now ... I love what Kobe does, love him. And I love what LeBron does. It's their stage now, it's their time. I wasn't saying that to go after any one of them. I wasn't. But it's being taken that way."
I've spent 31 years talking with and listening to Michael Jordan, most of it as a reporter and columnist for The Washington Post. Here's what I know: If Jordan had wanted to "go after" any one of the above he would have. And he didn't. And anybody who watches the video of the "interview" with "NBA 2K14" and concludes that he did has his or her own agenda. OK, Jordan tweaked Kobe when he said Kobe stole all his moves. Jordan smiled as he said it. I'd bet a week's pay that Kobe laughed out loud when he heard it, even though we all know it's true!
And besides all that, Jordan damn sure is the best one-on-one player who ever lived. Look, there's a three-player list you can choose from for greatest player ever: Bill Russell, Magic Johnson and Jordan. That's the list and it ain't expandable. But best one-on-one player? I don't want to hear that LeBron is bigger and stronger (which he is). LeBron is going to retire as one of the five greatest players ever. But one-on-one? His skills aren't Jordan's skills. Jordan was a better shooter, from deep or midrange, had an almost hypnotic control of the basketball in space or when guarded and had the best footwork of any perimeter player ever. But what hellacious matches those would be, MJ versus LeBron or MJ versus Kobe.
Of course they matter, if for no other reason than one-on-one matchups are the essence of basketball, whether we're talking the Rucker League or Madison Square Garden. If you don't have players who can win one-on-one battles night after night, whether it's Russell's Celtics or Bird's Celtics or Magic's Lakers or Jordan's Bulls or LeBron's Heat, then your team isn't going to be championship material. If one-on-one matchups don't matter, as I've seen some clowns suggest, then why do coaches spend so much intellect trying to design plays to free a specific player?
OK, this one-on-one stuff is the smaller conversation. The bigger discussion, as it involves Jordan, is that the basketball world needs to hear his point of view, the way it needs to hear Russell's and Oscar's and West's and Bird's, the way it needs (and gets) Charles Barkley's almost daily voice of common sense, the way hearing Kobe unplugged recently is so refreshing, particularly as his point of view expands and evolves.
We need to hear Jordan's opinion, people. And if he sometimes sounds like the old man screaming, "Get off my lawn, you little punk!" then so be it. We need that, too. This attempted shouting down of anybody who doesn't bow down to today's players, whatever the sport, doesn't serve anything. The Twitter generation doesn't have a monopoly on expression. Not yet. So we need more Jordan opinion, more Jordan challenging the current order (and giving praise, too). It's why I so loved Jordan's Hall of Fame speech, which so many people resent or look at as an ungracious rant, or compare unfavorably with, say, David Robinson's Hall of Fame speech. If Robinson made such a great speech (and he did) why do we need Jordan to make the same speech? Do we really need to be that homogenous, that cookie-cutter, that there's a mold for what point of view should be or how it should be expressed? Jordan's speech was vintage Jordan, confrontational even in honoring the vanquished. That very spirit is very likely what separated Jordan as a player from, say, Dominique Wilkins. Who the hell needs Jordan to be David Robinson, or vice versa?
I don't want to hear the platitudes that I guess satisfy most people these days. Ninety percent of the sound bites from athletes/coaches/executives you hear on a daily basis are a waste of time or totally overstated. They're not saying anything. They don't illuminate or reveal or advance the conversation. Most of it is contrived or manicured to fit mass consumption. One of the things I've enjoyed most about covering professional basketball for the better part of 30 years is that the game's biggest stars have, overwhelmingly, been conversant and revealing. You could sit in locker rooms, from Wilt to Julius and Rick Barry to MJ and Magic and Barkley to Kobe, and engage them. For hours. Frequently. And we could have what we now call real talk on things varying from who's the player you'd least want to fight (Alvin Robertson, on ALL ballots) to who's got the best left hand among right-handed players to Rodney King and the L.A. riots.
Jordan, first reluctantly and then fully, has been at the center of these conversations, and I told him Wednesday I hope he doesn't retreat because he increasingly gets ripped when he expresses his opinion.
For the record, Jordan said about one-on-one play: "It's so much fun to talk about ... but we can't know. We can never know, across generations. You imagine it, you think about what might happen, particularly with the guys you think are the best of the best and then say, 'That was fun ... but we don't know.' I said I think I wouldn't lose and people are offended by that?"
A couple of years ago, sitting in ESPN's Bristol studios, Magic and I had finished a segment talking about the greatest player ever and we both said it was Jordan. Magic, who certainly could lay claim to that distinction, always says it's Jordan. The phone rang and it was Jordan, annoyed. He was on vacation skiing and called. "Will you stop saying on TV that I'm the greatest player?" he said. "You can't know that. Just stop. It's not fair to Russell or Oscar. Just stop! And let me talk to Magic."
So, Magic got an earful, too, and we went back on the air and both said Jordan was the best player ever. So this notion that Jordan's ego, which like any great athlete's ego is necessarily healthy and then some, has run amok on the topic of basketball greatness is garbage. When LeBron was getting ripped for his playoff shortcomings a few years ago in Cleveland, the phone rang and it was an agitated Jordan saying, "This kid's a great player; people need to get off of him." Is Jordan's competitiveness extreme? Of the athletes I've ever encountered, yes, probably to this day.
And how'd that work out for him and for the sport he lifted?
So if you want to hear more Bill Belichick news conferences where he mumbles on about inactives and playing one game at a time, go right ahead. I want iconic sports figures to have opinions, and express them, whether it's on the issues of the day or them knocking the snot out of somebody who plays now.
And if your sensibilities are injured by that conversation there's always HGTV.