Why Jordan is Jordan

image-2_med_hr

Bob Greene.  Published: Wednesday, June 17, 1998  Section: TEMPO  Page: 1 

image-3_med_hr

The best lesson anyone can take from Michael Jordan's life--the lesson that comes the closest to explaining why he is who he is, and why he has accomplished what he has accomplished--made itself evident during the brief period of his adulthood when no one thought he was any good.  During this week's victory celebrations, during the endless replays of the basket-steal-basket sequence in which Jordan won the championship for the Bulls--during these moments when everyone is saying, once again, that he is the best in the world--I find myself thinking about those moments of Jordan's failure.

They came during the time when people were making fun of him--during his attempt to play baseball. I have been fortunate enough to see Jordan at close range during days of triumph and cheers, and also during days of apparent humiliation. There haven't been many of the latter. But those days--the days when he was no good--provide the answer to why the brilliant days are so often his.

That baseball summer--the summer after the murder of his father, the summer Jordan in essence ran away from basketball-- there was a minor-league batting instructor named Mike Barnett who was assigned to the Birmingham Barons, Jordan's team.

And this is what would happen just about every day:

image-4_med_hr


Barnett would be in his room at the Holiday Inn, or wherever the Barons were staying. Early in the morning, following a night game in which Jordan may have gone hitless, Barnett's phone would ring.  The caller--Jordan, from another room-- would always greet Barnett with some variation of the same question:  "Is it too early for us to go over?"  


Meaning: Jordan wanted to work.

Meaning: Jordan would like Barnett to go with him, hours before anyone else, to the local minor-league ballpark.  The two men would go to the ballpark and, as the sun climbed higher in the sky, would work for hours in the heat. Jordan wouldn't be making it to the majors--everyone knew that by now. He would never be good enough. He could quit baseball now and no one in the world would blame him. Go home, enjoy your millions of dollars, and decide whether you want to return to basketball. That would be the logical way out.

But the Southern League season wasn't over, and Jordan wasn't going to concede defeat yet. Instead, sweat pouring down his face, soaking through his clothes, he worked and worked and worked at trying to get better at something at which he had already been declared a failure. To witness that day after day--to sit in an empty ballpark while Jordan and Barnett spent hour after hour at this task--was something to see. The best and truest Jordan.  Why? Because this is the kind of thing that gets you to where you dream. The great moments--the moments the world cheers, whether you are an athlete or a businessman or an artist--are not the moments that count. The moments that count are the ones when it's just you, and people have stopped believing in you, and the work you put in comes with no guarantee that there will ever be a reward. The work you are putting in may very well be wasted.

But there is no waste in that kind of work--that's the secret. Far from being wasted, that is the kind of work, those are the kind of moments that define you. I would watch Jordan missing the ball as he swung, then adjusting his swing, then dribbling the ball weakly through the empty infield. His minor-league teammates--most of them more skilled than he--were still asleep, or sitting by the motel pool. And he wouldn't go back to his room. He wouldn't leave. Instead he would ask Mike Barnett if they could work longer--if they could keep practicing in the sun. No one in the seats, no real prospect of becoming good enough--Jordan had an assignment to be here: an assignment from himself. "I think I'm getting this," he would say to Barnett with a hopeful sound in his voice.

Meaning: Keep working with me. I don't want to stop.

The cheers this week, the championship trophy? They start somewhere. The cheers are loud on the day of victory, but they begin in moments of doubt when a whisper could break the silence.

I'm no good? Then I'll try to be better. I have no chance? Maybe not--we'll see. I think I'm getting this. I think I'm getting this. Is it too early to go over? Let's work.

image-5_med_hr


Copyright 1998, The Tribune Company.