A few years ago, back when His Airness was turning the big 5-0, ESPN The Magazine published a piece by Wright Thompson about Michael Jordan.
It was a little strange.
MJ seemed antsy in retirement. The NBA team he owns, the Charlotte Bobcats (now known by the city’s historical moniker, the Hornets) had just come off the worst season, by percentage, in NBA history. He tells someone he thought he would die young. He watches westerns to reminisce about his dead father and is trying to get his weight down to 218 which is, you guessed it, his playing weight. His security detail calls him “Yahweh,” which, honestly, you have to respect just for the sheer blasphemy of the gesture.
Jordan reflects on the space that losing the thing he was best at in the universe has left behind:
“I would give up everything now to go back and play the game of basketball.”
“How do you replace it?” he’s asked.
“You don’t. You learn to live with it.”
“It’s a process,” he says.
There are details of how he fills that competitive madness. He golfs and gambles, of course. He plays cell phone games. He watches his garbage team in a skybox and yells at the TV. You might remember his Hall of Fame speech, one of the wildest ever given: an indexing of grievances and resentments; a guy exposing the world to the powerfully acidic mindset that it took to be the fucking greatest.
“How can I enjoy the next 20 years without so much of this consuming me?” he asks, sitting behind his desk as his cellphone buzzes with trade offers. “How can I find peace away from the game of basketball?”
Well, people, don’t fret: our man appears to have dug himself out of the pit of despair and found solid ground in a wonderful new world: the land of Tequila Jordan.
Here is our man back in June of this year, strolling through the streets in head to toe athletic wear that HIS COMPANY made, holding a mostly-killed bottle of hooch in one hand, and the remnants of a case he purchased at his most recent revelry. His face is downright demonic with pleasure, eyes slightly shot, a massive smile across his face. It’s a beautiful sight—to see a man in the throes of pure pleasure, after reading Wright suggesting he was looking into the abyss and despairing.
It is as if MJ read the profile, yanked on his collar in slight embarrassment, spoke to his wife and his friends and asked: “Damn, am I REALLY that depressing?” The people he trusted most put their hands on his shoulder and said, yeah, look man we love you, but yeah.
And so, MJ has begun to see beyond the irritable voice inside him, the thirst for never-ending victory, and embrace a more… celebratory lifestyle. For one, he got out of that insanely depressing owner’s box, and brought himself down to the people. See him here, the other day, after Malik Monk committed a really stupid technical at the end of a game:
MJ is patently irritable, of course—it was a very dumb tech and he is a very competitive man—and even indulges in a lil’ pair of slaps upside his contracted player’s head, on camera, in full view of America and the world.
But Malik makes a joke of some kind, something along the lines of “Hey, they do it in college,” or some such thing, and MJ cracks a little smile, down there in the bowl with all the sweaty humanity of Charlotte rubbing against him.
Where once MJ dealt with not being able to dominate fools day and night by locking himself away in a dark tower, glowering over results he couldn’t control, getting angrier and angrier about his weird mediocre franchise, now MJ is OF the people—the fans and his players all at once. He has discovered that he is not free in solitary life, wishing you could control everything; that the only freedom comes from love, and the best love we have is love of one’s fellow man, and the only place those people are is outside the gold-plated boxes where a man of wealth suffocates on his own money.
And here he is, free, at the Charlotte Hornets’ company holiday party, sporting a leather jacket that is not long enough to be a duster, but is, I believe, one in spirit, chomping on a massive unlit cigar, joining his fellow man in a collective performance of “The Wobble.”
It is everything good about post-playing Jordan, all in one beautiful moment, captured by Hornets guard Dwayne Bacon. He is chewing on a big ol’ stick of goopy tobacco. He is wearing a truly absurd outfit. He is mingling with The People, dancing and reveling in beautiful, truthful hedonism. He is being lightly razzed by one of his players, but he clearly doesn’t give a damn.
This is a guy whose first act in life involved doing everything he could to make himself everything to everyone, gutting out his neurosis and focusing solely on the taste of victory and the pursuit of colossal wealth, a living engine of victory that made everyone in his immediate vicinity a wealthy champion in some way or another, and who tried to keep it going for a minute there, to more and more declining returns. It is, I think, beautiful to watch him leave 2018 behind—to stop acting like the dude he was, and embrace the freedom of just being another human being in a sea of them, drinking and dancing and gambling and just living his best life, to employ the cliché. While his fellow billionaires, the Koch Brothers, use their wealth to buy politicians and do everything possibly in their power to make themselves more and more powerful and untouchable, MJ has left that crap behind and rejoined the masses of the human race he so capably stood over, once upon a time. It brings a tear to the eye.