Michael Jordan turns fifty years old today. This is mind-boggling. I am thirty years old, so I don’t remember his days as a college player or his days as a young superstar. In fact, even those nasty battles against the Detroit Pistons are kind of a blur. My memories begin to solidify during their third championship against the Phoenix Suns in ’92-’93. In spite of the fact that half of his career (Jordan played from 1984-1993, 1995-1998, and 2001-2003 came and went while I was trying to locate “Chicago” on a map and learn the rules of basketball he may have been the most influential person I never met.
As an adolescent I idolized Michael Jordan as did many of my close friends. My best friend, Javier Alonzo, and I would play basketball modeled on Jordan and his side-kick Scottie Pippen (my role was like that of Pippen since my friend was a far better player) as we challenged other teams from our neighborhood in (mostly) 3-on-3 basketball. I went to private elementary, middle, and high schools without teams, so I didn’t play organized sports, but I dreamt of playing professional something someday.
Thankfully, at about the age of seventeen, as I was beginning to take my religion seriously, it dawned on me that I wasn’t going to be a paid athlete. I saved my body from excessive wear and tear and my pride from playing players outside our neighborhood pick-up games. My middle adolescence was rough emotionally. I remember being very angry and confused about many things. It was a time when some of my friends found themselves trying drugs, or rubbing shoulders with local gangs (yes, Napa had some gangs), or doing the sort of things that keep parents awake at night. My parents were stressed out by my terrible attitude and my disinterest in school, but I didn’t get drunk, or do drugs, or get in any non-sports related fights (sports related fights usually end more peacefully). My parents did their best, and I am sure that my mother’s effort to keep me around religious people helped, but one of the things I kept telling myself from ages thirteen to seventeen was “Be Like Mike”, the Gatorade slogan for commercials featuring Michael Jordan.
I wanted to be “like Mike” and that meant working hard at what I love (sports then, academics later), being the best I could be, being dedicated to the person next to me (teammates), and avoiding anything that would inhibit this. Sure, Dennis Rodman played for the Chicago Bulls, but Michael Jordan was better, and who wanted to model their life after a cross-dressing, rebounding specialist? No, not me, I wanted to be like the greatest.
Michael Jordan has been accused, rightly, for failing to us his social standing to be more policial, to be more of an advocate for some cause, conta Bono of U2, or most celebrities today. Jordan was an athlete and a business man. Jordan had personal vices like gambling, drinking, a so-so marriage, and other ghosts that haunt him to this day (see Wright Thompson’s excellent article “Michael Jordan has Not Left the Building”, which introduces us to the older Jordan). He is not the perfect example I imagined him to be when I was younger, but his “brand” sold, and it sold to impressionable teenagers like me who in spite of my parents’, or pastors’, or teachers’ good intentions could not persuade me to be a good person. The Jordan Brand? It may not have made me a good person, but it prevented me from being a bad one long enough.
I know this isn’t true of everyone who worshipped Jordan in the 1990’s. Many people probably pretended to be Michael Jordan in their backyard who sit in a prison somewhere today. Jordan is not a savior, a messiah, or even the best role model, but he did present a role model that may have rescued me, and others like me, from the sorts of traps that catch wandering, misguided teens every day.
Mr. Michael Jordan, thank you, not for being superhuman, but for being the best human you knew to be, and for providing a standard for many of us who were coming of age in the 1990’s. I hope you have a wonderful 50th and that you find peace and joy in your latter years. You may have seen yourself as a superstar athlete and a business man, but for many of us you were our social worker keeping us out of trouble.