Two of my childhood heroes wore the number 23 on their uniforms. One of them was Ryne Sandberg of the Cubs. One was Michael Jordan of the Bulls. Ryno went into the baseball Hall of Fame a couple years back. MJ went into the basketball HOF last night. Ryno’s speech inspired, thrilled and pleased me. MJ’s left me feeling something I’d never felt for him before: pity.
That Michael Jordan is the best player to ever play the game is truly beyond argument. Just like no one will ever replace Babe Ruth as the titan of baseball, Michael Jordan climbed every mountain and swam every sea in a career that set him apart and above all others. He was the best that ever was and the best that ever will be. He proved that to us time and again. His legacy is safe and permanent.
He took the stage for his speech last night and spoke like perhaps he was the only one who wasn’t sure of that—the only one who didn’t know. Instead of showing the class and dignity that earned him global respect and admiration, he was petty and small in his words. His goal was clear: To remind the conquered of his place above them.
His speech was less a celebration that it was a reminder of what didn’t need to be said. His teammates barely received a mention. MJ was too focused on his enemies. Instead of spending time thanking and praising his own coaches, he spent time ridiculing those who thought they could stop him. Instead of thanking and praising his own teammates, he tweaked those he consistently defeated. Throughout his career he seemed—at least publically—to win with grace and dignity. On this night, he celebrated this victory with classlessness and prideful taunts.
It was always known that MJ talked trash on the court. Those who have played basketball know that’s simply part of the game. They also know that it’s put up or shut up. You have to earn the right to talk trash. Your words are empty unless you can back them up. The saddest part about this night was that Jordan, too old to back up his words, still defiantly acted like he could. Time stole from him the ability to do so. His speech was bitter. It wasn’t enough that in his prime, he was the best that ever was—it was all too evident that the fact that he couldn’t walk out on the floor and be the best today, even at this age, cuts him deeply.
You’d like the think that safe in the knowledge that you conquered all who challenged you, that you rose above all others to be the very best would bring with it a sense of peace, a bit of humility. At the very top of the mountain, you could look down on the world without looking down on them if you choose. It simply wasn’t to be. This was a night for reminding those not as great of their inferiority. It wasn’t enough to go into the Hall of Fame as the best, MJ needed to remind everyone else that they were not. It was sad.
He said that he learned something new about each of the people enshrined before him and that he wanted to share something new about himself as well. He wanted to share where his competitive nature came from. He wanted to share with us the logs that built his fire. We were there Mike. We watched each person you chose to call out last night, when they turned themselves into a log you burned to fuel your obsession. You humbled them, each in turn.
John Stockton and Jerry Sloan went into the HOF with you last night, each without an NBA Championship. Each, without a championship because you stood in their way. How classless it was of you to remind them of their failure in an effort to point out your own greatness.
When you’re the best that ever was, you don’t need to tell people. You don’t need to remind them. You don’t need to point it out. I wish someone had told MJ before he took the stage. His speech made it seem like he still felt a need to prove it. Sad, because his own doubt can only work against him.
When Ryne Sandberg went into the Hall of Fame a few years back, he did something he rarely did during his career. He spoke eloquently. His speech was not about himself and about glory, it was about the game, about the sanctity of that game. He bravely said what needed to be said. My heroes remain my heroes. I’m old enough now to know that even heroes are full of weakness. I just wish the hero that was the best of all time, could have gone in with as much dignity and class as the hero who was not.