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COMMENTARY : ’91 Sportsman Often a Bad Sport

THE HARTFORD COURANT

In case Michael Jordan wasn’t feeling sufficiently loved, admired and honored by the world, Sports Illustrated just announced he is its 1991 sportsman of the year.

Readers of Chicago Tribune reporter Sam Smith’s new book, “The Jordan Rules,” might beg to differ.

The book, which chronicles a year in the life of the Chicago Bulls, reveals Jordan to be an intolerant egotist who verbally rips his teammates as surely as he rips opponents with his midair majesty.

What kind of person warns his teammates never to pass the ball to center Bill Cartwright in the last four minutes of a game and threatens retribution if they disobey?

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When his teammates are struggling to get tickets, any tickets, for friends and loved ones during the 1991 NBA Finals, what kind of person flaunts his ability to get what he wants when he wants by spreading out his more than 15 tickets on the dressing-room floor and making a big show of stuffing them into envelopes so his not-so-lucky teammates can watch.

Of course, “teammates” isn’t how Jordan tends to refer to his fellow Bulls. For years he has called them his “supporting cast.”

Larry Bird is one of the most arrogant and celebrated athletes who ever walked the earth, but nobody has ever heard him refer to his fellow Celtics as anything but “teammates.”

It is one thing for the fans and media to put you above the rest, to say, as they did in the lean years when the Bulls were Michael Jordan and not much else, “When are the Bulls going to find a supporting cast for Michael Jordan?”

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It is quite another when an athlete--no matter how talented--has the gall to grind his fame like a boot heel into teammates’ faces by calling them his “supporting cast.”

Later on, Jordan said, “I wish I hadn’t used that phrase, but everyone thinks that way, so why not?”

Isn’t that sort of like a guy saying it’s OK to refer to his friend as “the town drunk” because that’s what everyone else calls him?

Now you know why, among themselves, Jordan’s teammates referred to him as “The General.”

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Few teammates escape Jordan’s wrath. He criticizes Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Will Perdue and the bench. He criticizes assistant coach Tex Winter’s offense because it doesn’t revolve around him. He sulks because the Bulls don’t sign Walter Davis, a fellow North Carolina Tar Heel. He doesn’t go to the team Christmas party.

The book portrays Jordan as being overly concerned with his stats and with leading the league in scoring. When his minutes are cut, to ease the toll on his body, Jordan crams in more shots when he’s on the court.

Are these criminal offenses? Do such incidents mean that Jordan is a bad person? No, it’s petty stuff. But it suggests that in some rather unattractive ways, Michael Jordan is as mortal as the rest of us, sulking, criticizing colleagues, acting as if the world should revolve around him.

But, of course, it does revolve around him. Traveling with Jordan is like traveling with a rock star, an endless stream of humanity fawning and falling at his feet.

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With us, the media, Jordan remains amazingly accessible for a star of his magnitude. He has heard every question 100 times, but he will answer them courteously and, even, charmingly. He seems to be a warm, gentle person, and while much of his behavior is probably genuine, it is also good strategy. The media have helped create Jordan’s flawless image, and that image allows him to make three times more money in off-court endorsements than his Bulls salary.

About that salary: Jordan, who has four years to go on his eight-year, $25.75-million contract, said last week he deserves more money but will not ask for a new contract.

Obviously, Jordan has gone public hoping that the Bulls will feel sufficiently uncomfortable so as to voluntarily renegotiate his contract. Jordan willingly and happily signed the last one, which at the time made him the highest-paid player in the NBA. It is estimated that he makes more than $10 million a year in endorsements. From the Bulls, does he want to be paid his fair share? Or is he just greedy?

Because Jordan is the most popular athlete, and perhaps, the most popular person in the United States, with so many worshipers, some will defend his behavior as described in the book by saying that if he is selfish and egocentric, it is our fault for so spoiling him.

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There’s some truth to that, but only to a point. Sure, being everyone’s idol 24 hours a day is bound to warp your perspective. But what kind of person makes a big display of lording it over their teammates that he has NBA Finals tickets when they are like dogs without a bone?

When you’re Michael Jordan, it’s easy to criticize your teammates and get away with it. But when you’re Michael Jordan, aren’t you in awe of your own unique gifts? And shouldn’t that help you be more understanding of teammates who aren’t similarly blessed?

Jordan lives in a glass house, and there are few among us who could stand up to that kind of scrutiny and get straight A’s. I don’t believe that Jordan should be held to a higher standard, but the way he acts toward his teammates comes off as substandard. For a guy who supposedly admires the all-for-one and one-for-all Dean Smith North Carolina philosophy from which he sprang, Michael Jordan seems to have forgotten some of his lessons.


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