Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Parable For The 2017 NBA Finals: Before There Was King James, There Was His Airness

On the near-Silver Anniversary of Sam Smith's The Jordan Rules, Bryan Curtis offers a retrospective of the author, the book, and its characters. In addition there is a dissection of workplace politics, professional basketball politics, and the journalistic scuffle for "good ink" (AKA WojBombs). If this is the (fair & balanced) destruction of myths, so be it.

[x The Ringer]
The Jordan Rules Was The Mother Of All WojBombs
By Bryan Curtis

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What, you’re still watching the NBA Finals? Right after Steph Curry turned into Curly Neal, I went over to my bookshelf and pulled down a volume that’s quietly enjoying its 25th anniversary. It’s called The Jordan Rules. It was written by Sam Smith in 1991. It was a simpler time. We didn’t have WojBombs, but we made do.

How to understand how much mind-blowing, Woj-like reporting is stuffed into The Jordan Rules? Let’s turn to page 95.

It’s November 1990. Michael Jordan and the Bulls — on the bumpy road to their first NBA title — arrive in Oakland to play the Warriors. They learn that the Lakers’ James Worthy was arrested for hiring two prostitutes. “You’d think he’d have been tired of being double-teamed by now,” one of the Bulls jokes.

That night, the Bulls lose to the underdog Warriors. Jordan gets just 12 shots — a result, he thinks, of the triangle offense that coach Phil Jackson has used to take some of his points and redistribute them to other players. (Jordan calls the process “de-Michaelization.”) “He kicked a chair when he came into the locker room,” Smith writes.

“I hope they keep playing you that way,” Don Nelson, the Warriors coach, says to Jordan.

At a club that night, Jordan seethes with embarrassment. “I hate when I have to read that in the papers the next day, that I couldn’t do something,” he tells another player. The next day, at practice in Seattle, Jordan shows up Jackson by refusing to take more than a shot or two. “Michael wouldn’t say a word to anyone,” Horace Grant says.

The same night — such is the granular depth of The Jordan Rules — Jordan goes to another nightclub and runs into a motormouth Sonics rookie named Gary Payton. “I’ve got my millions and I’m buying my Ferraris and Testarossas, too,” Payton brags.

“No problem,” Jordan replies. “I get them for free.”

Payton’s mouth is all it takes to reactivate Jordan’s murderous instincts. Against the Sonics, Jordan takes the ball away from Payton the first two times he touches it. Payton is so thoroughly owned that he has to go to the bench. But just as Jordan is gliding toward a "SportsCenter"-worthy night, Jackson pulls him out of the game. De-Michaelization and all.

“He’s not going to let me win the scoring title,” Jordan whines to guard B.J. Armstrong as he sits on the bench.

We started on page 95, remember. Though Smith has sloughed off enough behind-the-scenes gossip for two ESPN The Magazine features, we have read to only page 97. This is why we made due without Woj bombs back in 1991. Because The Jordan Rules was the mother of all Woj bombs.

Sam Smith was an odd guy to write a classic sports book. A veteran of the Chicago Tribune’s general assignment desk, he was a nebbishy, mustachioed workhorse who drifted into sports. David Axelrod — the Tribune columnist turned Obama political guru — said Smith favored saddle shoes like the ones Archie Andrews wore.

The Tribune sports department was filled with native Midwesterners who felt like they’d reached Valhalla. Smith, who was from Brooklyn, was more clear-eyed. If his writing occasionally groaned under the strain of the beat — in The Jordan Rules, he compared the Bulls to the defenders of the Alamo, General Sherman, and the British army during the Revolutionary War — he had a knack for finding the killer detail. Smith took an advance of about $60,000 from Simon & Schuster to write a chronicle of the Bulls’ ’90-’91 season.

His editor was Jeff Neuman, who five years before had published John Feinstein’s A Season on the Brink (1986), a book that changed the trajectory of sports nonfiction. First, A Season on the Brink rescued basketball books from the racist baggage they’d been carrying around. Second, it created the template for the literate, feverishly reported “season inside.” In an amazing five-year run, Neuman edited Skip Bayless on the Cowboys, Chris Mortensen on the mob and the NFL, Don Yaeger and Douglas S. Looney on Notre Dame, and Terry Pluto on the ABA.

By 1990, the smiling pitchman for Nike and McDonald’s was a perfect subject for muckraking. With only a touch of irony, Playboy called Jordan “the quintessential gentleman, consummate sportsman, clean-living family man and modest, down-to-earth levitating demigod.” Jordan’s image was so tied to his affability that he once told reporters he had a frequent dream: He had made an off-the-court mistake, and his Q score had dropped, and all his doubters said, “I told you so.” “It’s like they’ve been waiting for it and now it’s here,” Jordan said.

The real Jordan, Smith found, was thornier, less smiley. “He often backed away from the traditional leadership role,” Smith wrote in The Jordan Rules, “and... he rarely spoke with his teammates other than to taunt them with his rapier wit.” Though the word wasn’t used this way in the ’90s, Jordan was an enormous troll.

In the 1990 playoffs against the Pistons, Scottie Pippen had been leveled by a migraine headache before Game 7 — a humiliating event for a young player. When the Bulls lost to the Pistons the next spring and Pippen played badly, Jordan said, “Headache tonight, Scottie?”

The next fall, forward Stacey King showed up at training camp overweight. The Bulls nicknamed him “Doughboy.” When he got a chance to start three games, King somehow grabbed only one defensive rebound. “Listen to this,” Jordan told teammates in King’s presence. “You ever hear of a guy, 6’11” maybe and 260 pounds, a guy big and fat like that and he can’t get but two rebounds, if that many, running all over the damn court...?”

Jordan continued: “Big guy like that and he gets one rebound. Can’t even stick his ass into people and get more than that.”

Stiiiiill going: “Big, fat guy. One rebound in three games. Power forward. Maybe they should call it powerless forward.”

King finally snapped. “I’m gonna kick his ass one day,” he said. “You wait. My time will come and I’ll get him. I’ll shut his mouth.”

Long before it became conventional wisdom, Smith wrote that Jordan’s dickishness was inextricable from his competitiveness. He was willing himself to be so great that he couldn’t understand how his teammates could be so bad. Jordan called the bumbling center Will Perdue “Will Vanderbilt” — because “he doesn’t deserve to be named after a Big Ten [sic] school.” Then, when Perdue set a hard screen on him in practice, Jordan punched him twice in the head. “Why the hell don’t you ever set a pick like that in a game?” he yelled.

Bill Cartwright was a center whose elbows the Bulls compared to Scud missiles: They were lethal but you never knew exactly where they were going to land. First, Jordan showed up Cartwright by throwing him no-look passes he couldn’t catch. Then, during the 1989–90 season, he ordered Bulls players not to pass the ball to Cartwright late in games. Cartwright told Jordan that if he heard of a similar ukase, Jordan would “never play basketball again.” Jordan and Cartwright got along OK after that. (As Horace Grant would note, the one way to gain Jordan’s respect was to challenge him.)

“The Jordan Rules” was the code name for the defense the Pistons used to thwart the NBA’s best player. But in the Bulls’ minds, Smith reported, the phrase acquired a double meaning. It described the privileges that fame had conferred on Jordan — the airs His Airness could put on.

So what, right? Why wouldn’t Jordan deserve special treatment? Smith didn’t go in for bashing a pampered superstar but exhilaratingly showed how such status played with the rest of the team. In one game, Jordan torched the Rockets for 34 points despite having a cold — one of the numerous times he was lauded for playing hurt. But the Bulls players knew — and Smith reported — that Jordan was hurting because he’d been playing golf all day and cards all night. When Jordan came onto the court at halftime with a towel ostentatiously draped over his head, Horace Grant said, “Maybe he thought somebody in the building didn’t know he was sick.” The Bulls could troll Jordan, too.

Or take former Bulls coach Doug Collins, now a commentator on ESPN. In December 1988, the Bulls played so unevenly in Charlotte that Collins called for the team to fly back to Chicago for a Christmas Eve practice. Jordan didn’t appear for the team bus — he was returning to North Carolina for the holidays, anyway, and didn’t want to bother with a round trip to Chicago. Collins — who was, in theory, the coach — was humiliated. But what could he do? He sent word that if Jordan would just meet the team at the airport, Collins would “spontaneously” cancel practice, thus caving to Jordan while (or this was Collins’s idea) preserving a shred of his own authority.

Which is what happened, Smith reported. Except when Jordan showed up at the airport, the guard John Paxson saw he wasn’t wearing socks. No one went to Chicago in winter without socks. The Bulls realized the whole scene was a sham.

Former ESPN writer Ethan Sherwood Strauss likes to talk about a concept he calls the “lie of NBA friendship.” He means the collective fantasy that teammates are best friends, when in fact the NBA pits them against each other in a vicious competition for shots, minutes, and salary-cap room.

We occasionally see this lie exposed. But nobody other than Smith has examined it through 12 pairs of eyes. The Jordan Rules is a story of coworkers, maybe the best office drama in the history of sportswriting.

In one fascinating sequence, Smith shows how even a small personnel move can reverberate across the roster. Phil Jackson wants to put Stacey King, who’s rotting on the bench, into the starting lineup to get him going. But Jackson realizes such a move will be seen by Horace Grant, who’s angling for a new contract, as management’s scheme to limit his minutes and gain an upper hand in the negotiations. It’s only after Grant’s extension is signed that Jackson makes King a starter. But even that is interpreted by several Bulls players as a power move by David Falk, the agent to both King and Jordan.

The battle was joined by Jackson too. The Jordan Rules allows you to appreciate the now checked-out Knicks boss in his Sith lord prime. Once, Smith reported, Jackson stopped keeping score in a team scrimmage because he knew such a decision would piss off the competitive Jordan. When Jordan tomahawk dunked and then stared down his coach, Jackson knew he’d succeeded. Yes, feel the hate flow through you!

The Bulls hated their front office (particularly GM Jerry Krause, who died in March). Midway through the season, Jordan meets Jerry Reinsdorf alone at Reinsdorf’s house, and the owner gently explains that Jordan would never have the GM powers that LeBron James would acquire a generation later. (Careful readers will ask themselves who related this private encounter. Hint [emphasis supplied]: Reinsdorf is also from Brooklyn.)

But Jordan was the king, and the bloodiest battles for resources tended to be between him and the teammates he called “my supporting cast.” “Screw you, M.J.,” Grant said after one game. “All you care about is your points and everyone knows it. You don’t care about anything but yourself.”

“You’re an idiot,” Jordan replied. “You’ve screwed up every play we ever ran. You’re too stupid to remember the plays. We ought to get rid of you.”

After Smith’s book was published, Jordan tried to put such flare-ups in context. “Let’s say Horace Grant was upset for one game about not getting enough shots,” he said in Playboy, “and maybe I had a lot more shots than anybody else. Sam can sense that anger, get over there, and ask him all kinds of questions.” The charge was true but meaningless. Fast-dissipating anger was exactly what Smith was trying to catalog, because that’s the stuff readers — even in the age of the Twitter scooplet — don’t know about basketball players.

The Jordan Rules showed the value of hanging around, if only a writer has the guts to empty his notebook. We see King’s girlfriend telling Grant’s wife that King is going to take Grant’s starting job. Long before Deflategate, we see Jackson trying to catch teams that tinker with the game balls. (The Lakers were notorious overinflaters.) We see Jackson telling the Bulls that the first US invasion of Iraq could unleash a wave of terrorism back home. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson pulling a Nixon and “occasionally … suggest[ing] plays” for the Bulls to run.

There’s also locker-room talk — the real kind. Once, Jordan, Pippen, and Grant argued about which one of their young sons had a bigger penis. “They eventually agreed it was Pippen’s,” Smith drolly reported. Awesome. Where another writer might have swung for the Halberstamian fences, Smith decided to settle — or was forced to settle — for a more modest approach. The Jordan Rules is a proper book, sure. But it’s also something more fine-grained. It’s beat writing.

Woven into The Jordan Rules is a simple thesis. Michael Jordan was the best player in the NBA. But basketball is a team game. So for the Bulls to finally win a title, Jordan had to rise above petty concerns like his scoring average and learn to include his teammates. For years, the gag around Chicago was that every Bulls gamer until eternity would begin, “Despite 38 points by Michael Jordan....”

During the 1991 Finals against the Lakers, Jackson put together video clips of defenders collapsing on Jordan as he drove into the paint. (This was the gist of the Pistons’ “Jordan Rules.”) Jackson begged Jordan to pass off, to trust his teammates. Finally, during a timeout in the waning minutes of Game 5 (the Bulls led three games to one), Jackson confronted him.

He kneeled in the huddle and stared into Jordan’s blazing eyes.

“M.J.,” he demanded, “who’s open?”

Jordan looked at him and didn’t answer.

“Who’s open?” Jackson asked again.

“Paxson,” Jordan said.

“Okay, let’s find him,” Jackson said.

With the Bulls nursing a two-point lead, Jordan found Paxson alone in the left corner. Paxson stroked the jumper. Lesson: Jordan had listened, and the team had won. (Again, readers will ask themselves who told Smith about the sideline exchange.)

It’s easy to chuckle at this stuff. Do the elderly Lakers really beat the Bulls if Jordan doesn’t pass off? How many titles does Jordan win if he keeps hogging the ball — only four or five? But in 1991, the idea that Jordan was an exciting but somehow deficient basketball player was every bit as powerful as the idea that Russell Westbrook is one today. As David Robinson says in the book: “Michael is more of a non-basketball-fan type of player. He always looks great out there hanging, jumping, dribbling around. But if you know a lot about the game, you appreciate what I do more.” Where have we heard that lately?

Smith produces plenty of evidence that the Bulls got better as Jordan embraced the triangle. At the beginning of the ’90-’91 season, he didn’t even fully trust Pippen and Grant, who would be key to the Bulls piling up titles. But on a reread 25 years later, the idea of Jordan being tamed into a title is the only thing that makes me queasy. Maybe it’s because the idea makes The Jordan Rules seem like a lot of other sports books. Sportswriters say they’re giving us the real, unvarnished story, but, inevitably, we get a tale of moral improvement.

The Jordan Rules was published in November 1991, two weeks after Magic Johnson told the world he had HIV. Its first result was to reignite the rivalry between Chicago’s warring newspapers. The Sun-Times tried to scoop the Tribune on the contents of its own writer’s book. In a November 11 column, the Sun-Times’ Jay Mariotti claimed he’d read some portion of The Jordan Rules (Smith doubted this) and wrote that it “might become one of the most damaging books ever written about a sports team.” Here, Mariotti was accidentally doing Smith a favor: Saying “this book is dangerous!” is tantamount to buying an ad.

The shelling continued from the “downtown newspaper.” The Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper snorted, “I stand in awe of Smith’s apparent arrangement with the Trib, in which he covered the Bulls beat for the paper but saved the good stuff for his book.” The Trib responded with columns defending their man. With the recent news that the Trib’s parent company is trying to buy the Sun-Times, it’s a reminder that there was once such a thing as hate, beautiful hate, in the world of newspapers.

Smith, for his part, had no idea what he had done. For a time, Smith didn’t pick up his phone, he wrote in an introduction to the book’s 20th-anniversary edition. Mike Imrem of the Daily Herald called him “Salman” — as in Rushdie, the novelist who was then in hiding because of a fatwa. Weeks after publication, Smith finally met Jordan in the locker room of the old Chicago Stadium. “If you have any issues with me, I’m here and you can let me know,” he said. Jordan said nothing and wouldn’t look at him. Later, Jordan answered Smith’s questions, though neither man brought up the book.

Today, a critical sports book would elicit a broad denial from its subject (“While I haven’t read the book....”) after which the player would announce he had nothing more to say (“We won’t let this be a distraction....”). But Jordan talked about The Jordan Rules for days, weeks, and even years, giving it the same side eye he had given Gary Payton.

Jordan didn’t challenge many of the facts. He was more interested about where he’d arrived in sportswriting’s stations of the cross: having Gotten the Monkey Off His Back, he was now facing The Inevitable Fall From Grace. “A lot of people have made fortunes off me in a good way,” Jordan said at the time. “This is the first bad one.”

It wouldn’t be the last one, either. The Bulls kept winning titles, but Jordan’s off-the-court life became a fertile subject for writers. Jordan no-showed the Bulls’ first trip to visit George H.W. Bush in the White House. (“I ain’t goin’ to no White House,” he said in The Jordan Rules. “I didn’t vote for that guy.”) In 1992, one of Jordan’s checks (apparently to cover losses gambling on golf) was found made out to a man who was later convicted of money laundering. Another golf buddy came out with a book detailing Jordan’s gambling, which rated less as a WojBomb than a WojIED. By 1994, Jordan was playing minor league baseball, a decision that owed something to his father’s murder and how little fun he was having off the court.

The smudging of Jordan’s image was inevitable. Smith merely acted first, and did the work with more depth and nuance than a lot of his colleagues would have. Jordan, who was nothing if not keenly perceptive about his image, recognized the irony: The same public that had once toasted him as a golden boy was now feasting on his flaws. As Jordan later told Playboy, “Don’t knock me off the pedestal that you wanted me to get onto.”

Today, nobody could produce an NBA book as nutrient rich as The Jordan Rules. Twitter would cannibalize some of the scoops. Moreover, writers who seek NBA stars now find themselves in a half-court trap set by the player’s agents, who have made the sports magazine profile into the same transactional good as the Hollywood profile. Even the great Woj’s version of The LeBron Rules would be necessarily told through the mouths of anonymous sources. Back in 1991, Smith was able to show most of his work.

Holding my well-read copy of The Jordan Rules, the book seems to contain two legacies. First, Smith created an image of Jordan that was as indelible as — even while it was at odds with — the image in Jordan’s TV ads. Was Michael our best pal or a raging asshole? Years later, in his Hall of Fame speech, Jordan seemed to confirm it was the latter. And was that so bad? Jordan’s inner asshole, like the ’90s Dallas Cowboys’ taste for nightlife, was first seen as a character flaw and then happily subsumed into the legend. By the time Jordan turned 50 and welcomed Wright Thompson into his confidence, he seemed to have made a kind of peace with it. “Be like Mike” had a double meaning.

The other fun thing about rereading The Jordan Rules today is tracing the half-life of a raging sports “controversy.” Stacey King — the center who couldn’t get two defensive rebounds — is now a color man on the Bulls TV broadcasts. John Paxson — who whacked the stinginess of Bulls management through The Jordan Rules — is now the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations. And Sam Smith, who took a buyout from the Tribune in 2008, has enjoyed a second act as a columnist for … I don’t know if that counts as a tale of moral improvement, but it’s certainly a parable of modern sportswriting. If you can’t beat a journalist, you can always make ’em a content creator for your website. # # #

[Bryan Curtis became editor-in-chief of The Ringer in 2016; prior to that he has held both writing and editorial positions with Grantland, The Daily Beast, Play (NYT sports magazine), and Slate. Curtis received a BA (journalism) from The University of Texas at Austin.]

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