Michael Jordan: The Life

Release Date: 
May 6, 2014
Little, Brown & Company
Reviewed by: 

Does any biography deserve 700 pages? When you read Lazenby’s Michael Jordan:  The Life you’ll be hard-pressed to answer anything but yes.”

Does anybody in the world who has not cured cancer, saved babies, written poems at the level of a Shakespeare or a Milton, or otherwise ennobled the planet deserve a biography that stretches, when you add in the ap crit and the index, more than 700 pages?

Is anybody’s life so important that it needs to be enshrined between hard covers without missing a detail of that person’s existence?

Is it the best and highest use of our time on Earth to read long books about short lives? What’s the point? 

Well, if anyone deserved 700 pages of prose, notes, and index, it would be Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player and best-known athlete on the face of the Earth.

Jordan redefined professional basketball. He came along at the end of the Magic Johnson–Larry Bird era, which rescued the NBA from the doldrums of drug scandals, lackadaisical play, and the sin of just simply being too black for corporate America. Jordan seemed to be just another awfully good player at the start of his career. Few could have predicted that he would win six championships and reach the level of icon, becoming one of the few individuals on the planet known by his first name.

But that’s what happened. And the story of how it happened, and why it happened, and when it happened, really is worth the 700 pages that Roland Lazenby devotes to it. Lazenby takes us on a magic carpet ride through a magical life. Not a charmed life, because there has been too much that is negative in Jordan’s existence to use that overworked adjective. But the ride was certainly magical, as Jordan rose from obscurity to global brand.

In every context, on the basketball court, at the casino, in practice, or on the team bus, Jordan is the most dominating figure in the room in a world full of dominating figures. The alpha’s alpha, Jordan commanded attention, respect, fascination, and obsession. Everybody wanted to be like Mike, from the long, baggy shorts he wore that replaced the short shorts of the 1980s to the shining bald pate he showed the world, inspiring generations of balding men to abandon the comb-over and just shave the whole thing.

It’s hard to imagine today, but even 30 years ago, why parents were not crazy about having their kids put up photos of black athletes in their bedrooms. Jordan changed that. He transcended race. He wasn’t black. He wasn’t white. He was . . . Michael. Or as Larry Bird famously put it, he was God disguised as Michael Jordan.

Lazenby takes us inside the mentality of perhaps the world’s most competitive individual, showing how frustrated he was with teammates, coaches, and team officials who could not or would not rise to the same level of greatness that he demanded from himself in every practice and every game.

The book takes us inside the Jordan family, which was torn asunder by Jordan’s wealth and the desire on the part of siblings and family members to compete to cash in.

We also see in torturous detail the effects of his father’s murder on His Airness, although the book leaves as an open question whether Jordan’s first retirement came due to his need for a change of life and sport, or whether he had been asked to leave the game due to gambling connections.

I’ve heard Jordan was quite the gambler. He didn’t need to sleep. He could be up all night, partying, hitting strip clubs, smoking fat cigars, sleep for an hour or two or not at all, and hit the golf links with a fervor that the rest of us who do not live at that level of intensity could never imagine. He partied with rock stars and he partied like a rock star. He became a prisoner of his own success, unable to escape hotel rooms when traveling because the mere sight of him set off stampedes.

Jordan quickly came to grasp the role he had come to inhabit, playing the part, nightly, of Michael Jordan, on and off the court. Writes Lazenby: 

“Jordan had taken to showering in private quarters and dressing in what had become a seemingly endless supply of immaculate, perfectly tailored suits. He’d return to his locker looking as if he’d walked out of the pages of GQ, and then he’d take his position among the reporters as they’d push in around him. The klieg lights of their cameras would bounce a dazzling white on his familiar onyx pate, broken only by the tiniest rivulets of sweat as he held forth on the game he had just played.”

Lazenby’s prose soars as dramatically and excitingly as does his subject. Jordan appeared to fly through the air; Lazenby makes time fly as readers immerse themselves in an extraordinarily competitive life.

Does any biography deserve 700 pages? When you read Lazenby’s Michael Jordan:  The Life you’ll be hard-pressed to answer anything but yes.