Monday, September 14, 2009

When Athletes Speak

Michael Jordan--along with John Stockton, David Robinson, Jerry Sloan and C. Vivian Stringer--was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame last Friday evening. This year's Hall of Fame ceremony has garnered more attention than most years', and with good reason: it very well might be the most impressive class of inductees in the history of this type of thing. The ceremony was moved to a larger venue, ESPN marketed the event way beyond its efforts of years past, and even Jordan's choice of David Thompson as presenter was reported breathlessly by the media. But the real fireworks began when Jordan got up to speak.

Here's video of the address.

This speech has led to a mostly critical backlash, including this response from Yahoo!'s excellent NBA reporter, Adrian Wojnarowski:

This wasn’t a Hall of Fame induction speech, but a bully tripping nerds with lunch trays in the school cafeteria. He had a responsibility to his standing in history, to players past and present, and he let everyone down. This was a night to leave behind the petty grievances and past slights – real and imagined. This was a night to be gracious, to be generous with praise and credit.

I understand where Wojnarowski is coming from: Jordan is pretty universally regarded as the best basketball player of all time, and the settling of scores in this forum, from the greatest, is somewhat petty. But it's this very hyper-competitiveness that made him great. Here is Dime Magazine's explanation for why Jordan ranks number one in their list of the Top 25 Motherf*ckers of All Time:

Michael wasn’t the most talented guy to ever pick up a basketball, but he became the greatest motherf*cker of all time because of unparalleled mental toughness. People made careers out of trying to be “Jordan Stoppers,” but no one was ever able to actually live up to that title. After getting that crown, Gerald Wilkins got a 31 ppg helping from His Airness in the ‘93 Eastern Conference Semi’s. What other motherf*cker abused guys specifically set out to stop him like Mike? Even as he was approaching 40 in the Wizards phase of his career, he refused to show weakness and was still feared.

Would it be nice if the cutthroat on-court presence made way for a gregarious off-court persona? Sure. But I think that may be unreasonable to expect. Jordan wouldn't have dominated basketball to the extent that he did if he didn't remember every slight mistreatment, using it as motivational fuel to continue dominating a sport beat nearly into submission.

David Foster Wallace discusses this general concept in his essay "How Tracy Austin Broke my Heart," collected in Consider the Lobster. He posits that world-class athletes are unable to say anything interesting about performing under pressure because they are hard-wired to remove all thoughts from their brains when a game or match is on the line. Here's a somewhat lengthy excerpt:

It is not an accident that great athletes are often called "naturals," because they can, in performance, be totally present: they can proceed on instinct and muscle-memory and autonomic will such that agent and action are one. Great athletes can do this even--and, for the truly great ones like Borg and Bird and Nicklaus and Jordan and Austin, especially--under wilting pressure and scrutiny. They can withstand forces of distraction that would break a mind prone to self-conscious fear in two.

The real secret behind top athletes' genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player's mind as stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all.

The price we pay, DFW claims, for athletic brilliance under pressure is boring interviews. And, I would claim, the price we pay for hyper-competitive athletes who basically never lose is a type of personality ill-suited to award acceptance speeches.

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