No one ever feels sorry for Isiah Thomas, but Jordan tsk-tsked him and George Gervin and Magic Johnson for the 1985 All-Star game “freeze-out.” Jordan was a rookie, and the older stars decided to isolate him. It was a long time ago, and he obliterated them all for six NBA championships and five MVP trophies. Isiah and the Ice Man looked stunned, as intimidated 50 feet from the stage, as they might have been on the basketball court.
The cheering and laughter egged Jordan on, but this was no public service for him. Just because he was smiling didn’t mean this speech hadn’t dissolved into a downright vicious volley.
Worst of all, he flew his old high school teammate, Leroy Smith, to Springfield for the induction. Remember, Smith was the upperclassman his coach, Pop Herring, kept on varsity over him as a high school sophomore. He waggled to the old coach, “I wanted to make sure you understood: You made a mistake, dude.”
This kind of behavior was sadly surprising. Like most people, we grew up with Michael Jordan as the face of the NBA, the undisputed King of the Court, magic personified. We all lined up in front of our televisions to watch him play every Christmas night. We mocked his detractors and those that doubted him. We claimed the NBA would fold without him. He was the guy we all emulated, sticking our tongues out as we tried to dunk on a nine-foot rim. When he left the Bulls, we wailed and gnashed our teeth, and then sat riveted to the television when he announced, "I'm back."
That's the Michael Jordan we built up in our minds, winning games single-handedly one minute, then selling underwear with Bugs Bunny the next. Unfortunately, that's the Michael Jordan we built up in his mind, too. For those of us not dealing with MJ day in and day out, this comes as a shock. But not for those who do.
“M.J. was introduced as the greatest player ever and he’s still standing there trying to settle scores,” one Hall of Famer said privately later.
Jordan didn’t hurt his image with the NBA community, as much as he reminded them of it. “That’s who Michael is,” one high-ranking team executive said. “It wasn’t like he was out of character. There’s no one else who could’ve gotten away with what he did tonight. But it was Michael, and everyone just goes along.”
But such hubris is simply a part of human nature. We do this in our own lives, at least to a degree. It is a part of socialization to find where we fit in the grand scheme of things, particularly in our work, in our social groups, and in our families. We like knowing where we fit in the pecking order. But, what happens when the guy at the top of the totem pole sits there, unchallenged and universally worshipped?
You believe your own hype. Heck, go to your nearest Packer Forum and disagree with a couple people. You'll soon find our who sits at the top of the totem pole there, too, because not only will they be aghast someone disagreed with them, everyone else who is a part of that pole will be aghast, too.
So, we told a man he was truly the greatest player ever, that we would love him forever, no matter what, and that everyone who ever disagreed was wrong. And, in the end, he totally believed us, and is, quite certifiably, a jerk.
Well, I'm sure glad that's never happened to any Green Bay Packers. Wow, that would be a painful process to go through, wouldn't it?
The parallels between Jordan and Brett Favre have been made many times before, long before the events of the past year. Both players have earned "the right" to do things that wouldn't be acceptable for other players, like criticizing teammates or disagreeing with roster moves. Both players earned the right to choose to retire or come out of retirement at their leisure, leaving their teams in the lurch. And when they do stumble, there are those there ready to stand to defend them, often calling on past triumphs to overshadow today's black marks.
But, Jordan's behavior is a perfect example of how players on top of the world in their sport end up developing a monstrous ego and even a delusional sense of self-image, and segues perfectly into the Frankenstein's Monster that Brett Favre became for all of us who helped build him up over the years.
Like Jordan, Favre continues to have an over-inflated view of his contributions to the sport at an age where he is unlikely to be able to perform at the levels that got him his past glory. There's that sense of entitlement: I can say what I want about anybody, and everyone else will have to deal with the repercussions. I don't have to be accountable for my own actions.
Certainly, Favre's comments this week regarding how the Jets were apparently aware of his injuries but neglected to include him on their weekly injury reports sent everyone into damage control mode...everyone, that is, except for the man who made the comments.
To be built up as something far beyond what is humanly possible...essentially, to be treated as a god...is bound to have some pretty nasty side effects, especially when the body starts to creak and the cheering stops. As both Favre and Jordan finished their careers, they went to different teams to be treated as the savior for that franchise, based almost completely on the resume' that they had been living off for years before.
But, the stark reality is still there. Even at age 46, Jordan still commands a double standard from his peers and from the media. He continues to sell his underwear with Kevin Bacon, and continues to have his Nike legend live on, a Jumpman logo freezing his image from the 1980's in time. At age 40, Brett Favre continues to hold court with the media, sounding more and more like some old grizzled war veteran telling stories, while the journalists wait for another little gem that they can blow up into another great story.
And of course, there's Brad Childress and Co., tripping over themselves to insure that their savior comes through...on his own timeline, of course.
This is no case to provide a defense for either Jordan or Favre. If they both have grown into self-centered jerks, then they deserve to be judged based on that. However, being a "jerk" doesn't usually dictate whether we are a fan of a certain player or not, judging by the number of Mark Chmura jerseys that sold in the early 1990's.
But it serves to understand why these kind of players get to this sad place they dwell in. To be treated as a god, to be told constantly how the world revolves around you...and then to actually have the media and fandom literally revolve around you and your every move has to have a cumulative effect on you. Heck, we see it all the time in pop culture: we build up a young talent to fiery heights, and then tear them down when they completely buy into it. Britney Spears, anyone?
Reading the article about Jordan, and looking at the drama that has unfolded with Brett Favre, it makes me believe that his un-re-un-retirement isn't about setting a starts record, or getting even with Ted Thompson, or pursuing another championship ring.
It's about fear of becoming irrelevant.
How difficult must it be for any athlete to have the cheering stop? For players like Favre and Jordan, who spent their careers as nothing less than sports royalty, the anxiety of losing that godlike stature has to twentyfold. It makes sense, because Favre doesn't appear to be swayed by negative publicity or backlash.
For the last several years, we've all heard the Favre detractors, who even in his 2007 near-MVP season, still postulated anything negative against him. We all know the types, people who couldn't seem to write or talk about anything else besides finding some new way to derail Favre, even when he was doing well. But, those detractors were still obsessing about him, usually writing about nothing else. They fed into the same fervor that Favre's supporters did.
There's no such thing as negative publicity. Or hype.
The most frightening thing for people like Favre, Jordan, or Spears is to fall out of the public consciousness, to not be treated the way they've been accustomed to. And they will defy anybody and anything (including time) to hang on to it for every second they can.
Being a jerk about it seems to just come with the territory.
A cautionary tale.
In reading the Green Bay Press-Gazette's Packers Preview section this morning, two things popped out to me about quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
1) He has the highest 2009 salary cap hit on the team at $13,957,420.
2) In a fan Q&A with GBPG Sports Editor Mike Vandermause, I read this exchange:
Q: Is there a rift between McCarthy and Rodgers? I heard on the radio A-Rod was asked about his relationship with McCarthy and all he could say was “It’s getting better.” I also hear he is very upset about them cutting Ruvell Martin. Your thoughts?
Vandermause: McCarthy and Rodgers are fine. Yes, Rodgers was disappointed that Martin was let go. But this isn’t grammar school. This is a business, and Rodgers understands that.
Now, I understand there are contentious relationships between coaches and quarterbacks all the time...certainly Holmgren and Favre were a prime example. But, I've never heard of Rodgers playing anything less than the good guy with the coach that stuck his neck out for him last offseason. "It's getting better"? Because your buddy was cut from the team?
Look, I'm a huge Aaron Rodgers fan, and I'm not stating this to detract from him in the least. I think he's handled fame and adversity as well as anyone in his position could.
But he is now a Packer quarterback getting paid eight figures a year, allegedly expressing dissatisfaction with management and their roster decisions. Sound familiar?
As I said, its just human nature. Let's hope Rodgers learned his most valuable lesson from Favre and chooses to keep his humility instead, no matter how high of a pedestal we place him on.