Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He MadeLiving in Michael Jordan's World
Basketball player Michael Jordan has rocked the world with his athletic skills. Hailed as "Jesus in Nikes" and heralded in France as "God in person," basketball's legendary Jerry West describes him this way: "It's like a generous God sprinkled a little more gold dust on Michael than he did on anyone else." David Halberstam's Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, (Random House, $24.95), puts the reader squarely in Michael Jordan's universe. What a wonderful world it is.
Halberstam writes the story of Michael Jordan in layers, through the unforgettable tales of his brilliant career. This is an insider's view of basketball with Michael Jordan as its finest example. Structured like a sports reporter's private journal, it assumes a wide context of knowledge, and only occasionally overstates Jordan's influence.
Playing for Keeps is not a biography; it is David Halberstam's tribute to Jordan's greatness. His layered retelling, sorely lacking a career chronology and an index, has limits. As Halberstam peels away each layer until what's left is yet another fabulous moment, one still wonders: Who is Michael Jordan? For example, that the Bill Gates of basketball "possessed unusual mathematical skills" begs the question of how he acquired them.
Jordan's talent springs to life in the early chapters. Halberstam writes: "Jordan drove down the lane...[he] moved the ball to his left hand...twisted his body in a way, ending the move with his body essentially turned away from the basket. The ball, of course, went in." The cocky narrative reflects Jordan's superior quality: a cool, unaffected sense of self. When he's told, "There's no I in the word team," Jordan answers: "There is in the word win."
Playing for Keeps is best when portraying Jordan as a remarkable work in progress, especially at college, where coach Dean Smith instilled a code of academic excellence, proper social behavior and the principle that one's life is ruled by one's values. Coach Smith nurtured the young player.
When freshman Jordan was invited to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Smith killed the idea, prompting an observer to note that the coach "had not so much denied a talented young player an honor of the most fleeting kind as he had issued a challenge to a young man who more than anything else loved to respond to challenges."
Such discipline crucially linked Jordan's growing awareness of his ability to reality without destroying it. Smith's rules improved Jordan, whose best friend later commented of his college years: "He knew that he was going to get better, and for the first time he had a sense of what the future might bring for him—and he was in love with it."
By restricting his view to Jordan's career, however, Halberstam puts him in the unlikely role of a compulsive competitor, whose friends are merely playmates in cards, golf and basketball. Surely Jordan's wife and three children deserve more than a brief mention toward the end of Halberstam's book. Real heroes have real lives.
Halberstam ignores Jordan's academic success, romances, family, intellectual interests, and other factors that contribute to a man's personality. It's as though Halberstam understands what makes Jordan a hero—pride and pleasure in his work and his self-confidence in showing both—but is unable to name its causes, leaving the impression that greatness fell onto Jordan's shoulders from heaven, which Playing for Keeps shows is completely untrue of the self-made star.
Instead, Halberstam reports Jordan's stellar accomplishments as a champion's career in slow motion, letting his star's career speak for itself while leaving deeper questions unanswered. At least through Halberstam's eyes, Jordan is often as stunning here as he is at play.
This article was originally published in the Dallas Morning News in 1999.