Saunders

MJ leaves no rival unstung

Staff WriterSeptember 17, 2009 

Near the end of the movie "The Godfather," lawyer Tom Hagen tells new crime boss Michael Corleone that because he has killed all opposition, he should declare a cease-fire. "Why do you have to wipe everybody out?" Hagen asks.

Michael replies, "I don't feel I have to wipe everybody out, Tom. Just my enemies."

Last week, another Michael demonstrated that same Machiavellian principle when, long after he has presumably won, he proceeded to orally pistol-whip perceived enemies -- who had, ironically, gathered to honor him.

The only thing missing when Michael Jordan used his basketball Hall of Fame induction speech to settle old scores was James Brown singing "The Big Payback." Jordan's desire to get even with someone whose success in high school exceeded his own is probably the only genuine public emotion he has ever displayed without wondering how it'd affect his marketability. It is also a desire familiar to anyone who ever experienced schoolyard slights. Most of us, right? Right?

For instance, if they ever retire my basketball jersey at Richmond Senior High School -- I think I was the school's greatest left-handed player named Barry ever to wear No. 43 -- I can think of a couple of punks from the class of '75 in whose faces I'd love to smash a cream pie. These guys thought athletic prowess and being smooth with the ladies at 15 would translate into success in real life.

When you're Michael Jordan, though, and you've been acknowledged as the greatest at your craft for years, flying in Leroy Smith to your coronation and then singling him out is mean-spirited, tacky and petty. At least when he went after fellow hall of famers Isiah Thomas, George Gervin and Magic Johnson for freezing him out in the All-Star Game 25 years ago -- 25 years ago! -- Jordan was picking on someone his own size.

Smith, as anyone born since the moon landing knows, was the Laney High School basketball player who beat out Jordan for the last spot on the varsity. Jordan used that perceived snub as the rocket fuel to propel his hoops career into the stratosphere. Was that any reason to tell the coach who picked Smith over Jordan, "I wanted to make sure you understood. You made a mistake, dude." We get it, Mike. We get it.

Tennis legend Arthur Ashe, among others, frequently derided Jordan for never speaking out on anything that didn't have a fee attached. Oh, he did infamously say "Republicans buy tennis shoes, too" when refusing to campaign for Democrat Harvey Gantt in Gantt's first U.S. Senate bid against Jesse Helms. Mainly, though, Jordan has been the Great Opaque One, allowing people to see in him anything they wanted to see. For instance, some people actually call his Hall of Fame speech "epic" and "brilliant."

Turns out there was a good reason Jordan never spoke out -- besides not alienating advertisers: He didn't have anything to say.

Apologists defend the speech as "Mike just being Mike." Perhaps he should try being someone else for a while -- like Leroy Smith.

barry.saunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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