Getting inside ‘Air Jordan’

May. 08, 2014 @ 09:46 PM

In the prologue to his new biography of Michael Jordan, Roland Lazenby refers to Jordan’s 2009 Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech, how it struck many as harsh, even ungracious. “They thought they knew him,” Lazenby writes. “They did not.”

Lazenby’s book, “Michael Jordan: The Life” (Little, Brown and Company, 720 pages, $30), released Tuesday, is longtime sports journalist Lazenby’s attempt to try to help sports fans understand what created the competitive spark that made Jordan the greatest basketball player in history. “One of the things I wanted to know is, Who are the Jordans?” Lazenby said during a book signing Thursday night at The Regulator Bookshop. “Here’s this virtual superhero” who came from nowhere. The story of Michael Jordan and his ancestors is a black power story, but “not the black power of  protest. It’s the black power of experience right on the coastal plain of North Carolina,” Lazenby said.

To understand the Jordan family, Lazenby looked through historical and public records. An audience member asked Lazenby if he had talked to Michael Jordan for the book. “On this project, Michael said he would come in if he had editorial control, but Little, Brown, my publisher, wanted an independent” biography, Lazenby said. Other members of the Jordan family also declined interviews, he said.

That independence is needed because the Jordan family, once thrust in the public spotlight, created a “false narrative” in many ways. The picture of a perfect middle-class family is partly true, but not the whole story, Lazenby said. The book has a reference to Jordan’s sister’s privately published manuscript that alleges sexual abuse on the part of James Jordan, Michael’s father. It’s a point that Lazenby said he did not want to hide, or hype.

“I’m just pointing out facts. I don’t have an agenda in it,” Lazenby said of the biography.

Lazenby writes of the crucial influence of two people in the Michael Jordan story – his  great-grandfather Dawson, and his mother Deloris Peoples Jordan. The former, despite the death of his wife (of tuberculosis) and later his mother, chose to continue working in the area around Holly Shelters in Pender County to raise his son, William Edward Jordan. “That made all the difference in the Jordan family,” Lazenby said at the Regulator.

From Deloris Jordan, Michael took a strong work ethic: “There’s little question that the obstacles Deloris Jordan faced fired her efforts in raising her family,” Lazenby writes. “As a result, they provided the very fuel of Air Jordan.”

Jordan also would benefit from living with four generations of Jordan men, a fact that “arguably shaped Jordan’s character more than any other,” Lazenby writes. “[T]hrough most of his formative years, he lived with four generations of Jordan men, a substantial accomplishment given the societal factors that had long threatened the lives of African American males.”

Jordan played on the UNC 1982 championship team, had two careers with the Chicago Bulls (1984-1993 and 1995-1998) and the Washington Wizards (2001-2003), as well as the Olympic “Dream Team” of 1992.

Lazenby previously wrote about Jordan in “Bull Run: The Story of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, the Greatest Team in Basketball History,” as well as basketball in “Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon” and “Mindgames: Phil Jackson’s Long, Strange Journey.”

Lazenby tries to dispel the mythic story that Laney High School coach Clifton Herring cut Jordan from the team, when in fact Jordan played junior varsity that year, but did not make the varsity team.

Fans also have not been willing to give Jordan credit for his “lack of fear in embarrassing himself.” He cites Jordan’s try at a career in baseball after his first retirement as one example. “He didn’t get lauded for it.”

As owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, Jordan has “slowly built some trust with the Charlotte fans,” Lazenby said. “He has done remarkable things in Charlotte. He’s revived the team… and now they’re going to be the Hornets again, and Michael has that energy.”