Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

July 9, 2014

The History of Jordan

Author Roland Lazenby discusses his comprehensive biography of His Airness.

Michael Gluckstadt

Eleven years after his final retirement, 16 years after his last championship, and 30 years after he came into the NBA, Michael Jordan is still America's favorite athlete. For the third straight year, a Sports Business Journal poll puts Jordan on top of all others and—sorry, LeBron—it isn't even close.

Roland Lazenby
"I thought Jordan remained quite a mystery, but there was much to the mystery that could be understood. I wanted to write about it."

Roland Lazenby

So why has Jordan's popularity endured? Why is the standard for measurement for an athlete's greatness still units of Jordan? (Kobe Bryant: 7.5 deci-Jordans or dJs; Lionel Messi: 9.1 dJs; Tiger Woods: 4.2 dJs, down from a peak of 8.9 dJs.)

To get a sense of Air Jordan's presence, you need to delve deeply into the backstory of Michael Jordan, the man. Entire libraries have been written about Jordan, but no previous effort reaches farther back than Roland Lazenby's new biography, Michael Jordan: The Life. That's true literally, in the sense that Lazenby begins not with the birth of MJ in Brooklyn in 1963, but with that of his great grandfather in North Carolina in 1891. But it's also true that Lazenby has written a definitive history of Jordan, one that is well-researched and comprehensive, and veers away from the salacious or suggestive.

In the following interview, which was conducted over email and edited for clarity, Lazenby tells Gelf where Jordan got his competitive spirit, how he has taken to the role of owner, and what Jordan would do in LeBron's shoes this summer.

Gelf Magazine: So much has been written about Michael Jordan—including by you. What were you hoping to achieve with this bio?

Roland Lazenby: I wanted readers to understand him a little better. I wanted to learn more about his family, his context. I thought he remained quite a mystery, but there was much to the mystery that could be understood. I wanted to write about it.

Gelf Magazine: Was there anything previously published you sought to draw on? Was there anything dreadful out there you wanted to avoid?

Roland Lazenby: Well, as a biographer, I had to try to comprehend all of it. So much written about Jordan was valuable: all pieces of the mosaic that add to our understanding. I had wanted to avoid the issues of his sister's allegations of her sexual abuse at the hands of their father. But her privately published book was in special collections in the UNC library. It's part of the record, although the allegations were never investigated. I had to include it, but I didn't want to hype it. That was my approach, ultimately.

Gelf Magazine: Surely, this biography reaches back further than any previous effort—beginning in 1891 with Jordan's great grandfather. Why did you decide to start there?

Roland Lazenby: I did the same with my Jerry West biography. My father was an old-time, two-handed set shooter who played a lot of ball and loved the game dearly, in the hills of Southern West Virginia. Jerry West was his favorite player. I wanted to explain West in terms of his family and his cultural background. I sought to do that with Jordan as well.

Gelf Magazine: You detail Jordan's competitive streak with some striking anecdotes. Did you have a favorite?

Roland Lazenby: Yes, I was astounded that Kenny Gattison had never broached the subject of his team's defeat of Jordan's team in Michael's final high-school game—that Gattison actually wished, looking back, that his team had not defeated Jordan's. Jordan has been so harsh in his trash talking, yet he cared so deeply that Gattison was wary over their years in the NBA together of ever bringing up that game.

Gelf Magazine: Did basketball amplify Jordan's competitive nature, or would he have been the world's most competitive insurance salesman, as well?

Roland Lazenby: I point to his grandfather, Richard Peoples, his mother's father, who won the impossibly rigged game of sharecropping when hardly no one else did.

Gelf Magazine: Aside from basketball and baseball, what other sport could he have excelled most at?

Roland Lazenby: Well, not golf, although he has surely tried.

Gelf Magazine: Has Jordan's mixed record of success in his post-playing career changed the public perception of him?

Roland Lazenby: Yes, it has. He was so good as a player that his fans hold him to an impossible standard, but we should all have such a problem.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think the traits that made him great in one job have hindered him in another?

Roland Lazenby: Yes. He's been blinded by his competitive nature at times, even as a basketball player.

Gelf Magazine: Given his famously apolitical history, were you surprised by Jordan's prompt and damning response to Donald Sterling's comments?

Roland Lazenby: No. I think he has warmed to the task of being an owner. He made a tough choice in the NBA's latest labor issues. He was an owner, with minority owners, and he acted accordingly and appropriately there, although he was vilified for it.

Gelf Magazine: How do you think Jordan would have approached today's NBA? Would he have stayed in Chicago for the bulk of his career?

Roland Lazenby: It's hard to say. He was very frustrated in the late 1980s and had lost faith in the Bulls organization.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think he would do in LeBron's shoes this summer?

Roland Lazenby: I think he would do as LeBron has done. He would evaluate and choose wisely in terms of his best basketball opportunity and what best fit his family.

Gelf Magazine: Was Jordan's legacy important to him?

Roland Lazenby: It remains very important to him, as it does for all of those alpha male competitors.

Gelf Magazine: Is he still close with any of his former teammates?

Roland Lazenby: He has his moments of closeness. But now, as then, there are things that wear on those relationships. Michael Jordan has always kept his circle very close.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

Post a comment

Comment Rules

The following HTML is allowed in comments:
Bold: <b>Text</b>
Italic: <i>Text</i>
<a href="URL">Text</a>


Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

Learn more about this author


Hate to miss out? Enter your email for occasional Gelf news flashes.


Gelf t-shirt

The picture is on the front of the shirt, the words are on the back. You can be in between.