Charles C. Camosy on St. Paul Would Say, ‘Don’t Be Like Mike’

Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan signals to his teammates during the first quarter of Game 5 of the NBA finals in Chicago on June 12, 1998. (AP Photo/Beth A. Keiser)

Charlie Camosy is professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University.

I’m not at all unbiased when it comes to Michael Jordan.

I grew up on the Wisconsin side of the Cheesehead vs. Chicago sports culture wars. I also ended up an intense fan of Charles Barkley — perhaps because we shared a first name— when he played for the Philadelphia 76ers.

MJ tore my heart out so many times. In the 1990 and ’91 playoffs, he beat Barkley’s very good Sixer teams almost single-handedly. We didn’t have cable TV in rural Wisconsin back then, so I listened to Jimmy Durham and Johnny “Red” Kerr call the games on Chicago radio. Somehow it was worse having to provide the visuals in my mind’s eye as Jordan took down the teams I loved.

Two years later, after my idol had moved to the Phoenix Suns, the Jordan-led Bulls dramatically defeated the Suns on a last-second 3-pointer. That year, Barkley won the MVP and the Suns had the best record in the league (in a much-better Western Conference), and still Jordan and the Bulls prevailed and sent me into a deep summer funk.

I’m annoyed, still, by the media’s coverage of the 1992 Dream Team. Barkley was the clear MVP and star of the greatest team ever assembled — his 3-pointer, when the U.S. was down 25-23 to Croatia, was actually responsible for the total shift in momentum of the gold medal game. But Jordan still gets all the credit.

Despite my bitterness, I acknowledge Jordan’s greatness. Any fair-minded person confronted by objective evidence is forced to acknowledge it. Indeed, I was excited for a new generation of basketball fans to encounter this evidence in ESPN’s 10-episode documentary, “The Last Dance,” which spends most of its time following Jordan’s Bulls as they win six NBA titles in eight years.

While I was prepared to be reminded of MJ’s greatness, I was not prepared to be confronted with the cost at which that greatness came. Still less was I prepared for Jordan himself to be personally and emotionally confronted with that cost.

In perhaps the most poignant part of the documentary, the interviewer suggests to Jordan that his greatness and winning may have come at the expense of him being perceived as a nice guy. At that moment Jordan visibly tears up and says:

When people see this, they’re going to say, “Well, he wasn’t really a nice guy, he may have been a tyrant.” Well that’s you, because you never won anything. I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win and be a part of that as well. I don’t have to do this. I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.

By the time he finished these words he was so overcome with emotion that he had to call for a break in the interview.

Jordan’s nastiness first came out in the book “The Jordan Rules” by Bulls beat writer Sam Smith, but the ESPN documentary makes it clear as well: Many of Jordan’s teammates lived in abject fear of what he would do to them if he became displeased.

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Source: Religion News Service