For Jordan, rarefied air can be tough to inhale

April 05, 1992|By Melissa Isaacson | Melissa Isaacson,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Be like Mike? Well, you can have it, says Michael Jordan, because it isn't all that much fun anymore.

"My situation is totally outrageous," he said of the heights his stardom has reached. "People ask me to explain it, and I can't. I don't know exactly what I did to put myself in this predicament, other than to be myself."

A "predicament" is as good a way as any for Jordan to describe his status as an American icon. Burden is another.

But there is clearly no escaping the image he has carved during his eight-year career with the Bulls. An image that earns him more than $15 million a year in endorsements. An image of all that is great in basketball and greater still in America.

An image, says Jordan, that has taken on a life of its own.

"It's like it is controlling its own self now," he said.

"And I'm like this little machine that's got to direct it, so that it acts the way most people perceive it should act."

It was not without another chink in his considerable armor that Jordan left New York Tuesday after National Basketball Association officials "cautioned" him to be more careful about his choice of associates. It was another dent in the once-untouchable veneer.

You wonder if there would have been a controversial best-seller, questions about his marketing decisions with Nike, uproar over his whereabouts when the rest of his world champion teammates visited President Bush and scrutiny of his golf companions if he did not set himself up to be the perfect athlete. The perfect man.

Jordan wonders, too.

When he was drafted by the Bulls at age 22, Jordan said no one -- not the team, not his agent, not his sponsors and certainly not himself -- had any idea how high his star would rise.

"It's just one of those things that happened," he said. "And it shocked everybody. It's a hell of a burden, and it's one of those things I just stumbled into.

"Then you see people counting on you so much that you start to try to constantly maintain it, and that's when the pressure starts to mount. Suddenly, everything you do, you have to think, 'How is this going to be perceived?' "

The most recent controversy involved huge gambling debts to two individuals of questionable character -- one with a previous criminal record on drug charges, another man since slain.

And Jordan, who at first reacted defensively to the questions regarding his judgment and choice of friends, now kicks himself for getting involved in the first place.

"It was one of the most unusual situations I've ever been in," he said, "because I'm very cautious of people. But I put a lot of faith in third-party [introductions]. I probably shouldn't have, and it burned me."

After his meeting with the NBA, with the New York media bearing down, Jordan could not have reacted any better. He was properly remorseful, took responsibility for his own actions, apologized to his family, his teammates and his fans, and promised to be more careful in the future.

The "right" response.

"And you know what," he said, "it was just what I felt. People with the NBA, the P.R. people, said, 'Obviously, don't say anything. Just say no comment and move on.' But as I approached the situation, I just felt I had to tell what was on my mind, which was an apology. To tell them how I felt about it and the embarrassment I encountered, and hopefully put it behind me."

Jordan hopes that ends a season full of controversy, a season that, in his worst dreams, he has seen coming for a while.

"At some point in my life, I probably would have had to face it," he said. "Very few people go through their lifetimes without scars. And I went through a six- or seven-year period without them. Now I have a couple of scars, and I've got to mend them and keep moving on. The scars won't go away, but you know you're going to be a better person because of them."

To look at Jordan's face, partially hidden by a Nike baseball cap, smiling one moment, perplexed the next; to see him reclining atop a desk in a back room of the Deerfield Multiplex -- he really could be the guy, even the kid, next door. And he feels that way. Sometimes.

"I tell my wife that I have a split personality," he said. "I lead two lives. Because in some ways, I'm projected to be a 38-, 39-year-old mature person who has experienced life to the fullest and now he's more or less settled down and focused on very conservative things.

"But the other side of me is a 29-year-old who never really got the chance to experience his success with friends and maybe do some of the crazy things that 27-, 28-, 29-year-old people will do. And sometimes I have those urges to do those things, but it can only be done in the privacy of the very small group of people who really know you as that 29-year-old person."

Does he, in some ways, wish he could always be his alter ego?

"You can't," he said, "because now what you see is what a nearly 30-year-old person has learned from it."

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