Michael Jordan doesn't like himself anymore. Lord knows he tried, because the thing that makes you a multimillionaire pop icon deserves some affection, but, as he says, there comes a time when a man must shake himself free. It was all too sickly sweet: Jordan the All-American, Jordan the one true role model, Jordan descending from on high, dishing off sneakers like so many angel's wings, a chorus of innocents singing I want to be like Mike.
Enough. When Jordan speaks now of his own creation, the image he thought he had to maintain, his eyes harden. Something very close to a sneer crosses his face.
"It's a burden to try to be something for everybody," he says. "You can only be something for yourself, and hopefully people will learn. I've tried to live that in previous years, but you can't live that purity of life. It's not human. It's not possible. And it's certainly something I don't enjoy."
"This is his time of year," Magic Johnson says of the NBA playoffs. "It's much more than basketball. It's more than just a game. It's beyond that. This is his time. The world is watching. Not just America, the world. This is where Michael Jordan becomes that world figure, where the tennis shoes start selling more, everything else that he's involved with becomes even bigger. Because all eyes are on him."
Yet, there is an even more subtle metamorphosis going on, something unseen, and it has more to do with the tennis shoes than the game.
In this, his eighth season, Jordan has begun to shed his squeaky Mr. Clean image. It had been his choice, influenced by his handlers at ProServ, to market himself that way from the start. But what he hadn't counted on was the inevitable backlash. Smoked out by a recent best-selling book that depicted him as self-centered and ruthless, and criticized for last June's White House snub and casual take on the Olympics, Jordan decided he had muffled his true personality for too long.
"At some point I had to be more outspoken about things I was being taken advantage of, and things I had opinions about," Jordan says. "I couldn't do it when I first got into the situation because I was naive to it. I didn't quite understand some of the things I was expected to be or do. Now that I've been in this arena for a period of time, I feel I can express my opinion openly. And it's going to get more open as I get older. There comes a time."
The breakthrough came in this month's Playboy, in which Jordan speaks candidly about life as a superstar, his disdain of the Detroit Pistons, his role as a black leader, his year of hating white people. It is a remarkably honest Jordan here, ready to address most any issue, mature enough to realize he won't please everyone and not caring a bit.
"That's one thing that happens when you're young: You get taken advantage of and you learn, and the next thing you know, you start fighting back vocally," he says. "Then you're going to take even more hits. But that's something I've accepted and I'm going to deal with from here on in."
Example: Jordan once passively accepted his role as the league's spokesman/faceman/No. 1 commodity when Julius Erving retired, but with Larry Bird out and Magic retired he finds himself the whole focus. He doesn't like it.
"I'm asked to be something I'm not: To be the sole ambassador of this league," Jordan says. "That's something I'm not campaigning for, that I don't want to accept by myself. When I first came in the league I was asked to be a role model, and in one sense I accepted it. But there were a lot of pressures I had to deal with, and to put more pressure on myself to be the sole ambassador of the league. . . . I'm too wise to accept it."
Example: With NBA stars dominating this summer's U.S. Olympic effort, the hype is already beginning to roll about the United States regaining its world status. Jordan refuses to take it seriously. "I look at the Olympics as vacation, an opportunity to play basketball with some great talents," he said and shrugs. "I don't see it as an NBA playoff atmosphere."
Moreover, he sees the entire affair for what it is: the NBA's naked leap into the world market. "It's a business, the basketball," he says. "You've got NBA players in it to promote basketball worldwide. You're using your big names to do that."
Yet, with all the distractions, the ads, the criticism, Jordan's intensity come game time hasn't flagged. Even with a championship behind him, he has played this series as if it were his last. In Game 1, Jordan totaled 46 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists, attacked the basket with ferocity, ripped dunk after dunk over the helpless Heat. In Game 2, he stepped back to get Scottie Pippen involved, still scored 33 and added six assists, grabbed 13 rebounds -- one less than Miami's entire starting front line. His time.