Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made

by David Halberstam

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1705

David Halberstam has been retelling recent history as best- sellers for some years— from The Best and the Brightest (1973) to The Fifties (1994)—and Playing for Keeps is another clear demonstration of his exceptional talents. Using his keen historian’s eye, and the broadest possible canvas, Halberstam portrays one of the most phenomenal athletes of modern times, and the sport he has helped raise to international popularity, and reveals the interconnected powers that color both. Halberstam goes behind the television game- of-the-week to show the complex economic and cultural forces which came together in the 1980’s and 1990’s to elevate Michael Jordan to superstardom and professional basketball to one of the most profitable businesses in the world. Halberstam’s history is not always pretty, but it is consistently exciting and well told.

The thirty-plus chapters of Playing for Keeps move back and forth from the 1997-1998 professional basketball season—with its climactic championship series between the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz—to the years leading up to that pivotal moment: from Jordan playing at Laney High in Wilmington, North Carolina (1979-1981), through his years under coach Dean Smith at North Carolina (1981-1984), his early years with the struggling Bulls, to the final and triumphant seasons in the 1990’s when Jordan and the Bulls were the dominating forces in basketball.

Part of the attraction is Jordan himself, not only a consummate athlete, but a competitive man with a very strong work ethic. Halberstam shows readers Jordan’s childhood and the values his parents instilled in him and his brother Larry; “you were not to waste your talent and you were always to work hard.” Jordan turned out to be an attractive, talented, and personable man who, in the end, became the new marketing symbol of his age, and gave Americans “nothing less than a new definition of beauty for a new age.”

Jordan, great as he was, however, is only the tall figure in the foreground of a much more complex picture Halberstam paints for readers. Part of the story is the rise of the NBA itself which, under the canny and inspired leadership of David Stern, grew from the poor stepchild of professional sports to become the economic power it was by the 1990’s. In the early 1980’s, college basketball was still perceived as an extension of mainstream America; the professional game was something closer to professional wrestling. Halberstam dates the modern NBA from the all-star game of January, 1984, when the slam-dunk contest was introduced. Suddenly television networks like the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and other corporations saw the economic potential of this sport, and were competing to sign up its stars as their spokespersons.

Another part of the story is the colorful history of different franchises, like the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, and particularly the saga of Jerry Reinsdorf, the astute owner of the Bulls, his abrasive general manager, Jerry Krause, and the incredibly profitable franchise they built around Jordan, beginning in the 1980’s. Halberstam digs deeply into the economics of this history, escalating player salaries (like Kevin Garnett’s incredible $126 million contract for seven years in 1997), and the lockout in the fall of 1998 when negotiations between greedy players and their agents, and greedier owners—a strike, one newspaper pundit called it, between tall millionaires and short millionaires—threatened to undo all the progress, and profit, the sport had made in the previous fifteen years.

Luck plays no small part in this drama, Halberstam shows—for example, the fortuitous beginnings of ESPN, when Bill Rasmussen, in Bristol, Connecticut, started a small cable company which would eventually take professional basketball, and...

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any other sport, into people’s homes across the country twenty-four hours a day. Luck plays no small part, either, in the story of how Jim Riswold, a copywriter for the small Portland, Oregon, ad agency of Wieden and Kennedy, got the Nike account and then hired a little known filmmaker named Spike Lee to shoot the commercials—a serendipitous conjunction of stars which would produce ads which meant millions in the sale of Air Jordans, and elevated Jordan himself into the celebrity stratosphere.

Halberstam’s story, in short, is social history at its best, for he not only gives readers exciting accounts of the crucial college and professional games in this twenty-year span, and inside looks at basketball’s stars, but uncovers the complex web of economic and cultural forces which propelled Jordan and his game into the world’s spotlight. As in all good social history, many of the most fascinating stories take place just off the arena floor. Halberstam is particularly good on the coaches who guided Jordan’s meteoric career, like Smith at Chapel Hill, who demanded sacrifice and patience of his players, and who taught them that the team was more important than the individual and other lessons that had as much to do with life as with basketball. Behind Smith’s program at North Carolina, Halberstam writes, “was a series of old-fashioned, almost Calvinist values more and more at risk in the increasingly material culture of American sports.” If Jordan’s loving family had instilled the right values in the young man growing up in Wilmington, Dean Smith nurtured them for a number of years after that in his own North Carolina basketball family. Smith, Halberstam marvels, seemed to pay even more attention to his players once they left his program.

Part of the tension in Halberstam’s book (and there is plenty) comes from the conflict between younger and older players in the league, between stars like Jordan, Larry Bird, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and Patrick Ewing, who learned the ethic of hard work early in their lives, and the coddled younger players who came into the league in the 1990’s expecting millions, but with a questionable work ethic. Their attitude from the moment they arrived seemed to be: “What are you going to do for us?” After the 1994 World Games in Canada, Dick Ebersol, the head of NBC sports, Halberstam reports, sent Sony television sets to every player on the American team; he did not get a single word of thanks.

Perhaps the most fascinating coach in Halberstam’s book, however, is Phil Jackson, who breaks most of the stereotypes of what it takes to win in the NBA. Born into a fundamentalist religious family in North Dakota, Jackson came of age in hippie New York City in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as a player with the New York Knicks, and learned values most coaches cannot share. Before the playoffs at the end of the 1998 season, for example, Jackson called Bulls players, coaches, and trainers into a special team meeting and asked each of them to write down anything, even a poem, “about their time together and what the season had meant to them.” Jackson knew that, even more than the eventual championship, “the journey itself, the friendship and human connection they shared together in good days and bad days” was important. The exercise ended in some intimate moments shared together. Then there is another championship.

Playing for Keeps is full of moments like this, when Halberstam drops readers into the huddle, to participate with the players in the excitement of the game. Chicago assistant coach Tex Winter at one point tells Jordan, “There’s no I in the word team.” “There is in the word win,” Jordan answers him. In Salt Lake City before a preseason game, Denver coach Bill Hanzlik drags his rookies into a gym at 7:00 a.m.; “there, sweat pouring off him, deeply engaged in a brutal workout, was the NBA’s most valuable player, Karl Malone. Gentlemen,’ Hanzlik said, that’s what the NBA is all about.’” Often, younger players seem to be ignorant of the history of their own sport; Shaquille O’Neal is the only living player who did not show up at the League’s fiftieth anniversary celebration, Halberstam reminds readers. Other players seem to forget the sacrifices earlier athletes made; discussing Jordan’s apolitical career, Halberstam cites Arthur Ashe, who remarked that being black in America when he was playing professional tennis was like having a second full-time job.

Finally, Halberstam reveals American culture in all its splendor and vulgarity: the $78 million Jordan would earn a year in salary and endorsements; “no American salesman of any color had ever entered more homes, here or abroad, or successfully sold more products.” By the 1980’s, Halberstam concludes, “America exported not its machine products or its cars but its culture.” Kids on playgrounds everywhere dreamed of playing professional basketball; American diplomats and journalists on assignment to the most isolated parts of Asia and Africa were often surprised when they visited villages to find young children wearing worn replicas of Jordan’s Bulls jerseys.Playing for Keeps begins in Paris in 1997, where the Bulls (by this date the “Beatles of basketball”) are playing in a McDonald’s tournament against teams from Europe. What has brought them this far from home? “Stern understood, as not everyone in the world of sports did yet, that image was more important than reality in their business.”

The book is filled with brilliant athletic scenes, like Jordan’s performance in game five of the finals against Utah, when he battled the flu to score 49 points. There is nothing more poignant, however, than a scene before the game in Paris, when Michael Ray Richardson, then playing for an obscure European team, came up to David Stern to thank him for the NBA’s tough three-and-out drug policy, which had sobered Richardson up, and probably saved his life. On the societal level, Halberstam opines that Jordan’s career reflected “the willingness of corporate America, however reluctantly, to understand that a stunningly gifted and attractive black athlete could be a compelling salesman of a vast variety of rather mundane products.” Halberstam records a sport with a potential for so much good, and yet representative of so much that is repellent in American life.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (February 15, 1999): 1096.

Boston Globe, January 31, 1999, p. F1.

Commentary 107 (June, 1999): 46.

Kirkus Reviews 68 (January 1, 1999): 42.

Library Journal 124 (February 1, 1999): 100.

The New York Review of Books 46 (July 15, 1999): 11.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (January 31, 1999): 11.

Publishers Weekly 246 (January 18, 1999): 317.

The Seattle Times, January 31, 1999, p. M8.