Tonight at 8pm, ESPN will debut "Jordan Rides the Bus," the latest film in its 30 For 30 series. The Ron Shelton-directed documentary examines Michael Jordan's 1994 foray into baseball, which began as a spring training tryout with the Chicago White Sox and mostly consisted of a stint with the Birmingham Barons, the team's Double-A affiliate. To say the least, this development threw the sports world for a loop, as everybody and their mother theorized why Jordan would leave basketball at the top of his game to grind away in the minor leagues.
Count Shelton, the director of "Bull Durham" and a former minor leaguer himself, among those skeptical of Jordan's motives. At the time, it smacked of unbelievable arrogance to him. After some reexamination and research, however, Shelton concluded this period in MJ's life has gone largely misunderstood. Rather than foolhardy and perhaps shady hubris, Shelton now regards Jordan's baseball career as an introspective journey (fueled in part by a desire to come to grips with the murder of his father) and, contrary to popular belief, legitimately accomplished in its own right.
Shelton was quite generous with his time as we discussed a wide variety of topics: Jordan's baseball prowess. The warm relationship between MJ and Birmingham. Shelton's other films like "Bull Durham," "White Men Can't Jump," and "Tin Cup," plus his favorite sports film of all time. I really enjoyed the discussion and the documentary, and think others will, too. Before folks listen to the poddy, I wanted to share a few thoughts:
- It really hit me watching this movie how the obsession to figure out "why" Jordan left basketball (in particular, the gambling connection) allowed the media to overlook an even more interesting angle: This was the most vulnerable we had ever seen Jordan over the course of his professional life. Before 1994, his image was always either the on-court assassin or cooler-than-thou pitchman. Baseball pushed MJ out of his element and offered a more human side, but the frenzy to uncover "the truth" took first, second and tenth priority in covering this story.
A wasted opportunity, and even worse, as Shelton notes, nothing was unearthed:
"The journalists that I talked to, sportswriters, really top rate ones: Jack McCallum, Rick Telander, and Sam Smith. National guys. The Chicago guys. Mike Downey. All those guys. They were very honest. They said, "We were looking for the smoking gun." All the gambling stuff had come out. He had refused to go to the White House with the Dream Team and said he needed family time. He was out with gamblers golfing. There was that guy who was a bail bondsmen or something, I forget his name, I think he was mentioned in the movie who was murdered. There was a check from Michael. This was really sordid stuff.
"But it simply was unconnected. He had gambling issues and he had personal issues. But it had nothing to do with why he was out of the NBA. But the sports writers freely admit [they] were looking for connections, because [they] wanted the cover of SI or wanted the Pulitzer. And they all came away saying, absolutely no connection. It was a personal quest."
- That personal quest was also more impressive in retrospect that often given credit. Without question, the guy was initially a train wreck. But by the end of the summer, Jordan had improved his swing, his fielding acumen, and developed into a base stealing threat. It's pretty remarkable, considering how Jordan was learning on the fly at the professional level. His stats weren't mind-blowing when the dust settled, but the transformation was, even if people missed it. Or, in some cases, weren't as wild about any angle where Jordan didn't flat out stink. The movie addresses how Sports Illustrated spiked Steve Wulf's positive story and the general reluctance to see this labor love and effort as anything but a failure.
"I was as judgmental as everybody else until I started looking into it," admits Shelton.
- Lest anybody accuse me of sucking up to my guest upon hearing his unorthodox choice for best sports movie, this 2004 piece proves our shared mentality.