Saturday, February 16, 2013
Think like Mike, or not
By Henry Abbott
Kent Smith/NBAE/Getty Images
Learning more than ever about the thoughts of an icon.
Hanging over All-Star weekend in Houston is Wright Thompson's must-read exploration of Michael Jordan's mind at 50 -- almost certainly the most insightful thing ever written about almost certainly the greatest basketball player of all time.
As it happens I read it very early Saturday morning. I was up before the sun, plodding around a dark hotel room, getting ready for a fun run, a 5k, that the NBA puts on as part of this crazy weekend of one event after another.
What a disorienting thing, to explore the mind of maybe the greatest athlete ever precisely while marinating in those nervous hours before competition (yes, I realize I'm talking about a 5k fun run -- allow me this comparison). Essentially, I was trying to access my own inner competitive spirit, as best I could, while learning all about his, which is famously successful, if vicious.
Thompson got some high-grade access to Jordan, which afforded quality observations, like:
Jordan is obsessive, which we have always known. His obsession with conditioning and skill development made him just about superhuman. But pushing 50 some of his other obsessions are rising to the fore and are surprisingly ... not superhuman. For instance, he watches so many Westerns, including on his private jet, that one of his employees would prefer to fly commercial.
Jordan has logged so very many hours playing the free and simplistic video game Bejeweled that he attained the status of "Demigod." He lost hours trying to remember things like the combination for his safe, and where exactly he left two of his championship rings. He had misplaced them, and later found them, but in between made bold proclamations about dealing with the thieves, who proved to be figments of his imagination.
In other words, he's a lot more like your neighbor than you might have expected.
Which is not all bad. There's also some touching stuff that makes it seem like it might be funny to hang out with him. Who wouldn't laugh at the idea of serving a very fine bottle of Merlot with a bendy straw sticking out of the top?
For about five minutes I tried on the idea that I would run this race with Jordan's approach to competition. I would go in with the mindset of a man who would spit on every cinnamon roll, to make sure nobody else would eat one. All for me.
It felt alien, and strange, and quickly I realized why: Jordan approached sports strictly for victory. I was approaching sports almost as strictly for joy. I was running basically because I want to have a long and happy life. Victory, for me, was a nice to have.
He made his living at the extreme edge of thinking about sports, where only some can survive and many suffer. I was aiming to be in the middle, where some suffering was inevitable, but avoided whenever possible.
I heard a psychologist on the radio once saying that merely being angry can take a heavy toll on your health. So stalking around my hotel room trying to think like Jordan -- including remembering people who might have slighted me, and getting mad about it -- well, it felt counter to my entire project. I could feel the adrenaline, testosterone ... whatever that hormone combination was that worked so well for Jordan. For me, heading to a fun run at age 38, that anger felt all wrong, and unhealthy. Even as I consciously went back to thinking about the joy of running well, what good form would feel like, how I'd breathe ... I let the idea go that maybe, just maybe, I could run faster if I could summon more fiery demons.
Eventually it would be time to head over to pick up my number, which I did by walking a mile or so in shorts in the surprisingly cold early morning. Minutes after getting registered, I found myself killing time huddled over a cup of free coffee in the lobby of a hotel where I was not a guest.
Runners were coming and going, you could tell there was a race starting soon a block away. One came in through the double doors to the street -- a fast-looking guy I'd later learn was a track coach from Texas named Eric. He asked if there was a bathroom he could use -- an honest and ever-present need for any racer.
The security guard near the door, though, said something long-winded and quiet that I couldn't hear. Eric's posture stiffened. Soon they were arguing, loudly. Eric was not a guest at the hotel, was welcome neither to pee nor linger, and was super mad that the guard in the suit had addressed him as "dude."
After a few tense minutes, they walked out together, the guard sort of escorting Eric, Eric sort of leaving on his own.
This was my cue that I, another non-guest, wasn't welcome in that lobby either. I was also a little creeped out that my chosen lobby may have had race issues. I, a white guy, had been allowed to hang out unquestioned with the free hot beverages. Eric, not white, was sent on his way. Time to go. I walked out on Eric's heels, he saw me coming, knew I had seen the exchange, and waited for me.
We talked it over as we walked to the start line.
Eric was able to laugh about it. But he was also still mad, emotional, not unlike I had been getting myself in the hotel room an hour earlier, back when I thought I wanted to approach the race with the emotional experience of Jordan approaching a game.
If you had to say who, of the two of us, had better Jordan-mind ... it was Eric, hands down.
Not long after that, there were some dignitaries -- T.J. Ford, Felipe Lopez, the mayor of Houston -- welcoming us to the race, and then the start. I was happy enough with my time, feeling great after the race, walking back to the hotel knowing I has found time for some much-needed exercise in the middle of this busy weekend of work.
He won the damn thing. Jordan would be proud.