Life in the shadows

It's damn hard to follow a legend

Updated: August 13, 2012, 12:23 PM ET
By Chris Jones | ESPN The Magazine

Jordan IllustrationIllustration by Edel RodriguezMichael Jordan's sons are learning firsthand a brutal truth that MJ himself warned them about.

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THERE ARE NO faultless fathers. Some are better than others, but it's just not a job that allows any of us to be perfect. It's too hard, too ever-changing. It requires too many different skills, from tenderness to absolute resolve. And even if there were such a thing as a perfect father, our children would still slip out of our careful reach, because that's the natural order of things: One day we won't be their fathers anymore. Even if by some miracle our lives go exactly as planned, one day we will leave them.

Luckily for us, most of our mistakes will be private and forgotten; only our kids and their therapists will ever know what happened. That's not true for famous fathers, and it's definitely not true for their children, famous by default. Hotel parking lots in Omaha are rarely the sources of national news, for instance -- unless Michael Jordan's son happens to get handcuffed in one. In early July, Marcus, Jordan's 21-year-old second son, allegedly had a drunken argument with two women and then made it difficult for the cops who broke it up. He was booked for resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and obstructing, but Marcus still looked surprisingly upbeat in his mug shot. If nothing else, his father must have given him a share of his swagger.

You guys have a heavy burden. I wouldn't want to be you guys if I had to.

-- Michael Jordan to his three children

It was not Marcus' first public display of questionable behavior. There was that shoe debacle when he arrived as an extraordinarily ordinary recruit at the University of Central Florida. (In 2009, UCF lost a lucrative deal with Adidas when Marcus refused to wear anything but a certain familial model of Nikes.) And then there was that visit to Las Vegas in the summer of 2010, when he and older brother Jeffrey dropped more than $50,000 they didn't earn in two days, gaining the attention of the Nevada Gaming Control Board because Marcus wasn't of age.

Outside of those missteps, most of us probably last gave thought to Michael Jordan's kids during his sometimes vicious Hall of Fame induction speech back in 2009. Interrupting his blistering of former coaches, employers and teammates, Jordan turned to his three children (he also shares a daughter with his ex-wife, Juanita) and said: "You guys have a heavy burden. I wouldn't want to be you guys if I had to."

In his tactless way, Jordan couldn't have been more right about that burden, borne especially by his sons. We might have forgotten about them -- Jeffrey's now out of basketball, and Marcus is likely about to play his last meaningful season, even if he puts Omaha behind him -- but they have never been able to forget what they always will be. Our sons should be better than we are; as fathers, that should be all of our dreams -- that they will be taller, richer, healthier, happier. Jeffrey and Marcus Jordan have no chance of eclipsing their dad. It's their destiny to remain his satellites.

Earlier this year, they made a stab at semi-independent careers by launching the site Heir-Jordan.com. They released two short vanity videos, professional and expensive-looking, the last of which came out in March. Two promised sequels have never surfaced, and the site today contains nothing more than dead links. It's as though they were trying to find their own way but ran out of steam, resigned to their shared fate. "Heir-Jordan.com basically represents any person's ambition to leave their own legacy and in some way, one way or another, change the world," Jeffrey says in one of the spots. So they have ambitions. Unlike their father, however, those ambitions will never lead to statues.

That's not Michael Jordan's fault, exactly. Even if Jordan were that impossibly perfect father in every other way, there was nothing he could have done to save his children from their surname. Every moment he was in our lives, every memory we have of him, is a moment and a memory that Jeffrey and Marcus didn't have for themselves. They had to share their father with the world, and now, in return, the world has given them only scrutiny and expectations.

It's not all bad for the junior Jordans, of course. Our children will probably never have their millions or their high-end legal representation. But at least we can give our kids all of us. And no matter what mistakes we've made, we still have the chance to give our own children, our own sons, something that even Michael Jordan could not give his: One day we won't be their fathers anymore. We will leave them.

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Chris Jones is a feature writer for ESPN The Magazine. He is also a Writer at Large for Esquire.