A wrongheaded book review

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I’m a little late in writing this, but it’s been on my mind for quite some time.

One month ago, the New York Times ran a lengthy review of a new Michael Jordan biography authored by the excellent Roland Lazenby. I read much of Roland’s book, and it’s terrific. Truly terrific. So, to be 100-percent clear, this is not a slam of Michael Jordan: The Life. It’s a great read; the best definitive work on the basketball legend.

The review, however, sort of irked me.

The author is Mike Greenberg, the famed ESPN radio host and a renowned nice guy. I have zero beef with Mike. Truly, none, nil, zip. He’s a pro’s pro, and excellent at his job. What I take exception with, however, are two portions of the review. Namely …

This …

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And this …

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OK, first and foremost, just because Greenberg—a Jordan fan—doesn’t want M.J.’s post-playing career shortcomings to ruin his memories doesn’t mean they’re not relevant or important. I’m not sure why Roland didn’t address them, and I’m not criticizing him for picking and choosing as he saw fit (biographers deem what’s important, and it varies writer to writer). But to applaud a writer for not paying attention to a dark period is to suggest biography is as much about supporting myth making as it is truthfulness. Were I writing a Jordan biography, I’d be ALL over his Wizards and Bobcats career, because it’s remarkable material. Sure, dunk contests and titles are important. But when a guy dominates for years—then falls flat on his face—it provides a genuine opportunity for character breakdown. Or, put differently: It’s easy to hover when you’re winning. But how do you behave when gold turns to shit?

Now, the second part, RE: gambling and the personal check and the death of James Jordan. Digging, digging, digging is what biographers do. It’s their job, and we’re supposed to do it well. I do not fault Roland for not answering their questions, because—as Greenberg suggests—they may well be unanswerable. But to commend a writer for lacking material … well, that’s weird. Whether it’s in search of good material or bad material, happy times or sad times, the job of a biographer is to learn as much as possible; to fill in the blanks of a person’s life.

4 thoughts on “A wrongheaded book review”

  1. Joseph Paul Caranante Jr.

    Interesting point, Jeff. I like Greenie too, but he perhaps is too much of a fan to be completely objective at times

    1. “but he perhaps is too much of a fan to be completely objective at times”

      This has always been a problem in sports writing and sports journalism, and the internet age has only exacerbated it.

      Too many dudes that think being a passionate fan is good sports writing. It’s not. It’s intellectually dishonest and it allows owners, promoters, organizations, and athletes to get away with murder (figuratively speaking).

  2. I agree completely with Jeff’s post. Everyone knows the story of Jordan as the “greatest of all time”. Enough already. The only things that would remotely interest me about Jordan’s life are the darker aspects. To say that we’ll never have the answers to those questions is a monumental cop-out.

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