Jordan Week: The Hall Of Fame Speech
“A bully tripping nerds with lunch trays in the school cafeteria.”
That’s how one noted basketball writer described Jordan’s Hall Of Fame induction speech. The entire twenty minutes made people uncomfortable. It was criticized as unfocused and uninspired, and more importantly, it was really mean.
I’ve watched the speech in its entirety several times; when it first happened, a year later, and now. I’m not shocked about the reaction, but it’s always made me consider: what was this alternate version of the speech that people wanted, that would’ve warranted less criticism. More and more, it feels as though we assess, judge and reach conclusions without really thinking about things. I tried to imagine a different version of Jordan’s speech, and really, I can’t think of how that could’ve played out.
For years, it was Jordan’s knack for finding motivation through the thinnest of slights and general arrogance towards teammates, coaches and opponents that fuelled him; that made him the best at what he did, that we admired him for.
And yet, when it came time for him to step into the spotlight again, to reminisce about his basketball career, we all thought it was unacceptable that he would act in the same manner that made us fall in love with him in the first place.
Revisiting the speech again, the twenty minutes might make some cringe, but all I see is a coherent narrative consistent with who Jordan was.
One of the less talked about points is when he first steps on stage, and tells the audience that he had promised his friends that he would just say “Thank you” and walk off.
So there was an alternate version! And it was imagined by Jordan himself. I can just picture him, on the golf course, working a cigar that seems to have been worked on several times during the day, laughing it up with his inner circle about just how awesome it would be if he did just that. Nike surely could’ve created an entire campaign on just those two words.
I think this was something Jordan gave serious thought to because he addresses it again near the end of the speech. But he is a man with a competitive motor that doesn’t have an off switch.
This man needed to retire from the game three times before he could walk away for good. You really think he could resist the urge to run through his grudges in front of everyone for twenty minutes?
The highlights come one after another. He mentions Leroy Smith – in attendance, and high school mate of Jordan’s. The two of them competed for the lone sophomore spot on the varsity team at Laney High School, but because Smith was a lot taller than Jordan at the time, he was selected. Despite the story that’s been passed down through the years, Jordan wasn’t cut in high school, he was sent to the JV team.
The highlight of this story for me was finding out after some reading online that Jordan checked into hotels under the name “Leroy Smith” throughout his career.
The thinnest of slights. The greatest of reminders.
As Jordan went on with his speech, the targets included Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, Isiah Thomas-Magic Johnson and George Gervin for their roles in the infamous freeze-out at Jordan’s first All-Star game in 1985, John Starks, Bryon Russell, Pat Riley, and on and on.
You get the feeling that if he was allowed; Jordan could’ve, and would’ve gone on for hours with this.
I suppose he could’ve done the correct thing, said his thanks and moved on. But if we’re to make such a big deal of how mean spirited the entire thing felt, let’s also not forget how he paid tribute to Scottie Pippen, Dean Smith, Doug Collins, Phil Jackson, Tex Winter, David Thompson and his mom and brothers.
Whatever alternate version of the speech that we wanted from Jordan would’ve required him to be someone we never saw or heard about throughout his career. It would’ve also proven that his constant need to succeed, to destroy, was restricted to the basketball court only, when in fact, we all know that is not true. We’ve heard the legendary poker games. The ping pong battles in Barcelona when he was part of The Dream Team. Countless shooting contests during practice, and usually, after practice. And of course, his gambling, at casinos, on the golf course; basketball didn’t make Jordan hyper-competitive; he brought that to the court, to the game itself. It was part of his DNA, not just something he found when he was holding a basketball.
And so when he stood there for a long twenty minutes and recounted all the perceived and real slights he felt throughout his career. He was paying tribute the only way he could, because without those opponents and rivals, Jordan would not have been Jordan.
The speech was a confirmation of everything we already knew about Jordan. We shouldn’t have expected something more standard, more on par with the norm, because well, Jordan wasn’t just another player. And like he always did, he delivered something different, something memorable.
He was the Jordan we always knew.