Michael Jordan’s speech at the Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony on last Friday night have been bugging me all weekend. I had always heard how obsessive Jordan was with winning and how he was at times a jerk if that’s what it took to win. But, as other articles have pointed out (click here for one I’ll reference in this post), the pettiness of Jordan was the primary thing that shone through as he looked back on his career. Jordan called out people like Bryon Russell, Jeff Van Gundy, and even the guy that was a senior when he got cut from his high school basketball team as the people that motivated him to become the best player in NBA history. I think the biggest thing that bugged me watching the ceremony was that one of my childhood heroes was hardly someone to admire. Even during the ceremony I found myself hanging on every word of Jordan’s, but almost everything he had to say was somewhat depressing. As one writer said, five minutes into Jordan’s speech it began to spiral into “(s)omething unworthy of Jordan’s stature, something beneath him.” Or was it?
William James was a psychologist and philosopher that, after studying human behavior, said human beings could have a “unifying experience” involving almost anything in the world, not just religion. This was based on James’ belief that humans have a “divided self” that must be unified. He said, “The man’s interior is a battle-ground for what he feels to be two deadly hostile selves, one actual, the other ideal.” Our process of unification is an attempt to reconcile our actual and ideal selves. His book called “The Varieties of Religious Experience” discusses how numerous people have had their lives unified through a variety of experiences, which I tend to agree with. Someone can have it all come together when they join the military, when they work for animal rights, when they play a sport or begin to devoutly follow a religion. But I think the power of Christianity (and ultimately the difference between being unified through Christ versus other religions or even basketball) is found in the fact that your life is unified on the basis of God’s wisdom rather than human wisdom. It’s easy to see how a person becomes more disciplined when they join the military. It’s easy to see how the actual and ideal self can be unified over a noble cause. What is not simple to understand is how we can be unified through following a person who died as a suffering servant on a cross.
This is the point that The Apostle Paul makes in 1 Corinthians. He tells the church at Corinth what a Christian is and what we believe when he says, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:22–24 NIV) Paul is a person, just like Michael Jordan, who found his calling and became unified in William James’ terms, but the outcome of the unification process for these two individuals are dramatically different.
Which brings me back to Jordan’s speech. One writer commented on the speech saying, “Jordan didn’t hurt his image with the NBA community as much as he reminded them of it. “That’s who Michael is,” one high-ranking team executive said. “It wasn’t like he was out of character. There’s no one else who could’ve gotten away with what he did tonight. But it was Michael, and everyone just goes along.”” Perhaps people let him get away with his antics because he is the ultimate winner, the person whose life has been most “unified” through the game of basketball. You can see this if you reflect on his closing remarks in his speech: “As I close, the game of basketball has been everything to me: my refuge, my place I’ve always gone when I needed to find comfort and peace. It has been a source of intense pain and a source of the most intense feelings of joy and satisfaction, and one that no one can even imagine. It’s been a relationship that has evolved over time, and has given me the greatest respect and love for the game. It’s provided me with a platform to share my passion with millions in a way I neither expected, nor could have imagined, in my career. I hope that it has given the millions of people that I’ve touched the optimism and desire to achieve their goals through hard work, perseverance and positive attitude.”
As I look at my boyhood idol’s career and public life come to a close, I now see how fruitless his basketball achievements are in the end. I also can’t help but hear the words ringing in my ears of the person that truly caused my life to become unified: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:35 NIV) I challenge you to look at the life of Michael Jordan in contrast with the life of the Apostle Paul and wrestle with what matters most. I hope and pray, in doing this, you will look at the sum total of your life, determine what has brought unity to your divided self, contemplate what people would say you stand for and about who you are, and discern if this is the legacy that you hope you will leave behind.