Sam Smith on Michael Jordan: 'Many players suffered under his wrath'

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Smith on Michael Jordan: 'Many players suffered under his wrath'

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Sam Smith on Michael Jordan: 'Many players suffered under his wrath'

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Legendary sportswriter Sam Smith was a guest on The HoopsHype Podcast. He discussed his experience covering Michael Jordan, his terrific book “The Jordan Rules,” the drama that the book caused, his thoughts on “The Last Dance,” behind-the-scenes stories from those Chicago Bulls teams and more. Check out a transcribed version of the conversation below.

We’re six episodes into “The Last Dance.” What do you think of the documentary series so far?

Sam Smith: I think it’s been great. It’s great fun. I probably don’t appreciate it nearly as much as others because it’s such a fresh view for so many people. Even though you sort of know a story, you don’t really know it until you see it at the granular level. After the first couple of championships, his celebrity had grown to such astonishing proportions and then there were controversies with the gambling and my book (to some extent), so he grew so guarded. This is the most unguarded he’s been since basically the ’80s when he was on the way up, trying to succeed. An awful lot of our population has really never seen Michael Jordan like this – like we knew him in Chicago [when he was] comfortable and we embraced him as one of our own. He’s somebody who’s fun to be around, entertaining and aggressively competitive, but with a great nature. I think people are seeing a lot of that in his interviews. He has this feeling like, “You know what, you don’t like me? Fine. I’m fine with myself and that’s all that really matters.”

It’s been a great view of Michael with the subtext of basically his career. I had wondered about it when they were first advertising it; they were saying it would be about The Last Dance – the 1997-98 season. I was thinking to myself, “10 parts? That season wasn’t that interesting for 10 parts! Scottie [Pippen] wasn’t there half the time and how much Dennis [Rodman] can you do?” Obviously, we all know what it’s become, and it’s great. It’s been some character studies – like we saw with Rodman – and it’s really an overview of Jordan’s career and his life, which is great to see.

You have so many behind-the-scenes stories from covering Michael Jordan and those teams. Is there anything that you wish they would’ve included or that you hope they delve into during the remaining episodes?

SS: I think they’ve done a pretty good job of raising the main issues. There were parts here and there where I thought some context might have been left out, like with the Pistons’ walk-out. I was there and I would have loved to have seen [this]: We were sitting in a group around Jordan and he just eviscerated the Pistons when the Bulls were up 3-0. He called them unworthy champions, terrible people, an embarrassment to the NBA… And it went on for, like, a half hour. It was just stunning. And I know that’s what prompted that walk-out because the Pistons’ players didn’t know about it until the next day, basically. I think he said it in the afternoon at the Palace and it was the weekend, I think, so it probably wasn’t on the news. Then, the next day, the papers in Detroit were filled with it and it was the front-page headline when they woke up for Game 4. These are two-time champions who had been in the Finals three straight times (and it was almost four) and Jordan completely diminished their whole run and said it was worthless because of the way they played. I’m sure it was calculated in part by Michael to provoke them even more and rub it in, which was his specialty over the years. Things like that, which I saw, [would be great] for context there…

They probably couldn’t find footage of it; one Detroit TV station might have had it, but they probably didn’t stay very long. In that era, all of the reporters weren’t filming media sessions like they do now. But I think it’s been really in-depth and, even though his people are executive producers, I think they’ve done good journalism; they’ve raised good questions. And I’m glad they didn’t [include certain things]. There were stories written that were horrible and that, I think, helped push him over the edge toward retirement in ’93 – stories that were raising questions or making suggestions that maybe his father was murdered because of him or because of his gambling debts. I mean, it was the height of irresponsibility; it was just sort of thrown out there. But you can imagine how he and his family felt about seeing something like that, especially with how close he was with his father. Really, they were more like brothers. There are so many elements to Michael’s story, so you couldn’t put everything in, even with 10 parts. But it’s been great fun to watch it and probably even more so for people who weren’t as connected as I was. Other than the fact that they have to see me on the screen, I think people have enjoyed it. (laughs)

In the ’90s, Jordan was one of the most famous people on the planet and the media coverage reflected that. In “The Jordan Rules,” you write about his fame and how his teammates reacted to it. What kind of impact did that level of fame have on Jordan?

SS: Well, he talked about it in the documentary and I think Tim Hallam, who traveled with him for all those years with the Bulls, mentioned his inability to sort of live what we call a normal life. I remember back in the ’80s when he was so accessible and accommodating and we were just joking all the time, he would complain and say, like he said in the show, “Well, you guys don’t understand what it’s like to be in this situation. You can’t go to the movies. You can’t go to the grocery store.” I said, “Well, who wants to go to the grocery store? You can have somebody do it for you!” (laughs) So, there are trade-offs with everything in life. And, look, you don’t have to be a ballplayer; he could have retired. But, yeah, when everybody’s staring at you when you go to a restaurant or wherever… When everybody’s looking at you or even bothering you, coming up for autographs or whatever, it is disconcerting. It is uncomfortable. Michael was always kind of a private person. He was a public figure partially because of his play and also because of the marketing of him, which you saw from the beginning, he was reluctant about. He was not rushing out to Nike. He wasn’t proposing this grand marketing plan. They had approached him and came up with it and, being a responsible citizen, he wanted to do the right thing. But he was there for basketball, like he said, and that was true.

A lot of people forget his contract [renegotiation], which was extraordinary at the time in some respects. His first contract was seven years, $6.3 million. And then Magic Johnson got his 25-year, $25 million contract, which was this amazing, extraordinary thing. What his agent cleverly did is he said, “Well, give him $25 million and we’ll give you 25 years.” So, a million dollars a year back in 1986 or whenever it was. And so the Bulls did their only renegotiation they’ve ever done and tore up Jordan’s rookie contract and gave him eight years, $25 million, which was extraordinary. In the sports world, it was the biggest contract ever at the time. Nobody had considered anything like that. And, actually, that was the contract that he carried through the 1995-96 season when he didn’t get a renegotiation and played out his original deal. They talk about Scottie, but Jordan was like the 60th-highest player in the league or something when he came back. Well, when he was a rookie, he had a clause put in his contract that was unprecedented; it’s what we call the “love-of-the-game” clause. Basically, it allowed him to play basketball whenever he wanted. The standard NBA contract said that if you wanted to play in an exhibition game or something, you had to get the team’s approval. He just wanted that clause; it was the only thing he asked for specifically – this clause that said, “I can play basketball whenever I want. I don’t have to ask anybody.” And that’s truly what he was about, he was in it to play ball. All this other stuff developed because of how great a player he was. Like he said, if he was averaging 2.0 points and 3.0 rebounds, nobody would be paying much attention.

So all of this other stuff accumulated, but at the same time, it was two things. One, I know he enjoyed the lifestyle and the ability to gamble at high stakes, which was much easier to do when he had a lot of money. Two, he was able to separate himself with security as the years went on. He basically hung around with his security people as you saw when he was gambling with them. He didn’t really mingle with teammates at all. I remember some of the Bulls players during the second three-peat telling me that they’d never talked to him other than on the basketball court when he was yelling at them. They’d never seen him off the court. That was later on… But the point was that he could insulate himself at times, if he needed to and wanted to. But that’s the price of celebrity in our society. If you’re Jack Nicholson or whatever and you go somewhere, you’re a movie star so everyone’s staring at you and wants to feel like they know you. And so that became Michael Jordan. Look, he couldn’t have disliked the life that much since he kept coming back!

Tim DeFrisco /Allsport

“The Jordan Rules” is one of my favorite books of all-time. When the book first came out, the Bulls were freaking out, fans were shocked by the honest portrayal of Jordan and everyone was talking about your book. How did you handle that? What was that like?

SS: Well, thank you, I appreciate the kind words. Yeah, it was extraordinarily controversial at the time for a variety of reasons. One was, locally in Chicago, the narrative got created in the media that the Bulls’ championship run is over at one year because of this book. “All these internal disputes came out and that’s going to destroy the team, so enjoy your party last year because you’re never going to have another one!” So there was that… that was part of it. And another large part is the marketing, which had created the artificial Jordan. Marketing and advertising is about selling you a product you don’t necessarily need. You wanted your product to be connected to Michael Jordan, but you were selling a myth in a lot of respects. They did a great job, [David] Falk and ProServ, setting him up with all-American brands like Chevrolet, Coca Cola, apple pie… (laughs) Then, he’s on TV cracking jokes with David Letterman and he’s on Saturday Night Live. He just seemed so kid-next-door! It was every parent’s desire to have him marry your daughter, just this wonderful guy! And the book was sort of innocent and naive in a lot of respects.

Looking back on Jordan’s success, people can’t imagine the way he was depicted in the ’80s. Essentially, the Bulls’ new ownership group inherited him when they purchased the team in ’85 (right after his rookie year). Basically, without announcing it, they decided to do a complete rebuild – a complete teardown with Jordan sort of carrying the water. So, essentially, they were working on getting rid of everybody on the team for draft picks, which sort of became popular in recent years – the Sixers made a mess of it with the way they went about it, but that’s what the Bulls and Jerry Krause were doing without ever announcing it. I never heard the word “tank” back then ever. And, of course, Jordan made it clear that he was always dragging the team to the playoffs, but they made the playoffs with 30 wins one year and with 40 wins another year. And he lost nine of his first 10 playoff games he played in because they were busy breaking up the team. So, his frustration was growing as a result. As it’s growing, he’s being compared unfavorably to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and the narrative was that you can’t win with Jordan. People were writing that all the time, that he’ll never win a title – because “he’s a scorer,” “he’s selfish,” “he doesn’t involve his teammates,” “he doesn’t make players better,” “he doesn’t pass” and all that stuff. What came to be appreciated in subsequent years about his leadership, And leadership is not about being liked, it’s being about succeeding and it’s about, in some respects, getting people to levels that they weren’t going to reach by themselves. Jordan, now heading toward a seventh year without a title, is really pushing his teammates. He actually wanted different teammates; he wanted more veterans. He would have been fine with [Scottie] Pippen and [Horace] Grant getting traded for Buck Williams and Walter Davis – two ACC guys he liked since they were veterans who were more accomplished. That’s who we wanted to play with. He wanted guys to match [James] Worthy and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] with the Lakers and [Robert] Parish and [Kevin] McHale with the Celtics. He didn’t want to play with babies and so that was a source of frustration. As we’ve seen witnessed in this documentary and which we knew, he has this incredible manic competitiveness to the level that he wants to embarrass his opponent. A lot of players feel sorry for their opponent when they’re dominating; Jordan never did. He wanted to run it up. He was like one of those southern college football coaches who want to win 92-0. That’s his mentality.

And so, as a result, there was internal friction. With that said, I don’t know of any organization or corporation – either that I’ve been involved with or heard about – where everybody loves the boss and wishes they were around all the time, or where all the employees love each other and all they want to do is see each other succeed, even at their own expense. This is a ludicrous notion; we push these myths about sports – everybody pulling together, in it for each other, hugging each other – and they just aren’t true. And so all I set out to do was just write a little behind-the-scenes story about what it’s like to go through a season – in a time when the Bulls weren’t expected to win. And it happened to be, as far as attention, the right place at the right time and the right team ended up winning. Nobody had the Bulls as a favorite to win anything that season – not in the regular season and not in the Finals when they got there, so they were an upset team all the way.

Anyway, the book comes out and there were dual controversies. One, that I destroyed the team. Two, how I’ve depicted Jordan. “This is not how he is! This is not Jordan!” I remember many of his defenders from North Carolina, like Roy Williams, went on TV and bashed me, saying, “Well, this is all made up. We know Michael is not like this…” There was a lot of that kind of stuff. It obviously became an unusual and difficult situation. But, at the same time, I had experienced that before. I had been an investigative reporter in Indiana when I first started working in journalism and then, in DC, covering Congress was my main job but I also did investigative work. So, I had worked on those kind of things before, which were serious. On the one hand, I was thinking, “Well, yeah, people are angry, but it’s just sports! How serious could it be?” And I was still covering the team. I was still around and at the Chicago Tribune. My first editor, Ernie Williams, when I started to investigated projects, he gave me the best advice you could get. He said, “You have to stand by your story.” What that means is whenever you write something about somebody (especially something that’s controversial), the day it comes out in the newspaper, you go see them, you stand in front of them and you tell them, “If you’ve got any problems, I’m here. I’m going to be here.” So, that’s what I did. The team was out of town when the book came out and I didn’t go on that trip, in part because all the controversies were starting. But at their next home game, I went to see [Jordan] at his locker stall and told him, “Hey, I’m gonna be here.” The reception from the team was fine. It was great, actually. A lot of the players had suffered under his wrath, so they were glad to see him on the defensive a little bit. So it really wasn’t a problem for me around the team at all. And Jordan was great. We didn’t have the relationship that we had previously, but he treated me professionally. I was still around, covering the team, so I asked him questions in all of the press conferences and he’d answer me, just as he’d answer anyone else. You would never know he was upset. And he was upset. I don’t believe he was upset necessarily because he read the book – I doubt he ever read the book – but he was upset [because he heard] things that were pulled out of context sometimes or as standalone things. “You punched out Will Perdue…” and, “You made Dennis Hopson cry…” and, “You took Horace Grant’s food on the plane because you told the stewardess that he didn’t play well enough, so he didn’t deserve to eat…” You know, stuff like that, which are sort of funny in a lot of respects still. (laughs) He was mad and I understand because he was getting asked about it all the time – just as you saw in the documentary, after a while, he was frustrated and mad when he was asked about the gambling all the time. Everywhere he went, it was basically, “Are you throwing games?” One thing piling on the next, I understand his reaction to it.

Sam Smith’s 1992 best-selling book, “The Jordan Rules.”

I’ve heard that some of the Chicago media protected Jordan, especially earlier in his career. Would you agree that he was protected a bit?

SS: Well, I wouldn’t phrase it that way. I think all media has a protective vein with All-Stars. I don’t think you read or hear a lot about [the negatives]. Because in journalism, when you’re around your team and covering a beat on a regular basis, the most important thing is relationships. You have to keep relationships open to be able to continue to work. And I’ve always believed that no one story is ever worth ruining a relationship. Without relationships, you can’t function. So, there is always a protective cover. Then, also, you have to sort of justify, “What’s the news value of this?” Let’s say somebody is cheating on his wife. I’d say, “Well, what’s that got to do with basketball? That’s none of your business.” We always kept it to basketball. And Michael was always accommodating.

These stories were around and players would come to me and tell me some of these stories over the years, but I wasn’t writing them. One of the reasons was, I would say, “If you will be quoted, I’m glad to write it. But I can’t say ‘sources said’ because that’s not a real story.” Then, players would say, “Well, no, you can’t quote me on that.” So I’d say, “Then, I’m not writing that. When you’re ready, let me know.” And, actually, with the book, a lot of them were willing to be quoted at that point. I remember players saying to me, “Well, you can’t put that in the newspaper, but you can put that in a book.” Because that was a larger thing and it wouldn’t come out right away, so they wouldn’t have to answer for it right away and deal with it. I always felt one the strengths of “The Jordan Rules” is that it’s a lot of direct quotes – a lot of people, a lot of players, were talking on the record and there’s no “league sources” stuff. So, I don’t think anyone was protecting Jordan as much as dealing with him like they would deal with any high-level sports figure. That is the way sports and politics and entertainment [reporters] operate in a lot of respects. And I don’t think anyone was covering up anything significant; when the gambling stuff came into view, it was written about, but it hadn’t happened back then.

The other thing is he wasn’t that big of a story because he wasn’t winning anything, just to digress a bit. When I first proposed “The Jordan Rules,” there was virtually no interest in it. I got 90 percent rejection letters. (laughs) The notion was, “Look, this guy is a really good player, but he hasn’t won anything. Chicago is an irrelevant team – they won 45 games a year, who cares? And who are you? You haven’t done anything; you’re some newspaper reporter.” I mean, I had given up trying to sell it on my own and I got an agent, and she had a lot of difficulty finding a publisher. Then, we finally found one. So, there was no sort of outpouring [of interest] where the publishing industry said, “Oh, boy, it is really a great story to tell!” This wasn’t like Michelle Obama’s biography here. Nobody was bidding for this thing! (laughs)

I agree that there are so many great quotes in the book. But in “The Last Dance,” they brought up some of the leaks and the drama that certain off-the-record portions caused. Horace Grant denied leaking anything, but Jordan and Co. seemed to blame him. Because you and Horace were close, was it tough watching him get blamed for the leaked info?

SS: Yeah, ’cause it wasn’t true. That’s the other thing too. Like I said, I’d been an investigative reporter for a long time and one of the tenants of that kind of work is it doesn’t matter if one person tells you something, you got to check it out. Somebody else has to confirm it, right? There’s nothing I wrote that I didn’t hear from at least two different sources, two different people. And the other thing is I was with the team a long time, traveling in the era when we all traveled together. I sat on the plane for virtually every flight with either Tex Winter or Johnny Bach or Phil Jackson because they sat in coach –  not because they were coaches, but because that’s what they called it. (laughs) There were 12 first-class seats on all of the flights because the NBA rule back then was that you had to fly on a plane with 12 first-class seats so every roster player could have a first-class seat. The coaches didn’t. All of the coaches were in the back, so I would put sit with them. We went to and from games, we went to the arena together, we went to the airport together.

I got to know Phil in the early ’80s when I did a magazine feature on the CBA and we went to Albany. I met him there and got to know him and kept in touch with him over the years. When I was writing NBA features, I would call him and ask him about stuff that was going on, what he remembered and people he knew, so I developed a long-term relationship with Phil. Johnny Bach, being from Brooklyn (where I’m from), I got to know him years ago in the NBA and kept a relationship with him. When [Bill] Cartwright came to the team, he was the oldest player on a young team, so he didn’t hang out with the players and he’d spend more time with me on the road and we’d have dinner a lot. Similarly, Charles Davis wasn’t as old as Bill, but he was with the team right before the championship runs. Scottie is someone I was very close with – we were going to collaborate on a book in the mid ’90s, which he sort of backed out of because he didn’t want to do it at the time. So, while I was friendly with Horace… it’s unfair. I don’t expect [people to know], it’s my profession. When I’m talking to a doctor or whoever, I don’t know what they do, and people don’t know journalism and what we do. With the nature of what we do in journalism, like I said, not only are there multiple sources, but the most famous thing in journalism is, like, Deep Throat – you know, “All The President’s Men” and [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein. So, people think if you do anything, you got to have somebody who tells you. Well, no, it doesn’t work that way. First of all, that was a highly dramatized situation and it was about Washington, where people don’t want to tell you stuff. In sports, everybody wants to tell you stuff! And that’s what I loved about the NBA when I got on the beat. I wanted to do the NBA beat because it’s always been the best people in sports – you know, because football is all militaristic and closed, and nobody talks to you in baseball (it was a lot of guys who lived in and played their way up through some small towns). In basketball, they’re playing before 20,000 people when they’re 16 years old! They’re in big arenas and recruited by colleges and they are very sophisticated and very worldly – much more so than any of the athletes in any team sports. They’re just comfortable and accustomed to dealing with it. They’re open, so there’s no such thing as a “Deep Throat” in sports because everybody talks to you – the owners talk to you, the coaches talk to you, the players talk to you. Everybody talks to you in sports, everybody wants to get their story out.

Also, to suggest that one player, who was certainly not privy to a lot of things going on, can be the source of information for a 300-page book about years of a team, some of which he wasn’t even involved in, it’s just ludicrous. But Michael singled him out on the broadcast because, you know, Horace was the one who would often stand up to Michael on behalf of the players. In practice, when Jordan sucker punched Will Perdue, Will was practically crying and didn’t fight back; Horace was the one who went to fight back. Horace wasn’t in the card games with Michael, wasn’t in his group and didn’t hang around with him, but he would stand up to him. Horace was going to be a Marine before he turned to basketball; that was always his dream. And that’s why he was so close with Johnny Bach, the military guy on the staff. Horace wasn’t as quick-witted as Michael or as sharp, but Michael didn’t like that Horace wasn’t intimidated by him. He’s still holding that grudge, just like he is with Isiah Thomas and Jerry Krause. We’re seeing Michael’s Festivus, “airing-of-grudges” thing.

Sam receives the PBWA’s lifetime achievement award from Doug Smith.

In the book, “Mindgames: Phil Jackson’s Long Strange Journey,” Roland Lazenby writes that Phil was one of your sources for “The Jordan Rules.” Jerry Krause is quoted as saying that Phil deceived him into thinking assistant coach Johnny Bach was the main source, which in part led to Johnny getting fired. But you were quoted as saying: “Phil and the players had much more of a role than Johnny Bach.” Did that book accurately explain the situation, that Phil was one of your sources?

SS: Well, I don’t worry about what someone else writes. Someone else writes what they want to write. What I said was what it was – it was a compilation of [people]. And Michael too! I spent a lot of time with Michael. Not so much after I wrote the book, but before – and Michael is not shy about sharing his opinions about other players and people. I quoted him directly in the book saying, “The Triangle is kind of a waste of time. I’m gonna give it three games and if I don’t like it, I’m going to scrap it. I don’t need this equal-opportunity stuff.” So, he’s on the record condemning the offense! That’s not a secret, it’s quoting Michael Jordan. I’m sure Roland has done fine work, but a lot of people prefer conspiracies to accuracy.

We’ve seen that in a lot of the public debate now, where people don’t want to believe there’s not some great government conspiracies or whatever it is, they would prefer to believe that Hillary Clinton is running a child pornography ring out of a pizza place and other lunacy like that. But that’s more common and fearful then you think. It’s the same thing with this stupid Horace Grant stuff and that somehow Phil was “conspiring.” Phil doesn’t have to conspire like that, he’s Phil Jackson. Look, Johnny Bach was his assistant coach, so if he didn’t want Johnny around, he didn’t have to go through some sort of exercise to persuade Jerry Krause to fire him or keep him. There’s a whole extra step there that was unnecessary! (laughs) If Phil didn’t want Johnny, he could just get rid of Johnny. He didn’t have to be Machiavellian about it. I mean, does that make any sense?

(When asked about Roland Lazenby’s rebuttal, Sam Smith told HoopsHype that he meant to make a general statement about society overall, not about Lazenby specifically.) 

In “The Last Dance,” they focus a bit on Jordan’s quote: “Republicans wear sneakers too.” Jordan told you this, but you recently explained why the quote was misunderstood. Can you share that story?

SS: Yeah, I’d like to. Actually, one thing you asked me before, I was surprised [they didn’t include my comments about that quote]. I didn’t think the documentary people were going to come talk to me, which was fine; I’ve done enough about Jordan, having written three books and had my issues. Michael has seen enough of me and I’ve seen enough for him; we both moved on. Well, he’s moved on better. (laughs) But I’m happy where I am and what I’m doing and I’m still involved with the NBA. But they came to me late and I know that because when I’d see people like Phil Jackson, Jerry Reinsdorf, Bill Wennington and John Paxson, they’d say, “Hey, have you talked for the Jordan doc?” And I’d say, “No, no, I haven’t heard anything.” They finally got around to me and then when they talked to me, I didn’t think much of it because I’d heard by then that they had talked to all of these celebrities – you know, Justin Timberlake, whoever he is, and Jerry Seinfeld. But I was glad to do it and help them out. I ask people for their time and ask a lot of questions, so if somebody wants to ask me something, I have a responsibility to cooperate because people have always been great with me and cooperated. I thought they’d talk to me for an hour and a half and use like six seconds or something.

But what I do remember about it was they spent half the time asking me about that quote and that story and saying, “Well, Michael said he never said it.” And I said, “This is the story.” But, more than that, I said that I felt badly about it, which is sort of what I wrote in the story for Bulls.com. People have used this as a cudgel against Jordan, unfairly and hypocritically, over the years. And, especially now, I don’t know what their social stances are or what guys like LeBron James and Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony do – and I’m sure they do wonderful stuff. But to suggest that all these guys in this era are these wonderful, socially conscious people… Look, when Daryl Morey had the thing with China, I didn’t hear anybody say a peep about it because they all work for Nike too. So, whatever. But to suggest that Michael Jordan is selfish and business-oriented compared to all these guys, first of all, that’s crap. That’s not true. And the other part is you have to understand the different eras. And the NBA in the ’80s, I remember, you’d watch the 11:00 news and they’d give a disclaimer that said, “If you don’t want to know the final score of the NBA Finals, turn off your sound now,” because that’s when they were showing it. And that was the reason for the salary cap. What people forget – and I understand, it’s a generation difference and a lot of people weren’t alive – is that in the late ’70s, we had a terrible recession and an oil crisis. You couldn’t get gas; I remember you’d be waiting in line for an hour at the gas station. Interest rates to buy a house were 15 percent! The economy was racked. So we’re just coming out of that in the early ’80s and the NBA had a lot of teams in trouble. Five or six teams were going to go bankrupt and disband. That’s 75-80 jobs, so the league and the players formed a partnership to basically create a salary cap – the first artificial limitation on earnings in pro sports. To go along with that, it was an era when NBA players were being unfairly maligned about drug use – as if it didn’t go on in Wall Street every day. But it’s easy to hang it on celebrities, so there was that image too.

And so the players had an agreement among everybody, “Let’s stay out of controversial issues.” Larry Bird didn’t say anything about politics, Magic Johnson didn’t say anything, Isiah Thomas didn’t say anything… Charles Barkley, all he said was, “I want to run for governor of Alabama as a Republican.” Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], who was the most politically active (and who sat out the Olympics in ’68 and sat with Muhammad Ali when he was banned from boxing), said nothing. Nobody was talking about this because this was the agreement. “Hey, guys, we’ve got to grow this league. And we shouldn’t be creating divisions here.” That was what it was about in Michael’s era. Now, yeah, he wasn’t a political person. He was [all about] basketball and his love of the game and all that stuff. But that wasn’t an issue. I’m a big admirer of Barack Obama. But that was Barack Obama’s job at the time; he was going to be a community organizer. He wasn’t trying to support the NBA and bring it back from the brink. Michael Jordan was and that’s what that was about. In this era, to depict Jordan as a selfish, indifferent business person is hypocritical, it’s wrong and it’s unfair. And I wanted to say that. I was surprised. I did say that when they talked to me. And, actually, I thought they were harsher on Jordan with the things they used in the documentary than I would have been because I was defending him completely. They ran a bunch of clips of people – like Barack Obama and that professor [Todd Boyd] – sort of mildly condemning Michael for saying, “Hey, I’m a basketball player. And I’m not about politics, I don’t want to get involved.” And that’s true. But the other part of it is he’s been beaten up a lot over the years for this comparison, which is really inaccurate and unfair because you’ve got to judge him in this era. In this era, he’s been very active. He supported Obama publicly and campaigned for him and contributed heavily about 10 years ago. And that wasn’t a mea culpa to say, “Oh, well, I made this mistake in the ’80s; I’m gonna make up for it now.” No. Why don’t you go to some of the other players? I don’t remember any political activism among NBA players in that era.

Also, you wrote that he was joking when he made that comment. Michael always wanted to get the last word in and he came up with these quips. People have taken it so seriously, but he was kidding around.

SS: People view it as his political philosophy, but it was a complete joke! That’s why I wrote what I wrote. I had worked in politics and it was sort of my hobby; I knew about it and followed it. We agree that it was a joke. We disagree on where we were when we had the exchange, but the point is that we came to the same conclusion: He was basically saying, “Sam, I don’t want to talk about this,” without actually saying that, so he came up with the last line that would shut down the conversation – which he always did. You see it in the documentary too, he always got the last word! No matter what someone said, he was always the last one talking. And the quip was great; it was funny, I laughed and I walked away. I had nothing more to say after that. So, yeah, it was a joke, but it’s been depicted as a political philosophy, which couldn’t be further from the truth because as far as I could tell back then, he had no political philosophy at all.

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