The middle of David Halberstam’s Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made contains a revealing anecdote about Celtics superstar Larry Bird.
“Who’s he?” Bird asked.
“Larry, he’s the you of rock,” Ryan replied.
Intrigued, Bird learned more about the legendary Jersey rocker and even attended a concert. While he did not particularly enjoy the music, he respected how hard Springsteen worked-something that he could tell by the volume of sweat he generated.
In a similar way, I imagine that the late, great Halberstam recognized something of himself during the process of writing about Jordan.
Both men struggled in adolescence before finding the professional passions that drove them.
Both loved basketball deeply and had a special place inside themselves reserved for baseball.
Both worked relentlessly at their craft.
And both did work early in the career that defined an era, but then built on that work in the following months and years to establish a nearly unmatched legacy.
There are differences, too, between the two men.
Jordan ranks higher in the pantheon of basketball gods than Halberstam does in journalism.
Halberstam never retired, while Jordan left the game twice, once at the height of his powers, and again after the Bulls’ second ‘three-peat’ in 1998.
Jordan’s global celebrity and conscious marketing of his ‘brand’-a main subject of both of the books by him about him-are also distinctive.
Still, there must have been a sense in which Halberstam felt that he was writing about someone whom he understood.
Playing for Keeps, which is a retrospective look at Jordan’s life, career and global economic impact-Halberstam estimates that it’s in the billions of dollars-all make for the most comprehensive book written about Jordan, and my favorite of the ones I’ve read.
Impeccably thorough in his research, Halberstam also has the benefit of being able to trace the arc of Jordan’s career before his final forgettable comeback with the Washington Wizards that was the subject of Michael Leahy’s When Nothing Else Matters. Halberstam takes a far more respectful, even admiring tone, toward his subject than Leahy, and the book has a more respectful, even admiring feel, toward its subject.
Halberstam effectively moves the narrative back and forward in time, writing extensively of course about Jordan, but also about coach Phil Jackson, Bird and rival Magic Johnson. Dream Team fans will get a kick out of the description of the legendary scrimmage between Jordan and Johnson’s teams in Monte Carlo. While no one agrees about who talked the first trash-some say Johnson, while others say it was Charles Barkley-all agree that Jordan took over and dominated with a frenzy that left no doubt both about the result and about the team’s true leader from that point on.
Playing for Keeps ends with Jordan’s final championship winning shot-one that Pistons coach Chuck Daly had predicted-against the Utah Jazz. While hoops junkies may not find this book as rich or appealing as Halberstam’s classic The Breaks of the Game, it is more than adequate to reach the top of my Jordan book list.
As Bulls fan know, one of Michael Jordan’s top 20 games is better than just about anything else anyone has to offer.
Have fun, and enjoy tomorrow’s induction.