There’s a fable about returning Roman generals who rode in victory parades through the streets of the capital; a slave stood behind them, whispering in their ears, “All glory is fleeting.” Nobody does that for professional athletes. Jordan couldn’t have known that the closest he’d get to immortality was during that final walk off the court, the one symbolically preserved in the print in his office. All that can happen in the days and years that follow is for the shining monument he built to be chipped away, eroded. Maybe he realizes that now. Maybe he doesn’t. But when he sees Joe Montana joined on the mountaintop by the next generation, he has to realize that someday his picture will be on a screen next to LeBron James as people argue about who was better.
This started at an early age. Jordan genuinely believed his father liked his older brother, Larry, more than he liked him, and he used that insecurity as motivation. He burned, and thought if he succeeded, he would demand an equal share of affection. His whole life has been about proving things, to the people around him, to strangers, to himself. This has been successful and spectacularly unhealthy. If the boy in those letters from Chapel Hill is gone, it is this appetite to prove — to attack and to dominate and to win — that killed him. In the many biographies written about Jordan, most notably in David Halberstam’s “Playing for Keeps,” a common word used to describe Jordan is “rage.” Jordan might have stopped playing basketball, but the rage is still there. The fire remains, which is why he searches for release, on the golf course or at a blackjack table, why he spends so much time and energy on his basketball team and why he dreams of returning to play.