Originally published Oct. 2, 1991.
So that’s it. Michael Jordan wants to be president. Having conquered basketball, television, Madison Avenue and pretty much the entire plex of modern entertainment, he needs another frontier. America will do.
“Psst, Mike,” Jesse Jackson might have said Saturday night on the NBC stage, between nursery rhymes. “Here’s your chance to become the people’s choice. Don’t show up for your White House appearance. Stiff Bush. Do that, and it’s Cuomo shlomo in ‘92. You’ll be the man. Just make me your v.p.”
Or maybe Michael wants to be Madonna. Maybe he wants to wear wigs, go AWOL, flip off authority, tease fame, keep the world guessing and talking. Next thing you know, he’ll be posing nude and hiding out at Donald Trump’s Florida mansion. Does Air Jordan know Airhead Seles?
Whatever the explanation, something is very peculiar about Jordan’s unexplained Tuesday absence in Washington. “I beg your pardon,” he told George Bush, “I never promised you a Rose Garden.” We really shouldn’t have so much fun with the episode, though, because when you think about it, this is about the most disturbing, irresponsible and irrational thing Jordan has ever done in public life. It’s enough to make you wonder if Mike hasn’t become too defiant and selfish in his post-title glow.), will have a real good excuse about blowing off Bush without an RSVP. For if his reason is anything short of a family emergency - and the way his agents laughed at questions about his whereabouts, a personal crisis isn’t likely - Michael Jordan will ha ve hurt himself, his team, his precious corporate image, the NBA and the city of Chicago.
Hard to believe, but true.
Lots of folks will be disappointed if Jordan spent the day golfing near his vacation home on Hilton Head Island, a distinct possibility considering he was spotted there a day earlier. They will be more disappointed, perhaps disgusted, if he was filming another TV commercial somewhere. Most of the time, M.J. can torch the Sears Tower and have masses rush to his defense; witness the Isiah Thomas/Olympics issue. But skip the White House for no apparent reason? Bush.
Since the days of Eisenhower, championship teams have been feted in the Rose Garden. The ceremony is a sort of regal climax to a memorable season. In recent times, no superstar athlete has shunned a chance to schmooze the chief officer with teammates. Even the Bad-Boy Pistons showed up on George Bush’s doorstep, twice, all 12 of them. That Jordan would be the one to disrupt an American tradition boggles the mind. As Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf said, “It shows disrespect to the president.”
But Bush will get over it. “Michael Jordan performs a host of good work, with a series of charities and his foundation,” the president said of Jordan’s absence. What’s insulting here, and possibly detrimental to the Bulls’ chances of repeating, is how Jordan showed up his teammates. The only other member not to appear was John Paxson, who had a good excuse - he was effectively working for Bush, speaking to kids in Chicago at a federally sponsored drug program. Everyone else was there , from Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause and Phil Jackson to Will Perdue. By shunning the chance to share an emotional moment with them, Jordan was in effect placing himself above them. They could make time for the president, but he couldn’t.
Back in June, it seemed Jordan and his mates had bonded at last. After years of tension and occasional infighting, the Bulls were champions. But Jordan’s no-show already prompts questions about whether the team is becoming fractured again, questions the Bulls were voicing just minutes after leaving the happy ceremony.
Jackson put it best, asking how Jordan could “make it on Saturday night and miss it on Tuesday morning.” It was a direct, cutting reference to Jordan’s appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” which benefitted Michael and only Michael. The White House was a team event - and he couldn’t make it. We should note he has been to the White House before. We also should note the ceremony could have been held earlier in the summer. Still, Jackson is dead right. If you do a skit on “The First Black Harlem Globetrotter” and introduce Public Enemy, you find time to do the White House.
Jordan’s supporting cast, as he often calls his teammates, was quick to agree. Note the sarcasm.
Bill Cartwright: “It’s an experience no one should miss.”
Perdue: “It’s unfortunate all members of the team couldn’t make it.”
Scottie Pippen: “Anyone who missed this, it’s his loss.”
Craig Hodges uttered the most discouraging words, saying, “It can be a divisive issue if you make it one.” Divisive issue? Training camp hasn’t even started yet.
Bulls management should have forced Michael Jordan to show up. Because he didn’t, they should fine him, as should the NBA. As long as Michael has one set of rules and the others have another set, the Bulls aren’t a team. And if they aren’t a team, they won’t repeat. The Rose Garden won’t be an issue.