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Posted: Friday January 28, 2005 9:54AM; Updated: Friday January 28, 2005 12:07PM
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Welcome to the SI.com Book Club. Each month, we'll review a sports book and offer an excerpt. January's selection: When Nothing Else Matters: Michael Jordan's Last Comeback.

January 2005
Cover Courtesy: Simon & Schuster

Inside Nothing Else
The 10 Spot's review | Read an excerpt | Buy it
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The Michael Jordan one will find in Michael Leahy's When Nothing Else Matters is not the basketball god represented in bronze outside Chicago's United Center. That Jordan stands 11½ feet and weighs 2,000 pounds, and even those proportions hardly seem to capture the aura and magnetism MJ exhibited at his high-flying, championship-winning best with the Bulls.

The Jordan in Leahy's book, which follows the player's final two seasons with the Wizards, is no giant. Instead he's a deeply flawed man, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the diminishment of his once ethereal physical gifts while continuing to demand the superstar treatment he had always been afforded. Even so, on the doorstep of 40, there are still magical nights when the jump shot is falling over younger, faster men and the points pile up as they once did, the cash register ringing crazily all the while.

But as Jordan's game diminished, Leahy argues, so did Jordan the icon. It turned out he was just a basketball player -- perhaps the best ever, sure, but a mere jock just the same.

Off the court, Jordan didn't engage the public on important issues of the day as Muhammad Ali had done; he hawked sneakers and was too worried about upsetting potential customers to wade into controversy. Remember his famous explanation for not publicly supporting a black senatorial candidate in his native North Carolina, Harvey Gantt, who once ran against conservative Republican Jesse Helms? "Republicans buy shoes, too," Jordan noted.

The public and a worshipful sports media made Jordan into much more than an athlete, Leahy contends, but that turned out to be a ruse which said as much about our psychic need for heroes as Jordan's actual gifts. When Jordan's career ended in 2003, Wizards owner Abe Pollin shipped him out of the executive suite within weeks. The message was clear: Without a ball in his hands, No. 23 was nothing special.

When Nothing Else Matters can, for these reasons, be a depressing read. It will no doubt upset devout Jordanphiles. Even so, it has the distinct ring of truth.

The reporting that went into this book is impressive. Leahy, then a news-side writer at The Washington Post, was placed on the Jordan beat when the player started his comeback in 2001. Leahy's not a sportswriter, a distinction he makes very clear because he doesn't think highly of most sportswriters. In his judgment, they avoid reporting anything negative about stars in exchange for morsels of access.

Leahy makes a worthwhile point here, though he oversells it by claiming that this failing is limited to sports journalism, which in his opinion is "filled with athletes' buddies and mouthpieces." That would never happen, he claims, in political journalism. Evidently, Leahy has never watched Fox News Channel or read columnists such as Maureen Dowd.

Leahy has the zeal of an investigative reporter. That includes the reflexive need to bring down the rich and powerful, such as Jordan, his agent David Falk and Pollin. Leahy unearths an interesting nugget about Pollin -- that the owner has been unsuccessfully shopping his authorized biography to publishers for years -- but does the author need to tell us this embarrassing fact three times?

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On balance, Leahy's doggedness in spending two years doing nothing but following one man around the nation serves the reader well. Yet Jordan remains a tough subject to crack and did not give Leahy access to his inner circle -- a situation Leahy cleverly dubs the "catch-23."

Yet the author got enough people to speak, mostly not for attribution, to recreate a number of memorable scenes. For example, there's the preseason practice before Jordan's first season with the Wizards when he lashes into 19-year-old Kwame Brown -- the high schooler that Jordan the executive had made the No. 1 overall draft pick -- repeatedly calling him a "f---ing faggot."

Just as telling are the smaller moments that add up to make Leahy's broader themes so convincing. After Wizards coach/Jordan lackey Doug Collins draws up a final play for a Jerry Stackhouse game-winning dunk at the buzzer, Jordan focuses as usual on his role. "Doug drew it up and it worked perfectly, in terms of me being the decoy and everybody focusing on me," he told the media. "[It] was easy to get an easy lay-up." Jordan believed that the team should revolve around him and typically it did, but not always to the Wizards' benefit.

By the time that Jordan's final retirement rolls around, his younger teammates don't even feel enough affection for the legend to chip in and buy a farewell gift. As Leahy puts it, Jordan "had teammates but very few intimates." This book, though, possesses a truly intimate feel -- warts and all.

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