Few icons are as deeply woven into North Carolina’s cultural fabric as the game of basketball. After hard days in the textile mills or tobacco fields, North Carolinians would huddle around black-and-white TVs to watch Southern Conference, and later ACC, roundball. At tournament time, not a few schoolteachers wheel portable televisions into their classrooms to show the opening rounds of the great contest in Greensboro. Public Policy Polling found that four of the six most admired people in the state were associated with the game. Among those luminaries, Michael Jordan has had by far the broadest reach. Virginia sportswriter Roland Lazenby has written a sweeping, relentlessly eloquent biography of one of the most significant North Carolinians who have ever lived.
“Michael Jordan: The Life” is much more than a sports book. Lazenby begins his chronicle with a mesmerizing portrait of Jordan’s ancestors, particularly his great grandfather, a disabled man whose arduous life reflected the subjugation of late-nineteenth century African-Americans. The book follows the Jordan family through multiple generations, ranging from their post-Reconstruction destitution on the banks of the Cape Fear river to James and Deloris Jordan’s emergence into the growing Black middle class. In the process, Lazenby provides a broad and thoughtful history of the Wilmington area, its tribulations and progress, that is a credit to his extensive research.
North Carolina sports fans will be especially interested in Jordan’s UNC career. (That includes NC State and Duke loyalists who will read it in despair.) Lazenby paints a lovely picture of the Carolina campus that will resonate with any student, alum or admirer of the university. And his examination of Jordan’s college years is as insightful as can be expected decades after the fact. His characterizations of Gastonia native James Worthy and legendary coach–and political liberal–Dean Smith are spot on, as is his analysis of why Jordan chose to leave a program he loved after his junior year to enter the NBA draft.
The bulk of this book is dedicated to Jordan’s legendary career with the Chicago Bulls. Readers who love the game of basketball will consume these passages with relish. As I read the book, however, I found myself wanting more about Jordan’s life off the court. MJ’s family life gets short shrift, and there’s not much about intriguing episodes like the great athlete’s venture into Hollywood with the movie “Space Jam.” Most disappointingly, Lazenby breezes through Jordan’s second career as owner of the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets.
As one commentator said in ESPN’s documentary “The Last Dance,” Michael Jordan the player was as good at his job as anyone has ever been at the craft they practiced. This superb athlete, businessman and North Carolinian deserves a tome-length treatment, which is what he gets in Roland Lazenby’s beautifully written book.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.