Many people have linked the recent behaviors of Rep. Joe Wilson, Kanye West and Serena Williams to a coarsening of our society and an underlying rudeness. The correlation is obvious; people who didn’t get their way pitched a fit that would make a three-year old proud. If you haven’t seen these by now, the chances of you being a reader of this post are virtually zero.
But there was also a fourth event that I think is in some small way related and shows similar characteristics. Michael Jordan’s induction speech into the Basketball Hall of Fame was a great demonstration of the self-centeredness of athletes and celebrities and the gracelessness that often follows. It was all about him, his way, and all the scores he had to settle. Dating way back to his high school days, Jordan took every slight real and perceived as motivation for revenge and proving people wrong. He took a whack at everybody from the poor kid (that was 6’9” while Jordan wasn’t) in high school and got picked ahead of him for the varsity, to Jeff Van Gundy (a notable non-handwasher*), to Jerry Krause. He was ungracious. His attempts at humor ended up sounding like more cuts and jabs and were inappropriate for the setting. He needed not only an editor but a PR lackey.
He even told his kids, “I’d hate to be you guys.” He left the rest of that sentence unspoken: “because there’s no possible way for you to measure up to my greatness”. While it may be true at least as far as basketball stardom is concerned, did he think his kids don’t realize it already? Ask his college-basketball playing son whose limited playing time seemed to coincide only with dad’s trips to Urbana-Champaign. Do you think they need to be told that their lives will pale in comparison to their dad’s in front of a national television audience? If one of his kids becomes a noted scientist or author, don’t you get the feeling that Thanksgiving dinner would still be all about Mike? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this since Jordan is the one person honest enough to say that he unretired to spend less time with his family and more time on his legacy. It was not a speech that will get him into the Parenting Hall of Fame for sure.
And for those of you counting the number of references Jordan made to his involvement with the Washington Wizards: zero. No comments on the larger lessons he learned through failure about his limitations or how it made him better or stronger in other ways. Nary was heard an enlightening or self-reflective word.
Rep. Wilson wanted an open microphone to settle his score with the President.
Serena Williams didn’t care that there were open microphones around when she confronted, attempted to intimidate and outright threatened a lines woman.
Kanye West stole an open microphone to express his displeasure with an award outcome (later to have his outrage shown to have been comically premature as his favorite won an even bigger award for the same video).
Jordan used is his time at the microphone not to be humble and gracious and accept the honor of joining other greats in the Hall of Fame. He used it to get even and to show us his shallowness.
All four of them showed an awesome lack of class and lack of grace.
I understand that single-mindedness and self-centeredness are often critical elements of success in competitive events whether they are in sports or business, from basketball to bond trading. I think that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time and I understand that the attitude he articulated certainly helped drive him to be as successful as he was on the court. I’ve used what he said about this topic in the past as an example to my talented but undermotivated son about what it takes to be a champion.
But timing is everything. There are times and places for those things to be discussed. Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, Joint Sessions of Congress, award ceremonies—even for stupid, made-up awards, and Grand Slam semi-finals aren’t any of them. All four of them lacked class and lacked grace.
If you disagree, ask yourself this question: What would Tiger have done in the same situation?
* I was on a flight from O’Hare to White Plains in 2002. Jeff Van Gundy sat in the last row of first class, while I was in the first row of coach. He deplaned immediately ahead of me and went directly into the men’s room adjacent to the gate, as did I. Coach Van Gundy exited the men’s room without visiting the sink. I was not the only person to notice it; New Yorkers aren’t shy. Perhaps my describing this event also lacks class and grace, but I view it as a public service for those who meet JVG and are tempted to shake his hand.