- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 19, 2005

WHEN NOTHING ELSE MATTERS: MICHAEL JORDAN’S LAST COMEBACK

By Michael Leahy

Simon and Schuster, 2004, 435 pp.

REVIEWED BY JON WARD

Michael Leahy is not out to make friends. But he has written a heck of a book. From the opening pages of Mr. Leahy’s examination of Michael Jordan’s two seasons with the Washingon Wizards, from 2001-to-2003, it’s clear this is not another adoring tribute to arguably the greatest basketball player ever.

Mr. Leahy’s words in the introduction are exhilarating, or chilling, depending on your perspective. “You can have all the money and power in this world, and while it might protect you against all sorts of intrusions, it doesn’t insulate you from somebody like me,” he writes.

“I am the paid voyeur with a press pass following you from city to city, and staring at you in locker rooms and other public settings, and glimpsing too many of your quasi-private moments in hallways … who has nothing to lose if my omnipresence has come to make you uncomfortable.”

That sentence alone is enough reason to read this book. Mr. Leahy followed Mr. Jordan for almost every day that he wore the Wizards uniform, and wrote what he saw. “Truth, or complete truth, is a deferred commodity in sports when it comes to idols,” Mr. Leahy writes.

The Wizard’s coach, Doug Collins, called Mr. Leahy a “stalker.” Mr. Leahy’s co-worker, Michael Wilbon, the Washington Post’s celebrity columnist, still nurses a grudge because of Mr. Leahy’s criticism of him. And Mr. Leahy’s own 12-year old son says to him on Thanksgiving, “I don’t understand — why do you have to leave today, nobody leaves on Thanksgiving, who’s gonna eat with Mom and me, what are you doing?”

Mr. Leahy’s fearlessness produced a unique book that gives us a glimpse into many things. We see past the manufactured image of Michael Jordan to the psyche and motivation of a man who, at 38, had no meaning or value in life except his ability to toss a ball in a basket and a desire to compete.

We see how deification by the masses shaped Mr. Jordan into a man who could not live without adulation. And when his body grew too old to play like a god, his hubris destroyed the team around him.

Those of us who are sports fans see ourselves, and are forced to wonder why we search for meaning in games. We see how idols are forgiven many personal sins but are then discarded by owners when they have lost their usefulness to make money. In Mr. Jordan’s case, the Wizards were making millions off of him, and the NBA was making hundreds of millions of dollars because of him.

It is a book about the power and politics of professional sports, and it is, of course, about the money. Always, in everything, it is about the money. It is a clear-eyed, insightful look at how multi-million dollar sports franchises operate.

“To spend two seasons following a professional team is to understand that, in every moment, the game exists to pry away fans’ dollars,” he writes.

“When Nothing Else Matters” should be a textbook in journalism schools around the world. It is a study in diligence, doggedness, perseverance, and Mr. Leahy combines an unrelenting eye for detail with extraordinary big-picture analysis. Mr. Leahy shows us what can happen when a smart and disciplined journalist is given time to take notes, record interviews, and analyze a subject over a long period of time, and then comes through for us.

Mr. Leahy turns water into wine — using pre- and post-game interviews to illustrate the psychology and chemistry of a sports team. Sports locker rooms are scrums. There is nothing secret there. I was in the locker room for an interview session with Mr. Jordan after a game early in 2002, and it was simply a group of middle-aged men asking his Airness questions that usually go no deeper than, “How did your jumper feel tonight?”

But Mr. Leahy did two key things. First, he asked questions that players and coaches did not want to hear. Mainly he had the freedom to do this because he was not in bondage to the daily deadline. While Mr. Leahy praises a few beat reporters (including the Times’ John Mitchell) in his acknowledgments, he savages the media “pack.”

“If the pack sensed…that [Jordan] did not want to touch a subject like his knees, then that subject was generally dropped, lest Jordan penalize the offending reporter thereafter by being curt with him,” Mr. Leahy writes. “It naturally left the whole incestuous process compromised, resulting in columns and stories rife with omissions.”

Second, Mr. Leahy recorded more observations than he did quotes. He left his recorder running, and wrote down what he saw in Mr. Jordan and other Wizards players — body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, emphasis, and motives.

He then transcribed everything from his tapes each night — something many journalists are too lazy and not committed enough to do. I found myself consistently reading descriptions of locker room scenes and wondering, “Did Jordan really say that? Is that possible”

It might be because Mr. Leahy used different quotes from the ones used in stories the next day, or that he put them in context, or because he told me what the athlete was doing, or how he looked, or what he emphasized, when he said it.

For example, Richard Hamilton, the young shooting guard who was traded in 2002 and then led the Detroit Pistons to an NBA championship two years later, was “wherever the Wizards went … the target of reporters who wanted him to say how much, as one reporter put it, ‘Michael’s influence is sinking into your team.’ Hamilton deftly changed the premise, keeping his answer short. ‘I think the big thing is that we’re learning to play off each other.’”

The book is also an example of how courageous and independent-thinking every journalist should be. “Nothing to lose is the key. A subject can’t possess a hold over you, can’t be allowed to block you from writing what you know by hinting that he’ll never talk to you again if you cross him,” Mr. Leahy writes.

Mr. Leahy is a serious man, a bit of a literalist, and one has to wonder how much his descriptions of his showdowns with Mr. Jordan were colored by his own prejudices. But it’s a good bet Mr. Leahy won’t be hearing from Mr. Jordan any time soon. I, for one, am happy about that. His book helps keep sports in perspective for what it is — a game.

Jon Ward is a reporter on the metro desk of The Washington Times.

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