Writing on Air

David Halberstam talks about his new book, "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made."

By Geoff Edgers
Published February 18, 1999 1:08PM (EST)

When Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Halberstam, the author of "The Best and the Brightest" and "The Fifties," pitched Random House a book on the Korean War, his editor came back with another idea: Michael Jordan. Encouraged by Phil Jackson, who was then coaching Jordan's team, the Chicago Bulls, the 64-year-old Halberstam accepted the assignment -- with the understanding that he was going to do it his way. That meant taking in 50 ballgames and conducting close to 300 interviews. In true Halberstam style, he declined to interview Jordan's infamous teammate Dennis Rodman, but drove through the night to Boone, N.C., to talk to Jordan's college roommate, Buzz Peterson. He visited former University of North Carolina assistant coach Roy Williams in Kentucky and dined with NBA star turned broadcaster Bill Walton in Paris. Taking notes in longhand, Halberstam also talked to trainers, bench players and assistant coaches. This month Random House published the sweeping book that resulted: "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made," a story that stretches from the cocoon of the Dean Smith program at North Carolina to the sneaker wars and the media frenzy that followed. Salon recently spoke with Halberstam about his latest project.

Is it true that originally you didn't want to write this book?

It's the first book in a very long time that wasn't my own idea. My former editor, Doug Stumpf, who's now at Vanity Fair, had the idea. He's not normally a sports person, but I think the ballet of it caught him. And my wife liked the idea. I was resistant for a number of reasons. One, I'd written a book on basketball ["The Breaks of the Game"]. Two, a number of other things had been done on Michael, and I like to go where no one else has gone. Also, I knew that because of the madness -- the monstrosity of big-time celebrity -- the access would be limited.

Did you know that Jordan wasn't going to talk to you?

Early on we had a deal that he'd see me at the end of the season. The rough outline was for two or three sessions of two hours each. As the end of the season came near, it became clear to me that that wasn't going to happen. He was very courteous when I'd see him -- "David, how are you?" There's an elegance to him that can't be faked; that's who he is. I think he just got media'd out. The season [1997-98, Jordan's last] was exhausting. The team got to the finals, and then got through them patched together with Elmer's glue and Scotch tape and a lot of prayers. It was old, it was tired, it was unraveling. I think that when the season was over, Michael was drained.

How do you avoid writing the average celebrity bio?

In a celebrity bio of Michael Jordan, all you'd be doing is measuring his achievements, which are quite awesome. But it would be a book only about him. A book like this is more complicated. It's about an era; it's about context, about showing the world around him, the forces that affected him. It's the coming of ESPN, it's the Nike commercials, Spike Lee, [Nike CEO] Phil Knight. It's David Falk [Jordan's agent] having the idea that he could make a basketball player a star like a tennis player. We know that Michael Jordan's a great basketball player; one of the questions I'm asking is: What does it take to be a champion?

How do you get a fresh take on somebody who has been written about as much as Jordan has?

I have what I call the backup catcher theory. Most other people doing a book want the top guy. My belief is, you probably learn more from the backup catcher on a baseball team than from the star. Because the backup catcher's smart: He watches the game, he's into the game, he always has to be ready, and when it's all over, 20 years later, he has a lot of time to talk because not a lot of people come to see him. When I did "Summer of '49," about Williams and DiMaggio on those two great teams, the Red Sox and the Yankees, no one was more fun to talk to than a guy named Matt Batts, a former Red Sox catcher down in Baton Rouge, La. He had nothing but great anecdotes. And it's the same for this book. It's what I call the lifers -- the assistant coaches, the scouts, the trainers -- they're wonderful. I'm very sympathetic toward Michael's finally not giving any interviews. I've just never seen a monster like the media machinery that he's created. No one can understand how demanding it is. It would devour anyone else.

At a certain point he must have just accepted that his life had changed.

But he's smart enough to know that it's not real -- that there are pluses and there are minuses, but it's not real; the one true thing is basketball. Shaquille O'Neal is a singer and a dancer and an actor and whatever -- and I'm not sure that he knows yet that all of this stuff came from his being a basketball player.

Are there different rules for Jordan?

I don't think the coaches say, "Oh, Michael, you're such a great player, we'll be softer on you in practice, we'll cut you slack." It's quite the reverse. He's the most ferocious practice player. He raises the level of the team because he practices so hard.

But these coaches did handle Jordan differently than they handled, say, Dave Corzine.

Michael is a special case. Horace Grant had his nose out of joint about it to some degree. He believed that there were special rules for Michael. Well, in a way, maybe there were, but largely because the monster -- the machinery of the fame -- meant that Michael was different, that he couldn't do the ordinary things, that he couldn't walk out on the street, that you had to move him through the airports differently, that he dealt with pressures and with demands on his time that other people didn't deal with. Grant did not understand the most elemental thing about life, which is that life is unfair.

What would you have asked Jordan if he had given you an hour?

I'd have needed more than an hour.

Geoff Edgers

Geoff Edgers is a writer at the Raleigh News & Observer and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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