2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 18 February 1999
In "Playing For Keeps," David Halberstam tries to shed light on the character of Michael Jordan. On balance, he fails. Somewhere in the middle, the book becomes a descriptive laundry list of Michael Jordan's accomplishments. Any attempt to analyze Michael Jordan the person or his domination of American culture disappears. Mr. Halberstam succeeds though in examining the early part of Jordan's life. His family was strikingly middle class in outlook. His father, James Jordan, was a retired Air Force mechanic and then later a mechanic at General Electric. His mother wanted to see all of her children excel--not just succeed. Yet, in all the reporting about Michael's relationship with his father, we learn little about Mrs. Jordan. It is never clear whether theirs was a good marriage and what effect their relationship had on young Michael Jordan. Halberstam, at times, gets good tidbits of information. First, Michael learned to play with his tongue sticking out as a child. He imitated his father who would work on machines with his tongue sticking out. Second, had Larry Jordan, Michael's older brother, grown past 5'9" he would be an NBA star too. Their sibling rivalry was intense and, at times, brutal. With Larry, Halberstam allows us to see flashes of a future, intensely competitive, Michael Jordan. The most critical and significant contribution Halberstam makes is explaining Jordan's rise to greatness. Yes, he was cut from his high school basketball team because he was considered too short for the varsity. That was his last professional setback besides a year playing minor league baseball. That same year, however, the junior varsity team drew larger crowds than the varsity. By his senior year, few knew about Jordan on the national stage. In the cozy basketball world of North Carolina, however, Jordan's potential was recognized by "the powers that be." He was a scout's dream. Slowly but surely invitations to one prestigious basketball camp after another arrived. After a camp at the University of North Carolina, Dean Smith and his lackeys worked feverishly to keep Jordan hidden. They did not want other scouts discovering him. What Dean Smith did for Michael Jordan was remarkable. He never let Jordan's potential greatness get to his head. Even before Jordan's freshman season started, Sports Illustrated wanted to profile the team. Smith, believing that Jordan had done nothing to deserve the cover, deliberately kept him off. We can safely assume that's the last time Michael Jordan was kept off a magazine cover involuntarily. But the basketball program at North Carolina perhaps most contributed to Jordan's greatness as a person and a player. Jordan was eminently coachable, he had a work ethic unlike any other Smith had ever seen, and he had extraordinary athletic talent and a natural feel for the game of basketball. Halberstam presents Jordan's finest and, at times, most unseemly quality--his intense desire and innate need to win. Not only is this evident on the basketball court, but later in his business dealings too. North Carolina basketball focused on the team. Each player knew his place. As a freshman, Michael Jordan was one of only a handful of freshman to ever start. But Smith made sure Michael knew his place. Michael was responsible for lugging the film projector from game to game. Most importantly, Dean Smith made Michael Jordan realize that he was a spoke in a wheel and that the team itself was the hub. As Halberstam points out, it was that team concept that diminished some of the better players' skills and elevated others who were not so great. It is Michael Jordan's indomitable will and compulsion to win that trumps all and Halberstam's greatest insight into MJ, the person. His will to win makes it quite clear why, in the words of Chicago author Scott Turrow, "That Michael Jordan is better at basketball than anybody is at anything else." It is clear why those last second shots against Georgetown, Cleveland, and Utah went in. Luck, as Mr. Halberstam writes, was never part of the equation. Aside from that, the most interesting observations are offered by beat reporters who covered basketball over the years. In the past, Halberstam has written perceptive and moving books on race. But, in "Playing for Keeps" we never get a sense of how MJ dealt with the issue of race or if it was ever an obstacle. Twenty years ago (even today for that matter), a Black male never could have endorsed mainstream American products like McDonald's, Coke, Gatorade, and Nike. The only thing we learn on this subject is that business, for Michael Jordan, comes before anything else. When Senate candidate Harvey Gnatt asks for his endorsement, Michael Jordan declines. "Republicans wear sneakers too," he replies. Fair enough. But is that one incident or a pattern? How has his experience shaped his outlook on racial issues? For someone interested in organizations, the book is interesting, but not compelling. For a fan interested in the inside workings of the NBA and a basketball team, the book is well-reported. For those looking for Michael Jordan's larger cultural significance, his rise along with the rise of the NBA, cable television, and the new labor economics of sports is well documented (although, Henry Louis Gates, a Harvard sociologist, does even better in a much shorter piece that appeared last year in The New Yorker). But for those searching for the man behind that mask, Halberstam's book surely disappoints. What he does brilliantly in "The Amateurs," he fails to replicate here. Michael Jordan has conquered basketball and the business world. He may be making, however, his greatest move yet. While seeming to reveal something about himself to a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, he reveals nothing at all. Not even Halberstam can match MJ's crossover dribble. Halberstam is caught flatfooted, watching Jordan sky above him and his arms extended in a textbook-perfect follow through. The ball is sailing towards the hoop in a fine geometric arc. In a noisy arena or the quiet of an empty gym, he too hears the sound all too often heard by Jordan's opponents. The sound of defeat.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 6 August 1999
because everything about it is so detailed, from his rise to fame at chapel hill to his final shot, it's a masterpiece all in one
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 30 July 1999
This is a well researched, well written book on sports and the "Jordan" era. I don't feel Halberstam missed anything in the way of information and commentary on the game. Not being an avid basketball fan, I learned a great deal about professional sports and the pursuit of excellence. Too bad for those who came away from this read without gaining any insight into what it takes to be great. The author is a true investigative reporter, intelligent and thorough. Unfortunately, today all it takes to be thought of as great is the right "look" and a flare for writing tabloid type articles.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 4 March 1999
David Halberstam scores again with another superb book about achieving excellence in sports and in life. Michael Jordan's rise to becoming the globally preeminent athlete of his time is chronicled in Halberstam's engaging style that places Jordan's career in the context of the American and worldwide sports entertainment business. Blessed with extraordinary skills, Jordan drove himself to excel and dominate his sport through willpower and a work ethic that is a model for all. Halberstam's chapter on "Michael Jordan's coming out party", his record 63 point April 20, 1986 playoff game against the Boston Celtics brought back a vivid memory for me, as I was privileged to be in attendance to witness what Larry Bird described as "God disguised as Michael Jordan". I attended that game with Don Mitchell, one of the authors of another new book, "The 2000 Percent Solution", which has many insights to help us mere mortals focus our thinking to attain exponential success. Read "Playing for Keeps" for the sheer enjoyment of reliving Michael Jordan's career and of regaining some faith in athletes as role models.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 28 January 1999
David Halberstam, a great writer, has brought to life the story of the greatest athlete of all time, Michael Jordan. From Michael's youth, when he used to compete against his brother Larry, to being cut from his high school team, through the regimentation of Dean Smith and the University of North Carolina, Mr. Halberstam goes deep into the life of Michael Jordan and helps explain how this amazing individual brought professional basketball to what it is today. A fascinating account of all aspects of sport, it is timely reading now that the lockout has ended and the NBA tries to figure out which of its wunderkinds will be the next Air Jordan. I recommend any parent with a child, boy or girl, should read this book and underline the highlites to impress upon their children of the necessity of hard work, perserverance and just being a nice guy. Thank you Michael. We will miss you.
on 11 May 1999
A message to the reader who claims that Jordan is all hype.
Michel Jordan, an overated player who has won 6 championships, won two gold medals, was once calimed the best defensive player, three all-star MVP's the list goes on and on. Overated I don't think so, overachiever may be.
What about Dr J, Majic Johnson and Bird?
First of all, all respect to those guys who were great players in their time. In particular Dr J who broke new ground with his creativity and athletism, however neither him or the others are classified as complete players. Neither Bird or Magic deserve to be the same sentence as Michael Jordan when it comes to competitive drive, determination, creativity, athletism, concentration, the ability to take control of a game anytime, or the ability to take the last second shot and hit them so consistanly. Dr J and Michael are in a league of their own, Bird, Majic and Isiah deserve to be in the same group.
As for the push offs and fouls well I not sure which game you were watching but if you take the time and watch the game closely you will find that it is a strategy used by almost every player (Reggie Miller is an excellent example, game 4 of the Indiana and Bulls series 1998)
It seems to me that you are now cluthing at straws when you start to talk about the fouls he got away with. You are talking about the greatest player of our time. A player who had specific rules set to bring him down (Jordan Rules, Pistons).
Before you start making wild accusations about Jordan not being able to win a championship without Horace or Rodman giving examples or stating fact would provide your argument to have some sort of scope and legitamacy. Horace and Rodman are known as role players in the team. Everyone in the Bulls are given roles, even the great Michael Jordan. It would be easy to say look at Majic( who had Kareem, Scoot, Worthy, Cooper)but there is no need to go there is point is made, basketball is a team sport.
Fact: Michael had to sacrifice his scoring abilities inorder to fit into Phil Jackson's coaching philisophy, which placed it's emphasis on playing as a Team. Michael would be the first to tell you this.
Fact: Michael the greatest player to play the game and the reason why the Media love him is simply because he has success on and off the court, personality is not something one can buy or teach which is unfortunate for Bird. While Majie may have the personality he lacks the competitive drive that and determination to win (Game 5 of the final series against Utah in 1997, the best game by an individual player in the history of the NBA.
All hype, I don't thinks so, the greatest player to ever lace on a pair of basketball shoes has left us with something that could only be described as Magical. Advice to you, look beyond the what happens on court, look beyond the way he plays the game of basketball, look at how he plays the game of life. Micahel Jordan the complete player.
on 1 February 1999
I've avoided previous biographical accounts of Michael Jordan for the fact that few credible and unbiased (to the extent it's possible!) authors have devoted their creative energies to capturing the true Jordan mystique and its wide-ranging effects. I'm glad I waited for Halberstam's. The Pulitzer-Prize Winner provides not only a rich, investigative, and intriguing account of the greatest team sports player in history, but a hearty analysis of the numerous influences upon and caused by His Airness. Halberstam accomplishes the rare and sumptuous feat of blending both variety and depth to draw the reader into what is essentially a story of characters: Phil Jackson, Dean Smith, Jerrys Reinsdorf and Krause, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, David Falk, and David Stern - all integral components of the author's well-woven tale. Interestingly, there is almost a sadness, if not a cynical tone, to the words Halberstam is admiringly careful in choosing to convey the Pyrrhic nature of Jordan's quest. A message to the reader here seems to be that while we late-20th centurions will count ourselves blessed to have witnessed such greatness, the costs might be even greater - the potentially pre-mature re-retirement of Jordan, damaged fan, player, and management relations (occuring in nearly all professional sports, for that matter), astronomical salaries and waning commitment, especially from new players, and for me as a Chicagolander, the dismantling of the Bulls, and the years ahead of sub-par Bulls teams. Ultimately, though, soaring above it all, is Michael Jordan, and Halberstam certainly reinforces that, as Scottie Pippen indicated at the Bulls' farewell dinner (per Halberstam's sources), 'Michael is the man who has made all of this possible'. At times Halberstam writes like a sports reporter recounting the events of a game, at other times he is a beat writer who knows the insights as to why things happen, or even still he writes as king of prose, a novelist with the natural ability to make the reader a part of the story. Even if someone had not heard of one Michael Jordan and picked up this book for a read, he or she would certainly appreciate the accomplishments of this man and how he earned them. "Playing for Keeps" is artistically special; I'm left thankful not only for the protagonist who fought the good fight, but also for the author who wrote the good write, if you will. High fives for MJ and DH, masters of their crafts.
on 30 January 1999
As a big admirer of both Halberstam and Jordan, I got pretty excited last year when I heard that a new book would be coming out. Now after, reading it, I feel a little disappointed by certain weak points, but I'd still recommend it overall, particularly to people who are curious about Jordan and who haven't read much about him before.
First, the bad: The book doesn't have terrifically new insights into Jordan. Perhaps this is to be expected for a celebrity so regularly probed, but I was expecting more in the way of fresh anecdotes, inside stories, etc. Halberstam, to his credit, brings a reassuringly thorough approach to his work, which made me confident that some of the more provocative anecdotes I read had actually happened. Still, at times I felt like I was reading direct excerpts out of previous material I'd read on Jordan, for example his own book "Rare Air." Also, Halberstam's insight into athletes themselves sometimes sounds remarkably one-sided and simple - I'd be curious to learn how many times he uses shopworn phrases like "passion in his eye" and "taking it to another level" in this book.
I shouldn't complain too much, though, because overall, the book possesses many strengths. The structure of the book is a pleasant blend of past and present, almost like a movie in which one starts at the present day, fades back and forth to various moments in the past, and then culminates with the capstone of Jordan's fabulous playing career.
One of the most interesting devices comes near the end, when the author writes a series of paragraphs describing where various figures from Jordan's past were on the night of last year's decisive NBA Finals game. We get into the minds of people like Dean Smith, Dick Ebersol, Buzz Peterson et al. Having met many of these characters through earlier parts of the book, readers are treated to sketches of what these key figures were thinking and doing as they watching Jordan come through once again in the clutch.
Finally, Halberstam does a decent job of analyzing and explaining some of the larger social currents around Jordan, namely involving the sports world and the globalized economy into which it sprang this decade. His multifaceted background as journalist and social historian serve him well as he contextualizes this greatest of twentieth-century athletes. For that I think we can all thank him.
on 25 January 1999
Being from Chicago, I've waited for a book like this. Sadly, I've read every book there is on Jordan. There have been a few good moments here and there, but most have been highly forgettable paperbacks (Just to give you an idea of what I'm talking about: the syrupy hack Bob Green, of all people, has written TWO books on Jordan. Yet, I read both of them. I don't care; Jordan is so truly unique, such a dominant figure, that I've wanted to know as much as I could about the guy).
This book gives wonderful insight into Jordan. However, the book is much more about the entire panoramic story behind and around Jordan. The book centers on Jordan, but it is also about the NBA in general, the dominant teams over the last 20 year, the emergence of cable TV and the entertainment culture, as well as, the fundamental change between players from the time Jordan came into the league and now. It is truly the big picture, and it amazes me how easily Halbestam weaves the whole thing together.
If there's one thing I wish this book had, it's even more insight into the brilliant Phil Jackson. And, even though the entire book is about Jordan, it's still lacking in some way about the man's core. It's hard to put my finger on what's missing. Maybe if Jordan had consented to be interviewed - maybe then we'd undertand more.
Here's my favorite Jordan story from the book - I wish there were more. For some reason this one seems to get at the almost maniacal, pathological way that MJ thinks. And it makes sense; Jordan is so incredibly competitive, and pushes himself so hard, there must be something out of whack in there.
The story is about the deciding game 6 of the NBA Championship series against Phoenix. Halberstam pionts out that Jordan took special pleasure in playing Phoenix because he got to go against Dan (Thunder Dan) Majerle. It wasn't anything Majerle had done, it was about the Bulls GM Jerry Krause. Jordan hated Krause. Krause loved Dan Majerle and used to go on and on about how great he thought he was. Jordan, therefore, always took his game up a notch when playing Majerle. A Phoenix assistant, unfamiliar with the dynamic between Jordan and Krause, felt that Jordan attacked Majerle in such a way on the court that there must have been some vendetta there that transcended the game. After the Bulls won the game 6, and therefore the Championship, in very dramatic fashion, Jordan raced to the basket to get the ball. He held it above his head, and his teammates, many who knew that Jordan was contemplating leaving the game, thought he might say something poignant. Instead, Jordan yelled out, "Thunder Dan Marjerle A**."
Now that tells you something.
It is a very good book.
on 13 March 1999
"Playing for Keeps" demonstrates why Halberstam so richly deserves recognition as the best journalistic writer in America -- and probably the best writer of sports books ever. Insightful, full of wonderful stories, he never fails to involve the reader and maintain one's interest. There's nothing better, I suppose, than a long book that seems like a short read and "Playing for Keeps", like all of Halberstam's works, is one of those books. Pick any of his titles, from the lengthy yet fascinating "The Reckoning" to the short yet wonderfully complete "The Amateurs" and you're in for a real treat. I started with "The Breaks of the Game," went quickly through all the rest and urge anyone to pick up any one of his books and start your own adventure into Halberstamland. Picking up "Playing for Keeps" is as good a way to become familiar with Halberstam as any and you'll no doubt find that, like me, you'll be hard pressed to find a better writer in contemporary American non-fiction.