One of sport’s biggest superstars, Michael Jordan is more than an internationally renowned athlete. As illuminated through David Halberstam’s trademark balance of impeccable research and fascinating storytelling, Jordan symbolizes the apex of the National Basketball Association’s coming of age. Long before multimillion-dollar signings and lucrative endorsements, NBA players worked in relative obscurity, with most games woefully unattended and rarely broadcast on television. Then came Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, Jordan’s two great predecessors, and the game’s status changed. The new era capitalized on Jordan’s talent, will power, and unrivaled competiveness. In Playing for Keeps, Halberstam is at his investigative best, delving into Jordan’s expansive world of teammates and coaches. The result is a gripping story of the athlete and media powerhouse who changed a game forever. This ebook features an extended biography of David Halberstam.
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About the Author
David Halberstam (1934–2007) was a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and bestselling author. He is best known for his brazen coverage of the Vietnam War for the New York Times and for his twenty-one nonfiction books, which cover a wide array of topics such as the plight of Detroit and the auto industry, and the incomparable success of Michael Jordan. The recipient of the Mailer Prize for distinguished journalism, Halberstam wrote for numerous publications throughout his career and, according to journalist George Packer, single-handedly set the standard of “the reporter as fearless truth teller.” Halberstam died in 2007.
Date of Birth:April 10, 1934
Date of Death:April 23, 2007
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Place of Death:San Francisco, California
Education:B.A., Harvard, 1955
Read an Excerpt
In the fourteen years that Michael Jordan played in the NBA, no one other than a handful of players benefited more from the league's rising affluence and the shift in power from owners to players than David Falk. A relatively junior sports agent in the beginning of the era, Falk was by 1998 not merely the most affluent agent ever to represent basketball players but one of the two or three most influential men in the sport of basketball, a man whose power was said to rival that of David Stern himself. If the legal, economic, and technological changes that took place in the eighties and nineties had been good for players, they were arguably even better for agents. Since he first surfaced as an agent, he had split twice with partners: Early on, even before he was part of Jordan's team, he and Donald Dell split from Frank Craighill and Lee Fentress, and eventually he split off from Dell in what was considered a rather bitter professional divorce. In 1998 he sold his company to a larger firm, one that specialized in producing live entertainment in arenas around the country. The price was an estimated $100 million, and as part of the deal, Falk stayed on to run his part of the company. A press release announcing the sale noted that Falk's old company, FAME (Falk Associates Management Enterprises), "represented an unprecedented 6 first-round draft picks in the NBA, negotiated over $400 million in contracts for its free-agent clients, and negotiated four of the five largest contracts in team sports history."
No one doubted David Falk's ability and intelligence, but if there was one thing that bothered people who cared about the league and the game in the broadest sense, it waswhether he had any sense of a larger good, a belief that the greater good and health of the game was still something of an issue. Some felt that there was a danger that the size of some players' contracts exploited the vulnerability of varying franchises and threatened the long-range stability of the league. Falk seemed to enjoy his power as much as his wealth, the ability not to return calls and to make other people, particularly owners, feel vulnerable to him. "Be wary of David, and be particularly careful when he starts telling you how much he respects you," an owner once noted. "That's when you're going to either lose your wallet or your franchise player--it's his way of telling you he's more powerful than you are."
In the summer of 1998, as the league and the players' union prepared for a major battle over contract rules and the owners prepared for a lockout of the players, a number of Falk clients, including Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, and Alonzo Mourning, had risen (hardly by chance) to positions of leadership in the union. That did not mean that it was simply Falk against the owners, for there were a number of other agents equally active on the players' side, but the issues, particularly the question of a soft or hard salary cap, seemed more about the contract freedoms enjoyed by the elite of the league than the earning power of most players. Certainly a number of people knowledgeable about the NBA saw the lockout as something of a struggle between Stern and Falk, and certainly when David Falk spoke to reporters that fall, he implied that Michael Jordan might be willing to come back for one more season--if David Stern did not block the way. As the lockout continued, it became increasingly clear that Falk was a critically important figure on the union side and that the issues seemed to affect his handful of elite clients more than they did most of the players. In an unusually scathing column the influential New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica wrote, "There may be worse phonies in sports than David Falk, but it is hard to come up with one today." Falk was, Lupica wrote, "a Rasputin coming off the bench" in these negotiations, the rare person who could make a writer root for a sports owner.
As for David Stern, in the late summer of 1998, as labor tensions escalated and a lockout became ever more likely, he seemed to some of his friends to be significantly sadder, if not actually melancholy. It was as if he was lamenting the loss of a once-vital human connection to the league's players, what he thought of as a special partnership with them. He grew a beard, which he vowed he would not shave until a new labor agreement was worked out. At the same time, ever a world-class marketer, he opened a giant new NBA store on Fifth Avenue in New York City, filled with almost any kind of clothing and trinket that could carry an NBA logo. Soon to come are NBA restaurants in a large number of cities.
Stern was very much aware that his longtime critics, people who hated the way the game had evolved in recent years--with its Dream Team conquest of lesser mortals at the Olympic competition, its affluent corporate-sponsorship deals, its big television contracts, its fancy new arenas with their luxury boxes and mandatory deafening noise, its growing separation of players from the media--thought he was being hoisted with his own petard. They believed that the league, with Stern as its master image maker had become too marketing-oriented in its struggle for parity with other major sports. Worst of all, in the process of gaining such stunning success, it had inevitably helped create the attitude among altogether too many players that they were beyond traditional norms of accountability, economically and socially outside the reach and control of society, and that the NBA's phenomenal (and unlikely) growth of the eighties and nineties was not some benign technological and societal fluke but nothing less than their just due. As their salaries had grown at such a remarkable rate in the past decade, so had their separation from reality.
Stern sometimes joked privately with friends that he could be arrested for operating under false pretenses in having for so long minimized the warts and maximized the artistry of the players and the game and above all for having tried to diminish the idea that modern athletes were, well . . . greedy. He liked to talk nostalgically about his early days as a league executive, when he worked with an earlier generation of labor leaders and players, men who felt a sense of partnership and shared objectives. Everyone was learning the hard way that a shared partnership was a good deal more difficult in flush times than in hard times. What bothered him now, Stern told some associates, was that players' and agents' memories were so short--almost no one seemed to remember how recently the league could not get itself on prime time for playoff games.
What made Stern's sadness particularly poignant was the fact that he had never been simply the owners' man, as was so often the case in big-time sports. He loved the players and the game itself and was committed to both, and he always had a broad sense of the larger health of the sport, a health that he believed began and ended with the public's respect and emotional investment in the players. In the words of Bob Ryan, "In that critical period when the NBA was just beginning to become successful, and a critical ingredient of it was the labor agreements which the league worked out with the union, I could as easily have envisioned David Stern heading the union and Larry Fleisher [the head of the union] being the commissioner--because there was no real difference in their love of the game, and the vision they both had of what they wanted to happen."
That was certainly no longer true. It all changed under the weight of so much prosperity. Revenue and salaries had gone up in staggering increments in recent years, tearing asunder all kinds of partnerships. When Stern came into the league as a relatively junior executive in 1978, the total of all players' salaries was around $40 million; only twenty years later, Michael Jordan made close to that much himself in one year, his team's payroll was roughly twice as much, and the total for the league was around $1 billion annually. That meant that salaries had gone up roughly 2500% in the twenty-year period. But a new generation of players represented by a new generation of agents had little interest in the hoary stories from what seemed like another century about how far they had all come in so short a time. There was no small amount of irony in the fact that the agent who had pulled off the Kevin Garnett deal, which more than anything else united the owners in bringing on the lockout, was Eric Fleisher, son of the late Larry Fleisher, the first head of the union and an agent in his own right, a man once despised by the owners of his day but now regarded as the very model of decorum and fairness by a new generation of league owners and executives.
The negotiations between league officials and owners on one hand and players on the other moved slowly in the fall of 1998. It was a most unusual labor dispute: on one side a large number of billionaires, on the other, countless millionaires. Tony Kornheiser of The Washington Post said it was a strike between tall millionaires and short millionaires. And Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune wrote that watching the strike was like watching a collision between two limousines. "One guy gets out of the backseat of one limo complaining that he spilled his glass of Château Lafite Rothschild wine in the collision. And the guy from the other limo gets out mortified that his gold Rolex was scratched." By 1998, the average player's salary was $2.5 million. David Stern himself made $7 million a year, a sticking point for many of the players and agents. And Patrick Ewing, the head of the union, was making $18.5 million this year as part of a handsome four-year contract, a sticking point with owners. The issues seemed less about how much money was being made at the moment than whether salaries would be kept open-ended in the future. Would there be any ceiling on a team's ability to sign its best players? Could some formula be engineered that justly rewarded very valuable players after a certain period of service and yet did not threaten the very stability and balance of the league? Did the issues at stake affect 80 percent of the players or just a small handful of elite players who might be worthy of giant salaries?
The truth was that with the salaries so large and getting larger, the players were inevitably the losers in a showdown like this. They had lost something crucial from their earlier public struggles with the owners: public support. Few young American sports enthusiasts, after all, had ever rooted for the owners or idolized them, and few American youths had grown up in their teens hoping one day to own a sports franchise. The owners had no popularity to lose. The players did. Out of touch with the world around them, strangers even to the better sportswriters who now covered them, encouraged by agents who had both a vested interest in their success and a fear of being candid with them, players rarely enjoyed the kind of dispensation granted a superstar like Michael Jordan. Theirs was hardly a popular cause even among those normally accustomed to taking labor's side in salary disputes.
Table of Contents
- 1. Paris, October 1997
- 2. Wilmington; Laney High, 1979-1981
- 3. Chicago, November 1997
- 4. Los Angeles, 1997; Williston, North Dakota, 1962
- 5. Chapel Hill, 1980
- 6. Chapel Hill, 1981
- 7. Chapel Hill, 1982-1984
- 8. Chicago, 1984
- 9. New York City; Bristol, Connecticut, 1979-1984
- 10. Chapel Hill; Chicago; Portland, 1984
- 11. Los Angeles; Chicago, 1984, 1985
- 12. Boston, April 1986
- 13. New York City; Portland, 1986
- 14. Chicago, 1986-1987
- 15. Albany; Chicago, 1984-1988
- 16 Chicago; Seattle, 1997
- 17 Hamburg and Conway, Arkansas; Chicago, 1982-1987
- 18. Detroit, the 1980s
- 19. Chicago, 1988-1990; New York City, 1967-1971
- 20. Chicago, 1990-1991
- 21. Chicago; Los Angeles, 1991
- 22. Chicago, 1997-1998
- 23. Chicago; Portland, 1992
- 24. La Jolla; Monte Carlo; Barcelona, 1992
- 25. Chicago; Phoenix, 1992-1993
- 26. Chicago, 1993
- 27. Birmingham; Chicago, 1994-1995
- 28. Chicago; Seattle; Salt Lake City, 1995-1997
- 29. Chicago, 1998
- 30. Chicago; Indianapolis, 1998
- 31. Chicago; Salt Lake City, June 1998
- 32. Chicago, June 1998
- Image Gallery
- Author's Note
- List of Interviews
- A Biography of David Halberstam
What People are Saying About This
David Halberstam has written a remarkable book about the changes in American society over the last 25 years. On one level, it is about basketball and the game's greatest player, Michael Jordan. On another level, it is about how an entertainment culture envelops Jordan and makes him its own. But on its deepest level, it is a story about working to overcome the odds, honoring parents and family and striving to become a positive social force. This book is a must-read for basketball fans, admirers of Jordan and anyone who seeks to understand sports in America today.
On Thursday, February 25th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed David Halberstam to discuss PLAYING FOR KEEPS.
Moderator: Welcome, David Halberstam! Thank you for taking the time to join us online this evening, and congratulations on the tremendous success of PLAYING FOR KEEPS. How is everything in Seattle today? Are Sonics fans still mad at Jordan for squelching the Sonics' hopes for a ring three seasons ago?
David Halberstam: No, I think the Sonics fans are trying to figure out how, like other teams in the post-Jordan era, to sort of move into the vacuum that he left behind. There is not much anger toward him, more admiration because he was such a great player and because he was such a great competitor. I think the Sonics fans are more worried about their own team. It was last year that they were swept by L.A., who were promptly swept by Utah. I think they are more concerned about their semi-chaos -- a coach is out, we don't know what the future holds, there is an abundance of talent, and can it be fused together to become a great team? To be continued.
Charlie Rapson from Cleveland, OH: I think you captured the essence of Michael Jordan magnificently in this book. Congratulations on such a great book. My question to you, is how do you respond to those who disagree with me and think this book is too much of a "star worship" biography? I personally think you covered his gambling woes to a satisfactory degree, but many folks I have spoken to think that you didn't.
David Halberstam: Generally, people think the book is nicely distanced from him and appreciative of him as a great player but catches a lesser side of him appropriately enough, and the main thing that I have been able to accomplish is in getting all the great changes in society, like commercials. I think that is generally the critics' thoughts. I realize that in Cleveland, there is a reservation of resentment toward Michael because the Bulls and Michael beat a great Cleveland team: Nance, Hot Rod Williams, Mark Price et al. And if it weren't for Michael, that team could have gone to the finals. But generally the book has been applauded for how I admire him but keep my distance from him.
Soozan Baxter from New York City: First, I want to tell you that THE FIFTIES is one of my all-time favorite books. Secondly, I wanted to ask you if you think the current NBA without the charisma and character of Bird, Johnson, Thomas, and Jordan can keep up the character and enjoyment level that we have grown so accustomed to. Are Allen Iverson, Chris Webber, Latrell Sprewell, and Shaquille O'Neal the new Bird, Magic, and Michael?
David Halberstam: The answer is obviously no. All of the new players have great talent, but whether they can show that they have toughness of mind and character to lift their teams and to become champs is a question. Are they great team leaders, or are they overpaid members of Generation X that don't get much better once they get in the league? Players are getting from the start what an older generation got at the end of their careers. Although Webber is showing that he is a different player this year, the jury is still out. When I was doing the book, one of the things that Chris Ford (the Clippers coach) said was, "The one thing that Bird and Jordan had in common is that when they first signed with their teams each thought that part of their contract was to lift their team to a championship," and he thought that many new players don't have that anymore. Obviously the talent is there, but will the character and the desire to excel and the ability to let fans know that there is a love of the game show as well? That is the question.
Pac87@aol.com from XX: Did you sit down and interview MJ at all for this book?
David Halberstam: Not for this book. I sat down and interviewed him six or seven years ago for a piece I did for Sports Illustrated when they made him Sportsman of the Year. There was talk that when he did a book I would write it with him. When I did this book he was media-ed out, and we had an agreement that he would see me after the season, but he backed out of it because he was too exhausted from the season.
Mike from Springfield, VA: Can you think of another contemporary athlete that is as clutch and performs under pressure with the execution of Jordan?
David Halberstam: I can think of others, but they don't dominate their sport quite the way he does. In basketball there are only five players on the floor, and they play offense and defense. He was able to transcend the sport in an unusual way. I think of him as the best big-game fourth-quarter player I have ever seen, but all you have to do is think of Bob Gibson pitching a big game -- but a pitcher only plays every four days. Also Joe Montana rose to the occasion in big games. Basketball allowed Michael to showcase himself. He did it from an unusual position, in a big man's game when he wasn't a big man. Being an off guard made his dominance of the game all that much more remarkable. In the Utah series in '98 in the fourth quarter, he averaged 13 points and Karl Malone averaged 3, because Michael can create.
Rik from USA: Are you excited about the fact that the main character in the movie "Rushmore" with Bill Murray is reading a David Halberstam book in a scene where he is trying to act more sophisticated and intelligent than he is?
David Halberstam: I think it sends a great tribute. My daughter, who is a freshman in college, called me and told me that I was now really making it. It was bound to happen, I guess, that I would become a major figure in popular culture.
Henry R. from Oak Park, IL: What were a few surprises you discovered while researching this book, that you didn't know going into this project?
David Halberstam: I think the importance of Dean Smith and forging him -- the discipline and the endless drills. I sort of knew, but I didn't know to what degree. I knew he was competitive, but I didn't how competitive. I knew he was a good practice player, but I didn't know he was a killer in practice -- he drove his teammates to greatness through his practice habits. I knew he was tough of mind, but I didn't know how tough. I knew that these were true, but I didn't know to what degree. I think it was in confronting these things that I found out how extraordinary he was.
John from JWC901@aol.com: How key do you think Dean Smith was in the maturation of Michael Jordan as a person and a basketball player? Do you think current NBA youngsters like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant are missing something key by bypassing college and entering the NBA as teenagers?
David Halberstam: The answer to the second part is obviously yes. It is a chance to grow up and make mistakes. You get a lot of money in the NBA, and you can make the point that instead of college Kobe will have $20 million. But they are missing the chance to be taught by good coaches and to do things that are fun, to grow and to have intellectual interests. I think it is terribly important. I think Michael greatly benefited from the Dean Smith program, and I think one of the points of the book was how much Dean Smith was to him. People like Michael Jordan because he is a grown-up, and at Carolina he became a grown-up. He had great coaches at North Carolina teaching him how to be a man. He had great teammates who didn't let him get a swelled head. James Worthy once said, "There are many, many things that Dean Smith could teach you, and at the bottom of the list is basketball." Dean taught Michael basketball well, but there was a good deal more. He taught him how to fend off ego, not to be selfish, to respect coaches, to respect teammates, and to respect all things being equal and dealing well with the media. Playing on the court was only part of it. Michael had a very strong family, and the Dean Smith program built on that.
Steve from Short Hills, NJ: Does your book cover Jordan's baseball days? Also, what do you think were the physical restrictions that held Jordan back from becoming a successful major league hitter? Also, do you think if he concentrated on baseball similar to how hard he worked on his basketball skills, he would have been a successful baseball player?
David Halberstam: Yes, I do deal with it at some length. The things working against him were being away from the sport for 13 years. If an athlete as talented as Michael had tried baseball earlier, I think he would have been a success. But his height would have worked against him. There aren't many great six-foot-six baseball players, because their strike zone is too big. He didn't have a baseball body. Baseball players get power from their thighs and hips and their asses. Michael had a basketball body -- thin thighs, powerful upper body. His lower trunk wasn't as thick as most baseball players' trunks. The interesting thing is that even when he had a decent batting average, for someone as strong as Michael, the ball just did not pop off the bat.
Tate from Gary, IN: I know this has nothing to do with Michael Jordan, but I was wondering if you think Indiana has the best shot at the post-Jordan ring?
David Halberstam: I don't know. They were an awfully good team last year, and they gave the Bulls as hard a run as any team has done in their six championship runs. They are tough, and they have a depth to their rotation that was extremely difficult for the Bulls to deal with, particularly later in the games, when starters like Chris Mullin and Mark Jackson were out and Travis Best and Jalen Rose were in. The Bulls were not deep, and late in the fourth, the Bulls got tired and the Pacers were rested. I would think that Indiana right now is a team that could be very good in the playoffs. How much longer they can be held together I don't know. They have some restrictions -- Jackson has good floor vision but he is not quick, Rik Smits has limitations. The Indiana team that finished up last year was really playing better than the Bulls at the end; they won three of the seven games, and the Bulls won the final game with a shoe shine and a smile. I am not sure how they will match up against some of the younger teams. Bird used that rotation very well. Jalen Rose gave Jordan a tough time. Jordan was not prepared for him.
Hareem from Newark, NJ: What do you foresee in the near future for Michael Jordan? Do you think he would ever take the Larry Bird route and become a coach?
David Halberstam: It doesn't strike me as likely. He doesn't need the money, and I don't think he would fancy coaching younger players today, many of whom wouldn't listen. But I didn't think Bird would coach. The truth is, we don't know. For the moment it doesn't seem likely. There are other things he wants to do. I think it is hard for someone that good to be a good coach. I think Bird is unusual to be able to coach players not as good as him.
Steve from Seattle, WA: If you didn't have to worry about money ever again, would you still be doing what you're doing for a career?
David Halberstam: Sure, it is what I love to do. I might do something slightly differently but it is not simply what I do, it is who I am. I like the people I meet, and I like the intellectual challenge, and I like the pleasure it gives people. It is a gift to be able to do this. If I had money, sure I would still do it. I feel lucky to have done it.
Dave Anderson from New York City: Are there any current NBA players whose game Michael Jordan seriously respects?
David Halberstam: He liked Joe Dumars's game. I think he thinks Kobe has talent, but he doesn't know what is going to happen with him; he is young and he hasn't had time to go to the next level. I think he is mostly weary of the Generation X players. He liked Juwan Howard at first. I think he liked his work ethic. I think at one point he wanted to get Jayson Williams for the Bulls, but that didn't work out. Beyond that I don't want to put words in his mouth. In general I think he is underwhelmed by the Gen X players; they don't work hard enough, their games are incomplete, and they got too much too quickly.
John from New York City: Do you think Michael Jordan had a personal dislike for the Riley-era Knicks teams that led him to step up his play? I certainly thought his obvious dislike for players like Starks and Greg Anthony was evident, and he really increased his game...
David Halberstam: I think you are probably right. I think he didn't like the Riley teams; it wasn't just Starks and Anthony, it was the physicality of their play. He thought they were bullying. He didn't like the X-Man. X was trying to push Pippen around, and Michael went right into X's face, and Xavier backed down. There is a great photo of Michael right in the face of Ewing, absolutely fearless, and he was saying lay off my teammates. He didn't particularly like Starks and Anthony, but he also really didn't like how the Knicks were trying to beat the Bulls with physicality, not basketball.
Paul Crichton from Pcrichton@book.com: The only contemporary athlete ever compared to Michael Jordan in terms of significant social impact is Muhammad Ali. However, comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges, as Ali's story played out under enormous political and social stresses. How similar do you think Jordan and Ali are as people?
David Halberstam: Well, I used that same phrase -- apples and oranges -- when somebody asked me about the two earlier today in an interview. They have certain parallels: winning smiles underneath a desire to excel, incredible athleticism. They are very different in that Michael was much more privileged. He was born a year before Ali got the championship, and Jordan went to integrated schools and went to the best college program in the country with great care and nurturing, and nothing had been denied to him. Ali, on the other hand, barely graduated from high school -- the school pretty much graduated him knowing they had to graduate him because he was going to become the most famous alumni of the school -- but it was a much harder life, and he was very bright. Reading was hard for Ali, it was all street smarts. He was much more political because much more was denied. The rage to excel is there for both of them, but one is a kid from the streets, and one is an upper-middle-class guy who went to the best college in the state. Ali didn't get the financial benefits, and he did it in such a brutal sport, boxing, which had much less appeal to women. Many more women liked Jordan and his basketball. Ali was much more political with his strong stance against the Vietnam War.
John from Marlboro, MA: Has Michael Jordan seen the book? Have you heard anything about his reaction to your depiction?
David Halberstam: I have sent him a book, and I think I will hear from friends of his. Phil Jackson used to give all his players a different book to read on the road, but I don't think Michael did that much reading for recreation. I think I will hear eventually from him, and I think he will like it.
Vance from Columbia, SC: Are you currently writing another book?
David Halberstam: I obviously will have to, because that is how I make my living, and New York City is very expensive. I have recently written THE CHILDREN and now this one. I am thinking about a book on the Korean War. I will keep writing, and I hope to sign a three-book contract soon.
Scott Ehlers from Hollywood, CA: In your opinion, is Michael Jordan the most recognizable man on this planet?
David Halberstam: Yeah, I think so. I think he is arguably the most famous person in the world. One thing I wrote is that he was the first great athlete of the wired world. Ali and Pelé were in a time when the satellite wasn't as powerful, and in addition Michael got all those commercials. I think he is the most famous person in the world; also he is six foot six and he is so attractive, it is not like the can blend into a crowd.
Moderator: Thank you, David Halberstam, and best of luck with PLAYING FOR KEEPS. Do you have any closing comments for the online audience?
David Halberstam: It has been fun doing this chat, and it was fun writing the book, and it was fun promoting it. It is nice to write about a happy story. There is a lot out there that is not very pleasant, but this is a story that has a nice beginning and end. He is really good at what he does. Goodnight.