You might have heard that Michael Jordan turned 50 over the weekend. Chances are pretty good that you did, considering that just about everyone over the age of 25 that’s semi-qualified to talk about basketball has turned the last week or so into an all-out blitz of Michael remembrance in honor of the milestone. Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report and Ball Don’t Lie all did separate countdowns of his Top 50 moments, ESPN the Magazine published the first truly interesting feature story on Jordan in lord knows how long, and just about everyone involved with All-Star Weekend had to offer up some sort of commentary on MJ’s greatness before they were allowed out of Houston. This makes sense, since when you’re the greatest person to ever do something, people will use just about any excuse to talk about how great you were. Turning 50 is about as good a reason as any.
The undercard of the MJ at 50 main event, however, has been another player from the 1984 draft class also hitting the half-century mark — Jordan’s good friend Charles Barkley, who turns the big 5-0 today. Despite playing for about as long as Jordan and enjoying a Hall of Fame career of his own, you won’t find too many countdowns of Sir Charles’ top 50 career moments, and if you did, they’d probably be filled with ambivalence-inspiring moments like his “I Am Not a Role Model” commercials and the time he threw a basketball at Shaq’s head. However, Barkley did get at least one tribute in honor of his 50th, the “Sir Charles at 50″ special that aired after All-Star Saturday on TNT, and again Monday night on NBA TV, just a couple hours after MJ’s own tribute, a “One on One With Ahmad Rashad” interview, aired on the same channel.
I watched both of these specials, and the contrast between the two was a stark one, both in how they treated the players’ respective careers, and in how they looked at their lives and legacies in the years since their retirements. By just about every conceivable estimation, Jordan had the better career of the two. He won more championships, scored more points, made more All-Star Games, sold more jerseys, influenced more facets of the game (and players who followed), and provided more unforgettable moments — enough so that making a Top 50 list of them doesn’t seem all that ridiculous, or even all that challenging. But a decade after both have retired, if you’re asking who seems happier, whose legacy feels more secure, who seems better-liked by fans and peers, whose life just seems … better, for lack of a better word, the answer is clearly Barkley.
As fun as it was to relive the great moments of MJ’s career in “One on One” — and most NBA fans, even those like myself who weren’t really around for them, can recite a timeline of them from memory, going from his game-winner in the NCAA Championship up to The Shot and the first and second Threepeats — it was, to quote Ferris Bueller, a lot like you were touring a museum, very cold and untouchable. No real insight was gleaned or emotional breakthroughs made, and Jordan seemed like Jordan always does: self-assured, but anxious and guarded, friendly, but not quite comfortable or trusting. He was not asked any particularly tough questions, and he did not give any particularly controversial answers.
In fact, the interview was a decidedly soft-pedaling one. Here’s a brief list of proper names not mentioned once over the course of the special: Jerry Krause, Bill Cartwright, Toni Kukoc, the Washington Wizards, Kwame Brown and Adam Morrison. MJ’s failure-marked Bobcats years are only alluded to in the context of whether or not he plans on attempting a third comeback as a player (he says he doesn’t), and his notorious, often borderline-sociopathic competitive streak is written off as MJ Being MJ, just another side effect of his drive to greatness (down to clips of Jordan’s infamously bitter Hall of Fame speech being treated as a lark, Michael “telling it like it is,” with a playful, Thomas Newman-like score being played underneath footage of him calling out his longtime rivals). It was a Greatest Hits package dressed up as an honest retrospective, and you get the feeling Jordan wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“Sir Charles at 50″ was not nearly so reverential. In fact, in the first five minutes of the special, Barkley gets called fat by someone from his hometown, his mom talks about spanking him, and Ernie Johnson asks him some tough questions about his dad being absent most of his youth. The overly familiar, borderline-mocking tone is present for much of the special, even in the celebrity tributes. While MJ’s special features the next generation of stars (CP3, KD, LeBron) paying tribute to his basketball greatness (though most hadn’t even been born yet when he was drafted in ’84), Barkley’s features his celebrity peers, as well as NBA players past and present, wishing him a happy birthday mostly by making jokes at his expense. Though less glowing, it feels much more honest.
And that’s the thing with the Barkley special that’s missing from the Jordan one, that sense of getting the whole story. Not to say that Chuck is held accountable for all of his sins over the course of the special — there’s no mention of his many run-ins with the law, including his 2008 DUI arrest while on the way to get a blowjob from a hooker — and he’s let off the hook a little too easy for some of the inflammatory comments he made about his teams and teammates during his career. But Barkley’s many on-court failures are detailed, occasionally in excruciating detail, and not all of his controversies are whitewashed, as Ernie does make protracted note of the incident where he accidentally spit on a fan in New Jersey. At the very least, you get the sense that EJ isn’t scared to ask him uncomfortable questions, and that Barkley respects him for it. The result is a more compelling special, one full of hilarious quotes (“I ate, like, a whole cake”) and insightful moments like Chuck explaining that what really haunts him about the ’93 Finals isn’t John Paxson’s game-sealing trey, but that he passed out of a double team on offense a couple times down the stretch.
An interesting clip shown in Barkley’s documentary shows footage of MJ and Chuck paling around back in 1996 with Barkley pretending to interview Jordan for TNT, clowning him for working on “Space Jam” and Jordan returning fire, mocking his role in the movie. Though Barkley is the more charismatic of the two, Jordan shows himself to be no slouch at the rapid-fire banter. Considering how increasingly distant, even distrusting of the media and the general public he’s gotten as he gets older, it’s somewhat disarming to see MJ at his most personally engaging here. It makes you wonder why it is that Barkley continued to be so forthcoming and open with his public image, and why Jordan essentially tuned out, spending even his own commercials begging to be left alone.
I have a theory about this, and it ties in to the most-discussed moment from Jordan’s NBA TV special. The theory is this: Jordan feels he can’t be that open and vulnerable a public figure because Jordan, unlike Barkley, still has something to lose. Barkley’s legacy is secure because he doesn’t have anything left to protect. He’s never won a championship, he has no notable records, and he’s not really considered the Greatest at anything — even if he had the title of Best Power Forward Ever at the time of his retirement, he’s lost it to Tim Duncan (and arguably Dirk Nowitzki), a fact which Barkley knows and readily acknowledges. MJ, on the other hand, still has the GOAT on his back, and a reputation that he very much cares about and still seems perpetually worried about losing, even though most experts still rank him far-and-away as the number one.
This, I believe, is at the heart of his recent comments (televised on the NBA TV special) where he essentially chooses Kobe over LeBron, despite acknowledging that LeBron is The Guy at the moment. I think deep down, Jordan knows that Bryant is no threat to him in terms of all-time honors — even if he somehow squeaked out one or two more championships, which seems increasingly unlikely with each passing season, there are too many qualifiers with Kobe (feuded with too many coaches and teammates, spent too long as the team’s second-best player, no-showed in too many big games) for him to challenge MJ’s relatively unblemished resume. But with LeBron, now that he’s shed the choker tag and put together a couple all-around seasons as impressive as any MJ ever had, with plenty of time to come and on pace for similar (if not superior) career totals, he knows that the disparity in championships is the only thing keeping people from putting LBJ on Jordan’s level. So he gives him that subtle undercut, pointing out that lack of championships, reminding people that not only does Five beat One, but that Six beats both. I’m not even sure if he realizes he’s doing it, but I can’t believe he’s not doing it.
Ultimately, the fact that MJ still seems to care about these things while Chuck has long stopped giving a shit tells you just about all you need to know about the difference between the two men in their post-playing careers — why Jordan is venerated like a historical great while Barkley is beloved like an old college buddy, why Jordan struggles to succeed as a GM and president and entertains notions of a comeback while Barkley has the time of his life on TNT, and why Jordan remains haunted and imprisoned by his past while Barkley laughs at his past mistakes and seems genuinely appreciative for everything that he currently has. Maybe being the GOAT is worth the burden. You’d have to ask MJ, and I doubt he’d really answer, but adding it all up for both men at this pivotal birthday in their lives, this is the one area where I think you gotta give the edge to the Chuckster.