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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.

Comments (33)

  1. Great piece! Very interesting…

  2. Very nice, well-thought out piece. If I could add my own perspective to it… I think another difference (and you touched on it) is that MJ takes it all so seriously that he can’t laugh at himself. And that’s partly our fault. So many fans (and it’s become even more glaringly obvious over this week) have elevated Jordan to the level of a god. We’ve made him into more than he is, which is simply a guy who puts a ball in a basket, albeit better than most. I find it sad seeing him now, because he’s like an old actress who based her worth on her looks, and is watching them tragically fade, leaving a worthless shell to peer out. I think Barkley realized that it’s all been a fun ride, but ultimately there are more important things in life. I just wish more fans could do the same.

  3. Great read, I agree with most of what was written.

    The Jordan interview left me wanting a lot more answers. I wanted so many more questions asked with Jordan -

    The veterans freezing him out at his first All-Star game.
    Jordan’s issues with Thomas, leading to him being left off the Dream Team.
    The Bulls losing to the Magic in the 95 Playoffs.
    His second comeback with the Wizards.
    His time as a GM, and now as an owner.

    I’m pretty sure Jordan probably said those topics were not allowed before he agreed to the interview.

    Barkley, on the other hand, the biggest black stain on his career was probably the spitting incident, and he was willing to talk about that. They didn’t talk about the DUI, but I’m sure he would have talked about it if they asked him about it.

    Yeah, Jordan was the better player, no doubt about it. Greatest of all time, or at least of my lifetime. But if you were going to hang out with one, I think most people would pick Barkley.

    The Bill Russell interview was great as well. May not have been the greatest player ever, but was definitely the greatest leader and teammate ever. Jordan’s beating Russell one on one, but five on five, I think Russell’s team would have a better shot against Jordan’s team than most would think. Both are two of the greatest ever, though.

    Greatest of all time:
    PG: Magic Johnson
    SG: Michael Jordan
    SF: Larry Bird
    PF: Tim Duncan
    C: Bill Russell

    Greatest of my lifetime – Replace Russell with Hakeem Olajuwon.

  4. Great article. I’m a Jordan fan but I’m really getting tired of people thinking he can walk on water. The Bulls won 50 something games without him. He was obviously great, but it helps to have a coach like Phil, and teammates like Pippen. Will be interesting to see what Lebron does now that he’s in a good situation. Also, I would personally take Duncan, KG, Malone, and Barkley over Dirk.

  5. Michael Jordan doesn’t seem happy.

    • Exactly. And in the end, what else is there?

    • I think part of it has to do with Jordan can’t have real relationship with peoples. Everyone he talks to wants to talk about basketball with him. And even if they’re talking about something else, in the back of MJ’s mind, he’s probably thinking this conversation is going to find itself to basketball someway. Everywhere you go, people want to talk to you, but it’s never any real conversations, just always superficial stuff. Must be a strange type of loneliness.

  6. Thought the same exact thing regarding Kobe vs. LeBron – MJ’s got the nod over Kobe for the reasons you described, but LeBron isn’t so clear cut yet because Bron is bigger, stronger, a better passer, MAY become a better defender, better 3 point shooter etc. So instead MJ states Kobe has more rings so he’s better, which even LeBron has stated is ridiculous. And MJ also knows that LeBron will win at best 2 more rings with Miami (DWade is getting up there, salary cap may prevent them from loading up again) so Bron will have to land in a perfect situation to get close to 5-7 rings.

  7. I love the NBA, and I started loving it because of Jordan. Watching him play, doing all those amasing things. But then I stoped, got back to soccer (I’m portuguese), and a few years ago I started watching a show, called Inside NBA, and because of Barkley, I started watching NBA again. Barkley is the best. A few months ago, the NBA stoped airing Inside NBA, I’m an orphan looking for a father figure in TBJ… So that’s my cool story bro…

  8. really great article,

    just a side note, never seen people talk about it, but its true that Lebron is bigger, stronger, maybe faster, better passer, than Michael but he seems, from my perspective, more liked by team mates. I saw a special on Michael and apparently a lot of his team mates couldnt stand his i gotta win attitude and the call outs when he judged the effort level was insufficient. It seems to me Lebron is “cooler” with his team mates and a more relaxed superstar. I’ll give him the edge because since winning the championship, he seems so relaxed while playing and still dominates kinda like michael while everytime i see highlights of MJ he seems super concetrated and “stressed” about the game

    just my thoughts

    • That is definitely a good point. But on the other hand between rule changes and overall quality of the opposition you could make a case for Jordan’s hard-assedness.

      Jus sayin.

  9. Cool story, bro.

  10. Great job Andrew!

  11. very well written and thoughtful

  12. I thought this was a very interesting article. It can even be read as an explanation of how LeBron’s ugly transition from Cleveland to Miami was all for the best, since now he really has a lot less to lose. What seems terrible (T R B L) now could actually turn out pretty well in the long run. Good things may be brought about even as a result of our failures. Skeets or Tas feel free to open/close The Fix with that last line.

  13. I started watching basketball in the late 80s and thought Michael Jordan was God. He could do no wrong in my opinion and as far as I was concerned was the best teammate and role model anyone could ever have. About the only unflattering picture you could find of him in those pre-”mass Internet” days was the Sam Smith book (The Jordan Rules). Fast forward 10-20 years and pretty much EVERYTHING about a player/team/organization is available online and will be tweeted and facebooked and linked and leaked. So it becomes very easy to see how big of an asshole such-and-such star player is and how much of a dick such-and-such star player is to his team and so on and so forth. If we had all these ways of sharing information back when Jordan was winning championships, he would have been just as polarizing a player as Lebron and Kobe are now. Instead he is mainly reviled as an owner and bitter ex-player, somewhat dismissed in his present-day incarnation, but still fairly beloved as a former player (except by his former teammates, no doubt).

  14. Very interesting read.

  15. wow. watch out. we got a great article over here. bravo!

  16. By the third paragraph, it’s obvious that this will be the best article written in reference to Jordan’s 50th birthday. The way most sports fans and writers ignore the dark side of extreme competitiveness, and what such a drive will compel individuals to do, is exactly why we idolize athletes as superhuman models of both sport and morality. It is exactly why most could look at a sport overrun by steroids and assume that the greatest athlete in that sport is clean because he gives charismatic interviews (I’m talking about Lance Armstrong).

    I think it is perfectly acceptable to marvel at the accomplishments of these individuals, but let’s remember the that they are human and that some degree of sociopathy is beneficial in competition. The disturbing side effects of that personality trait should come as no surprise when they surface in the greatest athletes of all time.

  17. Great, thoughtful piece. I usually come to TBJ for the podcasts but your articles are consistently entertaining, if not thought provoking.

  18. This piece is absolutely true no one ever talks bad about jordan even though he called jerry krause(gm) fat, wanted him to get fired, punched teamates in the face, called chamillionare the n word, gambled, the stripper thing and among others but Kobe is asshole, lebron is hated and dwight howard is a baby.Jordan has done things not others were able to get away from. Stern probally has been covering his ass, on a sidenote i think bron is using roids but stern would not do anything about it cause of the “nba image”

    • I think people also forget that he wasn’t always the “perfect” player. For the longest time, while Magic, Bird, and Isiah were winning titles, they said Jordan was just a chucker who took too many shots and scored too many empty points that didn’t help his team win any games. If we had the internet back then, we’d have articles that talk about him the same way people talk about like.. Monta Ellis or Josh Smith.

      Eventually he was able to put it together, though. And having a great team also helped. That Bulls team in 94 was pretty damn good. They could have gotten past NY and made it all the way to the Finals. I don’t think they’d have beat the Rockets that year, but they realistically could have made it to the Finals. It’s interesting to think how that would have changed Jordan’s legacy if he retired and the team made the Finals the very next year. Remember, at that time he only had 3 titles and a lot of people were still putting him as a step below Magic.

  19. IN THIS STORY YOU FORGOT THAT MJ AND CHARLES ARE UNCLE TOMS NOW AND FOREVER!

  20. This deserves all the great comment’s it is getting. Excellent.

  21. excellent article. i’d have to agree with an earlier commentator – you get the feeling that jordan cannot laugh at himself, ever. through a combination of his own ego and our lionization of him, it’s impossible, while for chuck it comes naturally. and for that reason, barkley will probably always be more loved by most people.

  22. This was a great read, and I kinda noticed this while watching NBA TV. Barkley must have said like 5 times at the end of his interview how he has the best job in the world on Inside the NBA and how happy he is. Michael on the other hand has led the Wiz and Bobs to mediocrity for the past couple years.

  23. Great article.

    But Dirk Nowitzki better than Kevin Garnett? Sure, Dirk has that nice one-foot fadeaway, and scored a bit more (okay, he’s the best big-man shooter of all time) – but KG was/is a vastly better defender (one of the best ever) and rebounder.

  24. Maybe MJ only talks about being the GOAT because that is literally everything he’s asked about. It’s the media’s decision to ask questions in relation to relevant stories. MJ only pops up in the news when someone challenges his GOAT status. Chuck hasn’t got anything to hold on to – plus, we see him every day now.

    If MJ was on Inside the NBA, I bet the media perception of him would change as they get to know him better.

    Anyway, my point is: to ultimately compare the happiness of Chuck and MJ is ridiculous – especially on the basis of how we perceive them – thanks to the media.

    MJ is lonely because people only talk to him about basketball. Stupid assertion. Do you think his family and friends talk about basketball all the time with him? They’re the people that matter – and asking them would give a better idea of either players “happiness”

    • I think you are right in everything you say Ryan, but I think this post is about the public perception of both of them, not their personal life. Brakley seems more at ease, more relaxed public figure then Michael, for every and other reason stated here, by you others and others to come. And maybe Jordan will be more at ease once he starts having success with his franchise, if it ever happens, or maybe not.

      One thing is for certain. Look at both hall of fame speeches, barkleys and jordans. In the public eye, how is the happiest? More comfortable with himself?

  25. your picking dirk ahead of KG as the greatest power forward???????? wow!!!!

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