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.
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