Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Missing in Action: Jordan Rides the Bus

When the greatest player of a sport retires, it’s memorable. When the greatest player of a sport retires at the height of his athletic abilities so that he can take a stab at another sport he hasn’t played since high school, it’s momentous. And yet somehow Michael Jordan’s one-year fling with professional baseball is practically forgotten, regarded 16 years later like some trivial footnote, like the deleted scene of a classic film, as if it didn’t count. But it did. So, in Jordan Rides the Bus, the latest entry in ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series, Ron Shelton chronicles the impact of Jordan’s sudden and brief career switch on the NBA, on Nike, on the Birmingham Barons minor league baseball team, on a bus driver, on a real estate agent and on a bar owner. Meanwhile, Shelton charts the evolution of Jordan’s baseball skills, explores theories about the motivations for Jordan’s dalliance with the sport and brings in media talking-heads to reevaluate not just Jordan’s baseball skills but also their own coverage of his brief career. At 50 minutes, Jordan Rides the Bus is a thorough documentary. Alas, it’s as emotionless as a Wikipedia page. Because the one thing Shelton’s documentary doesn’t convey is what all of the above meant to Michael Jordan.

It’s not for lack of effort. Shelton tries. Oh, how he tries! His documentary is heavy with archival Jordan interviews in which the sports icon insists he’s playing baseball to honor his murdered father and because he’s lost his motivation to play basketball, having run out of things to prove after winning three consecutive NBA titles. But these are all sound bites, mostly pulled from press conferences, spoken by an experienced interviewee. They are less revealing of a man in the moment than of a man under the spotlight who is used to the attention. These clips provide no sense of what Jordan thought privately. They provide no sense of what he thinks now. They don’t even provide a sense of what Jordan might have thought semi-recently. In Jordan Rides the Bus we hear a lot of Jordan’s voice thanks to interview and television commercial audio that’s repurposed as voiceover, but since the original sources aren’t cited, it’s hard to put Jordan’s words into context, hard to trust his accounts. Just because Jordan didn’t sit down for an exclusive interview doesn’t mean there should be such a void. After all, Steve James didn’t need an official sitdown with Allen Iverson to give us a glimpse of his subject’s soul in No Crossover. And so it is that Shelton’s film reminds more of two other basketball-related docs in the “30 for 30” series: Without Bias and Guru of Go. Jordan is so distant from this picture, it’s as if he’s dead.

Shelton tries to make up for main character’s absence the way Without Bias made up for the lack of Len Bias and Guru of Go made up for the lack of Hank Gathers: by bringing the subject’s career to life through the memories of witnesses. Strangely, in this case that only makes Jordan seem more distant. Because what one realizes at least halfway through the film is that for all the people who worked with Jordan, or coached Jordan or played with Jordan, no one seems to really know him. Even when they think they’re close, they aren’t. They’re just nearby. For example, Sports Illustrated scribe Jack McCallum’s evidence that Jordan and his father had an especially close bond comes from standing within two feet of the pair in the Chicago Bulls’ locker room after Jordan won his first NBA title – which is ironic justification, by the way, because McCallum is the same talking-head who scolds the media (himself included) for jumping to the conclusion that Jordan’s baseball career had to be somehow linked to swirling rumors about Jordan’s gambling habit because of the close proximity of those events making headlines. Looks can be deceiving. (I mean, could anyone who watched Tiger Woods walk off the 18th green of the British Open in 2006 and sob in his wife’s arms have predicted what was ahead for them? Nuff said.) There isn’t a single person in this film who seems to know Jordan’s heart or to have Jordan in theirs.

Thus, the film’s emotional high point isn’t when the batting coach gets choked up describing the batting cage session when Jordan’s swing started to come together, nor is it an interview in which a Barons teammate gets misty recalling the long bus ride in which Jordan confided how much baseball meant to him and his father, because those moments don’t happen. Instead, the film’s heart beats strongest in the scene in which Jordon hit his first professional home run – first charging out of the batter’s box and then, after the ball clears the fence, slowing to an MVP’s jog (the swagger of greatness is a hard habit to break). When Jordan crosses the plate, his teammates rush out of the dugout to meet him. From afar we can see Jordan’s smile, yet we can’t look into his eyes, not from our distant view, which is provided from some shaky home-video recording. Maybe that’s for the best. In this case, the distance from the subject gives the scene intimacy, as if we’re peeking into a private moment that wasn’t supposed to be remembered by anyone who wasn’t there to witness it. It’s a touching scene.

Watching that homer, it’s interesting to wonder what might have happened if Jordan continued his baseball quest. If not for the looming Major League Baseball players’ strike of 1994, it seems plausible Jordan would have played on, at least one more season. And if he did that, well, who knows? Jordan Rides the Bus does a tremendous job of documenting just how difficult a challenge it was for Jordan to switch sports and what an outstanding athletic achievement it was for him to hit .202, with 51 RBIs and 30 steals, in the minors. Likewise, Shelton does well to put to rest the conspiracy theory, often championed by “30 for 30” series creator Bill Simmons, that Jordan’s baseball career was merely a cover for a behind-the-curtain suspension for gambling. (If it was that, Jordan and NBA commissioner David Stern must be the only ones on the planet who know the truth, and we must then conclude that Stern remains atypically lax on gambling so as not to blow Jordan’s cover going on two decades later.) As for whether Jordan sees his baseball career as a tremendous accomplishment, or whether it brought him some kind of closure in the aftermath of his father’s death, well, again, who knows?

Maybe it’s wrong to expect Shelton’s film to find the soul of a man who, for all his publicity, has always been guarded. Or maybe my viewing of Jordan Rides the Bus was tainted by watching it not long after sitting through another bit of ESPN documentary programming – a retrospective on the career of the racehorse Cigar. At one point in that feature, Cigar’s jockey tears up remembering how the horse refused to take a peppermint after losing a close race for the Triple Crown. If a horse’s emotions can be felt (or at least deeply perceived), one would suspect Jordan’s could be. If not, given the film’s title, I would have at least liked to hear Jordan say how much he enjoyed the peace and tranquility of riding the team bus from town to town on the minor league circuit. Instead, as in so many other instances in this picture, Shelton forces me to take someone else’s word for it.

Jordan Rides the Bus premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release. See the archive.


Daniel said...

Sounds like a really cool idea for a doc got lost in the archives. I was actually at a bar last night and saw the first half of this in the background, no audio. From that I could see it was moving in the right direction, but without hearing anything I couldn't tell what was being illuminated beyond the old footage of Jordan.

Perhaps more interesting might have been a documentary called "I'm Back", in which we learn about what his return meant to the NBA in the mid-90's, when I remember watching the "NBA on NBC" on Sunday afternoons as religiously as I watch the NFL today. In "I'm Back" we could have observed interviews with many of the same people, but from the other side of the gap it may have illustrated his character more.

Were there interviews with players? Coaches? Rivals? Family? Stern? Fans? Jerry Reinsdorf? United Center employees?

And I wonder what it would take, if anything, to actually get Jordan on camera. Considering his hall of fame induction speech, though, may we've heard all we want to hear from the man himself.

Jason Bellamy said...

Daniel: It's a great doc if you know nothing whatsoever about Michael Jordan playing baseball, if you were too young to have experienced it and only know Jordan as a basketball MVP. From that standpoint it's detailed and thorough. But the lack of emotion and personal insight -- I mean unvarnished personal insight -- is a letdown.

As for those interviews ... Yep, they're there. But Phil Jackson all but reveals he doesn't know Jordan. And Reinsdorf says things like, 'I know Michael felt ...' but you can tell it's just his outside assessment, similar to McCallum's -- the feeling that by being in close proximity to Jordan in private moments that he knows Jordan privately. But there's no evidence anyone in this picture knows Jordan that way. What you don't hear is something like, "Once when we were alone, Jordan told me ..." So I'm not sure Reinsdorf knows Jordan any better than I do. And that's only barely tongue-and-cheek.