by Lang Whitaker

Last Friday night, I’d promised to reserve an evening for Wifey. I wouldn’t watch the Braves, wouldn’t watch college football. I told her I’d willingly — or at least, pretending to be willing — sit with her and perhaps watch a movie of her choosing, which would almost certainly be a foreign film heavy on dialogue and subtitles. (I hate movies with a lot of dialogue. If I’m going to the movies and paying $10 or whatever, I want to see amazing special effects and visuals that force me to suspend disbelief. If I want to watch two people talking, I’ll go to Starbucks or ride the subway.)

Before we sat down and starting looking through the exciting list of indie (a.k.a. low-budget) movies available on On Demand, I flipped past ESPN, where the Hall of Fame induction ceremony was being televised. I just so happened to hit it just as Michael Jordan was being introduced and making his way to the podium, so I shot Wifey my best puppy dog eyes and said, “Pleeeeeeeease?” She sighed and said sure.

So I watched Michael Jordan’s induction speech live. And you know what? I loved it. Loved it.

Over the last ten years, I have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to convince athletes that they have permission to speak freely, with varying amounts of success. Despite my best efforts, it doesn’t always work. Because they know that they can’t speak their minds. They understand that if they say something even mildly controversial, there are approximately 143,572 news outlets and blogs out there that will take their most controversial words, strip them of any context, and then opine away.

The one story I always go back to is from when we were working on Striker, the now dearly departed soccer magazine. I went to Manchester to visit my guy Tim Howard, the American goalkeeper. Tim’s first year in Manchester, he’d ended up starting for United and having an incredible year, winning Goalkeeper of the Year (as voted on by all the other Premier League Players). Early in his second season, he made mistakes in back-to-back games, and suddenly Sir Alex Ferguson parked him on the bench.

I went to Manchester to visit Tim, and when we sat down to do the official “interview,” he said this:

“It’s never as bad as the papers say, and it’s never as good as the papers say. I’m a big believer in looking yourself in the mirror, and I’m always going to own up to my mistakes. Did I lose us games? No, no. Did I contribute to it? Yes. But it takes 11 of us to win and 11 of us to lose. Having said that, a goalkeeper is a very convenient scapegoat. Absolutely, positively. I understand that.”

When we finished the interview, I asked him if he realized his quotes were going to be taken out of context. He said he did, but he wanted to be honest. The day after that interview was posted on SI.com, there were headlines all over England that Tim was saying he had been made a scapegoat. Which isn’t what he said. But by speaking his mind, it was almost as if he’d given the world permission to take him out of context.

I’ve been reminded of that experience this week as the media worked itself into a tizzy over Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame induction speech. Watching it live, I was hanging on every word. How often, if ever, have you seen Michael Jordan say what he meant? No metaphors, no veiled illusions, just truth. To become the global marketing phenomenon he’s become, he had to be a politician, constantly satisfying his base. If he said what he really felt about his teammates and opponents, someone would’ve run to take it all out of context. He knew this, so he closed the curtain. He gave us some of his thoughts, just not anything all that interesting.

Until last week. For once, Michael Jordan opened the curtain fully and completely. And now he’s being criticized for letting us see the guy inside pulling the levers. You know all those rumors and legends we’ve heard about MJ feuding with Jerry Krause or with Isiah Thomas? Michael finally addressed them. Could he have picked a better format in which to do so? Probably. But at least he did, for once, come before us openly and honestly. Did he know he’d be criticized? Undoubtedly. But he gave us the truth. Michael Jordan will go down in history as the greatest basketball player who ever lived. The drive and competitiveness that fueled that rise? We saw it on Friday night.

I guess some people would have rather seen Michael Jordan get up there and be nice, to water down his comments and say thanks to a bunch of people. But that, apparently, would have been dishonest. Do you want the truth? We got it. A lot of people just couldn’t handle the truth, I guess.

So, for everyone who wanted to see a shiny, happy, perfect Michael Jordan, I remixed his acceptance speech for you. This is what you wanted? Great. Hope you like it…