Jordan and Phelps - and the Power of the Slight... I'll show you, they say. You will pay. For your actions, for your words, for your insolence. And pay we do - to witness the ultimate level of athletic achievement. To witness the unfathomable. Their fuel? The disrespect of anyone who dared to doubt.
Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps - mighty rulers of air and water. Two men driven by eerily similar temperaments.
With a new Olympic year under way, likely the last for Phelps, there will be the inevitable search for context and comparisons, as the media descends around the most decorated champion in the history of the Games. There will be lists and tributes and highlight reel eulogies. That's what the media does, right? After the triumph come the replays, the endless analysis.
Phelps is going to finish up with somewhere between 17 and 20 career Olympic gold medals. It's pointless now to compare him to any other Olympian, no matter what happens in his London showdowns with Ryan Lochte. So, instead we're going to cross sports and start sizing him up with other icons. You see it coming, don't you? Tiger and Gretzky and Brady, they'll all enter the conversation. Probably even Ali. But the fact is, Phelps resembles one athlete above all others, another Mike. Another obscenely talented victory addict driven by nothing so much as the need to settle every last slight...
Last week, Sports Illustrated ran a heartbreaking story about the descent of Michael Jordan's high school coach, a guy named Pop Herring. This was the man, in Jordan mythology, who famously cut him from the varsity team at Laney High when MJ was a sophomore. It was a slight that Jordan never let go. He brought it up repeatedly throughout his career - the night they retired his number at the United Center in Chicago, the night of his now infamous score-settling Hall of Fame induction speech.
The story goes on to point out that this was not so much a slight as the wise move of a smart young high school coach. (Herring was in his late 20's when he coached Jordan at Laney...) Rather than let his precocious superstar-in-waiting ride the pine for an entire season as a sophomore, Herring placed Jordan on the JV squad - where he started and dominated. And because of that, when his junior year came around, Jordan was ready to lead the team. But today's story is not about rehashing Jordan's slightly fictional mania, it's about a single quote in that SI piece. One that might define Mr. MP as much as it describes MJ.
According to SI: "Jordan would become a world-class collector of emotional wounds, a champion grudge-holder, a magician at converting real and imagined insults into rocket fuel that made him fly."
It's that last line that made me stop reading. A magician at converting real and imagined insults into rocket fuel that made him fly... That made him fly indeed. Who was I reading about again?
The stories about this special rocket fuel are legion with Phelps, just as they are with Jordan. After his eighth gold in Beijing, in NBC's Olympic studios, he recounted for Bob Costas long remembered slights through the years. He recalled the 12-year-old who dissed him way back when, how he refused to admit he remembered the guy when he came up to him years later, backslapping the now famous aqua king.
And of course there was Mike Cavic, the maimed tiger poker. Back in 2009, do you remember his taunts at the World Champs in Rome? Well, they weren't really taunts, no more than Pop Herring cruelly ignored Jordan's talent. But they were enough to provoke the champ, someone forever attuned to provocation. After charging past Cavic in the 100 fly final in Rome, becoming the first man ever to break the 50-second barrier in the event, Phelps unleashed a defiant Jordan-esque celebration.
Post race, with sly understatement, Phelps had this to say: "Things motivate me -- sometimes comments, sometimes what people do. That's just how I tick."
Don't mistake this fuel for your standard locker room fodder disrespect. The half-bright bluster of a Rex Ryan quote that the Giants use to get fired up before the game. It's far beyond these manufactured how dare he clichés. It's also on another level from the guys who are forever determined to prove themselves after being doubted way back when... Consider the exploits of Tom Brady or Aaron Rogers, or even that guy named Tebow.
No, this is something relentlessly renewed, hunted for... It's personal and there is nothing phony or contrived about it. When it comes to the fire breathing competitive spirit of a Jordan or a Phelps, ever utterance can be converted into the need to crush any infidel.
It's pathological - in the most proud and productive sense. At least when channeled into the field of competition...
About a year and a half ago, back in the fall of 2010, I had my own brush with this dark magic. I was, briefly, the "slight du jour". It was over a piece that called into question Phelps' preparedness after falling flat in the 400 IM at the 2010 Pan Pacific Games in Irvine. It questioned his decision to swim the sport's hardest event after admittedly limited training. It might have poked at the tiger's ego a bit. Soon, the rumbles found their way back to me. I'd known the Phelps family since Michael was three years old, family friends going way way back in Baltimore. Now I was persona non grata. The enemy. A doubter. And doubters deserve to be punished.
This should not have been too surprising. In fact, a part of me probably wanted to pay -- a slightly selfish swim fan who wanted to provoke the greatest IM'er in history into returning to his signature race. Poke that ego a bit and maybe he'll feel the need to show me, and everyone else who doubts his ability to reach those Beijing heights again. Unfair? Only if you take it personal.
Which of course is the whole point. Who knows, another slight may even be found in this story (pathological?!), even as I'm comparing him to the greatest competitor of the 20th Century...
One can only hope.