ANYONE who follows basketball has seen the image: the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan swooping down on the basket for one of his crowd-rousing dunks. Jordan, airborne, appearing to defy gravity.
But what happens to Jordan between dunks? Between games?
In his book "Hang Time: Days and Dreams with Michael Jordan," Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene tries to fill in the gaps. For the most part, Greene has short conversations with Jordan after Jordan's pre-game practice sessions. In between the conversations are Greene's commentaries on other members of the team, the Cook County Juvenile Court system, the eating habits of the beat reporters covering the Bulls, and hundreds of paragraphs worth skimming.
But the core of the book is about Jordan. What Greene finds is a man almost totally isolated by fame. Jordan cannot step outside his hotel without creating an autograph feeding frenzy. So on road trips, Jordan hunkers down in his hotel suite (the rest of the Bulls get individual rooms). Access to Jordan is carefully controlled by the Bulls' publicity department, and a security guard is posted outside his door.
Once inside Jordan's room - and head - Greene finds a young man who cares about children, especially those with physical disabilities. Without any interest in publicity, Jordan provides season tickets to at least two young people with serious disabilities. When one of the children goes to the hospital, Jordan spends some of his valuable time visiting.
Jordan, easily one of the highest-paid athletes in the business, also stops his car at an inner-city street corner after every game to talk to four teenage boys - sworn to secrecy - who wait for him there no matter what the weather.
That's one side of the star. Then there is Jordan's competitive side: After winning the National Basketball Association (NBA) championship for the 1990-'91 season, Jordan was even hungrier for a second title. "I never want anyone else to win when I'm playing," he says. The Bulls repeated as champions last year.
Then there are some of the minor revelations about Jordan. The star ignores the coach's instructions during the games: "I know how to play," he tells Greene. (Due to an injury, Jordan has not played in the last few Bulls games.) He confides that he was cut from his high-school basketball team, then went home and cried. To collect money for the Michael Jordan Foundation, he agrees to stop by a man's dinner table for $15,000.
Greene fails to delve into another side of Jordan: The author says Jordan likes big-time gambling. In at least two instances, known gamblers were found to have large checks from Jordan. The NBA hauled Jordan in to warn him against further infractions. (One has to wonder how serious the NBA is: Jordan pulls in more fans than anyone else.) But Greene never asks Jordan directly about the gambling. One man had photocopies of checks from Jordan for $108,000. How do you run up that big a tab?
It's not surprising that Greene does not probe Jordan on this topic - he got too close to his subject, it seems. Greene doesn't ask the other players what they think of Jordan. He doesn't talk to Jordan's coaches, opposing players, or long-time commentators. Would that have made any difference in our view of Jordan? Probably not, but it would have made "Hang Time" a better book - more of a slam dunk than a layup.