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30 for 30: Jordan Rides the Bus

Director: Ron Shelton
Cast: Phil Jackson, Jerry Reinsdorf, Terry Francona
Regular airtime: Tuesday, 8pm ET

(ESPN; US: 24 Aug 2010)

Every Seat Was Sold Out

That was a strikeout, Mike. But that was a good-looking strikeout. Real good.
—Baseball Player #1 (Luke Torres), Space Jam


On 6 October 1993, Michael Jordan retired from basketball. The first time. At the time, the decision seemed monumental. Jordan and the Chicago Bulls had just won the NBA title. He had been spotted gambling in Atlantic City. And his father, James, had been murdered. “I was tired of being in that light and expectations. I needed a change, I totally needed a break,” Jordan said later. “I just felt like I was being engulfed by the success that I’d gathered at that time.”


All this was surprising enough. And then Jordan made another decision, to play baseball. Jordan Rides the Bus follows the year or so when he played, for a minor league team, the Birmingham Barons. More precisely, Ron Shelton’s documentary, premiering 24 August as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, follows how that year affected a whole lot of people who were not Michael Jordan. For the break that he needed, the success that he had to reject—however temporarily—was not his alone. Like LeBron’s recent choice to take his “talents to South Beach,” Jordan’s decision in 1993 changed lives other than his own.


That doesn’t mean his decision was selfish or unfair, just that it had consequences. Phil Jackson says he advised his superstar to consider carefully how his retirement would affect the experiences of fans who loved to watch him play, as well as his teammates and other people who worked for the Bulls and the NBA more generally. Remembering that Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf had asked him to “talk him out of it,” Jackson claims he never was able to shape Michael’s choices. “He does everything just about on his own whim,” smiles the Zen Master. 


Rumors swirled concerning reasons for this particular whim, including the one that had David Stern forcing him out of basketball because of a gambling controversy. Jordan Rides the Bus dismisses that theory (“It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” says Steve Kerr. “Michael was the golden goose”) and instead takes Jordan pretty much at his word. Namely, he was pursuing a dream he had shared with his dad, that he would play baseball one day. “This is my choice,” Jordan says at the news conference announcing the retirement. “I’ve been riding this roller coaster for nine years. Now it’s just time for me to ride something else.”


Following this cue, the documentary cuts to that something else, the bus. Again and again, the film shows the view from bus windows or shots of bus wheels. He loved the bus, says Terry Francona, manager of the Barons, because it was “a time where he could be like me and you and people couldn’t get at him, he could just relax.” Errr, maybe not exactly like you and me. As the film makes clear, Jordan’s minor league career—plainly helped along by the fact that the team was part of the White Sox system, also owned by Reinsdorf—was quite unlike everyone else’s. For one thing, recalls Mary Milton, the real estate agent who found him a home in Birmingham, he arrived in a private jet, landed at a private airfield. And for another, the drove around town in his Porsche, “So, it was definitely pretty exciting.”


This sort of excitement—premised on Jordan’s brilliance and celebrity—made him a target as well. As Steve Wulf puts it, “It takes people years to learn how to hit a baseball, and this guy thinks he can just walk on and do it.” Wulf himself became somewhat notorious for a March 1994 piece he wrote for Sports Illustrated, “Bag It, Michael” (which inspired Jordan to “cut off official communication” with the magazine), a story Wulf now appears to regret. When he saw the cover line, he says now, “I literally cringed because it wasn’t the story I wrote. It wasn’t the story I meant to write.”


Wulf’s efforts to make it right with Jordan didn’t quite pan out: though he wrote another piece in October 1994, describing Jordan’s development over the year: “He had a great swing,” Wulf says. “He had turned himself into a baseball player and I was astounded.” He notes as well that SI refused to run the second article, suggesting that the public standoff between Jordan and the magazine informed that decision.


Given its focus on Jordan (a focus constructed without sit-down time with Jordan), Jordan Rides the Bus doesn’t look directly this other sort of decision, a decision that reflects the ever-evolving, interdependent relationship between athletes and sports media. Instead, it looks at this decision through a series of lenses, most provided by the players, coaches, and media members affected by Jordan’s year in baseball. As Francona puts it, “In life with Michael, there was a lot of percs.”


These include a sold-out season for the Barons and a chance for fans to see their idol for “less than five bucks.” As Spike Lee’s Nike ads at the time suggest, he’s no Stan Musial or Willie Mays, but “He’s trying.” The campaign offers another way to think about sports celebrity, not all-conquering, but genuinely (that is, performatively) playing and appreciating the game. “They had an attitude toward the game that they truly loved,” Jordan says of his fellow Barons. “I kinda lost that in the realm of basketball… I was on a pedestal for so long I kind of forgot the steps to get to that.” In rediscovering the steps, the story suggests, he was able to be a better teammate and athlete—both during 1994 and after, when he returned to basketball (and went on to win three more titles with Jackson and the Bulls).


Even off the pedestal, those around Jordan shared a year of something special. Barons infielder Kenny Coleman says, “I honor that summer, seeing the impact that that season had on just fans.” (The film includes a shot of Jordan in his red Corvette, paused on the street to sign an autograph for a boy in a baseball cap: the camera waits, the kid walks away, thrilled, and the car screeches into the distance.) First baseman Scott Tedder underlines: “It was like the seventh game of the World Series every town we went to, because every seat was sold out. It rejuvenated us. Scouts were coming to see Michael, but they could also see us too.”


This effect extends beyond the players, and as you might expect in a film directed by Shelton, a lover of details, offbeat and telling. When the film turns to Jack Rouss, owner of Gabriel’s Sport Café, it offers a glimpse of Jordan’s other effects. Rouss is still beaming, 15 years later, as describes Jordan coming in to play pool. “He played four people at one time, so people could say they played Michel Jordan.” He smiles as images show Jordan leaned over a table: “It was something just to see Michael Jordan walking around and associating himself with my people. It was unbelievable, just the greatest experience that you ever could imagine.” 


Such moments reveal what Jordan Rides the Bus is about. It’s not about baseball or basketball, or even Michael Jordan. It’s about how all that reshapes lives and memories, briefly and forever.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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