"I'm just so tired." Michael Jordan's mental health, in his own words
Re-examining MJ’s 1993 retirement in the context of Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka — and how reporters can help today's mental health revolution
“He knows he’s in the fishbowl under the microscope, but you should have some movement that’s not guarded all the time. You just have to say, hey, this guy’s human. I mean, what is enough? … Pretty soon, when you keep tipping the bucket up, there’s not going to be anything in there after a while. You’re going to pour it all out. And that’s what we should start realizing as fans.”
— James Jordan on Michael, 1993
When Simone Biles removed herself from team competition in the Olympics this week for mental health reasons, and later sat out of the all-around competition, the first athlete who came to my mind was Michael Jordan and his 1993 retirement.
Yes, bad faith commentators keep pointing out that Jordan retired after a season, not on the cusp of a competition (though of course, he retired October 6, on the cusp of competition), and yes, there were other factors at play in his retirement, including his longstanding public acknowledgement of wanting to retire young.
But mental health — which mentalhealth.gov defines as “our emotional, psychological, and social well-being” — was a major factor in MJ’s 1993 retirement. And though he never (at least to my knowledge) used the term “mental health” to describe his needs and wellbeing, he repeatedly described the mental and psychological toll the game was taking on him.
His situation in 1993 is not a one-to-one comparison with Biles, or even Naomi Osaka, who withdrew this year from both the French Open and Wimbledon for mental health reasons. But this increased focus on mental health in sports is a good reason to look back at MJ’s decision to retire in 1993, as well as the overall care he gave to his mental wellbeing.
“Rest isn’t the answer.” What MJ said about his mental health during the first three-peat
I’ve written extensively about MJ’s first retirement, (full thread here) and indeed, there were several factors that led him to retire on Oct. 6, 1993. At the center of all of them was mental health.
This is my take, not his, at least not directly. But the way he characterized his wellbeing prior to his retirement, and the way he explained his retirement and his 1995 return, all points to someone tending to his mental and emotional wellness, which tied to his physical exhaustion, as his retirement ended a five-year stretch of playing 100+ games a year,1 all with the expectation of winning a championship.
“I’ve had dreams in which I’m an alcoholic,” he told Bob Greene in one of many conversations that resulted in Greene’s book Hang Time, published in October 1992, the start of the third championship season.
“I’m an alcoholic in the dream, and because of it, all the things I’ve worked so hard for will be taken away. I wake up numb after those dreams. Those are the kind of dreams when you want to make yourself wake up, because they trouble you so badly. In the dreams I’m making bad mistakes, and I’m not perfect, but I don’t know what to do about it because I might lose everything.”
Jordan was famously one of the most mentally tough athletes to ever live, but we as fans and reporters tend to register an athlete’s mental toughness as the absence of mental struggles. Just as James Jordan said, just as Simone Biles said, athletes are human.
“I’m just so tired,” he told Greene during the 1992 Finals:
“I’m so tried that even when it comes time to push myself, I feel the tiredness. … Rest isn’t the answer. What I need to do is get away from basketball on the days between the games. That’s why I’ve been going out and playing golf. … On the golf course I can think about something other than basketball. It’s the only way I know of that I can get rid of the mental part of the tiredness. I just want to get my concentration up and get this over and done with.”
The Bulls won the 1992 championship on June 14. On the 28th, the Dream Team took the floor in Portland for the Olympics qualifying tournament, The Tournament of the Americas. That ran from the 28th to July 5th. The team flew to Monaco for an exhibition game on July 21, and then to Spain, where their Olympics schedule began July 26.
The team won the gold medal on August 8, and the Bulls started the preseason Oct. 16, giving Jordan (and Pippen) 12 weeks off compared to the usual 20 or so. At the start of the 1992-93 season, Jordan was considering retirement, and spoke with Phil Jackson about it. He needed to renew his motivation to compete, which came in the form of the elusive three-peat, something none of his biggest peers — Magic, Larry and Isiah — had done, as he discussed with Oprah in October of 1993, after his actual retirement:
By the middle of the 1993 season, Jordan had decided that no matter the season’s outcome, he was hanging them up. He even told teammates.
“And not just one night,” he told Melissa Isaacson during his baseball retirement2. “We’d have a couple of beers after the game and they’d be complaining about this or that, pointing fingers as they liked to do, and I’d say, ‘Man, you don’t know how good you have it. You watch, I’m not going to be around here much longer. I think this is going to be my last year.’ And they’d say, ‘Sure MJ, sure.’ … I kept saying it. Not once, not twice, but three or four times. I could sense they didn’t believe me.”
Despite his televised comments to Bob Costas after the ‘93 Finals, Jordan told at least one teammate, Darrell Walker, of his intention to retire3. He spent the summer reflecting on retirement, making sure it was the right decision before he made it official, even while toying with the idea of returning in ‘94 to continue chasing Boston’s 8-peat.
Of course, that summer turned out to be a grueling, tragic one for Jordan: the fallout from the Esquinas book put the league office hot on his trail in July, and in August, his father James turned up murdered.
When reporters and columnists immediately began running stories that James’s murder was somehow the result of Michael’s gambling, Jordan’s mental and emotional exhaustion intensified to a point of no return.
“I saw it all over the place — the Star, Globe, all those tabloids,” he told Isaacson. “They didn’t show any sympathy for a situation that was very emotional. Here I just lost my father, and they were trying to connect it to something that was totally irrelevant. I felt they were trying to get at me instead of giving him the peace he deserved.”
“From a mental aspect, I needed the time away.” How MJ’s 1993 retirement let him recharge
When Pro Bowl Jets receiver Al Toon retired during the 1992 season at age 29 due to concussions, he received sympathy — and side-eyes. The public simply did not know what to make of concussions as a cause of an early retirement. After all, unlike, say, Gale Sayers retiring at 28 due to repeated knee surgeries, Toon’s concussions did not resonate with fans because they were invisible.
Today, football players citing long-term health concerns as a reason for retiring young is much more common and high profile. Fan and media backlash still occur — Andrew Luck comes to mind — but the sports-loving public has a much greater understanding now than we did 30 years ago of football’s ongoing health risks.
We’re having a similar reckoning in sports with mental health. I think we’re closer to the Al Toon phase than the Chris Borland phase, but we’re evolving quickly. Many athletes have been open about mental health challenges; Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Chamique Holdsclaw, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Marshawn Lynch come to mind.
Now, with the decisions this year from two titans, Osaka and Biles, to withdraw from major competitions due to mental health concerns, the discussion has found new urgency and increased empathy.
Jordan understood the importance of mental health, even if he didn’t phrase it that way. The 8-peat that he once dreamed about is still a classic “what if” for basketball fans, though as I’ve written, there is no “what if” about it: the Bulls needed those gap years to reach a new championship level in the late 1990s, including Jordan’s need to re-set and recharge.
“From a mental aspect, I needed the time away,” he told Cheryl Raye-Stout4 in October 1995. “Now I’m back with a clear mind, with a different feeling, a different attitude, a different appetite. I want to get back to where I was.”
A bit later in that 1995-96 season, here is how he explained his renewed vitality to SLAM Magazine’s Scoop Jackson5:
“I feel very comfortable. I feel in control of my game. I feel like I’m right back at the same level that I was at before I retired, maybe in some ways mentally.”
People have rightly pointed out that unlike Biles’s withdrawal from events this week, Jordan did not have to weigh his own physical peril when he decided to retire in ‘93. When Biles told reporters that she was “having a little bit of the twisties,” her fellow gymnasts knew the seriousness of what she was facing. Her 2016 teammate Laurie Hernandez explained “the twisties” thusly:
“The rhythm is off, and your brain will like stutter step for half a second and that's enough to throw off the whole skill. And, so, it happens, and it takes a second to get over that.”
In other words, the twisties is like gymnastics’ version of the yips, only instead of mis-throwing a ball to 1st base, you risk paralysis.
Along with the immediate risks of doing vault routines while battling mental challenges, Biles has endured and overcome a host of obstacles during her career, from the horrific sexual abuse she and her teammates suffered from U.S. women’s national gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar that made her battle thoughts of suicide, to the frustration she expressed in May about the International Gymnastics Federation giving her low scores because, in her view, “They don’t want the field to be too far apart.”
Both Serena and Venus Williams have discussed their mental health battles, and the Williams sisters, Biles, Osaka and Irving have all also been open about the role that American racism has played in their lives and careers. Racism and sexism and the intersection between the two have been brutally present for the Williams sisters and Biles and Osaka, all four of whom dominate sports that white people like to claim as their own.
Jordan had to deal with significantly less racism in his career6, and obviously no sexism. But to me, the cause of mental health challenges should not be our main focus. The important connection is that if we as sports fans and reporters want to be serious about respecting mental health challenges that athletes face — and ultimately, the ones that we all face — we need to acknowledge that unlike a torn ligament or broken bone, mental health risks won’t always look the same or occur under the same circumstances.
Even just the pressure of greatness can trigger challenges. After winning consecutive dunk contests in ‘87 and ‘88, Jordan stopped competing in them, concerned that there was nowhere to go but down. The league pushed him to participate in something in All-Star Weekend, so he did the 1990 three-point contest — and set a record for lowest points in a round with five.
That was the end of Jordan’s All-Star Weekend participation.
But the burden he felt over living up to his own image and reputation only grew. In the wake of Biles withdrawing from these Olympic events, a discussion has arisen over the pressure on Biles to live up to her billing as “GOAT” — Greatest Of All Time — something Jordan told Rick Telander in March 1998.
“I’ll tell you, to remain a positive model in the public eye for so long, it takes a toll, it takes a big chunk of you,” Jordan said during what would be his final NBA season for three years. “You want it to die out, but now it’s so deep, it’s a big responsibility that just goes on and on.”
“It wasn’t a game anymore, it was my life.” How athletes are leading a mental health revolution — and how sports reporters can help
This month, Naomi Osaka published an essay in Time Magazine titled “It’s O.K. Not to Be O.K.” In it, she further explained her withdrawal from the French Open, caused at the outset by her need to “miss French Open press conferences to take care of myself mentally.”
Jordan’s 1993 retirement shares that connection with Osaka’s tournament withdrawals, each driven to a degree by discomfort around the role the press was playing in their professional lives, and how their professional media obligations were disrupting their personal wellbeing.
“(The press) did make me evaluate what the game was about,” Jordan told Isaacson about his ‘93 retirement. “It wasn’t a game anymore, it was my life.”
Years later, Jordan was still angry about the reaction that so many in the media had to his father’s murder, compounded by what he viewed as a lack of protection from David Stern. As he told Jack McCallum in 20117:
“You know that David Stern’s voice commands respect. David Stern says, ‘Don’t even go there,’ and nobody goes there. But we did go there. He allowed it to fester, and all those ideas came out that were totally bogus. They allowed all this peripheral stuff to happen. They knew I never had a connection with any kind of crazy thing. They knew there was no Mafia hit on my father. Yet they never defended me. So that was a big part of why I said to myself, ‘I’m tired of this game.’ And then my father died and that made it worse and I knew I had to get away.”
Last year, Jordan even speculated on how he would have handled the challenges of social media, something that Biles and Osaka have to deal with.
“I don’t know if I could have survived in this Twitter time, where you don’t have the privacy that you would want,” he told Cigar Aficionado’s Marvin Shanken last year. “And what seems to be very innocent can always be misinterpreted.”
As a reporter and interviewer who has covered sports and interviewed athletes, I feel a personal connection to Osaka’s pleas about the relationship between athletes and reporters. And I think her words, combined with a Jordan story, can help point the way to a better tomorrow for athletes and mental health.
In her Time essay, Osaka wrote:
“This was never about the press, but rather the traditional format of the press conference. I’ll say it again for those at the back: I love the press; I do not love all press conferences.
“I have always enjoyed an amazing relationship with the media and have given numerous in-depth, one-on-one interviews. …
“However, in my opinion (and I want to say that this is just my opinion and not that of every tennis player on tour), the press-conference format itself is out of date and in great need of a refresh. I believe that we can make it better, more interesting and more enjoyable for each side. Less subject vs. object; more peer to peer.”
And here is what Isaacson told Scoop in 2016 about Jordan’s 1995 comeback:
“Personally, while I generally found him to be warm and friendly, he was now almost big-brotherly in his treatment of me as a pregnant woman. I noticed that with all of [media]. He missed us. He missed the familiar faces at practice and games.”
In short, even with social media, I think athletes still appreciate the athlete-reporter relationship. It still brings value to them, and to fans. I just think sports reporters can bring better coverage to fans by re-committing themselves to one of the foundations of journalism and interviewing: listening.
The industry needs to listen more to athletes — what they need, and what challenges they face. The industry definitely needs more reporters who share demographics with the athletes themselves, starting with more Black members of sports media, more women and more youth. This roundtable between Chicago Bears PR and the Chicago chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists is exactly the type of event that benefits sports journalism as an institution — and, as a result, both the athletes and the fans and readers.
As for Jordan, I think he was destined for a retirement somewhere in the mid-1990s, whether after ‘93, ‘94 or the end of his contract in ‘96. And I think he was destined for a return — he came back with the Wizards, after all.
Because in the end, he did not want to leave basketball. He wanted to leave the NBA. He wanted to leave the stress of his professional obligations. He was out of challenges, yes, but he was also out of patience. He was physically spent, but moreso, he was mentally, emotionally and psychologically fatigued.
In 1993, Michael Jordan needed a mental health break, whether he called it that or not.
“I still love the game — I always will,” he told Isaacson in 1994. “I just don’t want to play in a uniform with referees and all that other stuff.”
Starting in the 1988-89 preseason and ending with the 1993 NBA Finals, Michael Jordan played in 559 games, no less than 104 in a season (what I’ll call the preseason through the summer after the playoffs, including the All-Star Game). He played in 38 of 41 preseason games and 403 of 410 regular season games. While he always played in a variety of exhibition and charity games over his summers, no more than 5 in the summer of ‘88, not counted here, the summer of ‘92 brought 15 games with the Dream Team: six for the qualifying tournament in Portland, one exhibition, and then eight Olympic games. Following the Olympics, Jordan missed three preseason games heading into 1992-93, the first time he had missed preseason games in the NBA.
Transition Game (October 1994)
He has talked about encountering racism in his life, much of it during childhood.
Dream Team (July 2012)