Bless me, oh Sports Fans, for I have sinned. Just last week, I had a negative thought about Michael Jordan.
The blasphemous thought happened while I was reading this article on Yahoo—apparently, LeBron James, the Best Basketball Person of this era, wants the NBA to retire the uniform number 23, a number he shares with Michael Jordan, who is the Best Basketball Person of all time. For those of you who aren't sports enthusiasts, retiring a number leaguewide is the highest honor a player can achieve—the only athlete to have gotten such treatment that I can think of off the top of my head is Jackie Robinson who, y'know, was the first black baseball player back when the country really cared about baseball. LeBron's reasoning for giving Jordan the same respect as a man who received death threats for integrating a sport? From the article:
"Jordan did a lot for the game, more than just on the court," James said. "He was bigger than the game, but always stayed inside the game, if you understand what I mean. He set it up for a lot of guys like myself. His influence to the game is way more than what he did on the court."
Jordan did have a lot of off-the-court influence. His numbers and championship rings aside, the guy was the NBA for years. Every kid shooting hoops in a driveway would mutter, in the tones of an announcer, “Two seconds left...Jordan going for the hoop...it's good!” No one, except for maybe a few backwards Utah natives, told themselves they were Karl Malone. When Spacejam showed Jordan playing against aliens for the future of the planet, no one batted an eye. Duh, of course MJ would play the aliens for Earth. Who else would you pick?
But Jordan's immense media presence wasn't something that came from him, or was the direct result of his efforts. He was the best player in the league for years, sure, and probably the best of all time, but he was also the best-marketed player in the history of the game. The NBA and Nike needed a charismatic, superhuman star to sell their sport and their shoes, respectively, so it was in their best interests to create one. Along comes The Bald One, a kid from North Carolina with talent and killer instinct oozing out of his pores, and voila! The biggest selling of an individual to the public outside of a presidential election was born.
MJ is capitalism incarnate. He represents the American dream that if you just do one thing fantastically well, you will be rewarded with wealth and fame. By the time he was 30, the guy was less a athlete and more of a brand. In person, Jordan's competitiveness could turn nasty and petty, but on a billboard or a commercial, he was MJ, and as far beyond human concerns as Zeus.
LeBron, like me, grew up in a time when Jordan had long since ceased to be mortal. , which might explain the bizarre sentiment that Jordan “set it up” for him. Everyone knew LeBron was going to be an NBA superstar by the time the guy was 15. What exactly did MJ do to help LeBron along that path? Jordan didn't shake the foundations of a league like Jackie Robinson did, and he didn't alter the way the game is played like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain did. If Jordan had come along twenty years earlier, before Nike and before Commissioner David Stern's shrewd marketing instincts, he would have been just another great player.
And here we come to my sin—I just used “Jordan” and “just another player” in the same sentence. Sure, he was the best player in a sport and the subject of the best advertising campaign in history, but the most he did for the game of basketball—as opposed to the NBA—is show that sports stars can become really, really rich and famous if they play your cards right. He's spent most of his retirement gambling, endorsing Hanes underwear, and running the Charlotte Bobcats into the ground.
One thing LeBron said in the above quote is right on the money: the man's influence wasn't about what he did on the court. Even as some sportswriters praise Jordan for winning a lot, treating each game as if it mattered, and wearing a suit to press conferences, his real accomplishments were in the world of advertising, and in that world he was more like ball going into the net than the player shooting it. The titles Jordan won were nice, the all-time scoring record is gravy, but the meat of his accomplishments in the capitalist arena he was playing in was the money he made for everyone, including himself.
So best of luck following in Jordan's footsteps, Lebron. Not on the court, where you are already the best player on the planet, but in the much larger court of selling yourself to people and making more money than God. Some advice: don't make brown-nosing comments about your idol. After all, MJ would never do something like that. As his Hall of Fame Speech showed, he's a nasty son of a bitch: