90s Week: Michael Jordan

This is going to be problematic, because I think the mere act of writing about Michael Jordan is plagiarism. What can possibly be written about MJ that hasn’t been written before?

This is the challenge.

There will never be another Michael Jordan. And by that I don’t mean that there will never be another player as great at Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant might be as great. LeBron James might be, too. But I don’t even care to argue about that. What difference does it make?

What I mean is this: Jordan was the last superstar athlete to enjoy a reverent, genteel media environment. His career largely predated the Internet, camera phones and even, to a some degree, sports talk radio.

Michael Jordan, as we know him, is a myth.

Whether this is good or bad depends on whether or not sports are important. If they are, then it’s important that we have myths like Jordan. If our professional athletes are hosers just like us, then who cares? If these are just tall men making widgets, then does anybody really care that Karl Malone missed and Jordan hit? Of course not.

This should have been the last shot of his career.

But if these people are something more than hosers just like us, if we can believe that there is some manner of good and evil at play, or that there is something inherent in certain athletes that allows them to do heroic things, and if we can believe that this is metaphorical to life, then we can believe that we, too, might have something inherent within us that would allow us to do heroic things. Perhaps not on the basketball court, but maybe in a courtroom or a singles bar or in World of Warcraft.

If sports are important, this is the reason why. They aren’t important the way that government is important. We don’t need our politicians to be mythical, because there is too much at stake. We need them to be real and accountable. We need them to be dispensable.

With athletes, it’s different. We need the generational Babe Ruth, Vince Lombardi and Michael Jordan to cling to. We need them to endure. We need a superhero.

I don’t know that it matters to me, now. But as a kid, I needed the Michael Jordan myth. I needed to believe that he was super. I needed him to be a hero. Because if Michael Jordan wasn’t heroic, then who really was? And what was the point of life? If Michael Jordan wasn’t good and right and true, then basketball wasn’t good and right and true, and I was a fool for liking it.

I’m not sure if the Jordan Myth would have happened if his career had begun 20 years later. It might be possible to avoid the New Media pitfalls, but it’s unlikely. Tom Brady is about as protected as a professional athlete can be, playing for the most tight-lipped organization in professional sports and enjoying a level of hero worship that is rare anymore, but even the details of his historic run with the supermodels easily became a matter of public consumption.

Rape charge notwithstanding, Kobe Bryant’s image has been well-crafted, too, but other NBA players have been quoted (albeit anonymously) as saying he’s a “douchebag.” Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think this would have happened in 1995. I don’t think any NBA writer would have felt compelled to find out whether Michael Jordan was a douchebag, and even if he did, I don’t think he would have used an anonymous quote saying as much in some kind of slash piece. What would be the benefit? What difference did it make? He was still awesome. Even Jordan’s gambling problem went down historically as an anecdote for his competitiveness. The worst thing anybody ever really said about Jordan was that he was hyper-competitive. See, even his flaws were awesome.

As recently as the late 90s, beat writers were still routinely traveling with the teams they covered, on the team plane. These guys all have great stories from these trips, but there was a mutual understanding that what happened in private stayed in private. And since in those days there were really only  one or two or four writers, they effectively policed themselves.

But in the decade since, the proliferation of new media outlets has turned every little morsel of information into a story as they grapple for original content. Most newspapers still don’t bother with things like Tom Brady’s mistresses, but the bloggers and the celebrity TV shows and talk radio guys have a heyday with it. Worse, this kind of information is more often available than ever because, as Michael Phelps, Matt Leinart, Ben Roethlisberger and countless others have found out, anybody with a cell phone camera is a papparazzo.

The shirt is priceless.

The shirt is priceless.

There is something sad about this, even though as a journalist, I always root for the humanization of athletes. There is entirely too much hero worship of them, especially, I think, at the college level, where fans always believe their guys are the good guys. This causes a lot of problems. When a running back sexually assaults a girl at a party, sometimes it’s because he knows he can. In the back of his mind, he knows there will be 100,000 voices calling the girl a gold digger and cheering his name on Saturday.

But Jordan was different. He wasn’t a running back at State U. He was bigger than that, he was unreal, which was what we needed him to be.


3 thoughts on “90s Week: Michael Jordan

  1. I think I was 15 or 16 when Space Jam came out. That didn’t matter, it was MJ. Teasing be damned, I was going to see that movie. I took up golf because of Michael. I made my mother spend entirely too much money on shoes that I destroyed in 3 months because they had the Jumpman on them. When I’d watch a game, I would be awestruck any time he missed. I think I about cried when he bricked that wide open dunk against the Knicks. MJ was to never miss in MSG.
    With Kobe and the newer ballers, something is just missing. MJ could tell you to go to hell, and you’d honestly look forward to the trip. Not so with the new guys. I can’t explain it, but I definitely don’t like it. Even Charles Barkley, who was a dick, seems to be more endearing than many modern players. I miss the old days.

  2. Thank God my childhood predated iReporters, citizen journalists and camera phones. I could safely worship MJ and others for what they did at their jobs, not afterward. I would hate to be a kid today…or I would just hate sports if I were a kid.

  3. I think a lot of kids will feel about the same about LeBron and others as we did about MJ when we were kids, the biggest reason being because when you’re a kid, everything is more awesome. When I was a kid, Christmas was THE most exciting day of the year unless by some miracle the year included a trip to World’s of Fun (the greatest place on earth). I would look forward to a trip to the beach for months on end, and opening a pack of basketball cards and finding a “rare” Penny Hardaway in there would be the highlight of my week.

    My whole point is that you’re not jaded and cynical when you’re a kid, and you’ll take things at face value in a way that’s impossible when you’re older. Maybe athlete’s today won’t get the adoration and hero-worship from today’s youth the way Jordan did, but it’ll be really close.

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