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.
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.
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.