Monday, November 09, 2009

The Changing Back of Michael Jordan

I help to coach a high school basketball team, and last week we passed out this season's jerseys for the first time. The jerseys were hung up in numerical order, and I braced myself when number 23 came around.

Anyone who has played organized sports can tell you that, as silly as it is, a lot of significance and inspiration is wrapped within the folds of whichever number you wear. I usually asked for 34 because I modeled my undersized but aggressive play after Charles Barkley. Most kids, however, fought over 23, looking to share a small piece of Michael Jordan's leadership, competition, and clutch performance. Based solely on my own experience, I expected all of my players--mostly fourteen and fifteen year-olds--to jump for Jordan's number. If anything, it's LeBron James' number too, so there's an added incentive to share in the tradition of the jersey.

Much to my surprise, the jersey is still hanging in the closet. Things have changed. For the first time, boys that age experienced more of Jordan as this:

than as this:

I've written about the changing legacy of Michael Jordan in this space before, but this experience showed a different side of him than either the negative anecdotes circling about his reputation or his delusionally petty Hall of Fame speech. In judging the futures of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, William Goldman once wrote, "The greatest struggle an athlete undergoes is the battle for our begins before you're aware that it's begun, and it ends with a terrible fall from grace."* Since I'm thinking about it, that struggle has begun for Michael Jordan. The difference between his fall and Magic and Larry's falls is that he brought it upon himself.

Many contemporary celebrities speak of "building their brand," and the example set for them is Michael Jordan's infiltration of our culture. As the face of an expanding sport in a westernizing world, with countless endorsements to his name, Jordan became more famous than any other athlete before or since. What those other celebrities are talking about is having their name be synonymous with an idea or a logo, and MJ did it first. He was so successful, in fact, that the Jumpman--legs outstretched, arm reaching high above his head--has survived without him.

See, these kids spurning the 2-3, many of them were even wearing Air Jordans. However, instead of wearing them because they're hoping that the air in them will help them to jump from the free throw line, or that the aerodynamic sole will help them cross over Byron Russell, they're wearing them because Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade do. Jordan still gets their money, but it's no different from Phil Knight getting their money. The symmetrical dunking symbol might as well be Adidas' three stripes. To paraphrase as big a Jordan acolyte as any: "He's not a business man; he's a business, man."

Another thing that has gone out of style? The hoop earring. Come on, Mike. You can't afford a makeover?

Because teenagers didn't experience Jordan's greatness first-hand, they don't have a connection to it. That's no surprise. I didn't grow up with, say, George Mikan and only know about his dominance from other people's memories. The difference here is that Jordan gets the short end of his own legend. All the expectations of his own myth are there, but none of the acclaim.

For example, all of my players have done time in AAU or summer leagues, and they have played with or against the kid wearing 23, and that kid is always a dickhead. He's delusional and petty enough to fight for the number. Then he has lent himself expectations that he never lives up to. (Because who can?) This has gone on for a generation until the guy who originally wore it has been marginalized as much as any billionaire demi-god can be.

Wearing 23 is a cliche. It's derivative. It's the wrong type of brand: a knockoff. And LeBron? He's just another dickhead whose downfall we're presaging. There's a lot more to be made of a number than there is to be made of a man.

* Bill Simmons quotes this in his Book of Basketball. That's where I saw it.

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