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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Banshee's Best: The Mythical Michael Jordan

Today, Michael Jeffrey Jordan turns fifty years old.  This evening, the NBA's current greats will gather for the NBA All-Star Game.  And both of these come while LeBron James is in the midst of a historically great string of 30+ point games.  This confluence of events led to a weeklong debate on sports talk radio, Twitter and in the blogosphere about who is the greatest basketball player of all time:  LeBron James or Michael Jordan?  As the debate wore on, there was an overwhelming chorus in favor of Michael Jordan.  But, the answer to the question doesn't fascinate me nearly as much as the way the debate unfolded.

It didn't surprise me that the old guard, guys like Mike Wilbon and Bob Ryan, think Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time.  Folks that age are old enough to be able to appreciate the difference in the athleticism between Oscar Robertson types and the players of the 1990's.  Yet, for many in that age bracket, it's hard to recognize that current players could be superior to the players a couple of decades ago.

(Ken Levine/Getty)
Then there is my age group.  Mid 30's.  People my age were just coming of age in the spring of 1991 when Jordan finally won his first of his six NBA championships.  Fans my age sang to ourselves, "sometimes I dream that he is me" as we practiced fade aways in the driveway.  Much the same way that people will forever view their own father as the best H-O-R-S-E player in the neighborhood, people in my age group will also view Michael as the greatest player who ever lived.  He's the one we grew up with.

But, as the conversation intensified this week, it was the younger age group that really surprised me.  I expected that fans who were too young to really remember Michael in his prime would voice their opinions in favor of LeBron James.  After all, they just got to watch King James dominate the playoffs to win last year's title and then follow it up by winning an Olympic gold medal for our country.  But, those younger fans were among the most passionate voices in favor of Michael Jordan.

I asked myself, "How could this be?  How could people who grew up with LeBron James be so committed to Michael when he retired before they were even old enough to stay up to watch him on TV?"

(Walter Looss, Jr./SI)
And then it hit me.  Michael Jordan is not just a basketball player.  Michael Jordan is a mythological figure.  Michael Jordan will always enjoy the status of greatest basketball player of all time because he is the last athletic superhero to exist before the dawn of the Information Age.  Like Hercules or Pecos Bill, Jordan did not have to contend with camera phones or the scrutiny of bloggers.  If Paul Bunyan had existed in the Twitter and smartphone era, I bet we would have found out that there were actually a couple of trees he couldn't chop down and that he was occasionally nasty to his faithful blue ox, Babe.

During Jordan's career, we really only got to see him play on TV once a week ... at most.  If Jordan had a bad game on a Wednesday in Milwaukee, we didn't really know.  If MJ said something unflattering about a teammate in the moments following a loss, we would only know about it if the beat reporter who captured it on his mini cassette blabbed it to the nation.  And, even if it was leaked, it would not have been the lead story on PTI because there was no PTI.  The Michael Jordan that we knew or learned about or remember fondly was a mythological figure that existed almost exclusively in impressive box scores and highlight reels.  And, the beloved off-the-court persona was the careful creation of Gatorade, Nike and McDonalds.  And that was a fun way to enjoy sports.

None of this is to suggest that Michael Jordan was not a truly amazing player.  And, I'm not suggesting that his image was a grand deception.  Michael Jordan was immensely fun to watch play basketball.  And, he impacted not just the game but the culture at large in positive and lasting ways.  What I am suggesting, though, is that it isn't just Jordan's athletic skills or even his smile that make him an irreplaceable figure.  It's also the time in which he played.  In this Information Age, there is more money and fame to be garnered by tearing down folk heroes than by creating them.  And, for this reason, no one will ever be able to rival the Mythical Michael Jordan.

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1 comment :

  1. Well written article, and I agree completely. Jordan might well be the best of all time, but even if the skills and abilities of LeBron were greater, they could never be great enough to overcome the Jordan myth. The next to last sentence in your article really sums it up.