Pro Basketball news The Rise The Reign The Return MJ Cover Gallery SI Flashback Photo Gallery: The 80s Photo Gallery: The 90s Multimedia By the Numbers Career Stats Timeline Fans Poll MJ's Announcement


A Man For His Time

The moment was perfect for a mediagenic superstar who transcended race, culture and nationality -- and Michael Jordan was perfect for the role

Posted: Wednesday January 13, 1999 05:52 PM

  John Biever

By Frank Deford

Even allowing that we might overstate the point, it is not uncommon for the most memorable of our athletes to reflect their times. Certainly the Babe was at one with the Roaring Twenties, just as Jackie Robinson perfectly represented the grand societal advances of the postwar years, and as Ali and Billie Jean so symbolized the turmoil of their period. Likewise, Michael Jordan is not extraordinary merely for what he does. He has also been the right, best athlete for us now, for this relatively serene and altogether prosperous fin de siècle, when the United States rules alone, as much superculture as superpower.

By now, is not Jordan a figure as cultural as he is athletic? Even several years ago, for example, in a vote of Chinese students, he tied Chou En-lai as "the world's greatest man." And, most people would ask, whatever happened to this Chou En-lai? Nowadays it is blithely accepted that the tall, dark and bald young man has become the most familiar face on the planet Earth, that with the death of Diana, princess of Wales, Michael Jeffrey Jordan, late of Wilmington, N.C., has become the First Celebrity of the World, positively ubiquitous, the human Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt.

Yet it is instructive that all his global renown—and his domestic fortune—could not have been achieved if Jordan's American sport (one barely a century old) had not, at the very moment of his appearance, risen to challenge football and baseball in the U.S. and soccer everywhere else. Still, eminence through basketball? Through hoops? If Jordan is most like anyone else today, it is probably Bill Gates, who clambered to the top of the world in business and wealth in an enterprise that didn't even exist a brief time ago.

With such stature has come criticism. Still, it is a measure of these boom times—of Michael Jordan's times—that the bulk of the reproof leveled against him by the likes of Jim Brown and unrelenting anti-Nike fanatics relates to the businessman, not to the athlete or the person. This Jordan is a conglomerate, they say, too greedy, lacking social responsibility. Why isn't this Jordan spending more time in the inner cities, handing out Christmas turkeys there? Funny: No one ever lambasted Larry Bird for not spending his idle hours demonstrating his largesse in Appalachia.

Oh, how quickly do times change! Or, how greatly did Michael Jordan change them. It was but a short while ago that every profile about a black athlete would emphasize how he, unlike his white alter egos, couldn't attract endorsements. As that other famous athletic Mike, Mr. Tyson, laments his commerciallessness even now—"I don't run around with no shoes on"—here is Henry Louis Gates Jr., in The New Yorker, no less, proclaiming that "Michael Jordan has become the greatest corporate pitchman of all time." The irony of the charge that Jordan has allowed crass white men to pass him off as some kind of cartoon character away from the court is that if Jordan is at all resonant of Disney, it is not because he is a cartoon but, rather, a family-entertainment empire.

All this is quite amazing, and all quite '90s. Also, much of it is above—beyond? beneath?—race. Jordan has become like a handful of other public black people, notably Colin Powell, Bill Cosby and Vernon Jordan, who don't seem to be creatures of color. Well, at least not to whites, they aren't. Nobody admits it, but the subtext of "Oh, gracious, whatever is the NBA going to do without Michael Jordan?" really is "Whatever is the NBA going to do without such a terribly appealing black player?"

As unbelievably great as Jordan has been on the court, his popularity is related in no small measure to his engaging persona. Let us merely consider, first, his attire. In mufti he always presents himself in a magnificent suit, complete with a tie, tied. (God, if just once we could see an I'm-cool movie star in a coat and tie. And shaved.) Yet with this downright old-fashioned presentation, Jordan also wears an earring. Talk about something for everyone. He pulls it off, too! Anybody else wears a coat and tie with an earring, it's like a tuxedo with Docksiders. But on Jordan it's real. Real nice. The jiggy gentleman.

Too bad the classy Jordan mode hasn't caught on. Other athletes dress up only when they're indicted. But then, you see, the greatest paradox about Jordan is that for all his majesty, he's neither seminal nor progenitive. Jordan is simply spectacular, by himself, of himself, of his time. Babe Ruth, for best comparison, not only saved baseball but also changed the sport. It's not Jordan's fault, but he did neither for basketball.

In fact, long before he ascended to new heights, black basketball had become accepted as the theater of levitation. Why, before Number 23 was even born, it was said of the playground legend Jumpin' Jackie Jackson that "he could take a quarter off the top of the backboard and give you change." Later, the silken Elgin Baylor—who was the first entertainer, in showbiz or sports, to be deemed "superstar"—brought that same ability (and more) to the NBA; it was Baylor who was the Manet of the Impressionist school of basketball, which Jordan, in time, would attend.

None of this is to diminish Jordan. If he didn't come first, he has improved on everything. Consider jumping, which by itself isn't the least bit sexy. Quick, name the Olympic high jump gold medalist. Hell, name any high jumper. But Jumping by Jordan is equal parts art and optical illusion. It must be the tongue.

Yet as he is not a true original, neither will there be any legacy. Indeed, apart from Andre Agassi's "Image is everything," Jordan's "Be like Mike" must be the greatest commercial curse. It isn't just that no one can possibly be like Mike, but rather that in the impossible attempts to imitate him, the sport has been diminished. Bird and Magic Johnson not only saved the NBA, they also gave us a better game, one that was focused upon the ideal of team. Give Jordan fair credit. He was too good for that—"God disguised as Michael Jordan," as Bird famously called him—but the faux Jordans who have come after him have only proved that imitation is the sincerest form of vulgarity.

If lesser lights find it hard to knock off his game, trying to copy Mr. Jordan's demeanor is an even more imposing task. In a world where celebrity wannabes feel they have a right to be whiny and boorish, Jordan has been remarkably dignified. His vaunted competitive spirit—all that tedious he'd-try-and-beat-his-own-grandmother crap—is absent off his fields of play. His extreme penchant for gambling only makes him more human to most people. This is, after all, a man who has somehow made a handsome asset of baldness, the first athlete since Dorothy Hamill to affect hairstyle fashion.

Likewise, we appreciated his relative failure at baseball. Really, to have pulled that off would have been a bit much. After all, a great part of Jordan's popularity is that he seems, away from basketball, remarkably well-adjusted. Consider the stable, middle-class family upbringing, the early disappointment—not making the high school team, an episode that has, by now, been raised to Jordanian scripture—then the overcoming of this rejection, learning to play at the foot of the wise and sainted Dean Smith, finding success, leading his team, winning a number of "rings" (what we used to call championships), becoming a doting father, being blessed with convenient tee times, etc., etc., etc.

We admire, too, that the good son's evident devotion to his father and his anguish at that terrible death are matched by the privacy that Jordan, the husband, carves out for his young family. Do you have any idea what his wife's name is? What she looks like? How many children they have? How many times Barbara Walters must have tried to get into his living room? To be sure, Jordan is no paragon—enough already with the golf!—but we can imagine the enormous demands that are put upon him, and we marvel at the way he lives such a life, most graciously. In a time when we're crying out for heroes, it is sufficient that we understand that Jordan is man enough.

It was, though, time for him to leave the stage. Yes. Bill Bradley wrote that the athlete has an obligation to live out the full arc of a career, and probably this should be true for most athletes, even the best ones. But Jordan is a special case, the athlete for our time, and to see him tarnished at all, even to see age occasionally overtake him, would only have been a cruel reminder of how temporal and fragile we all are, how elusive and brief is perfection. For all his majesty, for that perfectly celestial final minute against the Utah Jazz in the 1998 Finals, still, we also saw the first leaf of autumn in those playoffs. No more, thank you.

It's like that old question, What do we look like in heaven? Do we look all wizened, the way we do when we die at 80, or do we get to choose to be at our youthful best? Because if there is a heaven on earth, it certainly includes a vision of Jordan at the height of his powers, effortlessly kicking everyone's ass. It would have served no purpose for society to have to remember his struggling to force up another ragged fallaway that ... falls away.

Besides, what actor ever had a better exit than the one Michael Jordan wrote for himself in Salt Lake City?

What has been so amazing is that Jordan has achieved a certain mythology without benefit of our fevered imaginations. Everything he's done is on tape and has been viewed and reviewed from every angle. None of it has been dreamed or exaggerated. Let the movies depend on special effects, let the politicians rely on spin. Michael Jordan is neomillennial, our first literal legend. And so much of it has been so beautiful. That above all. He made sport into art in a way that we really hadn't seen, hadn't admired, quite so, since the Greeks chose athletes, foremost, to decorate their amphoras.

In the end, it wasn't so much the basketball. It was the beauty. It truly was a thing of beauty.

From Sports Illustrated Presents: A Michael Jordan Commemorative. Look for this special issue on newsstands nationwide beginning Friday, January 15. A numbered, hardbound collector's edition may be ordered by phone at (800) 662-4512.

To the top

Copyright © 1999 CNN/SI. A Time Warner Company.
All Rights Reserved.

Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.