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Maybe Jordan's departure a good thing
Posted: Wed May 6, 1998
We have been diverted too long by the question: who will be the next Michael Jordan? We should know the answer: nobody. Sometimes there just isn't a next. But as we all have sat about, fretting, waiting for Godot, the NBA has been eroded by all those players who have been given the license of our dreams to audition to be that next Michael Jordan.
The result is that right now, the National Basketball Association doesn't need to look ahead for the next Michael Jordan. It needs to look back to the way it was beforeMichael Jordan.
Maybe basketball just hasn't been prepared to accept its new respect and imminence. It was a seedy sport that couldn't compete with baseball, which featured family and community, or football, which was a party game, a spectacle. Even hockey, fast and rough, had a certain panache. But basketball, itwas de classe,played in sweaty gymnasiumssometimes even enclosed in wire mesh. It's been almost forgotten, but basketball players were called "cagers" because they existed in this athletic zoo.
Then, almost overnight, thanks to some magnificent talents and some clever marketing, basketball was turned right-side up. Suddenly, the grubbiest game was the most glamorous. The word "artistic" began to appear ... pretentiously. More practically, basketball didn't become art so much as show biz. Instead of prizing plays, we began to celebrate moves. And, as with other forms of theatre, the performance became subsidiary to the performers.
It certainly isn't Jordan's fault, but maybe the worst thing that ever happened to basketball was that he was too good for the game. Whereas Bill Russell, and then Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, were reknowned for leading their teams, Jordan is known for carrying his.
And so, in his image, the players play, each for themselves. Selfishness rules and culture excuses. "It's all right on the street," Pat Riley said the other day, justifying another fight. So, venerated and forgiven, the stars proclaim their manlinesson and off the court. They pout, whine, demand, taunt, fight and, by all accounts, as Sports Illustrated detailed so graphically last weekthey live sybaritic lives, siring more offspring than do Kentucky Derby winners. It's all me, all now, and it's just become so very tawdry.
At the annual awards dinner of the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters last week, Dave Kindred of The Sporting News,voted the sportswriter of the year, used that occasion to announce that he was sorry, all these years he had supported the players over the owners. He couldn't do that anymore.
Kindred's proclamationfor he is a most respected voicehad the ring of that time a generation ago, when American officials announced they had changed their minds completely to stand against Vietnam.
For now, anyway, for a few weeks, maybe even another year or two, we remain in the presence of Jordan, one so brilliant we don't stop to consider the shabby world he gives shine to. But when he does depart, the league will have to finally understand that there can't be a next to guide the future by if nobody can any longer stomach the here and now.
These commentaries, which appear each Wednesday on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, are posted weekly by CNN/SI.
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