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 merely so extraordinary for what he does. He also has been the right, best athlete for us now, for this relatively serene and altogether prosperous fin de si�cle, 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 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 Jordan's 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 relate 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." But 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 to "Oh, gracious, what ever is the poor NBA going to do without Michael Jordan?" really is, What ever is the NBA going to do without such a terribly appealing black player?
Certainly, as unbelievably great as Jordan is 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 DockSiders with a tuxedo. 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.