Jordan's fame is of a kind that builds on itself. Images in our world beget additional images. Having seen one dazzling image, we hunger for another. We fear only boredom. Because Jordan's athleticism is so great, the camera seeks him out every night. And because the camera singles him out, he in turn receives the endorsements, particularly the immensely skillful Nike commercials. What we finally come to is not merely the sale of sneakers but the creation of a myth, a movie in continuum, made up of brief commercial bites—the Michael Jordan story: Chapter 1, Michael soaring into space; Chapter 2, his palship with Mars Blackmon (even mocking Jordan's own lack of hair). In the end, he is a film star as well as an athlete.
The decision to broaden the story, year by year, was made by Jim Riswold, who writes the Nike commercials. He had heard early in Jordan's career that Bill Russell, not a man lightly given to compliments about other players, had told James and Deloris Jordan that their son was an even better person than he was a basketball player. We will proceed, Riswold thought, to show that. And he has. The Michael Jordan story, as told by Nike, has become such a cultural event that the release of a new commercial is preceded by great secrecy. We are allowed to know only that a new Michael commercial is soon to appear on a television channel near you. Then there is a screening for journalists. A screening of a commercial for journalists! Of the next episode, to be unveiled at the Super Bowl, all we are allowed to know is that it portrays Michael with another American icon, someone older from outside sports. (The smart money is on a carrot-eating wabbit of cartoon ancestry.)
Jordan is a reflection of what the world has become and of the invisible wires that now bind it. CNN, the network of the satellite, has been in operation for little more than a decade; the rise of the NBA as an international sport has taken place largely in the past five years. Some 75 nations received some combination of regular-season and playoff games in 1990-91, and that figure is up to 88 this season. The internationalization of the sport, of course, has dovetailed almost perfectly with Jordan's pro career. He had been half hidden in college in the controlled North Carolina offense. Nike had signed him in '84, thinking it was getting one of the better players of the year. It did not know that it was getting the greatest athlete in the world. He was immediately able to showcase his abilities at the Los Angeles Olympics, while the world watched. From then on, the legend built.
When Nike bid to represent Jordan, his agent, David Falk, insisted that he not sign on as just another basketball player endorsing a sneaker, but that he have his own line. In time Nike agreed, and Air Jordan was created. Nike, which had come upon stagnant times in the sneaker wars, thought the Air Jordan line might do about $10 million in business the first year. Instead, despite the attempts of the NBA commissioner to ban the Jordan shoe, Nike sold $130 million worth of Air Jordans.
Thus began the legend (and the dilemma) of the young man who is the most talented athlete in basketball but whose fame and income transcend the game, making him entertainer as well as player. For everything in a media age must entertain; that Jordan can do so is his great value. He is not just the ultimate player; he is the ultimate show.
It is about more, of course, than scoring and smiling. Being a Pied Piper is not enough. He is a warrior, a smiling warrior to be sure, and that too comes through to the fan. There is an intensity to his game, a feral quality, and an almost palpable desire to win. Great athletes are not necessarily nice people, in the traditional definition of nice, which implies a certain balanced, relaxed attitude toward life. They are, at least in their youth, obsessed by winning, by conquering others. Jordan is, for all the charm and the smiles, the athlete personified, egocentric and single-minded, tough and hard—hard on himself, on teammates, on opponents—fearless and unbending, never backing down, eager to put his signature on an opponent, looking for new worlds and teams to conquer.
There are endless testimonials to this intensity: Michael wanting and needing to win at everything he does—pool, cards, video games; Michael staring for hours at a blank television set late at night after missing a critical foul shot in the final seconds of a playoff game against Cleveland; Michael, in the Finals against the Lakers last spring, hurting his toe, which then swelled up badly, and trying to play in a special shoe that gave him more room but also limited his ability to cut, coming over to the Bulls bench early in the game and saying to the trainer, "Give me the pain," which translated meant give me my regular shoe, and I'll play in pain.
He had hated the reputation, which he bore in his early years in the NBA, that he was a great player, perhaps the greatest ever to play the game, but that he would never be able to win a championship ring. This was so, it was said, because the Bulls offense, like it or not, would revolve too much around him, and in the playoffs, at the highest level of the game, he would, in this most team-oriented of sports, subtract rather than add by playing into the hands of the defense. He became, year by year, a more complete player. But what also became clear about him—as it was clear about DiMaggio—was that he was the ultimate big-game player, the bigger the game, the better he played, and the better and tougher he played in the final quarter, and even more, in the last four minutes, when everyone else was exhausted. All of his skills came together last year in the Finals, giving him the championship some said he would never attain.
Now, with that championship under his belt, he pushes for a second and for wider victories. His teammates at Nike and Gatorade are thinking now of Europe. His teammate NBA commissioner David Stern is thinking of the rest of the planet. Their time is clearly coming. The phenomenon of the athlete as global figure grows at an accelerating rate. The Olympics loom ahead, and when Michael leads the U.S. team in the gold medal game just outside Barcelona on Aug. 8, some 2.5 billion viewers in 170 countries will likely tune in.
And this is just the beginning. The stadium is now the world. Sports, particularly soccer and basketball, arc ever more international (in soccer, only America lags behind the world, and that is partly generational; younger Americans are already more connected to the game than their parents were). The commercial impulse for more international competition can only grow—the shoe companies and the soft drink companies are increasingly international, and they hunger for this limitless audience.