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In some mysterious way the word has gotten out. The chicago Bulls bus, the bus that he rides on (which is as close as most of these fans will ever get to the street where he lives), is to leave the Westin Hotel in Seattle at 5 p.m., and by 4:20 the crowd has begun to gather in the lobby, concentric rings of fans or, more properly, worshipers: They are more white than black, more young than old, more male than female, but they cut across every ethnic and demographic line. It seems almost ceremonial, a certain hum of anticipation rising each time the elevator opens. Finally at 4:50—for he likes to be the last man on the bus—the door opens, and out he comes, in his Michael Mode: His smile-and-sign-and-move-and-smile-and-sign-and-keep-moving drill is flawless. He is the seigneur—swift, deft, graceful, never rude—in the splits of the second in which he at once enters and departs their lives. "I actually saw him live," a boy says. Fame is indeed fleeting for those whose closest connection to it is to stand and work the 60 yards from the Westin elevator to the team bus.
I have not seen fame like this in almost 30 years. I think of the time, in 1960, when I was the one reporter in the country allowed to ride the train bearing Elvis Presley back to Memphis from the Army, and I think of John Kennedy in that same year, when he campaigned in California, and I watched the teenyboppers and saw the first reflection that in a television age, politics had become theater. I do not cover rock concerts, but I presume Mick Jagger and others who play at his level deal with this all the time. In a pretelevision age, Joe DiMaggio had fame like this and was comparably imprisoned, though his fame was limited largely by the boundaries of the 48 contiguous states.
There is an even greater dimension to the fame of Michael Jordan. He is one of only two black American athletes who, almost 45 years after Jackie Robinson broke into baseball, have finally become true crossover heroes—that is, they receive more commercial endorsement deals from the predominantly white, middle-class purveyors of public taste than do white athletes (the other is the pre-HIV Magic Johnson; the jury is out on Bo Jackson now that he's a mere one-sport man). But unlike Johnson, Jordan has created a kind of fame that exceeds sports; he is both athlete and entertainer. He plays in the age of the satellite to an audience vastly larger than was possible in the past and is thus the first great athlete of the wired world.
His good looks—indeed his beauty, for that is the right word—are a surprise to older white Americans, who by cultural instinct grew up thinking that Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck and Robert Redford and Paul Newman were handsome but did not see beauty in a young black athlete with a shaved head. Jordan has given us, then, among other things, a new definition of American male beauty. Not surprisingly, in many households it has been the children who have taught the parents about him and about his fame, artistry and beauty.
About a year ago New York Governor Mario Cuomo gave a speech bemoaning the disappearance of the athlete as hero in America. Where have you gone Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio? he asked. A friend of mine named Dick Holbrooke, a former U.S. State Department official, wrote him that comparable heroes still existed, but that their names were Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and that today's children were inspired by the grace and ease with which they carried their fame. Cuomo called back and said, I stand corrected.
Jordan, infinitely disciplined, product of a very strong, very ambitious family, knows innately how to handle this staggering role—to deal with the media, to know what to say and what not to say and when to hide and when to go public, and to smile always. He is the first new-age athlete. And he is the right athlete at the right time. He plays the right sport, for its purpose is easily comprehensible even in a country where basketball has not yet taken root. Had the satellite been pervasive 20 years earlier, Pelé, also playing an international sport—soccer—on a level above even the best players of his day and with a charm that radiated easily across national boundaries, might have been first. Perhaps Muhammad Ali might have been first, but he was politicized by his conversion to Islam and the Vietnam War. Besides, Ali's considerable charm notwithstanding, boxing was never the ideal sport for the young, with whom all idolatry of this kind must start. Ali, far more graceful than most boxers, conquered his opponents by stylishly punching them senseless; Jordan meets his opponents and conquers by gracefully soaring over them.
More, he does this for an audience that greatly exceeds that of the ballet. This is sports as ballet, something utterly new and modern, its roots African-American, ballet as a contested sport. No one, after all, ever guarded Baryshnikov. When we talk in Jordan's hotel room, I talk to him about Baryshnikov and Nureyev and their beauty and grace, and he listens, curious, patient, intrigued by these stories of potential rivals, and when I am through, he asks only one question about Baryshnikov: "How tall is he?" Short, I answer, quite short—low center of gravity. I detect a small smile, a category 4 smile, almost invisible, a smile of private victory: Michael's pleasure as he thinks about posting up Mischa.
Jordan's is the most original of performances. What thrills the fans—and the other players and his coaches—is that almost every night there is something unique in his moves. It is not, says Bulls coach Phil Jackson, that Jordan's hangtime is so great; there may well be others in the league with greater hangtime. What sets Jordan apart, Jackson says, is what he does in the air, the control, the vision, the ability to move his body after he has seemingly committed it. If Jordan, Jackson notes with a certain delight, is the lineal descendant of those great basketball innovators who went before—Elgin Baylor, Connie Hawkins and Julius Erving, each learning from and expanding upon the accomplishments of his predecessors—then the most exciting question is, What is the next great player going to be able to do?
Ever since the coming of the communications satellite, there has been an inevitability to all this—that there would be an athlete of Jordan's surpassing international fame, that he would most likely come from soccer or basketball, because they are the most readily understandable of international games, the games that essentially explain themselves. Since America is the home team in the wired world, it would likely be an American sport. But American football has too many rules and cloaks its players in uniforms that deny individuality. Baseball has complicated rules too and seems, in contrast with basketball, a languid sport to the uninitiated, building slowly over an entire season. That left basketball. It was therefore almost a given that the first athletic superstar of the wired world would be a black American basketball player who played above the rim.
The last great export of America in the postindustrial international economy may be entertainment and media. We as a country are now to the rest of the world what New York was to the rest of the nation when New York was merely a domestic media capital. (Consider the relative fame and success in endorsements of, say, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle of New York compared with Stan Musial of St. Louis and Hank Aaron of Milwaukee-Atlanta.) We do not, as a nation, merely reprocess the talents of others through our powerful communications system; like any good isolationist society, we tend to export, first and foremost, our own deeds, concerns and talents.