Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Shit End of the Schtick.

He's immortal now. Omnipresent. A source of inspiration for faithful legions, a daunting thought for non-believers. He haunts all who dare take the path to greatness, his face flashing before their eyes, his name ringing in their ears. Michael Jeffrey Jordan may still draw breath among the rest of us in this mortal coil, but Michael "Air" Jordan ascended to the height of basketball deity long ago.

There will never be another. I hope.

The distinctive legacy of Michael Jordan is reflective of much more than late night workouts and last second heroics. It is built upon satellites, sneakers and sports drinks. Upon savvy marketing. Jordan used his rocketing stardom and a sprouting media to cultivate and manipulate an image that made him more than an icon. He became a brand of his own.

Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, by David Halberstam--First and foremost, David Stern was determined to turn around the league's image. Stern believed that the league's financial and psychological stability depended upon its corporate connections. he saw and envied the tight, almost symbiotic connection between the National Football League and corporate America, so skillfully engineered by Pete Rozelle. He desperately wanted some of the same corporate endorsements to give his shakier league some badly needed legitimacy. He wanted the best of America's heartland companies as his sponsors, nothing less; he wanted companies such as Coke and McDonald's, signature companies of the postwar nation. If they came aboard, so would everyone else. And so he set out, very early on, to try and bring those companies in.

But when he visited the offices of the nation's great advertising firms, the gatekeepers to the great name-brand companies whose sponsorships he coveted, he found a stone wall of resistance, though many were enthusiastic sponsors of college basketball. One Madison Avenue agency representing an auto company was particularly blunt about it-the ad man said he had been instructed by the head of the auto company to sponsor college ball because the pro game was too black. The answer came back, yes, we know your surveys, but the head of the company-my boss-thinks you're too black. When Stern tried to show the demographic studies that the league had put together, studies that showed that the audience for the professional game was not that different from the college game and that blessedly the viewers were young, he received the blankest of stares. Perception, Stern realized was everything, and the general perception of blue-chip American companies was that the game was tarnished, too much a reflection not of sports but of something most Americans wanted to know as little as possible about: black America...

...The college game was almost as black, but perceptions were important, and the college game was perceived, perhaps, unconsciously, as still operating within a white hierarchy, under powerful white supervision, a world where no matter who the foot soldiers were, the generals were still white. (That was at least part of the reason why many people in the world of sports did not like John Thompson and his Georgetown team, a sense that the white hierarchy did not include or control his particular team. Not only was Thompson himself black, but despite Thompson's insistence that all his players go to class and graduate, the team projected a sense of nascent black consciousness.)

...Stern, like Welts, was absolutely convinced that the core of the resistance was

about race. He believed that if the NBA could show some discipline and limit the worst, or at least the most noticeable, of the current excesses, then people would be able to see the truly compelling parts of the game: the unmatched athletic ability of the players and the fire with which they competed...

...For better or worse, by the eighties America exported not its machine products or its cars but its culture: its fast foods, Cokes and Big Macs; its more relaxed and informal dress codes; its popular music, movies and television shows. And its sports. The ascending new sport in the world, one that was winning ever greater popularity with the young, was not soccer, though that reigned supreme in many parts of the world, but basketball...

...In retrospect, it was inevitable, therefore that the player catapulted forward as the signature commercial representative of this great new athletic-cultural-commercial empire would be an American and a basketball player. The other dominant American sports were eliminated because of the nature of their footwear. There were no international commercial battles to be fought over football cleats or baseball spikes like those waged in the eighties for the right to be the sneaker king of the world. Nike and Converse and Adidas were ar war with each other, and the NBA was the beneficiary. Hamburger and soft drink companies followed...

...As Nike and other companies featured individual players as stars, and as the league and the network became co-conspirators in the promotion of stars, a major new direction, barely understood at the time, was being charted for the league. It was part of a larger new phenomenon taking place in sports, and in society in general, but most nakedly and obviously in basketball. The game and its top people made a fateful choice: They would go with this modern way or their league would perish as a big time sport. Individual players were now being promoted rather than teams. Something that would have been anathema to owners, coaches, and many athletes in the past, the cult of personality, was now, however unconsciously, becoming mandatory as the sport sought to broaden its fan base. Its advocates, owners, and sponsors no longer saw themselves competing against rival teams or even rival sports. Now they were competing in a far larger and more cutthroat arena-against rock stars, movies, and all kinds of other forms of modern entertainment-for a slice of the entertainment dollar...

...So it was that when Michael Jordan came in the league, a vast number of changes were already beginning to take place in terms both of technology and of international economics that would affect his future and of which he was to become a principal beneficiary. David Stern himself later noted that he had barely noticed Jordan's arrival because he was so caught up in the mundane legal and commercial issues that dominated the daily calendar of a commissioner. In fact, what he remembered most about the draft that year was fining Portland for tampering with Akeem Olajuwon. Still, the arrival of Jordan in the very prime of Stern's career was to be one of the great determining factors in the commissioner's singular success. If Stern had sought no just success but a new kind of respectability for his league, then the arrival of Michael Jordan was like the answer to a Dream.

His singular talent made him an immediate draw, but it was his upbringing that laid a foundation for his marketability. Jordan was the child of an upper-middle class family that stressed hard work and education. He was a product of the NCAA's basketball monastery, North Carolina. He avoided any public dialogue on racial matters and was decidedly apolitical, effectually rendering himself appealing to everyone . He learned from youthful mistakes like wearing his Nike warmups and gold chains in the '85 dunk contest. The veterans saw him as a prideful rookie and Magic allegedly conspired with Isiah to freeze him out of the All-Star game.
SLAM 46, Nov. '00--Common interacted with pro hoop royalty while working as a ball boy for the Bulls from '83-87, just as Jordan entered the League. Common's tale of MJ's first day is a classic: "When he first go to the locker room he was playing 'Friends' by Whodini on this little red radio. They weren't really into him playing rap music in the locker room so they asked him to stop. After a good two exhibition games he could have played 'Fuck The Police' if he wanted to.

But he didn't. Not that he should have, there was money to made. Popularity alone didn't make superstars, Jordan understood the value of a neutral image. His thick Carloina accent, the fur coats, the chains and the music all disappeared, replaced with measured tones and immaculately tailored suits. He maintained a natural ease with the camera and a constant awareness of the public eye. Any chance encounter with Michael Jordan was to be not only a brush with athletic excellence, but a contemporary lesson in style and grace. That is what makes a superstar, talent coupled with the illusion of an unattainable superiority.

What didn't make a superstar in the 80's was hip hop. For a player headlining a league that was striving to escape the onus of being "too black", hip hop was plague. Or was it?

The sneakers were fresh. Functional, groundbreaking technology and luxurious material. Wilford Brimley could have sold them, but the Mars Blackmon ads are among the most popular in television history. A celebrity of Jordan's magnitude promoting products with hip hop was certainly a first, but the actual genius of those commercials was having Jordan play the straight man opposite Mars. It gave them true universal appeal, a nod to the buying power of the 'urban' dollar without Jordan blatantly pandering to that audience, something that would have been embarrassingly inauthentic and counter to his role as the charmer of middle America. In just thirty seconds, he had effectively cornered a demographic while avoiding its stigmas.

Mars Blackmon was a character from Spike Lee's first movie, She's Gotta Have It. Mars was diminutive and obnoxious, coincidentally identical to corporate America's perception of hip hop. The scene was still perceived as a passing fad and was relegated to the fringes of pop culture. These ads were cutting edge for their time and established Jordan as the in vogue pitchman, while boosting the worldwide popularity of hip hop culture.

In the summer of 1989 Lee released his second film, Do the Right Thing. It was a scathing critique on modern race relations that forced the discussion on the American public in a way they weren't used to. Lee's loose tongue only fanned the flames of media speculation about rioting. It was controversial, unapologetic and certainly immersed in a 'nascent black consciousness'.

It was also another Air Jordan advertisement.

The ensuing controversy regarding the movie never left a stain on Nike or Jordan, in fact, it only pushed the shoes popularity toward cult status. To the point that kids were killed for them. Nike and Jordan offered genuine concern for the victims, but not much else. The commercials continued with much success and Jordan continued to gorge on the benefits of global exposure without any of the accountability.

Michael certainly valued winning above all else, but he also knew it could only heighten his profile with corporate America. He was clean, articulate, stylish, and well mannered. He was already the most popular player and personality in the league, recruiting casual fans with an assortment of competitive snarls and reassuring smiles amidst his nightly acrobatics, but only a championship would complete his resume. After he captured his first title in 1991, Michael Jordan got what the rest of us truly craved-his own theme song.

But what was Mike really like? Sam Smith was determined to find out. The Jordan Rules was released in the middle of the following season, much to Michael's dismay. The book was stuffed with tales of Jordan's egomanical tirades against teammates and management, including the times he punched Will Perdue for an overly aggressive pick and openly derided Bill Cartwright's abilities as a man and a basketball player before attempting to freeze him out of games. The book was a comprehensive study on the ugly side of Jordan's competitive nature and the desire for these details made it a best seller. But Smith's arms were too short to box with God.

Halberstam--Michael Jordan was not pleased with the book, but he was also aware of his near invulnerability to criticism-the nature of this fame left him largely immune to any assault by a print reporter, in no small part because his team kept on winning. He had long since graduated to a world where the real media world for him was nothing less than network television, and where many television reporters, hungry for access, became as much ambassadors from their networks to him as journalists. What mattered for him was image, and his image glistened; facts were less important, because the only real fact that people cared about was that he and his team kept winning and he remained quite handsome.

Michael Jordan had become an unprecedented economical presence, growing stronger with the success of another championship and the global spotlight of the Olympic Dream Team. He had shaped himself into the mold of the consummate graceful warrior, with the attendant messages of morality and sportsmanship. Years of an appreciatively cooperative media had allowed him to ignore the consequences of building such a false image, but that very image would soon consume him. Jordan had built such a demand for himself and his sport that the once minuscule press corps he had such a camaraderie with could no longer contain it. The game had grown to be covered by an endless phalanx of media, and some did not seek to praise Michael, but to demystify him.

Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism, by Walter LaFeber--He told Sports Illustrated that he always tried to be a "positive image" and a "positive influence." "I never thought a role model should be negative," Jordan declared. "If you want negativity, then you wouldn't have asked for Michael Jordan. You might've asked for Mike Tyson or somebody else."

Even if only in small circles, for an athlete of any magnitude to be known as a compulsive gambler is to bear a scarlett letter of suspicion. There is no telling with absolute certainty that they wouldn't bet on their own games, or influence the outcome of games, and people tend to fear for the worst. So for the face of the league-a man of legendary competitiveness-to be known as a compulsive gambler was to risk being burned at the stake. But Michael Jordan was positive. Positive that he would win, if he didn't he was positive he could afford it. If word about his gambling spread, he was positive it wouldn't matter because of his positive image. So when the losses added up, and the word got out, and people dared question his character, he was absolutely, positively appalled.