A couple of weeks ago, ESPNtheMAGAZINE published a piece by Michael Jordan in which he discussed the state of the Lig. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the article was how little buzz it induced. If I didn't still get the Mag in the mail from some BestBuy purchase years ago, I would not have heard of the article at all.
Alas, the lack of interest is understandable. The article amounted to little more than a patchwork of simple and unsubstantiated platitudes. One MJ quote, however, stuck in my craw:
"David Stern hates when I say this, but in some ways he created his own problem. Look at the way the league markets its players. When I came in, they marketed the athletes themselves, how they performed, what they accomplished...Don't take guys and force them into our mold."
What? I can't say I fully follow his argument, but Stern "created his own problem" by relying too heavily on Jordan's image...? Excuse me? MJ, I thought you and Stern were brahs...
Et Tu Brute?
Now, I read this two weeks ago and beyond being riled by MJ's on-going tour-de-self-righteousness, I wasn't going to post about it. As regular readers of the phdrib probably recognize, I try to minimize my masturbatory exercises in celeb-vilification. Really, how satisfying is it to win a one-way game of got-ya?
Then, I caught ESPN's videomentary on the history of the Air Jordan. Like MJ's article, there was nothing particular new about the piece. ESPN did a solid job outlining the cultural shockwave of the AJ as well as it's unfortunate aftershocks. On February 14, 1990, Sports Illustrated led with a cover story titled,
For 15-year-old Michael Eugene Thomas, it definitely was the shoes. A ninth-grader at Meade Senior High School in Anne Arundel County, Md., Thomas was found strangled on May 2, 1989. Charged with first-degree murder was James David Martin, 17, a basketball buddy who allegedly took Thomas's two-week-old Air Jordan basketball shoes and left Thomas's barefoot body in the woods near school."
ESPN's recent retelling covered the issue of AJ-crime, but omitted what was one of the central question posed at the time. Nike, the mega-faceless conglomerate had contributed to the problem. But how much was Jordan to blame? Had he not colluded in the creation of the Air Jordan? It's hard to imagine he could have foreseen the violence. But once prices skyrocketed to triple digits, did he not have a responsibility to put his foot down, remove his name from the product, and take a stand?
At the time, MJ expressed great sadness and feelings of guilt.
"I can't believe it," Jordan says in a low voice. "Choked to death. By his friend." He sighs deeply. Sweat trickles down one temple...Jordan sits up straight in his chair. It's time for practice to start. "I'd rather eliminate the product [the shoes] than know drug dealers are providing the funds that pay me," he says.
And then...he did nothing.
Spike Lee directed seven of the AJ commercials. Today, he recounts the story of the AJ like a wizened professor emeritus. He told ESPN, "We have problems because people do what they need to do to get the money, or steal that stuff which is being hawked at them." He discussed the scandal as a dispassionate observer, as I would the discovery of Emelda Marcos' shoe collection.
Yet at the time, Spike did not enjoy such amnesty. The New York Post's Phil Mushnick, in an article titled "SHADDUP, I'M SELLIN' OUT..SHADDUP," ripped Spike for colluding in the Nike revolution. As SI reported, Lee hit Mushnick back with a charge of "thinly veiled racism." Sigh.
Eighteen years later the debate over inner-city poverty and crime has shifted. The likes of Cosby, Kenny and Chuck, Whitlock, and Obama have called for self-examination on the question of, as ESPN puts it, "hip hop's swaggering materialism." But somehow, Michael Jordan's name never surfaces in the debate.
The game has moved on and, as many of us believe, is hitting a new Renaissance. As we look back to the last Golden Age, let's not forget it's troubles. Let's remember it for what it was: both fantastic and unsettling. Michael Jordan, the lead actor, employed his superhuman skills for pure self-aggrandizement. Compare him to figures like Oprah, Bill Gates, or Magic Johnson...
I re-raise the question of Jordan's culpability not to bury the man nor to associate him with murders, but to re-evaluate his legacy. Stand up, MJ. Take a stand. Instead of dumping on Stern's stewardship of the game, how about a little self-examination? Are we really to believe that you had no input in the triumph of your spirit? Let's give Nike some credit, sure Stern and NBC/ABC/ESPN hyped up the games and the stars like never before, but Michael...hell, you're Michael f-ing Jordan.