Paths to the Throne

The cognitive dissonance of greatness
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Neil Gaiman once wrote that writers are liars. I respectfully disagree. Writers, like most people, are salesmen. Michael Jordan certainly is. He sold the idea that winning could bring happiness, that work was art and mattered more than life itself. The problem is he bought his own sales pitch. We all did.

We remember Jordan as the most dominant and famous athlete of all time: The Shot, The Shrug, The “Flu” Game. His timing was perfect. The basketball red sea parted as Magic and Bird were moving out of their primes, and Jordan was the perfect face as identity sneakers and commercialism became more ingrained in the sport. It speaks volumes that a transcendent athlete and the best basketball player ever can own Charlotte’s dumpster fire of a team but remain the definition of success.

In Jack McCallum’s book Dream Team, every player is given a nickname. These titles tie the past and the present together, turning lifetimes into character arcs. That he can boil capstones of cultural relevance down to monikers is a testament to his brilliance, and McCallum shows how the members of the Dream Team were viewed by one another, and the world: David Robinson the Christian Soldier, Barkley the Jester, Bird the Legend, Magic the Magic Man, and so on. Unsurprisingly, Michael Jordan is the Chosen One.

He was, of course, not the first player to be seen as the Messiah of basketball. And he definitely wasn’t the last. LeBron may be, though.

***

In the midst of the prize fight masquerading as an Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron James and Paul George shared a small, but significant moment. Small moments like the one between George and James and the rapport James has with one of his chief rivals are where James and Jordan couldn’t be further from each other. James’ sense of camaraderie and sportsmanship with his fellow players has long been considered a weakness.

Jordan, on the other hand, is defined by his obsessive, borderline psychotic need to win. That, after all, was the justification for destroying Drexler, dismissing Isiah, punching Kerr, making a fool of Cartwright, all of it. Jordan is better, the argument goes, because he would set an opponent’s house on fire if it would help him win. That this has destroyed almost every major relationship he ever had is an afterthought.

Which is why Bird and Magic -- his predecessors in every conceivable way -- seem to have found homes for themselves while Jordan grinds his teeth at night. Bird has become a respected front office head, while Magic has become the lovable center of attention he always wanted to be. Both are fitted perfectly for their roles. Bird has been surrounded by basketball while hiding from the spotlight. Magic has yet to be ruined by ESPN, is on TV on a regular basis, and is almost universally beloved. Jordan, on the other hand, has run out of worlds to conquer. He is left with his drive to win, but no one to play against.

Free Darko once described Jordan’s most personal moment as a time when “competition provide[ed] a sanctuary and… a kind of salvation.” This was written as a comparison of Jordan’s loss of his father to Tracy McGrady’s loss of loved ones. Jordan overcame his personal struggles, performing an exorcism, of sorts, with basketball. Jordan’s story fits the narrative: work provided a shelter during times of sorrow.

This wasn’t the case for McGrady, whose play suffered as he dealt with the tragedy that plagued him. Grief found McGrady, as it found Lamar Odom and others, devastating his ability to perform. His inability to compartmentalize was considered a weakness, as if his mourning process could be debated. McGrady dared to feel, to let his pain seep into his work, and so he was cast aside. Many players, like the much maligned Vince Carter, are criticized because their lives aren’t consumed by their work.

When McGrady and Carter retire, though, this makes it more likely that they’ll be able to adjust comfortably. Kobe might not, although he seems to be able to learn from his mistakes and progress as a person in a way that Jordan would probably perceive as weakness. Jordan used basketball as an outlet so when he (for real) retired, he had no other way to deal with his demons; he wasn’t prepared for life without competition. He owns a franchise that might destroy talent more than the Sacramento Kings, he’s surrounded by people that are too afraid to voice actual criticism, and there are only a handful of people in the world he can trust. “The Chosen One” is left a king among ashes.

That’s part of the reason Jordan has been less than enamored with the new Messiah. A few years after everyone was the next Jordan, we finally found one that fits, not as the next Jordan but as the next Next. The transcendent superstar the redefines how we see greatness in a given field.

However, James is wired differently than Jordan ever was. Where Jordan was graceful, LeBron is bullish. He breaks opponents down forcefully, as if he were disassembling a shot gun. He also seems to be a geniunely fun-loving individual, which has to make Jordan apoplectic: one imagines Jordan challenging the guy LeBron tackled to "double or nothing" on who would miss first from halfcourt. Jordan mortgaged everything for success; his soul was the cost of doing business. To think that Michael Jordan will let anyone who walks the path Jordan carved without sacrifices, to Jordan’s eyes at least, stand on equal footing is to deny his nature. Being the greatest is intrinsic to Jordan’s sense of self, and that there’s a player that might get close is unacceptable. With apologies to Bret Hart, Michael Jordan is the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be because if not, what is he?

The question probably never crosses LeBron’s mind as he prepares to challenge Tim Duncan -- arguably Jordan’s immediate successor as the Best In The World with 4 championships in 4 tries and as dominant (and consistently dominant) a resume as any player ever -- in the NBA Finals. These two (essentially) gentle giants mark a sea change in the mentality of pro athletes. Confidently humble and consummate teammates, Duncan and LeBron are actually everything we thought Michael was. They are products of a shift in player development and basic human decency that can be found if you look hard enough at a big picture that requires stars to be higher-quality people on and off the court. They seem to care (or at least appreciate) that there is a life off the court. With a lot of cameras, too.

Michael Jordan has not adapted to this shift, or at least not in any noticeable way. We’ve always known what he is but our view of Jordan’s past goes hand in hand with the reality of who he is. Jordan defined himself by his competition, and he never outgrew his need for it. Some people are 16 forever. In Jordan’s case, there was no need for growth or change since everyone loved him already. His pathological obsession was how he got to where he was. It made him revered. It’s easy for anyone to lose perspective from that height, but Jordan never really had any.

He’s not a punch line (well, except for his outfits,) but he’s not a deity either, while James is already a King. But what did we expect? When winning is all that matters, is it that surprising that there’s no room for anything else? It would be almost impossible for Michael Jeffery Jordan to be anything other than what he is today, while LeBron has the entire world at his fingertips. MJ was never willing to be personable enough to be Magic or Charles,  he was too all encompassing a figure, something submarine-tight brand management made sure of.  We took his "quirks" (read: punches to teammates faces and mid-playoff gambling binges) because we thought it was the only way he got to be His Airness.It allowed us to go against who we knew he was and what we believe we are. We like to root for intrinsically good people, something Jordan might be. The problem is we now realize that he can be a nice guy, like James or Duncan. And that's something Michael most certainly is not.


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