Sports Nut

Citizen Jordan

A basketball legend’s soulless retirement caps his soulless career.

Why you don’t want to be like Mike

Michael Jordan, a once-famous basketball personage, announced last week that he had teamed up with a Chicago development firm to build a brand-new casino resort about a half-block east of Caesars Palace, just off the Strip, in Las Vegas. There is no place in America demonstrably more homogenized or more corporatized than Vegas. Logos have swarmed in from every point on the compass. Las Vegas now differs from, say, Charlotte only in that it has casinos instead of Gaps and Banana Republics, except that it has those, too. This is Michael Jordan’s kind of sin. This is Michael Jordan’s kind of town.

The last couple of months have been a triumph of banality, even by Jordan’s standards, which always have been considerable. He’s lent his name to a motorcycle racing team; Michael Jordan Motorsports began testing at Daytona on Jan. 3. He’s turned up at his son’s basketball games, complete with an entourage to shoo away the curious. He appeared on My Wife and Kids, a truly godawful ABC sitcom on which his fellow guest stars included Al Sharpton and Wayne Newton, who at least share a similar taste in pompadours and amulets. And now, he will bring to Las Vegas yet another banging, clanging neon corral, with a fitness center, a spa, and a rooftop nightclub. The surprise is not that Michael Jordan has become such an unremarkable, boring old suit. The surprise is that we ever saw him any other way.

Michael Jordan was a great player. He also was a great salesman. And that was all he ever was, and that seems to be all that he ever will be. There’s nothing wrong with that. He made some great plays and some pretty good commercials. Has anyone so completely dominated his sport and left so small a mark upon it? From the very beginning of his professional career, and long before he’d won anything at all, Michael Jordan and his handlers worked so diligently at developing the brand that it ultimately became impossible to remember where the logo left off and the person began. He talked like a man raised by focus groups. He created a person without edges, smooth and sleek and without any places for anyone to get a grip on him. He was roundly, perfectly manufactured, and he was cosseted, always, by his creators and his caretakers, against the nicks and dings that happen to any other public person. He held himself aloof from the emerging hip-hop culture that became—for good and ill—the predominant culture of the NBA. Remember, he once warned us, Republicans buy shoes, too. He always sold himself to people older than he was.

He gave of himself very little, and that only to sell us something. Now, the NBA has moved on—to people like Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony, and, especially, to LeBron James—and it seems to be experiencing something of a competitive renaissance, and Michael Jordan seems like nothing more than a strategy the NBA once used to sell itself, his career an abandoned TV commercial. He’s gone from the game without a single footprint. He built upon the work of others, but he left very little of his own behind.

The instinctive genius of James Naismith was that he put his goal in the air, thereby ensuring that basketball would untether itself from gravity and that the people who played it would have no choice but to fly. In that, Jordan was merely the latest and greatest in a long evolutionary line that stretched back through Julius Erving, and Gus Johnson, and Elgin Baylor, and Jumpin’ Johnny Green. The NBA prospered when Jordan was at his peak, but that process was well under way behind the talents of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and because of the brilliant labor-management compromises forged between Larry Fleischer of the NBA Players Association and the late commissioner Larry O’Brien, who saved the league from the actual economic apocalypse that baseball is always pretending to have.

In all things, Jordan was the Great Culmination. He was uniquely suited—both through his transcendent abilities and, most important, through his essentially conservative-with-a-small-c temperament—to focus powerful forces that already were in play. Again, there’s nothing essentially wrong with that. Powerful trends will find their focal points and, as such, Jordan was relatively benign. Publicly, anyway, he was an amiable countenance to slap on a globalized corporate economy. And he came along in the mid-1980s, a good time to be a centrist superstar.

However, too often, Jordan’s vast success as a pitchman is misinterpreted as being as revolutionary a development as Elvis’ first appearance at Sun Studios or Jackie Robinson’s first appearance at Ebbets Field, when it actually was soulless and almost completely devoid of any lasting resonance outside of pure consumerism. Seriously, how many fewer hamburgers would McDonald’s have sold had the young Michael Jordan taken up the saxophone instead? The man determined early on to be a walking blue-chip portfolio; his choice of conglomerates was of a perfect piece with his entire public life, of which it can be fairly said that Michael Jordan never took any risk that might cost him a dime.

(His private life, unsurprisingly, was rather the opposite. We now know that he embarked on a series of risky extramarital affairs, and it has been more than an open secret for years that Jordan’s approach to games of chance makes William Bennett look like Scrooge McDuck. Had Jordan been as willing to be as reckless with his influence on the stump as he was with his money at the blackjack table, poor Harvey Gantt might now be in his third term as senator from North Carolina.)

He drowned even his competitive legend in banality with that preposterous stint with the Washington Wizards. In When Nothing Else Matters, Michael Leahy, whose job at the Washington Post was to essentially be the paper’s Jordan-beat writer, meticulously paints a portrait of Jordan’s heading toward a point at which he’ll be only a chain of newspapers and an opera singer shy of being Charles Foster Kane. In Washington, Jordan seemed like nothing more than a gambler shoving good money after bad, and in retirement he looks like an anachronism, a faintly ridiculous relic of a time when America thought salesmen were romantic and greed was good, when the country looked at Wall Street and thought it saw the Spanish Main. Now, he’s unstuck in history, past his time, and he has nothing deeper and more abiding upon which to rest his legend. He’s just another guy in a limo now, looking for a deal to close before the sun goes down.