Michael Jordan is about to be inducted into the Hall of Fame – the Clap Academy Hall of Fame.
There are few more evocative childhood memories than the ones tied to my beloved Chicago Bulls. Imagine being a child and latching onto something very early on — a player and a team — and then watching every year as the both of them, fates entwined, struggle to mature, grow, get better, then ultimately win.
And when they win they don’t stop winning. Suddenly that team’s name is synonymous with championships and that player is an international superstar. It’s like being able to say you were a fan of The Beatles since way back when Pete Best was on drums. It’s the perverse pride of being at the ground floor of something that later turns into a phenomena. There is a weird pride in that. You did nothing to contribute to the success of it, but you feel as though you did, and it reaps a lasting emotional reward.
It is also rare to watch someone, in real time, become the absolute best at something. Not just good, THE BEST. It’s happened before of course. We saw it during the seven year run of TV’s Empty Nest when Richard Mulligan became the finest actor of a generation. Then there was that fleeting moment in 1983 when David Copperfield vanished the Statue of Liberty, allowing him to claim title as “the greatest large-objects magician” since Wilbur the Druid Tempest, in 1884, made Spain disappear for five full seconds.
So what was so great about Michael Jordan, besides his prescient ability to never be wrong athletically (excluding baseball, golf, or, actually, anything not basketball)? It could just be the man’s highlight reel. The dizzying string of heroic game winning shots, acrobatic plays and official dunks. Maybe it was his commercials?
Maybe it was his Marx-like range of facial expressions in those Spike Lee commercials? The man emoted facially like someone about to lose to a Keynesian economist at math camp– and by someone, Karl Marx. Maybe it was just that everybody loves a winner. Or maybe it was the shoes? THA SHOOOS!
Whatever it was that made Michael Jordan a seminal figure it all came together at the right moment. In terms of fame, the 90′s were a lot like the 80′s but with slightly rounder edges. You could still be a matinee idol, but corporate culture made more demands on your personality. Jordan marched arm-in-arm, lockstep with those demands, and in return his iconography was captured in front of billions of cameras. Big cameras. Not like the millions of tiny ones, cellular and invasive, we know and use today that smudge our vision of celebrity. Big cameras make you a matinee idol; tiny ones make you the butt of a YouTube joke.
Above all else though, Michael Jordan became the idealized heir to the fame African-American celebrities enjoyed in the 1980′s. Black fame was nothing new, but Jordan came along at a time just after black crossover appeal had taken hold in the American culture and he illuminated its strongest characteristics.
He was as exciting to watch as Michael Jackson but not as erratic. He was as friendly as Bill Cosby but the context of sport gave him permission to be edgy. He was as self-confident as Ali, and as rich as Oprah.
It may likewise be said that MJ’s success laid its own groundwork for progress in this current decade, and for the fortunes of another high-profile black Chicagoan. There must be something about that particular commodity, being from that particular town. The marker tends to get moved.
Welcome Michael Jordan’s career to the Clap Academy Hall of Fame.