Friday, January 14, 2005

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Charles P. Pierce doesn't like capitalism very much

Pierce -- who writes for the Boston Globe Magazine, Esquire. and appears regularly on National Public Radio, has a truly bizarre Slate essay that takes aim at Michael Jordan.

What, exactly, has Jordan done to incur Pierce's wrath? He's expanding his business empire:

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.

How dare Jordan cater to old fans!!!

I'm genuinely baffled by Pierce's claim in the piece that "there's nothing wrong" with Jordan just being a great player and great salesman -- because the entire essay is devoted to saying that those things are somewhow wrong. Furthermore, even on this plane of analysis, Pierce tries to diminish Jordan's effect as a pitchman, when in fact his effect overshadowed every other athlete up to his time (click here for the whole story). The fact that Jordan was perhaps the first African-American sports figure to be able to achieve such a high-demand status within the corporate world goes unremarked by Pierce as well.

As for Jordan's business ventures since his retirement, I'll let these words from Magic Johnson speak for themselves:

When I was an NBA player, I was always dreaming of business plans. As a black man you have to. Minorities make money, but we don't generate wealth. But a business generates wealth—it is power, it is something that you can pass on to the next generation. That is what is needed in the black community. We can pass on problems—it's about time we passed on wealth.

Side note: I'm personally very, very grateful to Magic -- thanks to his Urban Coffee Opportunities program, the Hyde Park neighborhood has more places to get a decent cup of coffee.

Click here for another blog response to the Pierce essay.

posted by Dan on 01.14.05 at 12:13 PM


Michael Jordan was the most dominant player in the history of basketball. He deserves our respect for being the very best in the world at something. He's a hero in my book. Anyone who writes an article like this is deserving of my contempt.

And this comes from a Clevelander, whose basketball team was regularly humiliated by Mr. Jordan.

How dare he earn money!

"This is Michael Jordan's kind of sin."

What kind of puritanical soul thinks that gambling or earning money is a sin?

posted by: Brian Moore on 01.14.05 at 12:13 PM [permalink]

I luuuuuuv Jordan as much as anyone. Hell, I'd have had his baby if it was medically possible. But I think Pierce is getting at something (unrelated to any claims that Jordan should have a social conscience) that's true - there is an increasingly large difference between what we thought of Jordan during his playing career and what reasonably seems true to say of him now.

A lot of that is simply a function of the way in which the hype-machine, uncontrolled and unmanipulated by Jordan, went into overdrive for Jordan. He was an excellent player (I still think he was the best player of all time), but no one is the repository of all the virtues that were claimed for him. And, as we see more and more players that are, at a minimum, opaque shadows of him, his excellence gets better defined and less mystical.

(As much as I hate to admit it (I still have the four panel Jordan dunk poster), I think LeBron is going to be better).

posted by: SomeCallMeTim on 01.14.05 at 12:13 PM [permalink]

How dare Michael Jordan not change our current consumer culture? Clearly such a great leader and winner on the basketball court should be able to change what Americans want to consume and how they decide what to consume. To think any less clearly indicates that his basketball career was vastly over-estimated. We have all seen the profound changes in society that Larry Bird pioneered through the behaviorial norms of the team (Indiana Pacers) he has put together. So we know it is possible for a basketball player to change the world! Why can't MJ do it????

posted by: Rich on 01.14.05 at 12:13 PM [permalink]

Is this the same Charles Pierce that serves as Eric Alterman's even-more-unhinged Alter-ego? Man, that guy needs some lithium.

posted by: george on 01.14.05 at 12:13 PM [permalink]

Perhaps Pierce is angling for a job at Harper's, where they specialize in this sort of thing.

posted by: Paul Zrimsek on 01.14.05 at 12:13 PM [permalink]

My favorite part of the essay was Pierce's slam of Jordan for not "embracing" hip-hop. If only MJ had made a rap album the NBA and the world would be a much, much better place.

posted by: Bill on 01.14.05 at 12:13 PM [permalink]

As an old fashion liberal that grew up in the south under segregation I think what Jordan is doing is fantastic and is exactly what we liberals fought for over all those years.

posted by: spencer on 01.14.05 at 12:13 PM [permalink]

There was always a good place to get coffee in Hyde Park. The drugstore on the corner of Blackstone and 53rd, Jimmy's on 53rd and Woodlawn, Mellow Yellow and others. It just wasn't homogenized into an experience. If you need beer try Gill's

posted by: Robert M on 01.14.05 at 12:13 PM [permalink]

Eh, Pierce's piece was waaaaay overblown as most such pieces are, but he did have a slight point. Jordan was very, very good at Basketball in a way that was kinda uninfluential. Even his trademark slam dunk is only so great. He did not innovate, he simply flew and dunked and shot perfectly. A young player can't really try to learn from him. You're either that tall and well-built and well coordinated, or you're not. Moreover, he kept his public personality so bland, that he didn't really bring any flair the aura of the sport--just sheer, blinding glam. He had such deep natural talent and such a profoundly devoted marketshare, he could have afforded to take more risks, try new things, speak out more.

Look at it this way---there's every possibility that even without cancer Lance Armstrong would have ended up dominating the sport of bicycling to the extent that he has. Like Jordan, he's almost preternaturally engineered for his sport of choice. It would be hard to design better athletic bodies. But Armstrong is so incredibly compelling not because of his sheer dominance of the sport--this has been done before--but because of his story, and his personality, and his charitable work. It's all about the risks.

Of course, a lot of that might be itself a problem of spin. Personally I think trying trying minor league baseball was a good, interesting risk.

posted by: Saheli on 01.14.05 at 12:13 PM [permalink]

Grew up in NC the same time as MJ. Even the liberals in the South are pretty conservative when it comes to economics. (I'm one of them, too.) As Spencer points out above, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, among others, were an important step towards achieving a higher level of integration in America, towards cementing the accomplishments of their predecessors. Remember the separate drinking fountains and bathrooms anyone?

They are the first generation of considerable wealth that might provide seed money -- or at least inspiration -- for a whole new generation of black entrepreneurs. I really admire Magic Johnson's projects. Talk about being positive role models.

I can take or leave Las Vegas. It has turned into a Disney World for grown-ups and no longer reeks of mob activity. If that's where Jordan wants to invest, so be it. If he makes a ton of money, all the better.

Think about this: compared to many of the the beaver traders and robber barons whose descendants populate Manhattan, Newport and West Palm Beach, these black athletes earned their money in a very reputable way -- and oh what a joy they were to watch! Welcome to the club guys; can you spare a dime?

posted by: Tar Heel on 01.14.05 at 12:13 PM [permalink]


So waht's Mr. Jordan suppossed to do with his money? Burn it in the back yard? Buy more cars?

The other big windy success story has said the following for a long time: It's not about being rich, it's about building wealth. She should know. The good that that woman has done by building wealth instead of merely being content with being "rich", should qualify her for sainthood. Just ask all those new Army moms at Fort Campbell.

Best wishes, Mike

posted by: Art Wellesley on 01.14.05 at 12:13 PM [permalink]

Pierce wrote "He gave of himself very little, and that only to sell us something."

On what basis does he claim that the purpose of the Michael Jordan Foundation was to sell Michael Jordan? And likewise his presumably other insignificant charitable work?

Deep inside, Pierce is a hateful little man...with the emphasis on little.

posted by: pst314 on 01.14.05 at 12:13 PM [permalink]

Dan, you overlooked Pierce's complaint that Jordan didn't campaign for Harvey Gantt for the Senate. Ultimately, he's angry at Jordan for not using his fame on behalf of Democratic politicians.

posted by: Tom T. on 01.14.05 at 12:13 PM [permalink]

Jordan may not have contributed a signature play on the court, but he was an innovative player in regard to his work ethic and sheer will to win. So Pierce is wrong to say that he left a small mark on the NBA. Commentators today, when talking about who "the next Jordan" might be, do not talk about his physical characteristics or God-given talent, they talk about the mental commitment he made to winning, and the hard work required to achieve what he did. People like Kobe and Lebron have Jordan-like talent, but not necessarily his commitment and will. The reason Jordan was fired in Washington was that he simply couldn't understand why the young players there didn't have the discipline and desire he has.

That being said, I can see how someone would be turned off by Jordan's commitment to turning himself into a brand.

posted by: Andrew Steele on 01.14.05 at 12:13 PM [permalink]

I read the Pierce essay before seeing Dan's comments and had a radically different reading. I don't think Pierce was arguing that Jordan should have been some sort of Martin Luther King like figure of social change. What he argues, I think, is that in his drive to make himself the most attractive sort of endorser he could be Jordan utterly homogenized his public personality.

This mattered less when he was playing. After all we all watched him when he played both for his physical gifts (possibly the best set of basketball related athletic skills to ever play the game) and his mental (he was always the most commited to winning, the most serious about the act of pitting himself against all comers of anyone on the court). Of course we knew that when we only ever saw him in nonbasketball situations dressed in Armani suits that his image (and his clothes) were well tailored but because of the competitiveness his on court time seemed less so. I think we could feel watching him that he left some important part of himself on the court every time he suited up).

Once he finished playing we no longer get to see Jordan in any arena in which he seems to give something of himself.

The point of Pierce's piece, then, was that if Jordan could have figured out how to give more of himself, to let his public persona better reflect his private one we all would have cared a bit more about him in his playing days, and would care much more about him now.

posted by: Kramer on 01.14.05 at 12:13 PM [permalink]

If being talked about after you've left the game is an end in itself, it's tough to top O.J. Simpson's strategy.

posted by: Paul Zrimsek on 01.14.05 at 12:13 PM [permalink]

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