The Problem With Michael Jordan Mythology Porn

Illustration for article titled The Problem With Michael Jordan Mythology Porn
Photo: Jonathan Daniel (Getty Images)

Michael Jordan’s 63 against the Boston Celtics in 1986 was the first time I saw him play a full game live. Except it wasn’t. I actually watched a VHS recording of that game, because it came on while we were out of the house, and my dad taped it. But that detail gets obscured in my memory and recollection of this because it just gets in the way of how I wish to remember and recall it. It doesn’t fit the myth.

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I was reminded of this Sunday while watching clips from that game again during The Last Dance. Even now, 34 years after it was played, watching young Mike still feels like watching Back to the Future. He was Marty McFly—doing things and moving in a way that just hadn’t been seen before. That particular Celtics team was one of the three or four best in NBA history, but it was like they had slingshots against his lightsaber. Just looking at him against them now, I felt like he could’ve had 80.

It also reminded me of what I hate most about Michael Jordan mythology porn.

You can not have a conversation about Mike without qualities like “killer instinct” and “will to win” attached to him, as these nebulous attributes are what, to many, many, many sports fans, separated him from the rest. He “wanted it more.” And was the “ultimate competitor,” with an insatiable “drive” to dominate.

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The compulsion to do this is understandable. With all of the time and energy and emotional bandwidth we devote to watching grown men play sports, the metaphysical shit is a way of reverse-engineering a meaning and justification for that investment. You’re not just watching a man make a shot; you’re watching a deity transubstantiate.

And, with Mike, the fanatical reliance on the myth actually minimizes the man. Sure, he wanted to win and was ultra-competitive and could be cutthroat and borderline sociopathic. All of that is true. But, none of that made him unique. Can you say that he worked on his game more than, I don’t know, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf did? Or that he’s more competitive than Patrick Beverly is? Or that he played harder than Matthew Dellavedova does? What made him great is that he was just better at basketball than everyone he played against.

Of course, becoming great doesn’t happen by accident. You need that drive and that will to compete and all of that. But that extra shit wouldn’t have mattered if he wasn’t also perhaps the best pure athlete the NBA had ever seen. (The only other person before him you could make that argument for, in terms of pure athletic gifts, is Wilt Chamberlain.) For his era, Mike was just as physically and athletically dominant as prime LeBron was.

If you dispute this, please, please, please go watch Come Fly With Me, or Michael Jordan’s Playground, or NBA Superstars—all of which I ownedand you’ll see someone who was bigger and stronger and faster and taller and bouncier than literally every other guard in the league. And also he was as agile and nimble and flexible as a cheetah. And also he had hands so large and strong that he could palm a bowling ball. And also, while most great leapers are either one-foot guys or two-foot guys—Dominique Wilkins, for instance, was a two-foot guy, while LeBron gets much higher off of one foot than two—Mike was just as explosive either way.

Look at this shit!

And this!

This. Is. An. Alien. And even “old” Mike during the second three-peat was still a freak.

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We make things too hard sometimes when attempting to contextualize the physical feats athletes accomplish. Winning and losing ain’t about who “wants it more.” Or rather, it ain’t as much about that as we convince ourselves it is. Because sometimes you just make shots, and sometimes you just don’t. And if you’re great, you’re usually gonna make more shots than the other guy. That’s it. Which is more likely to be true? That the Bulls won three titles in a row because they wanted it more than everyone else? Or because they had the best player (Mike), arguably the second-best player (Scottie Pippen), the best perimeter defender (Pippen), the best rebounder (Dennis Rodman), the best interior defender (Rodman), the best sixth man (Toni Kukoc), and the best coach (Phil Jackson)?

Again, I’m not saying all that nebulous “killer instinct” and “competitive fire” shit don’t matter. Cause it does. I’m just saying it’s the ketchup, not the steak. What made Michael Jordan great at playing basketball is that he was...great at playing basketball. If that seems too simple, you’re still thinking too hard.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)

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DISCUSSION

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Part of the issue with MJ is that he had so many boxes checked in his favor that had simply never come together on one player before. Yes, he was a beast, he worked on his game relentlessly, outmatched even the best defenders and assembled a combined team to support him that even now has yet to be mimicked on the same level.

Not to mention that he blew up fan appeal like nothing else which all boiled down in him having so much of a say that you couldn’t tell him ‘no’, not when the rings and money was raining like a Cat 5 Hurricane. But try as GM’s might, it’s like trying to make lightning strike twice and the fact that there has been repeated attempts to re-create what MJ had almost all coming up short.

That said, I believe lightning will strike again and within my lifetime, maybe more then twice. After MJ, scouts are on the lookout for all of the things and more that allowed MJ to do what he did. But even while they hunt, there are plenty of fantastic players that deserve to be spoken of too. It doesn’t take anyway anything from what MJ did to discuss current, past and up and comers with the same awe that those who grew up back in the day did with MJ,.