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Birth of a Salesman

Almost exactly coincidental with, and in long-range economic terms more important than, the NBA debuts of Johnson and Bird was the launch, that same autumn of 1979, of an all-sports twenty-four-hour national cable television network out of a bare-bones office in Plainville, Connecticut. The enterprise was called the Entertainment Sports Programming Network, ESPN for short. It was an idea, says Halberstam, that began “a giant explosion of the sports world in America and an even greater one in the internationalization of sports.” With $10 million of seed money from Getty Oil, ESPN was a bargain basement operation at first, with only 1.4 million potential subscribers, but it caught on, as Halberstam writes, by giving hard-core fans “a sports fix each night.” College basketball was its first big score, one with a beneficial and unforeseen long-range side effect; via ESPN, college stars became household names even before they were drafted by the pros, which worked to the network’s advantage when it began to broadcast NBA games in 1982.

Two years later, David Stern, who had been the league’s counsel, became NBA commissioner and Michael Jordan was drafted by the Chicago Bulls, another coincidence of timing that created a union as significant as that of Johnson and Bird. In the 1980s, America exported more fast food, soft drinks, footwear, sports paraphernalia, music, movies, and sports than it did automobiles and industrial products, and Stern saw his charter as forging a partnership between this relaxed side of corporate America and the NBA. For television broadcasts, “he wanted the best of America’s heartland companies as his sponsors,” Halberstam writes. “He wanted companies such as Coke and McDonald’s, signature companies of the postwar nation. If they came aboard, so would everyone else.” They did. Basketball became the signature sport of the new cultural imperialism, in part because the sneakers worn by NBA players were its signature product; football cleats and baseball spikes were eliminated as too special for mass marketing, and with sneaker companies battling over signing young stars as soon as they were drafted, the NBA was the beneficiary.

Television supplied the medium, and Jordan broadcast the message. He was the perfect messenger, more skillful than anyone who had ever played the game, articulate, intelligent, and, of importance to fat-cat advertisers, physically beautiful. He was also brilliantly managed by his agent, David Falk, who, when Jordan signed a sneaker contract with Nike, demanded advertising guarantees, and subsequently both a Jordan shoe line and a Jordan apparel line. The Air Jordan commercials he did for Nike (directed by Spike Lee) turned him “into a dream,” Jordan admitted. To the international youth culture that bought the products of the new imperialism, Jordan’s color was irrelevant. He became the first all-purpose entertainment superstar, yet he understood that the longevity of the role depended on his remaining pure as a basketball player. “He sold Nike sneakers if you wanted to jump high, Big Macs if you were hungry, first Coke and then Gatorade if you were thirsty, Wheaties if you need an All-American cereal, and Hanes underwear if you needed shorts,” Halberstam writes. “He sold sunglasses, men’s cologne, and hot dogs. Mostly he sold himself.”

With Jordan, the NBA began promoting players rather than teams, the sizzle as well as the steak, selling entertainment instead of just a game. It was rock-and-roll with tall people, dancing girls, strobe lighting, luxury boxes, and Jumbotron screens on which the fans could watch the game and themselves. To basketball purists, this was heresy. “There is no ‘I’ in the word ‘team,”’ one of Jordan’s Chicago coaches told him, to which Jordan quickly replied, “There is in the word ‘win.”’ In Bulls’ owner Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Jerry Krause, Jordan had the foes he always seemed to need to stoke his competitive fires. In My Story, his text states:

THEY WERE BUSINESSMEN.

THEY WERE NOT SPORTSMEN

and goes on:

THEY MADE BUSINESS DECISIONSAND BASKETBALL JUST HAPPENEDTO BE THE

BUSINESS. Halberstam is unsparing about the often poisonous relations between Jordan and his bosses, Reinsdorf and Krause, particularly Krause, a skilled evaluator of basketball talent. He was also short, overweight, aggressively unlikable, and Jewish, a perfect lightning rod for Bulls management and its almost 100 percent black labor force. Putting Krause out front as the players’ primary target was the way Reinsdorf played the game. As sketched by Halberstam, Reinsdorf, a real estate promoter, has all the charm of a Dickensian villain as painted by Lucien Freud. Bullying came naturally to him. Unlike most NBA owners, he did not want the ego boost that association with athletes brought; a personal connection would only cede leverage to agents and their clients.

Reinsdorf saw his players essentially as men not as smart as he was, whose weaknesses he would not hesitate to exploit at the bargaining table. He knew that athletes, fearful of career-ending injuries, wanted guaranteed long-term contracts, which of course were less costly to ownership than a series of short-term contracts for a healthy and increasingly productive player would prove to be. He perceived, Halberstam writes, that Jordan’s negotiating weakness was his desire to protect his corporate image, that he was wary of holding out or demanding to renegotiate, which he thought would make him look like just another “spoiled contemporary athlete.”

Playing this card, Reinsdorf was able to sign Jordan to an eight-year contract for approximately $3 million a year—a steal when compared to the salary of the NBA’s other top stars, none of whom could match his abilities on the court. By the end of that contract, Jordan was earning many times his Bulls deal in outside income, but his relationship with management had permanently curdled. When crossed, Jordan could become nasty, and Krause became the object of his nastiness. “Jordan was skilled at verbal blood sport,” Halberstam writes, “…mature and very tough mentally, and he had a certain high, professional coldness that allowed him to turn on his emotions as he so chose and to use his rage as an instrument.”

Rage did not inhibit his game. In his thirteen years with the Bulls, Jordan led them to six NBA championships, won the league scoring title ten times, and retired with the highest career points per game average—31.5. His only failure was the disastrous timeout he took in 1994 to play minor league baseball, where he learned that hitting a curve ball was harder than hitting a jumper from the top of the key; the public embarrassment, and the unconcealed glee it unleashed in many sports columns, was an assault on Jordan’s considerable capacity for hubris. It was a career misstep that only increased the distance that Jordan kept from the print media. He was a creature of television, and TV reporters, “hungry for access,” Halberstam says, “became as much ambassadors from their networks to him as journalists.” His retirement just before the current season beatified him as the greatest basketball player ever, although Larry Bird offered a sly demurral. “Is he the greatest?” Bird asked, then answered, “He’s in the top two.”

Fortune magazine estimated that Jordan had generated $10 billion in revenues for the game, the broadcasters, and his corporate partners; in 1996, his income in salary and endorsements was $78 million, and his only rival as a global celebrity was Princess Diana. As the epitome of the entertainment culture, Jordan avoided controversy and racial characterization as elements that could only taint his carefully nurtured image. “Being black in America is like having a second full-time job,” Arthur Ashe once said, but it was a job Jordan preferred not to undertake. He represented a different generation of young blacks, many of whom, like himself, had been denied little because of their race.

In 1990, when asked to publicly support Harvey Gantt, a black, who in a close race was contesting Jesse Helms for the US Senate seat in North Carolina, Jordan, a native North Carolinian and former star at the University of North Carolina, declined, saying that Republicans bought shoes, too. Then at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, where Reebok was the official sportswear supplier, Jordan, because of his Nike association, initially refused to wear gear with the Reebok logo. He and the other players with Nike deals finally relented, but at the medal ceremony after the American basketball team won the gold, he draped an American flag over his shoulder to hide the Reebok logo on his uniform. Unlike Ashe, Muhammad Ali, or Jackie Robinson, who had not only athletic skill but an appreciation of history and the courage to confront it, Jordan was uncomfortable as history’s point man, and seemed to regard himself instead as the first citizen of Nike Town. His contribution to the racial dialogue was at best an oblique one, that of showing a reluctant corporate America, in Halberstam’s words, “that a stunningly gifted and attractive black athlete could be a compelling salesman of a vast variety of rather mundane products.”

Because of the Jordan impact, today’s high draft choice enters the NBA combining the attraction of both rock star and basketball player. Many are surrounded by a posse of hangers-on whose only real function is to make the highly paid player’s consumption even more conspicuous; the new ethic of team sports, says Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, is “the disease of more.” Shaquille O’Neal signed with Orlando, Halberstam writes, “as a full-service entertainment conglomerate,” with a sneaker deal, a Pepsi deal, and record and movie deals. In Jordan’s league salaries have climbed 2500 percent since 1978. Coaching a modern NBA team, one coach said, is like dealing with twelve corporations rather than twelve players. With increasing frequency, high schoolers like Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Kobe Bryant of the Lakers bypass college and sign contracts worth tens of millions of dollars before they are twenty.

A retired superstar will spend more than half his life being known primarily as the star he formerly was. For his myth to survive, the icon, if he is Michael Jordan, must look busy and keep moving, another day, another city, another meeting, another venture, another award, another dinner, another photo shoot, another commercial, another golf tournament, another withdrawal from the carefully husbanded account of celebrity—an upmarket and successful Willy Loman. In The Washington Post last February, Kevin Merida described a post-NBA Jordan event, at a middle school in the District to announce a national grant program for teachers, known as “Jordan Fundamentals.” The time allocated was two-and-a-half hours. Jordan entered the school via a back door and spoke to none of the security or custodial staff. Nor did he speak to the teachers or to the crowd outside. He autographed one basketball and one photograph. The photograph was photocopied for distribution to students, and the school was promised a thousand T-shirts for being the site of the photo op.

One can find a further hint of Jordan’s future in The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, which Halberstam edited, and for which he wrote an introduction. The two best pieces in the book—Gay Talese on Joe DiMaggio and Richard Ben Cramer on Ted Williams—are each about athletes in their lonely silent seasons. There is Williams in the Florida Keys, profane, aware of his failures as husband and father, and having a hell of a good time. And there is DiMaggio, seldom anywhere for long, keeper of his own flame, a flame kept burning more brightly than it might have, perhaps, by Paul Simon in his song “Mrs. Robinson”:

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio,
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

To which DiMaggio answered, when Simon introduced himself to him in a restaurant: “I just did a Mr. Coffee commercial…. I haven’t gone anywhere.”

In his introduction to Best American Sports Writing, which was finished some months before DiMaggio’s death, Hal-berstam acknowledges the special quality of the ballplayer, but challenges the sentimental legend that would be revived when DiMaggio died. The man behind the legend, Halberstam says, was

self-absorbed…, suspicious, often hostile, often surly, and largely devoid of charm. By and large those who were close to him… tended to be sycophants, people whose principal importance came from their proximity to him.

Good fortune has always trailed Michael Jordan. As age overtakes him, and as memories fade and newer and younger superstar pitchmen supersede him on the advertising and entertainment circuit, it is likely that his well-developed pride and his considerable wealth will preserve him from selling his autograph to strangers at card shows. Perhaps he will find his own Paul Simon, who will celebrate the autumn of his years. Where have you gone, Michael Jordan? To which he might reply, I just did

A NIKE COMMERCIAL.

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