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Birth of a Salesman

For thirty-five years, David Halberstam, an unsilent member of the Silent Generation, has contemplated America and its place in the world, casting his eye on big subjects—Vietnam, global economics, race, mass media, and the 1950s. Like Graham Greene, who, between his weightier fictions on sin and salvation and the transgressions of Pax Americana, published the tidy thrillers he called “entertainments,” Halberstam intersperses his eight-hundred-page baggy monsters with diversions of his own. His subject is always sports—the 1949 American League pennant race (Summer of ‘49), scullers questing for a place on the 1984 Olympic team (The Amateurs), the 1964 World Series between the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals (October 1964), and the troubled 1978-1979 season of the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers (The Breaks of the Game).

Writing well about sports is as difficult as writing well about sex. In sports, the confluence of the 1989 Oakland vs. San Francisco World Series and the Loma Prieta earthquake notwithstanding, the earth rarely moves. Today, because of television, reporting on who won and who lost is a penny short and a day late; on a single Saturday in February, nineteen men’s and women’s college basketball games, and one NBA game, were televised in the New York area. There were also two championship boxing bouts, two NHL hockey games, skiing and figure skating championships, a soccer match, two golf tournaments, harness and thoroughbred racing, and two track meets. With so much action immediately available onscreen, the written report conveys only what one has already seen, if not live, then on the late-night news wrap-ups and the highlight shows, with instant replay, clever cutting, multiple angles, slo-mo, super slo-mo—plus trash talk, hoop hanging, styled home run trots, and end-zone dirty dancing.

On top of this, the sports wire is supplemented by all-sports-all-the-time sports radio, where hosts like “Mad Dog” Russo on New York’s WFAN encourage fans who call in to bring their vitriol to a splendid boil; the blood lust these callers direct at athletes, coaches, managers, referees, umpires, and owners who have incurred their displeasure seems on the level of the musings of the nation’s Trench Coat Mafias. Inevitably, sportswriters feel the need to compete with the fevered callers and the mad dog hosts who set the tone of sports commentary. The felicitous phrase and the graceful sentence, never an abundant commodity on the sports pages, have given way to the sodden, uninventive invective of sports radio. “Gutless” and “yellow” are adjectives of choice, “choke” a predicate for any losing situation, and “phonies,” usually gutless and often chokers, populate the sporting scene. Indeed the self-image of many contemporary sportswriters seems to depend on maintaining that were it not for sports, athletes would be pumping gas, if they were not sticking up the gas station.

Sports sections, like the sports franchises they cover, have become dominated by stars. The reason is economic; the only ads that appear in most big-city sports pages—any issue of the Los Angeles Times, for example—are for cures for impotence, baldness, and hair loss, for retail computer outlets and for auto tire discounters. Big-ticket advertisers—for sports gear and equipment—get more bang for the buck on sports television. But in a time of declining revenues, editors go for star sports columnists; the sports pages are the most-read section of the newspaper, and the columnists are the panzer commanders of the circulation wars. By a multiple of several times, star sports columnists are the most-read and highest-paid writers on a newspaper, earning salaries as high as $500,000 a year. There are too many columns and too little space, Pete Hamill, who edited both New York tabloids, the Post and the Daily News, told me; this is a circumstance that encourages cutthroat competition among the columnists, and no abiding loyalty to their papers. When a tabloid sports star sees him for lunch, a top editor at The New York Times confided to me, he knows that the columnist is using the putative interest of the Times (whose own columnists do not earn in the half-million-dollar range) as leverage to bump or renegotiate his contract.

Some sportswriting stars have become, in Calvin Trillin’s memorable phrase about TV’s Sunday political pundits, sabbath gasbags, exchanging zingers on ESPN and laughing uproariously at each other’s bad jokes. With only a few exceptions the sports column has become a glum business, all performance and attitude, a venting of ego intended to counterbalance the weight of athlete fame and money. What separates David Halberstam from most other writers about sports is that as a Pulitzer Prize winner,1 a best-selling writer, the recipient of sixteen honorary degrees, and one of the most indefatigable reporters of his generation, he suffers no ego deficit in relation to his star and superstar subjects. Nor is he envious of their celebrity and material success. He genuinely likes them, and especially enjoys the company of those he calls “lifers,” the scouts, trainers, and assistant coaches whom fame and riches have passed by, but whose life remains the game. He tells us that the father of Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan’s last coach on the Chicago Bulls, was an evangelical minister in North Dakota, and that Jackson grew up in a church whose parishioners spoke in tongues, so that it was not a remarkable stretch when, as an adult, he became a practicing Buddhist.

Sports for Halberstam reflect American society, a society in which raceremains the insoluble issue. White America sees the playing field, where athletes of color dominate in skill and generally predominate in numbers, as validation of the comforting illusion that the nation is color-blind. This is an illusion that Halberstam subjects to constant examination in his sporting entertainments, first in The Breaks of the Game (1981), which is among the best books I know of about professional sports in this country, an exploration not only of a basketball team coming apart at the seams, but of race and money and community.

Race was also a factor in Halberstam’s October 1964. He writes that after the signing of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers, and his resulting stardom, the National League actively sought out the best young black players; between 1953 and 1962, nine of the league’s ten Most Valu-able Players were black. In the American League, the attitude was different. “I don’t want you sneaking around down any back alleys and signing any niggers,” he quotes Yankee general manager George Weiss warning his top scout, who, when he worked for the Dodgers, had enthusiastically endorsed Robinson; the American League’s first black MVP, in 1963, was Yankee catcher Elston Howard. To Halberstam, the 1964 Series was a clash between the two cultures: the Yankees with one black starter (Howard) lost to the Cardinals, who had four, plus the terrifying (because of the brushback pitch he threw without hesitation at hitters of whatever racial persuasion) future Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, who won three games.

For The Amateurs, Halberstam took up single sculling so that he might learn to appreciate the physical torment his emotionally volatile rowers experienced for what in the end was no treasure and scant acclaim, only the personal satisfaction of competition and possible selection for the 1984 Olympic team.2 Dispassionately, he recorded the relationships among the competitors in the tryouts and the training camps, where suspicion, dislike, envy, and distrust threatened the occasional fragile comity and where, never far below the surface, there lurked the possibility of mutiny against the coaches. For these oarsmen, winning one for Old Glory was not the first order of business; it was Yale vs. Harvard, East Coast strength vs. West Coast technique, or at its most primitive, you’re not as good as I am.

Halberstam returns to basketball and to race in Playing For Keeps, the story of Michael Jordan’s career and his final season with the Chicago Bulls. When The Breaks of the Game was published in 1981, Halberstam had noted the cracks that were beginning to show in the social and economic architecture of professional athletics. What interests him eighteen years later is the way in which those fissures widened to the point where they essentially forced the aging edifice, and the old ways in which business was done there, to collapse. Michael Jordan was not alone responsible for the structural changes, but his arrival on the pro basketball scene, and in a more important sense on the national economic stage, supplied the last and loudest trumpet that blew the walls down.

Jordan is perhaps the most successful athlete in history, a figure known in any corner of the globe where one has access to a television set. Pele, the Brazilian soccer genius, had the same kind of recognition except in America, where the sport has never caught on commercially. In athletic talent, Jordan had only one equivalent, an athlete himself in a way, and one every bit as gifted as he—Mikhail Baryshnikov. Each seemed to find a way to conquer gravity, to slip “the surly bonds of earth,” as John Gillespie Magee’s World War II poem celebrating the idea of flight had it. Jordan was Air; there was something magical about the nickname, more magical even than “Magic.” Of course he has published his own memoir—For the Love of the Game: My Story. Like Jordan himself, it seems more a product than a book, its prose a pottage of cliché, sermon, self-adulation, and self-righteousness, set off by glorious photographs and trick typography in a dazzling number of hues, fonts, and sizes, often centered for maximum effect.

IF THERE IS ONE PLAYER I WOULD HAVE LIKED TO PLAY AGAINST IN HIS PRIME

IT WOULD HAVE BEEN

Jerry West.

And did he feel sorry for friends such as Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing when he played against them?

NO.

Where did he never find comfort?

IN THE SPOTLIGHT.

In the face of such modesty, Halberstam wisely does not concentrate heavily on Jordan’s airiness, focusing more on the business and sociological infrastructure of basketball than on the game and its fluid floor rhythms. Twenty years ago the sport was perceived as too black and too tainted with drugs. CBS was broadcasting few games, and in many major venues the 1980 NBA championship series between Julius Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers and Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers was only carried on late-night tape delay. As a medium for advertising, the NBA ranked, said one league executive, “somewhere between mud wrestling and tractor pulling.” There was even talk, Halberstam writes, of “splitting the season into two sections to heighten fan interest and, to counter the claim that players did not play hard for forty-eight minutes, of awarding a point in the standings to a team every time it won a quarter.”

The arrival of Magic Johnson with the Lakers and Larry Bird with the Boston Celtics was the first step in turning the NBA into an economic colossus. Theirs was a natural rivalry, starting at the NCAA final the previous spring when Johnson’s Michigan State team beat Bird and Indiana State. One was white, one was black, one played for the Celtics, the NBA’s most storied franchise, the other for the showtime Lakers, Magicalized into Hollywood’s team; at Laker games, it seemed as if Jack Nicholson in his courtside seat by the home bench got more TV face time than the lesser players. In all, Bird and Johnson matched up in three NBA finals, the Celtics winning the first, the Lakers the next two; the alchemy of these two superstars changed the NBA story line from color, cocaine, and rehab to the intimacy and acrobatic movements of the pro game, with its no-look passes, slam dunks, three pointers, and triple doubles.

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.

  1. 1

    I met Halberstam in 1962 when he was The New York Times‘s man in Vietnam, on the way to his Pulitzer. As Time magazine’s Far East writer, stationed in New York, I had flown into Saigon more or less as a day tripper to get the “feel” of the situation—a week or so was all that Time‘s editors thought a writer with New York wisdom and the availability of Washington expertise needed to catch the lay of the land, and to set straight the local reporters whom my editors thought had gone native. That Halberstam was able to overlook this impertinence, and that I recognized it as such, made for a friendship that has persisted to the present.

  2. 2

    Halberstam still sculls. At some point, a film producer asked if I had any interest in making The Amateurs into a screenplay. I saw no visual way of explaining why the rowers endured the pain. One could show the boats skimming through the water, and buckets of sweat, and muscles and tendons stretched into cords, but why they did it seemed unfilmable. It was suggested that a Halberstam surrogate would try to discover why, but then it would become a movie about a reporter and not his subject, generally a bad idea.

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