Michael Jordan's Legacy: How the NBA and the Media Lied
“But I ignored an’ explored my history that was untold.” - GZA, B.I.B.L.E
He is the gold standard by which all athletes are measured. Michael Jeffrey Jordan captivated audiences with his athletic wizardry and elevated the game of basketball with his supremacy. Yet, simply put, he is not the greatest basketball player ever.
Rather, his legacy has been aided by memorizing propaganda steered by his magnificent athletic dominance. What Jordan accomplished on the court pales in comparison to what he created and cultivated us into believing off of it.
First let us get this out of the way: Michael Jordan is ONE of the greatest basketball players to ever live. Michael Jordan is one of the greatest basketball players to ever live.
Now that we can continue on, such an aggressive statement is sure to evoke one of two responses: “This cat is crazy” or “he’s just trying to be a contrarian." Well this article is written not to relish in either, but was brought about through research and conversation.
Some of Jordan’s predecessors have tried unsuccessfully to debunk the theory that he is the greatest ever. Oscar Robertson, the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season, had this to say about the topic. “The media now has anointed Michael Jordan the greatest of all time. Is he greatest of all time? No, I don’t think he is.”
Then Scottie Pippen dropped this jewel during the NBA Playoffs. “But I may go as far as to say LeBron James may be the greatest player to ever play the game because he is so potent offensively that not only can he score at will but he keeps everybody involved."
To say Pip was attacked would be an understatement. He was scorned, vilified, but most of all, he was questioned. Who is more qualified to say if Jordan was the best ever? Yet, it seems no one is allowed to question “His Airness'" placement on the throne. Should you dare to do so, you will be removed from the village and ostracized to the forest among the wild, since this is where some believe you belong for speaking such tomfoolery.
Pippen’s comments solicited an open letter from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In that letter, Abdul-Jabbar questions Jordan’s and LeBron’s credentials to obtain the title of G.O.A.T.
Three different players, all of whom have played at the highest level of basketball and all are emphatic that Jordan was not the greatest. The more significant point is the outcry of disrespect directed to not just these three, but to anyone who publicly dares to throw rocks at the throne.
The sports world, and basketball fans specifically, have been led to believe that there is no greater winner than MJ, that no one player was as dominant during their era. When in actuality that is not the case, and is one of the many myths we have unconsciously devoured.
Bill Russell is basketball’s greatest winner, always has been. Russell’s 11 rings in 13 years is the epitome of winning. In the two years he did not win the championship, Russell lost in the finals and the Eastern (Conference) Division finals. Right now, every person over the age of 55 is smiling from ear to ear. Russell was the quintessential winner, but is often omitted when discussing the G.O.A.T.
What makes the Russell argument so strong is that the goal of every player is to win championships. The “upset” in sports is what attracts the casual fan, and one of the things that motivates the avid fan. In 11 years, the Russell-led Celtics never had to say “If we played them 10 times we would win nine. They were the better team in this series.”
In short, his focus and discipline should warrant more than just a casual mentioning more than likely said by someone who watched him play.
Just for good measure, where do you think Jordan’s six championships rank him all-time?
MJ currently sits tied for ninth place. He is resting comfortably after 76,000 Celtics and Robert Horry’s seven. Oddly enough, he is tied at six with the very man whose letter facilitated this inconvenient truth.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA’s all-time leader in regular-season total points scored with 38,387, and Wilt Chamberlain is the single-season leader for points (4029) and has the highest single season points per game average (50.3). This is very intriguing because MJ is not second, not third, not fourth, but fifth (shout out LeBron James). How can the greatest scorer to ever crap between two shoes be fifth? How can the greatest scorer ever trail Wilt in 60-, 50- and 40-point games?
Jordan is the all-time playoff leader in total points scored, and single-season leader in points per during the playoffs. He also holds the record for consecutive seasons leading the league in scoring with 10. However, if Kareem is the total points leader and Wilt is the points-per-game leader, it should be arguable that Jordan is the game's greatest scorer—not definitive.
So, if our celebrated king is not the all-time leader in rings or points, where did he conquer his kingdom? The overwhelming response is going to be the eyeball test. The eyeball test can be the difference between a man buying you a beer and giving you an eye jammie—especially when talking about Jordan.
He wowed us with his violent attacks to the rim and his suffocating defense. His iron will and almost psychotic drive left us satisfied game in and game out. He was both fundamentally sound and unorthodoxly great. Jordan mastered the dunk and the fadeaway.
He was our prize fighter. He was the people’s champion. He was by far the greatest athlete to ever lace them up.
Or was he merely a marketing genius who was aided by a laboratory called cable?
We have all been fooled, and unfortunately, many great players have paid the price for our ignorance. Many have referred to Jordan as a magician on the court; using that term, the greatest trick he ever pulled was convincing the world that Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did not exist.
Unlike his predecessors, Jordan had SportsCenter and the George Michael Sports Machine, and he was prepared to use them in creating a dynasty. When Jordan signed with Nike, he created history in two ways: He became the first athlete to have a shoe named after him, and he became the first athlete to have his sneaker banned by the NBA.
Just like that, a legend was born. In 1984, Jordan signed with Nike and subsequently released his first sneaker; just two years later, Nike recorded over $1 billion in profit.
Aiding MJ was his grimey game, but also a marketing campaign geared to the block. While Dr. J, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were being marketed as bright, colorful and loveable guys, Nike decided to align itself with a darker image.
This began the campaign of promoting Jordan as the greatest ever. When marketing a product, you must first define who you are selling to. It's safe to say that Nike decided early to whom they were marketing. However, while Nike was selling sneakers, Jordan was selling the allure. Notice how, even in his infancy stages, the impression was given that Jordan stands alone—subtle but potent.
What Nike created, MJ innovated.
He took that marketing campaign and aligned himself as our “New Age Hero." The media, SportsCenter specifically, was a willing participant in this takeover. They too stood to gain tremendously in creating this image.
First, Jordan’s struggle had to be documented. We had to believe in our hero like no player before him. The media was working to keep up their end of the bargain but MJ had to produce an improbable win, something to get the people going.
The 1988-89 season lined up perfectly for our hero. He averaged 33 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, but the Bulls only won 47 games. The media in Chicago began to question if he would ever win a championship. The villagers actually began to question their king’s power.
Jordan, feeling this pressure, led the Bulls into the playoffs as the sixth seed and knew he had to do something grand. The Shot over Cleveland Cavaliers guard Craig Ehlo catapulted Jordan to clutch, and essentially ended the third-ranked Cavaliers' chances of ever winning a title.
Next, MJ slayed the New York Knicks in six and, for the first time in Chicago Bulls history, they were playing for an Eastern Conference crown. That’s how it was billed, and that statement is factually correct.
However, the devil is always in the details. The Bulls had played in the conference finals before in 1973 and 1974; it just so happens that they were in the Western Conference at the time. This again was an example of building up our hero to appear as if nothing existed before him.
This would be the first of five consecutive trips, eight overall, to the Eastern Conference finals for MJ. This trip would provide a villain for the story that was being etched out in front of our very eyes. This was the trip where good met evil.
The Pistons were the undefeated team in the playoffs—not the Bulls. The Pistons had played in the NBA Finals just one year earlier and beat the Bulls in five games that year to get there. Yet, Jordan was being sold as Superman, and now needed a villain.
Look no further than Isiah Lord Thomas. He and the Pistons were hated for their hard play. They were banished from NBA glory for their tougher-than-leather approach. They were all but branded the bad guys. Instead, the media called them “the Bad Boys," and who else would Superman be expected to defeat?
Isiah did not cooperate, and defeated the anointed one in ’88, ’89 and ’90. Is this why to this day he is treated like the milkman’s baby when discussing the all-time greats? It could not be because of his play. How can the man who beat Larry, Magic and Michael not be among the top players in the history of the game? Is it because he did not cooperate with the grand scheme and was the last person holding the door shut?
Or is it that he knew what was going on and refused to accept it? Much has been made about the Pistons walking off the floor in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals before time expired. Little has been said about the Pistons going to three straight NBA Finals and who they defeated to get there. Once again, an example of convincing the world that nothing existed prior to “His Airness.”
Money, Power and Respect
1991 was when Jordan distanced himself from icon to global brand. Once he acquired his first NBA title, he fulfilled his end of the deal and now the media needed to up the ante and fulfill theirs. They had to make this NBA player appear different.
If they were going to hitch their wagon to the horse named Jordan, they had to make him appealing to Middle America. Middle America is where Wilt played but was never welcomed. Middle America, to be blunt, did not accept Bill Russell’s “defiance.” The NBA knew Middle America tolerated Magic’s flash, but loved Bird’s familiarity.
So how can the media and the NBA make this player different from the ones before him?
Simple—by telling us over and over and over that he is the best. In song, everyone wants to be like Mike. In coverage, he was the first player “you couldn’t stop, you could only hope to contain."
In the book You Are The Brand by Steve Adubato, he talks about being exceptional, about following through, creating catchy relevant slogans and, most of all, it is about them. The media and the NBA used this tree to shade the world about just how great Jordan was.
While George Michael talked about teams and scores, SportsCenter talked about players. While other leagues promoted teams, the NBA promoted one player and one player only. Jordan was exceptional on the floor. He followed through by always being accessible. As for catchy slogans, we all know the outcome of that.
MJ always talked up an opponent; he was always willing to show love. He followed these steps to a T and for that, he became their brand.
In return for his services, he was given eternal supremacy. Shunned shall be anyone who dares say he is not king publicly. Forgotten you will be should you dare to contest this ruler's reign.
Anything deemed damaging to the throne was immediately “handled.” Jordan’s gambling habits were reported as if they were a harmless addiction to Sour Patch Kids. The subject matter of the book of his sister, Deloris E. Jordan, mildly mentioned.
Magic accepted his orders, and for the betterment of the game and for perseverance of his own legacy, he fell in line. Bird’s time deteriorated, along with his back, so he was not needed to confirm.
Kareem’s refusal has been portrayed as nothing more than a contrarian who has always been a malcontent. Russell’s response is as strong and steadfast as his play; he talks about championships when he is asked about the who the best is.
The Legend and the Myth
We have been told a lie that we have all been so willing to accept as truth. We want to believe that what we witnessed was an isolated star that shined brighter than the rest. When the truth is, while bright, that star dims in comparison to the others.
What Russell, Wilt, Oscar, Baylor and Kareem played through will never fully be appreciated. What Magic, Doc, Isiah and Larry created will never be duplicated. Their accomplishments far outway Jordan's achievements.
Since day one, there has been this unchained Bull presented to us as having no equal. He has been presented to us as the greatest there ever was.
We anxiously waited for him to play, like children waiting for their favorite holiday.
Yet, just like the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and, to some extent, The Gooch, the invisible is more captivating than the tangible. Sure we know what he looks like, but all of his branding images are faceless. We have been told so many times that he is the greatest that the response has become almost second nature when asked.
The title of greatest lies within your personal preference and the logic of your response is as simple as which do you prefer, apple pie or pecan pie.
As Russell said, “I won championships, and that's a historical fact, that's not anyone's opinion.” Today, the NBA, ESPN and Michael Jordan have become the epitome of "Which do you believe, me or the facts?"
To some, this will appear as an attack against their iconic symbol of excellence, when it should be viewed as a moment of clarity. We have all become, to borrow a phrase from one of the commentators, prisoners of the present, and this is nothing more than an attempt to free our minds.
We have marveled at a player whose play was so poetically brilliant, and who should be celebrated as a member of an elite club.
Not the president.
Kwame Fisher-Jones can be heard every Monday from 4 p.m.-5:30 p.m. PT on www.wpmd.org
Check out his story comparing Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning.
You can listen to his previous radio shows and read some of his past stories at www.kwamefisherjones.weebly.com