Michael Jordan vs. David Copperfield

At last! A statistical measure of just how much of a bildungsroman a novel (or any story) is! And this indispensable and infallibly useful metric falls into my lap just when I most needed it: in the midst of pondering Michael Jordan and the stories we tell about him.

As some of you know, I’m progressing toward the completion of my book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball.  At the moment, I’m working on Chapter 6: The Myth of the Greatest of All Time June 13, 1991.  Don’t be misled.  The chapter does not take up the debate of whether or not Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever.  Instead, it uses the tools of literary criticism to look under the narrative hood of those versions of the Jordan story that convey the view that he is the greatest basketball of all time (or GOAT).

To that end, my point of departure is a somewhat offhand remark by Bethlehem Shoals in FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History.  In a chapter focusing on Jordan’s early career, Shoals first takes aim at the scripted version of that portion of the star’s life that has become standard fare for basketball fans.  Shoals writes, “We’re now supposed to see his first years in the league as an NBA bildungsroman, with Jordan paying his dues and working his way to the ultimate prize.”  From the first time I taught my Cultures of Basketball course using this book, this line was like gold to me for the probably obvious reason that it very explicitly joins the two areas my course (and my work more generally) are supposed to address: basketball culture and literary studies.

“Bildungsroman” is a German word meaning “novel of education” or “novel of formation.”  Like most terms in literary studies, though, this one is the subject of much learned and detailed argument among scholars.  Some of that is interesting and instructive, some of it is not, and I don’t want to rehash it here.  Suffice it to say, for the present purpose, that the genre got it’s start in late 18th century German literature and then migrated to French and English fiction in the 19th century.  From there, some say it ended with World War I, others that it proliferated still further in Latin America, the United States and elsewhere, often in forms in which the previous conventions are subverted in some way or another.  The basic idea, though, is that it is a novel that tells the story of how a young protagonist matures—a process usually entailing some serious setbacks, lost illusions, and some compromises—and finds a productive place in the society.

So in the course of setting up an account of the genre in my chapter, I was reviewing some of the materials I have on the bildungsroman and I stumbled across this remarkable study by Anniken Telnes Iversen (that last name, tho!) in which she aims to chop through centuries of fruitless debate by scholars arguing over what the essence of the bildungsroman is and so whether or not this or that novel should be classified as one.  Her scholarship is thorough, her tone modest, and her solution, in my view, ingenious and great fun:  a checklist!  She offers 96 different narrative features grouped into 9 sections or categories, with each feature assigned a different number of possible points (pp. 54-67 of the work linked above give the specifics).

Her premise is that there is no essence to the bildungsroman, just a fuzzy set of characteristics most (but not all) of which are shared by most (but not all) novels that people have called bildungsroman (for those with more serious inclinations, what she has done is substitute a polythetic classification system inspired by Wittgenstein for a monothetic classification system inspired by Aristotle).  So once you run a novel through the checklist you come up with a number she calls the Bildungsroman Index (or BRI).  This number quantifies the degree to which that novel bears the visage of the bildungsroman family.

Lest my somewhat ironic tone give the appearance that I think Professor Iversen’s (that last name, tho!) project is insane, let me assure you that 1) she is at pains throughout to emphasize the imprecision of the method; 2) it is not more insane than other literary scholarship and 3) who doesn’t love a checklist, or, as buzz feed calls it: a quiz?  How bildungsroman is your life?

I found this completely irresistible and set about to score the Michael Jordan story on Professor Iversen’s (that last name, tho!) scale.  I’m gonna share my scorecard with you in a second, but let me just say, in the interests of scholarly integrity, that what I call the story of Michael Jordan (or in my book “The Myth of the Greatest of all Time”) doesn’t really exist as such in any one text (unlike these novels).  Instead, it’s a kind of composite of commonly shared elements of autobiographies, biographies, documentaries, broadcasts and newspaper and magazine articles.

Now, let the scoring begin! To honor Jordan’s legendary competitive spirit, I’ve included the scores that Iversen (that last name, tho!) gives to a few other novels alongside MJ’s (you know, just to get his GOAT—see how I did that?).

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Jordan’s off to a great start, staying even with the Michael Jordan of bildungsromans David Copperfield and contemporary variation The Magus and leaving wanna be Huck Finn in the dust.

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Michael’s tailed off a bit here, hurt mainly by the fact that he’s an active protagonist who is not basically good or willing to help others (I do recognize that Michael’s learning to share the ball is a key part of his story, but I really don’t think that his being a basically good person is part of it).   Also, though Michael obviously became supremely talented according to the myth, being cut from the varsity as a sophomore—perhaps the key element of the story of his youth—suggests ordinariness.  Finally, also notable is the appearance of the death of a father in the course of the novel: very much a critical part of the MJ narrative.

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After his lackluster second frame, Jordan once again runs almost even with the frontrunners and separates himself further from Huck Finn.  I doubt my choices here will be too controversial, note Phil Jackson (educator) and Scottie Pippen (companion).  At this stage, Jordan has already racked up 40 of a possible 47 points!

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Let’s be honest: Copperfield is like the Spurs in last year’s NBA finals.  I know Jordan’s frustrated, but it’s tough to beat anyone when they’re shooting 100 % from the field.  On the bright side, Huck Finn isn’t even relevant anymore and Jordan dusted The Magus here.  Note that he was particularly aided here by his gambling troubles, his flu game (and being helped off the court by Scottie Pippen), and by John Paxson’s game winning jumper.  Running total at the halfway mark: Copperfield 73/73; Jordan 63/73;  The Magus 57/73, and that great American not-bildungsroman Huck Finn 34.

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After these two match ups, Jordan (72/87) remains with striking distance of Copperfield—who finally missed a shot and stands at 86/87, and has increased the distance between himself and both Huck Finn (40/87) and The Magus (61/87).  I know it’s gonna be tough for Jordan to catch Copperfield with just three sections remaining, but, hey, he’s Michael Jordan, right?

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The Magus seems to be making a run here (perhaps better conditioned) and it might have been even stronger had I not given the Jordan story 2 points for the protagonist’s “learning to ‘see'” (my reasoning: it’s definitely part of the story through 1998, but begins to get questioned after that).  David Copperfield – OMG!  And Huck Finn, really?!  We’ve now covered 77 of the 86 features and 115 of the possible points.  David Copperfield has gobbled up 114 (or 99.1 % of the possible points) – giving new meaning to the term “prototype.” Jordan still holds second place with 89 points (77.4 %), maintaining meaningful distance from The Magus (81 or 70.4 %).  Huck Finn? It’s like it doesn’t even want to win.  I dunno, could be drugs.  But one thing is certain, with only 33 points left on the table, Jordan’s gonna need some help as we enter the penultimate frame.

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He does it! Jordan does it! He’s done it again! Jordan! Jordan!!!! Can you believe it!? Copperfield drops a point and Jordan goes a perfect 4 for 4 in the category.  That’s certainly gotta shake Copperfield‘s confidence going into the final quarter: a total of 29 points still at stake and Jordan is only 24 points down (117 to 93).

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 4.01.31 PMYeah, didn’t happen for MJ.  Sorry.  He was courageous and determined in overcoming constant slights he received from characters and even metaphors in David Copperfield, but finally, it just shows that a one man myth—no matter how talented—will fall before the perfect harmony, unselfishness, hustle, and hard work of a novel that knows how to narrate formation the right way.

Here’s the final tally:

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It’s a respectable performance.  While the Myth of the Greatest Ever doesn’t quite approach the bildungsroman-ness of the classical prototypes like David CopperfieldJane EyreGreat Expectations or Wilhelm Meister, it’s right there with such contemporary updates as Cider House Rules (123), The Diviners (123) and certainly is much more of a bildungsroman than either Huck Finn, as we’ve seen or even The Catcher in the Rye (57).

Now, the real question that the wiser among you may be asking is: who cares? What difference can it possibly make to determine whether Michael Jordan’s story, in its most conventional form, is or is not a bildungsroman?  Ah! That’s an excellent question.  But I ain’t giving away the cow.  To get my answer, you’ll just have to pick up your own copy of Ball Don’t Lie!  But here’s a hint: it has something to do with making us feel that there could be no better world than the one in which MJ wins championships by learning unselfishness, sells a shit ton of gear to everyone (not just to Democrats or black people) all over the world, and helps us kick the crap out of the commies in the Cold War.


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  • An interesting article. However, I feel the author overlooked the significance of the name of the person who conducted the study, particularly the surname. It is in fact similar to that of a former basketball player. I could not, in good faith, prevent myself from pointing out an ample chance for comedic relief.


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