Part III: Myths of the Basketball Empire (1991-Present)
“Part III: Myths of Basketball Empire” comprises four chapters dealing with myths arising from the global cultural and economic expansion of basketball—hence my reference to a “basketball empire”—in the context of the end of the Cold War, the rise of multinational capitalism, new forms of mass media, and the widening and increasingly racialized gap between rich and poor in the United States during the Reagan years and beyond. In the basketball universe, this period is marked by four interrelated phenomena: 1) the globalization of basketball, sparked by the mega-celebrity of Michael Jordan and the NBA brand; 2) the infusion into basketball of cultural forms originating in late twentieth century African-American urban communities; 3) the emergence and growing influence of international basketball players in the NBA; 4) a growing entrepreneurial assertiveness on the part of players, both amateur and professional. Chapters 6 through 9 identify and critically examine the key myths emerging around these phenomena.
As Jordan’s career unfolded, a consensus formed around the claim that he was the greatest player of all time. I argue that this unverifiable claim presupposes that history, in a specific sense of the word, is over and that the global capitalist order, like Jordan, who is its metonym, is the greatest (social order) of all time, capable of bridging all differences and resolving all conflicts (Chapter 6: The Myth of the Greatest of All Time, June 13, 1991). Even as Jordan boosted the NBA to unprecedented levels of popularity and lucre, a new generation of African Americans players unapologetically displayed the cultural markers of their urban upbringing (tattoos, corn rows, baggy shorts, hip hop) while building upon and raising to new levels technical and tactical innovations first developed in urban playgrounds in the 1950s and 1960s. The NBA sought to coopt this so-called “hip-hop invasion” in basketball by both capitalizing on the new markets it helped the league penetrate and carefully regulating the presentation of these players to the league’s traditional white male consumers (Chapter 7: The Myth of Blackness, March 12, 1997).
This rise to preeminence in the US of this so-called “hip hop” generation coincided with a dramatic improvement in the talent of basketball players abroad, who over the course of the 90s gradually narrowed the gap between their teams and those representing the Untied States in international competition. Thus, in the wake of the United States’ men’s national team’s first loss in international competition in 2002, a new myth arose reasserting a tactical essence to basketball (called “playing the right way” and widely associated with Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown) and equating it with moral virtues (Chapter 8: The Myth of The Right Way, June 15, 2004). This myth claimed that white foreign players better embodied the morally virtuous “right way” from which the deviant “hip-hop generation” had strayed, resulting in national disgrace in the context of a more general, post-9/11 insecurity concerning America’s place in the world.
Finally, in 2010, NBA Most Valuable Player and free agent LeBron James’ decided to leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in order to join two other superstars (both also African American) with whom he had consulted prior to the decision. This entailed, in effect, the players exercising powers of team formation conventionally reserved for team owners (almost all white in the NBA) and general managers (still mostly white). The subsequent racialized public backlash (Chapter 9: The Myth of the Man, July 8, 2010) invoked a normative, hyper-masculine fantasy figure (“The Man”) to discipline James and so police the autonomy, mobility of and interaction among black male bodies in the NBA, on and off the court.