Chapter 6: The Myth of the Greatest of All Time, June 13, 1991 (Overview)
Three different college player of the year awards, NBA Rookie of the Year award, five NBA MVP awards, six NBA Finals MVP awards, fourteen NBA All-Star Game appearances, ten-time All-NBA first team, nine-time All-NBA defensive first team, one NCAA championship, two Olympic gold medals, six NBA championships, ten-time NBA leader in points per game, career NBA leader in points per game, three time NBA leader in steals per game, seven-time NBA leader in player efficiency rating, career NBA leader in player efficiency rating, eight-time NBA leader in win shares per forty-eight minutes, career NBA leader in win shares per forty eight minutes. Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time: if there were such a thing as a safely indisputable subjective claim in the basketball universe, surely this must be it.
But the very consensus surrounding this claim means also that it is perhaps the most potent myth in basketball history: the myth of the greatest of all time. I’m less interested in debating Jordan’s greatness relative to other great players than in understanding the workings of the narrative elements by which the belief that Jordan is the greatest of all time is conveyed and consumed. Jordan’s status as the greatest of all time would not be sealed until his retirement in 1998. But arguably the pivotal moment in the myth of the greatest of all time occurred on June 13, 1991 when Jordan’s Chicago Bulls won the first of the six NBA championships they would win over an eight seasons span. With that victory, Jordan went from being an outlandishly talented individual athlete to a winning team player, permitting the myth of the greatest of all time to crystallize as a morality tale in which Jordan’s ascent coincides with the subordination of his ego and his mature internalization of the timeless values of basketball under the guidance of head coach and guru Phil Jackson, a veteran of the myth of the garden. The view that took shape then would be written in stone—literally—a few years later, when a one ton bronze statue of Jordan was dedicated outside the Bulls lavish new United Center arena. Called “The Spirit,” it’s inscription reads: “The best there ever was. The best there ever will be.”
The myth of the greatest of all time took shape in the midst of a profound, interconnected series of changes in the business of basketball, American politics, the media, manufacturing and the global economy. These forces—new commissioner David Stern, a conservative shift in American politics, the rise of telecommunications satellites and cable television, and the relocation of multinational manufacturing to the third world as well as the penetration of overseas markets—helped, along with his talent of course, to make Jordan an internationally recognized icon and the NBA a global brand, all in the context of America’s apparent material and ideological triumph in the Cold War. Grasping the force, intensity and broader import of the myth of the greatest of all time requires reconnecting it to the conditions in which it emerged, crystallized and came to be accepted as self-evident. One of the casualties of the myth is our ability to perceive, and appreciate fully, Jordan as a basketball player, independently of our assessments of his relative (or incomparable) greatness, and despite our investments in him as a commodity. Inventing Jordan in the face of the myth of the greatest and in the wake of a genealogy of his canonicity frees up a Jordan who carries forward an image of basketball as an improvisatory creative art ever proliferating new forms.