Chapter 6: The Myth of the Greatest of All Time, June 13, 1991 (Taste)
“By acclamation, Michael Jordan is the greatest player of all time.” —NBA
And if Jackson’s role was instrumental in Jordan’s growth and ascendancy, it was at least as crucial, that Jackson provided continuity with the myth of the garden and the Knicks of the early 70s, whose coach, Red Holzman, Jackson credited with the basic tenets of the tactical and moral approach to the game he’d then imparted to the greatest of all time. Jordan seemed thus to embody all of basketball history effortlessly, combining Chamberlain’s superlative individual excellence with Russell’s indomitable will to win, Johnson’s entertaining stylishness and Bird’s gritty work ethic, Erving’s aerial acrobatics with Oscar Robertson’s completeness, all under the auspices of the Old Knicks and as a global ambassador turning the modern basketball state into basketball empire. In this way, Jordan seemed to have resolved, for the first and last time, the mythic tactical and moral antimonies of basketball history.
These antimonies, however, had always been racialized in the white basketball unconscious, born of deep seated fears and anxieties about the destruction of the sport’s core tactical, stylistic and moral essence through changes spurred by racial integration. In this sense, by appearing to resolve the tactical and moral conflicts of basketball history, Jordan appeared also to resolve the suppressed racial conflicts for which the former were made to stand in myth.
Here, the myth of the greatest of all time marshaled visual, media accompaniments to seal the deal. The first Nike Air Jordan ads, in which Jordan did not speak, fetishized his black physicality. In the first, camera pans down the length of his silent body before pausing to dwell on his shoes, banned by the NBA, offering consumers the vicarious thrill of anti-establishment rebellion. Meanwhile in the second he appears on a deteriorating urban playground, soaring for a dunk on a basket with a chain net, before intoning in a voice over: “Who said man was not meant to fly?”—again suggesting, but more broadly and less pointedly, defiance. But as the myth gathered force, the ads came to swathe Jordan’s black body with the aura of an amenable, likeable, even funny personality, which many white consumers could contrast with the menacing black males of their fantasies and with which therefore they could identify all the more strongly. In the mid 1980s, the white basketball unconscious might have chosen Magic’s weapon, but by the end of the decade those governed by it—whether black or white—longed to be like Mike, whose super powers could protect them not only from alien invaders as in the 1996 animated movie Space Jams, but also from the frightening specter of unapologetic, undiluted blackness. Jordan had literally saved the(ir) world.
No wonder, then, that already in 1993, the cover of a special issue of not a sports publication, but mainstream Newsweek proclaimed Jordan “the greatest ever,” a pronouncement that has now become consensus. The issue featured an “in-depth” article by Jordan’s hand-picked sycophantic biographer Bob Greene, on the cover of whose first Jordan biography, Hang Time, the star appears, standing behind the author, resting his elbows on Greene’s shoulders, face frozen in that inviting trademark half-smile, expressing, perhaps, bemused tolerance for our need to be that close to him. No wonder either, then, that by 1994, that specially commissioned, one ton bronze statue—called “The Spirit”—would be unveiled at the Bulls’ arena in Chicago. On its base, the central message of the myth of the greatest of all time would be literally written in stone: “The best there ever was. The best there ever will be.”
With this affirmation of disembodied perfection, the myth of the greatest of all time, in effect, proclaims the end of basketball history. If Jordan is truly the greatest there ever was and the greatest there ever will be then henceforth basketball can only produce lesser iterations of all the hitherto incompatible elements of the game that Jordan’s singular basketball body gathered together and blended so incomparably. Ultimately, perhaps Jordan himself revealed the end game of the myth of the greatest all time when he pondered the question: “How would I have done against me?” Where every other player in the game must be compared to someone else, Jordan knows well what his myth proclaims: for the greatest ever there can be no competition, only an endless imaginary game of one-on-one played in a hall of mirrors.