Michael Jordan has transcended sport.
His name is no longer attached to a flesh-and-blood human being, but to an exaggerated caricature, an avatar of all things primal, powerful, and profitable. His face does not age; rather, it stands concretely as a pop-culture symbol like the facades of Mickey Mouse or Superman. He has become an intangible concept, a wondrous entity within the universe that has achieved a legend of almost mythical proportions. In fact, its proportions do indeed outweigh many myths, which only makes the reality of his status all the more astounding in its veracity.
Had he entered the business field, he could have taken a company to the stratosphere and back through willpower alone. Success is not a question for Jordan, it is merely the next link in life’s chain, a component of his bloodstream, or a target on his daily to-do list.
Air Jordan reflects an exquisitely rare combination of traits, each strongly apparent. His will to win is unrivaled; in many situations, he has single-handedly taken control of the task at hand for the sake of winning the championship, even when every single opponent knew that was exactly what he would try to do. His gritty determination was an intimidating factor in his prime, when defending players would stumble in his presence.
But by exhibiting his win-at-all-costs force on the court, he destroyed the game of basketball. No longer is it a team effort by necessity; now, it is a spectacle of individual achievement. No longer is it an obscure gym-rat pursuit best left to the purists and hobbyists; now, it is championed by street peasants and kings alike, leaving no socioeconomic factor uncharted.
Michael Jordan’s unique melding of characteristics that forced the death, re-conception, and paradigm shift of basketball as we knew it can be divided into three different categories: Michael Jordan as a person, as a player, and as a phenomenon.
Jordan is spectacularly successful, despite a few interesting nuances of him as an individual. First, he is black. While this may be seen mostly as a non-factor within a sport that has largely been participated in by, even arguably dominated by, African-Americans, his race is still a visibility that must be reckoned with by all who view him. Within the upper echelons of the elite in status, in fiscal reach, and in social networking, it is still a notable factor. Though he was never among those in his sport who were the most vocal about race issues, he let his actions on the court attest to his success.
He is also familiar with tragedy. The murder of his father was turned into a nationwide news item, and his costly divorce was similarly sensationalized. This idea, coupled with his origins outside of the upper-class, somehow grant him an appeal to the Everyman: After all, he even plays a common American’s game. Yet, despite his stature being accessible to all backgrounds of ethnicity, age, and even gender, he is also obviously a savvy businessman as well, both in his ongoing front-office efforts in NBA team offices, and in his various deals with companies and endorsements. The totality of his experiences have made him street-smart, whether that street is Wall Street or Main Street.
Although he gained college prominence, when he first entered the professional scene, critics had many detractions. He was a skinny kid, full of energy, but no fine skills to hone. He was a fierce hothead competitor who did not play defense. He was a dangerous cutting, lane-slashing goal attacker without the finesse of an available jump shot.
Within a few years, he would prove his critics wrong, along with the entire world. No one could have predicted the enormity of his scoring titles, in their scope of quantity or specific statistical mind-boggling consistency. Yet, all this time, he was also garnering All-NBA First Defensive Team votes in astonishing majorities, even setting unique steal/block numbers that still, per-game, stand to this day for guards.
Other players have scored in bigger numbers (Wilt Chamberlain), won a greater amount of championships (Bill Russell), had a better shot (Larry Bird), and more effectively complemented their teammates (Magic Johnson), so why is Michael Jordan widely considered the best basketball player of all time?
Simply because the character of Michael Jordan is more attractive. He’s sexier. He has more flair. While Russell was a stoic, stalwart defensive wizard and Bird was the “Hick from French Lick,” Michael Jordan endorsed shoes and underwear. He won Slam Dunk Championships. Other players won titles, sure, but Jordan made every NBA Title an epic showdown, and the final seconds produced memorable climaxes to a grueling battle. His Airness did not forge much new ground, but the trail he blazed was marked by unmatched showmanship.
Even people who have never had any passing interest in basketball will recognize the name or face of Michael Jordan. His personal life still causes a ruckus in the news universe. He starred in a motion picture aside Bugs Bunny. He wields an influence that most mere mortals can only dream of, never understand, and hardly comprehend.
He has graced dozens of covers for watershed sports magazines, such as ESPN or Sports Illustrated. However, unlike most athletes, he has also graced the covers of many publications outside of the sports realm, like GQ. His success in the sport is so unreal that it has garnered the attention of anyone and everyone who has an idea of what success is. In this curiosity, all people flock to the image of Michael Jordan, wondering who he is, how he got to this plateau he is standing on, and how they can get there too.
In this audacious act, Michael Jordan has transcended the role of athlete into that of an icon. He killed the game of basketball by making it an afterthought, the shadow of his celebrity, the mechanical workings of the polished image he put forth. He single-handedly lifted the sport out of the televisions ratings slump of the 1980’s, then left it back in its former place with his departure from its ranks.
Finally, in doing so, he left an unmistakable and indelible impression on his fans, his enemies, and on humankind as a whole. Michael Jordan has provided an example that no one else can live up to, whether in basketball or other arena. The biggest mistake most commonly made nowadays is pondering who will be the next Michael Jordan. Instead, we must recognize that the world, much less the NBA, will never see anyone else like Mike. We can only tug at his coattails and measure a shred of success for ourselves.