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Wednesday, March 16, 2011
One big difference between James and Jordan

By Henry Abbott

As readers of the TrueHoop Network will doubtless be aware, at the University of Michigan professor Yago Colas is teaching a fascinating course about the culture of basketball. On Hoopism, one of the students in that class -- Matt Gordon -- writes about Michael Jordan and LeBron James:
I recently read “The Jordan Rules,” a fantastic book by longtime Bulls scribe Sam Smith. ("The Jordan Rules" covers the entire 1990-91 season -- Jordan’s first championship season) and also had the good fortune of attending a Bulls-Jazz game last Saturday, which included a halftime ceremony honoring the 20th anniversary of the Bulls first title. While I obviously loved seeing almost the entire Bulls Roster from that 90-91 championship season, what struck me the most was seeing how much time (and winning) heals all wounds.

In “The Jordan Rules” it is made very clear that the road to the championship was no cakewalk. Essentially every player on the roster wanted to be traded at one point or another, Jordan struggled immensely throughout the season with trusting and respecting his seemingly inferior teammates (even including Scottie), and players often feuded like little girls. However, of course, none of this was apparent last Saturday at the reunion. Players were cheered as though they were kings, joked around -- received commemorative plaques, and so on. All of the old petty fighting and craziness just kind of disappeared with time and winning. When Dennis Hopson was announced and welcomed with raucous cheers, there was no mention of the fact that he literally cried after the Bulls swept the Pistons to enter their first NBA Finals -- not out of elation, but because he was playing so sparingly.

Again, my intention is not to harp on my favorite team, but rather to point out just how sports memory works. For all the Miami Heat “haters” right now, you must understand that if they win a championship (let alone several) none of this in-season nonsense about crying will be remembered, let alone the now infamous “Decision.” If you are a marketable star and win an NBA championship, all else falls by the wayside. The easiest way to learn about the present is to look at the past -- when Kobe is long gone do you think people will remember his rant about getting Andrew Bynum traded or his intense competitiveness and stack of titles? We remember those who win. Obviously, “The Decision” will never be forgotten, especially not in Cleveland, but if the Heat win a title -- “The Decision” instantly becomes a footnote to Champion.

In broad strokes, I am sure Gordon's interpretation is right. The adrenaline of the win bleaches the memory of the uglier aspects of the struggle. And so it should be!

(I actually find that inspiring. I'm sure that we all feel, sometimes, that we're outgunned, messed up, on the wrong team or maybe even doomed. It's heartening to realize that even great championship teams feel just that exact same way. That the road is rocky is no sign that it doesn't go exactly where you want it to.)

But there is one difference now vs. back when the Bulls were all bickering: Who's driving the narrative.

Yes, here and there, and in the pages of Sam Smith's book you can find all manner of "dirt." But the vast majority of people followed that team one way and one way only: on television. And more specifically, in highlights. In other words, the images of Michael Jordan that captivated the globe were selected by TV producers interested in promoting the league, and they did not include word one about his being a prickly character. A typical 1980s sports fan would have had an easy time finding some crank willing to call Jordan a ballhog or showboat. But he would have had a hard time finding much of anything unsavory about Jordan at all in the maintream press.

Nowadays, a hell of a lot of the narrative is online and in real time, and it's coming from all over. All those cranks are creating documents that google can find. There may well come a day, as Gordon suggets, when James is revered as a champion and one of the greatest ever, but as long as there's google, I don't think there will ever be a day when it's possible to assume he was always entirely beloved.