Pretty good bet
Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time.
If you’re looking for safe ground in a conversation about basketball, that’s a pretty good bet.
But how are we so sure? And what are we really saying when we say that?
Let the game begin
Basketball was invented in 1891 as a means to cultivate certain moral traits in white Protestant men that were considered to be endangered by industrialization – things like individual initiative, cooperation, clean aggressiveness, and hustle and intelligence.
Wildly popular, the game was quickly taken up by individuals for whom it was not originally intended: women, foreigners, immigrants, and especially black Americans.
Over the course of the 20th century as the game desegregated, white anxieties about black domination of basketball mounted.
So that by the 1970s, when the player population in the NBA was around 80 percent black, white fans started to tune out of the pro game and tune into the college game.
Pro basketball was in dire straits.
Enter Michael Jordan, Nike, ESPN, and commissioner David Stern who saw a way to leverage Jordan’s astonishing abilities to make the NBA the global brand it is today.
Jordan embodied stereotypes of black athleticism and projected a likable public persona through advertising campaigns and children’s movies like Space Jam.
Even as public policy was widening racial inequality in the U.S. in the 1980s, our culture celebrated the achievements of individual black Americans like Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan as evidence that racism was finally behind us. That helps explain Jordan’s popularity, but it doesn’t tell us why we call him “the greatest of all time.”
In this way, Jordan could come to symbolize not only racial harmony but also the definitive superiority of “the American way.”
But we lose more than just sight of the social and cultural context for Jordan when we proclaim him the greatest of all time. When we make a monument out of Michael Jordan, we are in danger of losing touch with precisely the qualities of his game that interested us in the first place: the astonishing creative and improvisational ability by which he made new artistic forms with his body, scripted dramatic narratives, and generated suspense, night in and night out.
This video by Liz DeCamp and Natalie Condon appears courtesy of LSA Today.
Yago Colás teaches the culture of sports in LSA, and his previous academic focus lay in studying fiction and narrative in relation to their social contexts. The title of his most recent book,Ball Don’t Lie, is playground slang used to suggest that an event in a basketball game either justifies or contradicts a contentious call.