April 10, 2014

CHIUSANO | Bryant vs. Jordan, Without a Ball

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“I tought I taw – I did! I did! I did tee Michael Jordan!” When beloved Looney Tunes character Tweety Bird sees the Chicago Bulls star for the first time in the Warner Brothers classic movie Space Jam, this is what she famously exclaims. Jordan’s basketball career, not to mention his acting career, are long over, and though he is the owner of a Charlotte Bobcats team on the brink of making the playoffs, Tweety Bird’s exclamation has become eerily pertinent. Why don’t we “tee” Michael Jordan anymore?

In a feature on Kobe Bryant in the New Yorker last week, Ben McGrath spent some time talking about the two basketball superstars. Though they are both fierce, unrelenting competitors who never cared about whether or not people liked them, Bryant and Jordan have their differences, beyond just the one championship ring that, at the moment, distinguishes their two careers. Bryant acknowledged that he and Jordan have “different interests,” and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said that “Bryant’s ambitions are greater [than Jordan’s], and it is easier to imagine him adjusting to the off-court life gracefully.”  “I get questions all the time: ‘What are you going to do when you retire?’ As if I had no life, no talent outside of playing basketball. It absolutely drives me crazy. ‘You just going to golf all day?’ I’m like, ‘No. Who the fuck said that? It’s maddening.” — Kobe Bryant

When Jordan turned 50 at the end of February, we got a glimpse into that off the court life from ESPN’s lengthy feature about how he has adjusted to middle age (the answer seems to be not particularly well, considering the article’s focus on Jordan’s ruminations about death and dying). Since then, though, we have seen very little from Jordan, with the exception being some painful Hanes commercials and slightly pathetic news from the golf course every so often.

As McGrath points out in his article, Jordan has long been criticized for “failing to exert his vast influence on any cause greater than footwear.” A man who changed the course of the league and will likely never be surpassed in talent or sheer greatness, Jordan had the potential to be an ambassador for the NBA, but never seemed to grab hold of the reins. As a 50-year old celebrity and multi-millionaire, Jordan has not changed much from his playing days. He seems content with promoting his own brand and continues to be a nasty competitor, now just in the front office and on the golf course instead of the hardwood.

I honestly think it is disappointing to see such a prolific athlete fall into a kind of anonymity after essentially wasting the influence that could have come from a storied career. While I didn’t know much about Kobe off the basketball court until reading McGrath’s article, it seems that Bryant may pose an alternative to the trap that so many celebrities (especially athletes) seem to fall into after retirement — one where excessive fame breeds addiction. Bryant, who grew up in Italy and, though he never went to college, continues to read and learn in many different capacities. He seems to realize that something does come after basketball. “I get questions all the time: ‘What are you going to do when you retire?’ As if I had no life, no talent outside of playing basketball. It absolutely drives me crazy. ‘You just going to golf all day?’ I’m like, ‘No. Who the fuck said that? It’s maddening,” Bryant says in the article.

It is important for athletes to understand that there is a world outside the sports bubble in which they are worshipped and seldom criticized. I think that understanding starts as a player, though, when it is easiest to be heard. Bryant has never been quiet; even while injured, he has spoken to the media at practices and before games, something that is uncharacteristic of most injured players. Bryant has also never been afraid to be outspoken about politics, even if his view deviates from the norm. McGrath asked Bryant what he thought about the reaction of the Miami players to the Trayvon Martin incident (they posted pictures of themselves on Twitter dressed in hoodies). “I won’t react to something just because I’m supposed to, because I’m an African American. That argument doesn’t make any sense to me. … You sit and you listen to the facts just like you would in any other situation, right?” Bryant received a significant amount of flack last week for that comment, but it proves to me that he, unlike Jordan, is willing to express his opinions on issues that extend beyond just basketball in a calculated, intelligent way. Jordan never got further than issuing the statement, “Republicans buy shoes too,” as defense for his decision not to endorse an African American challenger to Jesse Helms in 1990.

In McGrath’s article, he also quoted Bryant as saying, “You don’t want to go out and just play the game. There’s so much that goes on around you in your brand and what you represent, and what you could represent.” Sure, Jordan represented himself through a brand of sneakers that carries his name, but this speaks nothing to the face behind the logo. Because they are inevitably surrounded by the public spotlight, athletes have the unique opportunity to exert their influence beyond the sport they play. Should we as fans really care what athletes think about politics? Maybe not. But it is important that athletes can take pride in the way they are represented, and that means more than simply promoting a personal image. In that one-on-one, I think Bryant has Jordan beat.