FD Guest Lecture: Spit Shine My Mirror
Chris Sprow is the man behind Chicago Sports Weekly. Make some room and watch out!
In the fall, while he was doing the pub grind for his new shoes, I spoke with Ben Wallace for a while about the importance, style, meaning—name your clichéd descriptor—of his new shoes. Wallace grew up dirt poor, in Alabama, and amidst the typical spiel, his sincerity was clearly evident when he said that it would have made a difference to “me and my ma” when he was a kid if there were $15 shoes around … as in, the kind you could wear and not get laughed at. Any kid who’s rocked the NikeNoAir’s while others wore Penny’s can feel this.
Anyway, in the spring, Wallace had signed to join Stephon Marbury to pimp the Steve and Barry’s “Good Deeds” line in what might have been more of a coup for S&B if one guy didn’t spend his summer damn near bragging about his taste for too-young poon and showing off his religious affiliation to general misogyny, then followed it up with a season that makes people wonder if that’s peat moss they smell in the Garden; and the other didn’t go from a “good signing” to a Hollinger panic attack. If for whom the bell tolled got a buck for every point and board, on average, he still couldn’t score a pair of his own shoes. Regardless of the state of the cheap kick campaign, Wallace still felt he had to do this, for selfish reasons too. “Your name is a brand. That’s something I’ve learned,” he told me. “It’s important what you get involved with.”
This is, of course, is something of a copout. I’ve rarely heard of a case of athletes turning down gigs or goods that pay. No. 23—the apparent, not the heir—might be a symbol, but he also put his name on everything from batteries to bright whites, wieners to sugar water. His godlike status is ours, David Falk’s and Phil Knight’s creation, not merely his own. But I wonder, could it ever be the same if the marketing machine didn’t run so in step with MJ’s greatness? What if, in a media sense and in a commercial sense, you could stand to stand for nothing? What if you were associated with nothing? What if, in the age of image-shaping from the inside, you could foment a nihilistic approach to all but the game? And don’t say Timmmay; incapable isn’t a proxy for won’t.
I concluded with Wallace, and told him, ultimately, that there was some good here. “Nobody will get killed for these,” I wrote. “And that’s a good thing.” But I also thought later, what if someone got killed for shoes with my name on them? For you to not be named Wilhelm Maybach or Gottlieb Daimler, or someone of that ilk, and have that happen, is it not just the height of sick satisfaction? The point is, guys are more clear than ever about what they are associated with, because they’re being sold by the league as “people you can relate to,” which made MJ awesome, in a way, because if you tried to craft an ethos for him, he sold Hanes, and made you wince. You were never sure with him.
I called Nike headquarters the other day—where Mars Blackman is an accountant, and Chris Webber is athletic, and they hijacked the Force and bottle it—as a reporter with a query. In the history of the Jordan symbol, that majestic, suspended, tongue-wagging shadow, how many have been produced, I asked? Eyeball it, I said. How many Jordan symbols have been stitched, screen-printed, molded, burned, or transposed in some manner, into existence? A hundred million? That may encompass only the shoes. Twice that? Maybe it covers the t-shirts too. Key chains? Headbands? Boxer briefs? Bumper stickers? A billion? The people there seemed equally confused. I could imagine them handing the phone off: “Who is it? He wants to know what? Fuck it. You take this one.”
And on this matter, they’ll, “have to get back to me.” I’m still waiting. I wanted to know because when I watch shows on the subject of archaeology, I’m stunned by how many surviving items seem to involve worship. Buffaloes on cave walls? They considered them sacred, we’ll hear. Pyramids? Ancient burial chambers and idols to the gods, they explain. Sure, there’s plenty that isn’t, but it’s amazing how much of it is. I wonder: From an interpretive standpoint, do we have a tendency to assume something is sacred because it really was, or is it sacred because it still exists, and it comforts us to think the things that survived somehow bore some timeless value? (There could also be the truthier notion that ancient societies were extremely focused on worship and the next life, what with their short life expectancies.)
And I wonder, will they in the lost future believe we worshipped the jumping man? Carbon plastic shoes are better suited to survive than holy leather-bound books with flimsy cellulose-based pages. And I know they will find how this symbol exists on every continent—wherever they may have drifted—whereas true religious symbols seem, comparatively, extremely geo-specific. Sure, you see patches of Bibles and crosses in China. Some Korans here and there in what used to be North America. A pile of Mormon lit in the Congo. He could be a retired basketball player now, but to them, MJ’s churches were huge arenas, bigger than our places of worship, and his symbol is everywhere. There he is, jumping through the air. Was he an instrument of a God, leaping over a streaming river of flame, escaping the fiery earth as God reached down to pull him up, grasping the outstretched arm from heaven?
The ease of information, and dissenting opinion, may have moved us past the point of myth-building. That we can’t agree on a religion that unites the Earth is matter of many issues, save for the religion of self-preservation, but it is certainly a problem of transcription. God—regardless of your version—has never really had decent access to word processing. Be it stone-carving, papyrus, quills and scrolls, the backs of envelopes, longhand, right on through a steady electric typewriter, and on to your current mode, it’s been a puzzling affair. Godhood is a tough racket. You rely on folks constantly claiming to be speaking on your behalf. Did anybody give you a seat on the canon committee? No, they just shouted out to you, assumed their inspiration, and crafted the book the say “You would have wanted.” Hell, they even say you wrote it, speaking through them. If only the paper survives, if what flashes through the series of tubes ultimately dies, we'll have written a million pages for our athletic gods, far more than all the guidebooks on the god of your choice combined.
Last week an email came in from some PR flak representing a new initiative by the Utah Jazz. The team was setting up, through a profile/chat/MySpace/Facebook/ I'm14WithTitsSoLeerAtMe service, a way to connect with their players, "...like never before!" Connect with a member of the Jazz. This might be tight if I was in Utah, living it up minus caffeine, not allowed to come out and play on Sundays, styling may hair to mimic my Adam Keefe poster, but what the hell is the NBA thinking? The truth is they are mired in the false belief that to love our stars is to know them. David Stern and the like believe that created a personalized NBA, we can create a personalized experience, and for a society that is so disturbingly over-communicated (remember when you couldn't text about nothing ... all the time?), communicative actions with stars is a good thing.
It's not. I don't care if Tim Duncan turns the corner as a talker and gets hired by Galoob, it's not good. I don't care if Ron Artest finally fills the void left by Fred Rogers. Don't they know it was better for the league when he made it scary to sit in the front row? Recently, the Sonics hired away from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer the sports editor to work on their media. The guy who was supposed to be on the other side, to direct the critiques, the reportage, the scrutiny, and help us build the myth, is now on the inside, creating the image. Free Darko works because more and more, distance is pristine. Sports media is so fawning, so a part of sport, that as much as it gives, it takes away the imagination.
Sure, there are moments where you want to know an answer, and the answer is a nugget, but to stare at the stars is to imagine other worlds, to look at them through the telescope is to know that a distant planet that could have maintained life is a coarse, lifeless rock. The league and the players in it are going, in some cases, to such great lengths to show you who they are, that they’re forgetting the distance is part of what drove our fascination. We can see their exploits; it’s more fun for the fan to construct their personalities. Instead, your imagination is broken because Gil ain't a feminist, he just stumbled across the Cliff's Notes for Madame Bovary. Keep us away. Let us interpret. Quit being so image-conscious and so communication-addicted that a mute Kirk Hinrich feels forced to talk to me after a game when he really wants to sneak away into the dark tunnels. He doesn't have a mystique, but maybe the distance would let us create it for him.
MJ never blogged. Even his best attempts at personhood just came off like a trip on Haley's Comet to give us the occasional view, before he flew off back into his celestial orbit of the basketball universe. The good gods are the ones who let us tell their tales. The other ones just look pushy.