The Power of Myth
Ever since we used to write for McSweeney's, I haven't been able to break the habit of considering every basketball-related thought I have in the context of other sports. Particularly in 2009, one thought has come up over and over again, which is the degree to which the NBA completely pales in comparison to the NFL and MLB in terms of its capacity to sustain myth-making.
I started thinking about this when the David Ortiz steroid allegations came to light coinciding almost perfectly with me moving to Boston. First we saw Shoeless Joe-meets-Hugh Grant levels of disbelief. Cities burned, babies cried. America had a punctured ventricle. Then, just as quick as the World Trade Center of baseball came down, majestic eagles rebuilt a monument to pride and greatness. Ortiz went on a tear for a few months, he went John McCain on other potential steroid users--"I will make them famous and you will know their names!"--and then gets cheered into the playoffs, along with A-Rod, Andy Pettite, Manny Ramirez and the rest of the dopers.
Guys like Manny and Papi are Pecos Bill and John Henry. They are myths, denied the inner lives of human beings, and manufactured into suprahuman symbols of physical majesty. The questions have stopped, the steroid biz completely forgotten until (maybe) these guys are long retired and it's hall of fame voting time. We don't really know much about their pasts or what they do on their off days. They don't Twitter. And given their past post-season heroics, they are squarely in the category of legend, rather than celebrity. The MLB is full of guys like this: grizzled white dudes like Mark Buehrle, they-came-from-nowhere Latinos, Miyagi-esque Asians like Ichiro, Jimmy Rollins, fan favorites like Torii Hunter...these are men, made into myths.
As I watch Brett Favre every Sunday (as now I am contractually obligated to do as a Vikings fan--NO LIBERATED FANDOM FOR OTHER SPORTS), the parallel becomes clear for football. There are a whole slew of mystical apparitions--Favre, Brady, and Ray Lewis among them. Guys that simply have a whole bunch of games under their belt, like Jon Runyan or Steve Hutchinson, are in there as well. And skill players like Randy Moss or LaDanian Tomlinson also have attained myth status for various memorable single-game performances. I suppose Monday Night Football and the ritual of SUNDAY helps sustain the game's spiritual character, but--and you see where I'm going with this--I'm always left wondering why the NBA is lacking so much in terms of creating and sustaining myth.
A few theories:
--A huge part of myth is the mystery surrounding one's creation. Baseball is chock full of great foreign players, the pasts of whom are much more unknown: I have no idea what Vladimir Guerrero or Magglio Ordonez' life was like in Latin America. Both the NFL and MLB rely more on OLD players, guys who succeed well into their late 30s, and sometimes even 40s. These guys are pre-Internet. There simply wasn't as much access to the lives of guys who started their careers in the late 80s or early 90s. The NBA, by comparison is a younger sport. The best guys are the new generation. Every single rookie has a Twitter account. We know where they came from and what they're doing. Even the league's elder statesman, Shaq, is also the king of Twitter, and has goofballed his way our of holding any mythical cred.
--The NBA utilizes history incorrectly. The NFL creates history on the go--every WEEK some record is being set (think about how many times in the past few years, you've heard the term "longest play in NFL history"), and they shove down our throat meaningless statistics about the "Monday Night Record for X" or the first time on Thanksgiving a runningback has both ran and thrown for a first down. The MLB markets itself well in this regard as well. October gets special special treatment, the playoffs are also more well-rooted in American history, so they are already have a touch of built-in nostalgia. By contrast, the NBA's past overshadows its present. The lig's two best players, LeBron and Kboe, are forever cast in Jordan's shadow. Jordan is myth, Kobe and Bron are simply scholars of his work.
--We always champion the NBA as the one league where you get to see guys without facemasks, up close on the court, virtually in the flesh. This gives the game a sense of immediacy that you simply don't get with any other sport. I'm starting to wonder, however, if this close distance might be too much of a good thing. We know these guys too personally, and it inhibits us from knowing them eternally.
Thoughts? Disagreement? Anybody care?