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?

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At 10/25/2009 7:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It certainly helps that football and baseball were vastly more popular than basketball in the first half of the century. Thus, Joe D is a household name, while George Mikan not so much.

I also wouldn’t downplay the role of race. America has had an easier time turning the feats of white men into myth. Baseball and football, whether accurately or not, are seen as more white than basketball.

At 10/25/2009 7:54 PM, Blogger Teach said...

not sure exactly where it fits in the discussion, but the word myth undercuts the realism of the athlete and the sport, making it more of a fairy tale and less substance. of course, that line of thinking could lead basketball fans to becoming bigger elitists than we already are...or maybe the exact opposite, depending on which trait you value more

also, with baseball, it makes sense that the baseball fans forgive those that used steroids. America accepted Spiderman and the Hulk just as easily as it did Superman

At 10/25/2009 8:04 PM, Blogger djturtleface said...

Baseball doesn't have myth any longer, it has the media projecting myth onto the sport. I simply don't believe that anyone actually cared about Manny or Papi using steroids, we are so disenchanted at this point that people had a collective "Shiiiit" and then went on. The reality of baseball's death is making the old guard try to force these ideas that don't necessarily fit in the minds of the collective like they once did.

I'd say that the closest NBA comparison is LeBron James. Shoals has lamented a somewhat similar point in the past, but basically my stance on LeBron is that he's constantly disappointing. He makes so many plays so impressively, yet with a peculiar amount of force over skill, that it's impossible to expect anything different. Ultimately the vast majority of LeBron possessions, games, seasons, are due to disappoint because he too is more real than we and the media perceive him to be.

At 10/25/2009 10:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But baseball is going through its own youth movement too.

I think it has something to do with the size of the teams--in basketball you have no choice to become well acquainted with the whole roster, or at least the nine guys who play regularly, whereas with baseball and football guys are always coming out of nowhere because you've got to juggle 25+ names in your head, so when someone does something surprising, it is... extra surprising. Also it feels like smaller rosters might make it harder to "misplace" guys who have impact potential at the end of the bench, like you can in baseball in football--and as you mentioned, mysterious origins are an important aspect in myth-making. I mean, in recent memory--after Arenas, how many other guys have emerged like this? There's been... Jamario Moon?

It doesn't hurt either, that unlike basketball, where something is always happening, baseball and football are focused into chunks, easy-to-sell specific moments that can contextualise the whole game. You can have that in basketball, but they're a bit more different to isolate, especially for the layman. It probably has something to do with the fact that points mean less, too, because there are so many of them. It's more difficult to understand and contextualise when a team lost its legs, rather than a three-run, game winning single or something.

It's weird but it almost seems like shoe commercials are the most important aspect of the NBA myth-making process... And aside from the Durant one you guys posted in the summer, have their been as many good basketball commercials lately? The only other ones I can think of right now are the Arenas "0" commercials and the LeBron powder ones. But I probably shouldn't comment on this because I don't watch too much TV anymore--though maybe that's part of the problem.

At 10/26/2009 12:02 AM, Blogger Me said...

I simply refuse to believe that we cannot have liberated fandom in other sports. I am a complete and unabashed fan of Thierry Henry and Steven Gerrard, yet I am altogether unmoved by the results of Barcelona and Liverpool. I refuse to see that there is anything wrong with this.

At 10/26/2009 3:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe the up-close and personal aspects of baloncesto make it even more remarkable for those with personalities and skill sets that we are still unable to pin down. Gerald Wallace and Josh Smith come to mind. We don't even need myths about their personal lives or whatnot, their complete lack of consistent identity on the physical court allows us fans to discuss their abilities for an eternity while the entire time knowing an actual conclusion is impossible. Eternal knowledge reinstated.

At 10/26/2009 3:58 AM, Blogger Mouth, U.S. Army soldier said...

You make a good point about the shadow of Michael Jordan, Mr. Bethlehem. And 'paorta' nicely identifies that the flow of basketball games is not as conducive to the pauses, inherent in the play-by-play structure of football and the pitch-by-pitch structure of baseball, necessary for the television presentation personnel to facilitate an easily comprehensible in-game defining moment.
Just as Mozart's best operas were misjudged by their less sophisticated audience members, who would accuse the composer of including "too many notes," the best moments of NBA contests suffer a lack of appreciation from a viewership who fails to recognize that the essence of great basketball often ought to be defined by long stretches of a saturation of brilliant athleticism and compelling back-&-forth action.
I know nothing of recent commercials, as I have been in a combat zone for most of the last 3 years, but I recall that the NBA had superior ads, in my opinion, that pushed, unfortunately, shoes that cost triple digits at the same time as they promoted a live experience that would easily cost the ticket-holder another Benjamin for one game night.

Finally, I'll register here my plea, which I've presented in various formats and forums the last couple years, to David Stern or his successor to expand the dimensions of the hardwood by just a few inches all around. High school & college rosters aren't all 70% full of guys 6'7" or taller, and the NBA ought to be willing to cede the point that these giant, super-fast men would perform more cleanly (More points!)if they could play without the worry of their size 16 shoe touching out of bounds in the corner or the undue haste of reaching the paint in only 2 strides at full speed as they contemplate whether to complete a lay-up or contort to avoid the floor cameramen.

Juan, U.S. Army

At 10/26/2009 7:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The myth of Sabonis before he hit the NBA? Does this kind of thing not register or count because the general number of people who were/are interested in a player like this pales in comparison to a Big Papi or is it in some ways more powerful because it is genuin and seemingly less manufactured.

At 10/26/2009 9:41 AM, Blogger spanish bombs said...

NBA fans are too smart for this shit?

But really, I have plenty of players to whom I offer complete forgiveness for (or willful ignorance of) recent transgressions because of even fleeting greatness: Iverson's MVP year, Carter's dunk contest, the game where Tracy McGrady guarded Dirk in the playoffs, Arenas single-handedly beating quite a few teams that one season, Kobe's numerous exploits, etc.

Also, we have all ignored and forgotten Kobe's rape case. How is this not an example of myth-making in the NBA?

At 10/26/2009 11:22 AM, Blogger FunWithLogic said...

Strangely enough, baseball and football might be superior in creating myths for opposite reasons. Football is saturated, so players are known on a national forum much easier than the other sports. Baseball, on the other hand, seems only to appear in October - where myths are made and where the Yankees can guarantee an appearance and their own historical backdrop that further perpetuates a historically-rich context.

Additionally - and some have already alluded to something similar - an additional issue with creating myths from basketball is the scope and potentiality of a play. Consider the range of potential for a play in the following sports:

Football: High: after an epic drive across the field, a spectacular run or pass to win a playoff game. Low: causing a turnover.

Baseball: High: after a rally, hitting a home run in the bottom of the ninth to win a playoff game. Low: striking out looking.

Basketball: High: After a comeback, hitting a game-winning three pointer under pressure. Low: missing the shot or causing a turnover.

In the other sports, there is so much more potential between the high and the low - there are foul balls, singles, doubles, incomplete passes, short passes, sacks.... there is greater uncertainty in each "play" that creates greater excitement and surprise. With basketball, there is too much going on between players and plays to really create a mythical context that is easy to digest. The ball changes hands too much, great individual games usually require more than just a shot to receive notice and the ones that are just one shot are too few to have a robust mythical history.

Also, baskets are scored quite often in basketball - whether they are in a pivotable moment or in garbage time. In the other sports, there is less certainty in and volume of scoring, so it's easier to overblow an event or individual achievement in those other sports.

At 10/26/2009 11:39 AM, Blogger Mouth, U.S. Army soldier said...

Basketballers with differing levels of badass myth-iness to them or their histories, in no particular order:
Lenny Webster
Earl Manigault
Chicken Brown (of Clover, SC)
Rafer Alston
Pete Maravich
Shannon Bobbitt
Jameel Pugh
Manut Bol
Muggsy Bogues
Ivory Latta [practiced with varsity team before she could legally play for them; played varsity 7th grade on, overcoming one big injury in high school; I saw her single-handedly go on a 23-0 run (No one else on the court scored for this burst.) to bring her team back against my high school team before she started smiling and dancing with the ball on the final few possessions of the game.]

At 10/26/2009 11:46 AM, Blogger Silas said...

This is actually something that I've thought about a lot, and I think it comes down to two factors. First - and this has come up already in different forms - myths exist primarily for casual fans, and basketball is much less welcoming to that kind of fandom. Baseball and football games are broken down into a series of events; each play is a little pass/fail test that can be taken out and packaged on its own. Even if a team radically overhauls its roster in the middle of a season, the sequence of play is still exactly as it was before, and the teams still relate to each other in the same way. Pitch, hit. Throw, catch. The context used to define success is infintely simpler. To really care about basketball, though, you actually have to watch the games. A team can make one trade, and not only does it change the dynamic of that team, but also the way in which they play against every other team in the league. Trying to judge any one player objectively is kind of a joke, and that makes it much harder to come and go from the sport without losing touch.

Secondly, I think it's much harder to define exactly what makes a basketball player great. A guy can score 40 points and still hurt his team, or be an incredible passer who can't score or defend. To love basketball is to embrace ambiguity, and that's not something that tend to look for in myth.

For the rest of us, this means that we get to enjoy a game that's full of subtlety and contradiction.

(By the way, I think that everything above can also be applied to soccer, which is why that sport seems to allows for a more fluid, if not exactly liberated, fandom as well)

At 10/26/2009 12:04 PM, Blogger Silas said...

I just got to read Mouth's comment above mine, and I think it nicely illustrates my point. If you can argue that Pete Maravich, Mugsy Bogues and a showboating high school player who just happened to be better than everyone else on the court are all mythological figures, then the standards for myth in that sport are too broad.

I honestly don't mean to poke fun by saying that. The fact that a guy like Mugsy can actually hold some mythological cred (and he totally does!) is one of the things I love about this sport. The context for success, and for enjoyment, is much more open-ended.

At 10/26/2009 12:18 PM, Blogger Kuj said...

Basketball players show a tremendous amount of insecurity. The same may hold true in other sports, but for some reason it tends to show more in basketball. Maybe it's the close proximity of players and fans, maybe it's the lack of clothing and equipment compared to a lot of games, I'm not really sure. But any one who has played ball knows that insecurity abounds on the basketball court. Does this tie in to myth making? I think it does, though I'm not sure why. I'm having some difficulty trying to articulate my feelings.

At 10/26/2009 1:07 PM, Blogger tray said...

I saw Latta play for a few years working for the Duke women's team (she was with UNC), and she was a mythological figure of sorts. She came from this backwoods town and scored about 50 a game in high school. In her freshman year at the ACC tournament, she crossed over Alana Beard so bad that Alana fell on the floor. (She also probably went 3-20 in that game.) She was the countriest thing you ever saw. She might have weighed 95 pounds.

At 10/26/2009 1:51 PM, Blogger JF Arnett said...

I gotta go with Spanish Bombs on this one. I think (can't back it up with enough evidence to make it "I know") there are far fewer casual fans and far more hardcore fans of the NBA than the NFL and MLB. We've got plenty of bandwaggoners, for sure, but they can be pleased/placated with the style associated with the NBA, and don't need to have bullshit records and exciting and mysterious off-field stories to keep them "interested" in the sport.

It's cool to be seen at a Lakers game, to see LeBron on stage with Jay, which is enough for our casual fans. For the NFL and MLB to keep their casuals, they need story lines that aren't associated with the minutiae of the game and that, for the NFL, extend beyond the 18 weeks, and for the MLB, keep people interested for 162 games. They get "most first downs ever between 4pm and 5pm" and homerun totals even though stats like that are mostly meaningless, but they wouldn't get half of what J. Van Gundy says on Sundays.

We as NBA fans are here for the game, for the players, for the wins, for the growth, for the 82 games, preseason and playoffs. We care about Beasley and Delonte because of what they bring from October to June, and how their actions off-court affect that. Not on a pure production level, but in terms of style and philosophy; their stories are inextricably linked to their play.

So don't be discouraged by our lack of mythical players, because we don't care. We've got characters *they* can't see, and wouldn't understand if they could.

At 10/26/2009 4:59 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

What was the "Where Amazing Happens" ad campaign, if not an attempt at reminding us of the epic enormity of (purportedly) iconic moments in past playoffs? What's more, serious NBA fans can recognize the time and context of each of one those moments (which in part are defined by their dream-like incongruity -- Tim Duncan's 3-pointer?!) in a way that I don't think football or baseball fans can. With the helmets and the fixed positioning on the field, every MLB/NFL play looks just like any other. Tons of NBA games end with "big shots", but other than Joe Carter's HR for Toronto, I don't remember many October baseball games ending with a bang.

At 10/26/2009 5:46 PM, Blogger Mouth said...

The author left the defining terms of mythological status open, and so we have no operational definition. Let's give it the ole college try, though, and continue to pile the evidence. Let's see:

John Paxson w/ da Bulls
John Wallace @ Syracuse
Todd MacCulloch (especially if you are a Slam reader or a fan of Lang Whitaker)
Shaquille O'Neal
Vernon Maxwell
Shawn Kemp
Daryl Dawkins, obviously

Do any NBA guys compare to Jon Runyan, Chris Hovan, or Kevin Greene of the NFL? Chris "Birdman" Anderson, perhaps? Jerome "Junkyard Dog" Williams, for a brief season and a half, maybe? I, for one, have enjoyed watching these misfits play partly because of a little added backstory.

**I'll add that my hometown, and the adjacent hometown of Ivory Latta, is a 15 minute drive to Charlotte, NC. Many of my peers have elevated themselves to success relatively early in life, but none of them are regretful of their de facto attachment to a place sometimes mislabeled as "backwoods." In fact, 3 of my classmates attended Duke University on full academic rides; 1 is now a brain surgeon out of Harvard Med, 1 is trilingually dominating the financial world from London, while the other is in the process of becoming a doctor. Their status as mythic figures of the finest order is secure as far as I'm concerned. Go Clover High Blue Eagles!

At 10/26/2009 9:48 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 10/26/2009 9:50 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

I think this is primarily an American phenomenon. I can assure you that abroad (in Asia at least) nba players are treated with the full respect of myth-makers that we see bestowed upon guys like favre and jeter here. Kobe, AI, Michael, Lebron, these guys are every big and legendary over there as the most revered of american sports figures. Part of it is the inherent distance, when they play so far away from such a large fan base, and things like League pass don't exist, it naturally adds to the mystique of the players. Not to mention that american-style shoe commercials and marketing play a huge role as well.

See: Kobe and the Redeem Teams being treated like demi-gods in Beijing. This wasn't MJ/bird/magic in barcelona, this team had primarily much younger guys as well as Boozer/Prince. Redeem Team practice in America (like @ the Las Vegas exhibitions) - fairly interesting sports story in the slow summer news cycle. Redeem Team exhibition in Asia - pandemonium.

At 10/26/2009 9:58 PM, Blogger tray said...

"Tons of NBA games end with "big shots", but other than Joe Carter's HR for Toronto, I don't remember many October baseball games ending with a bang."

I'd say one of the most memorable plays in sports of the past decade was the game-winning home run in Game 4 of the 2001 World Series. In the bottom of the 10th, the clock strikes midnight and for the first time, due to the cancellation of play following 9/11, MLB play extends into November. 3 minutes later, Jeter hits a home run off Byung-Hyun Kim, the Yankees win and tie the series, cameras cut to a kid holding up a sign that says 'MR. NOVEMBER,' the PA starts playing Sinatra's 'New York, New York,' a nation in mourning looks on...

At 10/27/2009 10:43 AM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

Tray: Good call on the 2001 World Series. Games 4, 5, and 7 all were decided with winning runs on the last at-bat. I remember feverishly exchanging emails with my friend while watching that.

I suppose my comment above was gesturing to mythic play rather than mythic characters. I think the NBA greats of the '60s and '70s seem mystical to me, because they were before my time and it's hard to find much video or other records of their play. Every top player from 1980 on has a Youtube mixtape.

At 10/27/2009 1:16 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

the "no liberated fandom in other sports" line gets to this I think.

In baseball and football the team is bigger than any individual player. The New York Yankees are bigger as a myth than any individual player from Jeter or A-rod to Babe Ruth could ever be. In basketball there isn't much that's mythological about the Chicago bulls or Cleveland cavaliers, the individual myths of MJ and Lebron overshadow them. The narratives are all about the players, not the team. But there's a greater emotional attachment to teams for many fans, and that attachment transposes itself onto the players. So Jeter or becomes the embodiment of the Yankee mystique or Favre the personification of Packer greatness (his exit from Green Bay makes this more complicated of course, but by that time he'd already soaked up the team's legend). David Ortiz angered people not because he was a star, but because his steroid use would taint the legend of the 2004 Red Sox. Kobe is legendary on his own, Ortiz is a part of a bigger legend.

At 10/27/2009 2:21 PM, Blogger Deckfight said...

individual nature of sport hurts the myth=players can break it & make it just as easily.

baseball/football=more team game=harder for myth to be destroyed, b/c not fully in player's control

good article=the basketball trainer who doesn't get larry brown's respect & works outside the 'system'
from SI: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1161609/index.htm

At 10/27/2009 10:27 PM, Blogger tray said...

In reply to Jordan, there is - to a lesser extent than you get with the Yankees, Sox or Cubs, to be sure - a Celtics legend, a Lakers legend, maybe a Knicks legend. And conversely, there is no Devil Rays legend, Angels legend, Diamondbacks legend, etc., though those teams have had great seasons and great players. With Arizona in '01, it was very much all about Johnson and Schilling, not Arizona lore. On the other hand, there is a Phillies legend of sorts (legendary suckitude), which makes it a bit hard for me, a Philadelphian, to really root for the Phillies, because their success seems so acontextual in the history of the franchise. It's like one day these superstars magically showed up on our doorstep, and they don't feel like real Phillies to me. It's not just that they're good, there's nothing particularly under-doggish about them, though the media will try to portray us as such in the upcoming week. Whereas Iverson was distinctly Philadelphian.

At 10/28/2009 1:18 AM, Blogger Joey said...

Runyan and Hutch are Michigan Men. So is Brady, a dude whose mythology is plenty healthy. But I only mention Michigan because college football, in general, is like a mythology feeder system for the NFL. Venerated players from venerated institutions are almost plugged into this system of narration that lends itself to myth.

College basketball could be the same. Carolina, UCLA, Kentuckah, Duke (ugh), Kansas. There are a few others, though I'd argue college football mythology is far greater than college basketball, with so many schools claiming proud lineage.

Some of the mythologizing in football and baseball, to me, comes from two distinct features which the NBA doesn't enjoy. With football, the sport is so physical that it invites these romantic ideas and myths because the sport directly encompasses this primal physical conflict. And it can be cast as a war metaphor, something else humans love due to the violence.

With baseball, the sport has a certain privilege that comes with being the national pastime. It can be used as a mirror and/or foil for America. This, too, lends itself to mythologizing. As with football, these inherent qualities--physicality and American culture, respectively--feed into the way we tell *tales* and creates myths.

The NBA doesn't have an analogous innate storytelling function. The conflicting examples throughout the comments section, to me, demonstrate that without a differentiating, romantic something, myth doesn't come about as easily.

At 10/31/2009 8:30 PM, Blogger Terry said...

I enjoyed the article but I would have to say I disagree with it. I think Basketball lends itself more to creating mythical players.

Hot Sauce, The Helicopter, Skip to my Lou, Earl Manigualt, Hook Mitchell, Tha Professor....so on and so

All guys who are either legends or are known in basketball circles. With the exception of Alston none played at the highest level of basketball. Can you name a non NFL player who became a legend playing pickup football? Or some incredible single A player who people write articles about in national magazines?

No only BBall can create stars like that. We all have watched a flight brothers youtube clip or an and1 mixtape and marveled at the talent of those guys. Is there an equal equivalent of that in any other sport? I've never seen a joe schmoe from the bronx batting practice highlight reel.

Football legends feel bigger than basketball legends because football has a larger fan base. Baseball ledgends are bigger because baseball has a longer and richer history. That being said trust me with the exception of Negro league baseball players, you will never see a player in any other sport become a legend without playing or having had played at the highest level.

At 3/22/2013 5:49 PM, Blogger Jim Philips said...

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