Sing With The Pollen

This post follows directly from Dr. LIC's consideration of myth in the NBA, so read that first if you expect to be on my level. Other suggested reading: Pasha Malla on "Where Amazing Happens" during last year's playoffs.

A few weeks ago, I fired off an ill-advised email pitch to an editor, proposing a comparison of divinity in the NBA vs. other sports. The gist: In other leagues, God reveals himself in the form of miracles, an external agent that, no matter what the skill level of the players involved, must intervene in order for The Immaculate Reception, The Catch, The Motor City Miracle, The Shot Heard 'Round the World, or Bill Buckner's Folly, to occur. The NBA, on the other hand, attaches this hand of heaven to players. The Shot is amazing, but there's no question that Jordan and Jordan alone made it happen. That's why we fear him so. Similarly, nicknames like "Black Jesus," "The Chosen One," "Magic", "The Answer," and "The Dream" imply the otherworldly, if not the supernatural. They are the agents, they make "amazing" happen.

How to reconcile this, then, with the writings of Dr. LIC and Pasha? I agree that, as conventionally understood, myth just doesn't adhere to the NBA in the same way as it does football, baseball, or even college hoops, and that forcing that modality onto the Association just feels wrong. What we see, and how we remember it, is always dense, less distant, and despite the prevalence of the highlight, harder to boil down or distill. The highlight may be susceptible to this treatment, but it's worth noting that compared to still photography, the highlight is more clamorously here-and-now—the way, I think, NBA action and memory is best understood. It's not so much about marketing as it is the proper cognitive framework. In the same way that watching a game depends on uninterrupted attention, THE MOMENT can only be abstracted so much.

Unless, of course, we're talking about Jordan. MJ asked in one fairly recent ad if he wrecked the NBA. Certainly, in terms of introducing both myth and split-second history into the fan lexicon, he did. Never mind that Jordan's own myth falls apart if you whitewash his early years with Chicago—he was a menace, not just a young buck paying his dues—and disregard what was being said about Jordan by people who had seen him outside of Dean Smith's system. Or that, as Pasha points out, the highlights that define Jordan's career have been transformed through sheer force of marketing. The Jumpman, iconic as it is, doesn't really capture that dunk. It's just the most convenient way to communicate it as product. The same goes for Jordan-over-Ehlo, or Russell. Bird and Magic might have made the league palletable again, but they existed very much in basketball-time. It took Jordan to really put things over the top, due in large part to Nike's turning him into a myth, and walking bit of history, a la baseball or football.


That's why the NBA wrestles with the problem of mythology—its greatest player ever distorted the sport's true meaning in a clever commercial ploy designed to compete with the NFL and MLB. Fans like myths. But they're not a natural fit for basketball. Jordan fooled us, and it's unfortunate that, to paraphrase Dr. LIC, Kobe and Bron have left to contend with his example. Chasing his example on the court is no problem—it's the distortion of everything else involved in stardom, wrought by Jordan that's left them flummoxed. And, I'd say, made the NBA seem so less impressive in his wake. It's because MJ changed the way we consumed the league, what we expected of subsequent players. Of course, we forgot that Jordan was a process, even his construction as a corporate entity. We were at once too smart and too stupid to appreciate the NBA on its own terms.

This season, I'm not feeling the same prophetic fury I usually do. Bron is Bron, higher than all; Durant will astound us; Kobe's intelligence and discipline can shatter you just to watch. Wade is spectacular, Chris Paul's a walking clinic where the sweets never stop flowing. But I'm not in full-on manifesto mode. I would ordinarily chalk that up to being overworked, or otherwise burdened. But instead, I've realized that I'm finally coming to see the NBA clearly.

And herein lies the answer to the riddle of divinity. What marks the earlier examples of NBA otherworldiness isn't immanence, but action. I'd go so far as to make that "acts." Players who earn these appelations don't rest on their laurels, they define themselves time and time again through simply unfathomable play. We don't watch superstars with eye toward the past or future, but to see them fully realize the present. Vince Carter's "Half-Man, Half-Amazing" gets at the root of it: These are mere mortals who defy these limitations on a regular basis. Not myths expected to fulfill expectations, or symbols lining up to enter history. The NBA is where, above all else, the experience of watching it unfold in real time, only to be eclipsed minutes later, is the essence of stardom. Casual, disposable, and yet utterly indelible.

We are all witnesses, but that doesn't mean we're not greedy for more.


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At 10/27/2009 3:26 PM, Blogger Michael said...

Damn. Yes.

At 10/27/2009 4:25 PM, Blogger amarestoudemaxo said...

Absolutely Incredible.

At 10/27/2009 4:30 PM, Blogger amarestoudemaxo said...

I've always thought that Hoops and Soccer dovetail in interesting ways. I think it's also important to note that international (and club soccer at the highest levels), follows the basketball model much more than the football model.

Steven Gerrard is defined by 92nd minute goals blasted from 30 yards out. Cristiano Ronaldo through his stepovers. Kaka through his seemingly effortless runs from box to box, Henry by the speed and grace with which he operates (or used to). Trezuguet or Anelka by their missed Penalty Kicks in the biggest moments.

These are acts, qualities of the players themselves in the opportune moment, not the sport / destiny / David Tyree's helmet interfering.

At 10/27/2009 4:34 PM, Blogger peb said...

Awesome post.

At 10/27/2009 4:57 PM, Blogger Phil said...

Good to see the old FD fury back in action.

At 10/27/2009 5:00 PM, Blogger spanish bombs said...

I call bullshit on "immanence".

We already have "imminence" (the quality of impending) and "eminence" (prominence, superiority). I think that "immanence" is the most obscure, so I vote that it gets kicked out of the language.

At 10/27/2009 6:34 PM, Blogger Chris said...

i call bullshit on calling immanence bullshit. the notion of immanence (existing or remaining within; inherent: as in "the belief in a God immanent in humans.") is central to the impossibility of replicating "the next Jordan". shoals perfectly nails down and contextualizes the p.r. polish that gave jordan his all-too-predictable supernatural shine. which isn't jordan's fault. it's *our own* problem for not seeing the way in which mediating agencies held him up as an archetype instead of merely yet another icon to emerge from the worlds of sport. speaking of which, you know, reading up on some spinoza might help to temper your knee-jerk anti-intellectualism, senior bombs. maybe you'll even begin to loathe the policing of language.

At 10/27/2009 7:14 PM, Blogger MC Welk said...

You, sir, are LO-KO.

At 10/28/2009 3:48 AM, Blogger Mouth said...

As far as the live game goes, as far as the feel of the elevation of the Holy Game, the glory of the heightened sense of things that can overcome a moment even before you realize that it will be or has just become a memorable part of your active fandom, this is perhaps like trying to articulate the true nature of Love. Many have tried. None have succeeded. Yet we all know it when we feel it. I, for one, do not need to conflate the sensation that accompanies witnessing greatness with the incessant workings of the almighty dollar, expressed as a function of the sales of Michael Jordan's cologne or the refusal to broadcast nationwide games that don't feature the few league-blessed star-powered teams. This last problem has been solved since Jordan's last retirement (Thank you, League Pass.). Though the NBA still seems unable to match the popularity of the NFL or the 'mystique'-level of MLB, for its true fans and by measure of talent level it's as good a professional sports league as any in history right now. I am able to say with brevity and clarity that live basketball is way better than live soccer.

If you are greedy for more from NBA telecasts, I recommend you enjoy every game co-called by Hubie Brown.

At 10/28/2009 11:17 AM, Blogger spanish bombs said...

I'm not language-policing, I just wish that it was spelled (more importantly, pronounced) differently. Triple homonyms are unreasonable. Can't we all just agree that the concept of existing or remaining within; inherent: as in "the belief in a God immanent in humans" needs a new word.

It's like how we Americans generally agree that the British way of spelling things is dumb. Haven't those losers ever heard of a Z? And they drive lorries? WTF.

At 10/28/2009 6:04 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

Really interesting piece. I'd like to point out that the Nike Air Jordan campaign came first. Bulls' six championships came later. Without the winning, Jordan would just be Shawn Kemp. Or Bo Jackson.

(I do admire MJ, despite the name of my blog.)

Oh, and the phrase "young buck" has racist connotations. I'm not saying that you deployed this phrase knowingly or intentionally. (Or maybe you did, ironically.)

At 10/28/2009 8:27 PM, Blogger Hal said...

So here's some myth:


At 10/29/2009 9:02 AM, Blogger InspectorDeck said...

I think the very structure of basketball, it's constant flow, it's lack of decisive moments that separate it from the other sports. Contextually, one can point to a moment where a team is broken, or a player's will deflated, or the balance shifts,but in terms of the quantifiable a team can only do one of a handful of things, things that are repeated all game.
In soccer a goal is a tremendous moment, a moment of sheer glee and celebration for which every spectator and every player must stop, acknowledge and then begin the game afresh. In football a big play, or a td, is easy to acknowledge. A 50 yard pass is amazing because it covered half the field. Converting a 4th and 22 is easily understood as a great play by even the most common observer.
Basketball is fluid and each play is an aggregation of the last. A player who takes one shot and makes it, even if it is the game winning shot, can only be celebrated so much. When Spain played Germany in the Euro 2008 Finals I can't remember a single clear opportunity Spain had on goal, but I do remember Torres goal, the only one of the game, the goal that gave Spain their first international tournament victory in decades. That moment was intense. A similar thing happened this past weekend when Liverpool beat Man U. Torres took a half chance and putPool up 1-0. Those moments of sheers ecstasy are more difficult for the layman to contextualize in a sport like basketball, where the scoring opportunities several dozen a game, if not more.

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