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.


At 1/14/2008 1:41 PM, Blogger El Presidente said...

Whoa. Consider the piece admired. Man, you fit right in.

At 1/14/2008 1:45 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

WARNING: I accidentally put up a next-to-final draft. Real thing is up now.

At 1/14/2008 2:21 PM, Blogger mutoni said...

that was really great. and i couldn't agree more

At 1/14/2008 2:32 PM, Blogger Leonardson Saratoga said...

But isn't it fair of stars to try to write their own story? It's certainly not fair to ask them to "keep us away, let us interpret." For instance, Peyton Manning throws 5 INTs in a Conference title game, starts the ball rolling on the "Peyton is a choking baby" train, then spends the off season in every commercial possible trying to prove that he is "personable" and "fun loving" (the new Favre).

Now, I would certainly agree that his "story" didn't get edited until he actually played that way and then won a title, which falls in line with the piece. But can we really fault him for trying to reach out to the fans? I don't think so.

As it was once said on this very site: "Mars Blackmon made Jordan human." I think that agrees with what you say about MJ. At times, MJ would come down from his planet, connect with the common folk for a minute, and shoot back up. Now, everyone is constantly trying to connect, and I agree that is bad. But that is done merely for money (cynical maybe) and commercial appeal--to appeal to those who may like the NBA but would be bored within 2 minutes of an FD post.

The same way that you can't learn shit about the league by watching Heat-Bulls in prime time on ESPN, you can't learn shit about Stephon Marbury by watching him hawk cheap shoes (don't get me wrong, it is an admirable thing he does) on Oprah. Unfortunately, the general viewing public doesn't give a shit.

At 1/14/2008 2:34 PM, Blogger Sweat of Ewing said...

Damn, damn smart.

What about the fact that a behind-the-scenes MJ definitely existed, though? MJ was a facade - a nearly impenetrable one, particularly in that era of (relative) micromedia. I wonder how of the Jordan Myth rests upon a hypercompetitive, callow, and fundamentally *interesting* pillar. Tim Duncan can't ever capture the imagination because, no matter what face he presents to the world, behind it all he's still a pretty boring guy.

At 1/14/2008 2:58 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Tim Duncan can't ever capture the imagination because . . . behind it all he's still a pretty boring guy.

But that's kinda the point, isn't it? If Duncan presents the face, it's going to be boring, constructed, cheap. But if we the public come up with the face, it's going to be a reflection of our own needs and obsessions, and therefore inherently interesting. The blanker the canvas (i.e., Duncan) the clearer the projection.

Look, here's a newsflash: world-class athletes are inherently boring people. Moreover, the better they are, the more boring they are, in general. The amount of time and effort required to raise even a phenomenally gifted athlete to world-class status is so daunting, so obsessive, that actual personality, interests, or opinions cannot be developed. Interesting is only what they seem. Once in awhile, there is someone who is glib enough to pass as interesting or informed (Charles Barkley), or weird enough to pass as iconoclastic (Rodman), or pretty/handsome enough to otherwise engage our interest (Sharapova). Sometimes, there is an athlete who plays long enough that he or she develops interesting qualities or opinions (Agassi -- but note how his later persona differed from his first impression). But for the most part, greatness comes in inverse proportion to interestingness.

I forget who it was -- but I think it was Flaubert -- who said something to the effect of "an artist must be conservative in his life, that he might be revolutionary in his work." Everyone watching Tom Brady, Tim Duncan, Roger Federer, or Tiger Woods needs to come to grips with this.

At 1/14/2008 3:04 PM, Blogger MC Welk said...

What Collin said.

Piling on Utah is so fresh. Adam Keefe really is the bleeding edge.

At 1/14/2008 3:33 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Wow, great post.

Oh, and great comment, Collins.

At 1/14/2008 3:37 PM, Blogger maxooo said...

phenomenal piece, great read.

At 1/14/2008 3:55 PM, Blogger Spencer said...

Great stuff.

At 1/14/2008 5:01 PM, Blogger csprow said...

Collin - I don't disagree with you. Having spoken with hundreds of them, I would never disagree with your assessment regarding the "interesting" quotient of pro athletes, particularly as it relates to the degree their craft has taken time from, say, their ability to read up on and jot even serviceable FD posts. I just lament all the shaping they, their PR team, and whoever else deems is necessary for them to truly cash in on this moment. This also goes for us writing (and editing) stiffs. As Peter Devries said, "That's the problem with all the good young writers. They're all in their sixties."

MCW - Fair. Though I love Keefe. Best Pac-10 red head since Walton, and I say that even in the midst of the Aron Baynes era...

At 1/14/2008 6:21 PM, Blogger Unknown said...


I was actually trying to agree with you wholeheartedly with my comment. I was disagreeing --- or at least taking some issue with --- the comment by Sweat of Ewing. I absolutely agree that the way that PR flaks go about their business is lamentable. In fact, you could even say it's counterproductive. Case in point: Andre Agassi, who I mentioned in my comment. Agassi at 17 is a nice Christian kid from the desert who rarely cusses or throws his racket. He gets packaged and sold as a rebel. Wears ridiculous clothes. Makes stupid commercials. Doesn't win much -- but hey, Sampras is winning everything in sight, so it's not like he's alone in losing.

Then, later in his career, Andre reinvents himself. No . . . he gives us the chance to reinvent him for ourselves. The shaved head becomes the actual blank canvas. Shorn, we finally get the chance to see the decent kid that was always there. Now, describing that guy is boring --- decent Christian kid from the desert, doesn't cuss or bitch --- but when we start projecting stuff on him, that innate decency becomes the raw material we work with to shape the guy to our own needs. And isn't it easier to make money -- and more of it -- off of American Hero than it is to make money off of Preening Pseudo-Rebel?

Now, I know that the dilemma of the PR flak is that you don't know, at age 17, that Agassi is going to be the champion he becomes. And you've gotta sell what you got right now. And right now -- in the early 90's -- is a long haired kid with an earring. Rebel! Sell it! You can't sell American Hero when the guy hasn't won anything. But you can fashion the canvas. You can prime the pump. You can look at that naive 17-year-old in your office and say honestly to him "look, kid, I'm not gonna make you do anything you have to explain with a red face later on." If that kid is Agassi, you probably end up making a lot more money in the long run.

Stupid goddam Canon commericals.

At 1/14/2008 6:45 PM, Blogger csprow said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 1/14/2008 6:49 PM, Blogger csprow said...

Collin -

Great point. Ideal for the topic. Peculiar thing about Agassi, which somewhat goes without saying, but I will for the sake of discourse here: as he was working so hard to project an image of almost insolence in the face of "old tennis" authority--remember when he wouldn't play Wimbledon due to the all-white's rule ... clothes, not race--he was considered a disappointment on the court. When he finally won a slam, at Wimbledon, oddly, he still had the long hair, but his fake angst had been tempered, and his humility and wisdom seemed to be seaping forth some. From there, when he truly revolutionized the game, it was within a bland, balding persona. Think of that: mens tennis is almost unrecognizable compared to the game Agassi entered, but he had to bring his spiced up image (which "is everything", we were told) back into the bland realm that permeates the game. Imagine that, the bland Agassi added color to the court, like a painter mixing a streak of red into a tub of white, as his faux-attitude persona dissipated into nothingness. In the great SI profile of the rivalry with Sampras from the mid-90's, it was Pistol Pete who came off like the cranky, cussing type. Professionalism somehow got to Agassi, and made him markedly more interesting, in my opinion.

I think this is part of what I lament in my piece. Make your game worthy of our interest, and we'll be thrilled, as you say, to utilize the blank canvas of your limited persona to craft the star we want.

At 1/14/2008 6:52 PM, Blogger dunces said...

The advertising industry likes to think they've got a handle on true mythmaking, but Jordan's really the first global persona-brand, and the true test comes after he's gone.

In 40 years, when he's close to done, do you think Nike will have established a stronger brand than Jordan? I could see it either way.

But assuming they haven't, what happens in 150 years and the top-selling shoe still bears the emblem of the jump man?

At 1/14/2008 6:57 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I forget who it was -- but I think it was Flaubert -- who said something to the effect of "an artist must be conservative in his life, that he might be revolutionary in his work."

My bet is Proust.

And from what I understand, Timmy D is actually a much more interesting person off the court (the whole Spurs team is really--in that professorly "I've been to Europe and not just the Eiffel Tower for photos" kinda way) and a well-loved teammate. Jordan was always just considered hyper-competitve. I mean really, Jordan always just seemed like some cocky athelete to me--and I never found anything "real" in all that Space Jam nonsense. You could have put Vince Carter in that role and the movie would be exactly the same.

At 1/14/2008 7:37 PM, Blogger personalmathgenius said...

Jordan's commercials are almost always pushy in the sense that they try to demystify him (he wears underwear, just like you!) but just end up making him seem like someone who scores even lower on the Wunderlic than Vince Young and can't be trusted to deliver even the simplest of lines.
Have you ever noticed how little they give him to say and how much he's supposed to convey with that non-plussed shrug? It's like the Philip Morris agency got their memos crossed and the one that said "Under no circumstances let Arnold Schwarzeneggar deliver dialogue" got sent to Jordan's handlers.

At 1/14/2008 7:37 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Not to completely hijack this thread into an Agassi-love-fest, but the strongest memory I have of the guy as a kid was when he was facing Jimmy Connors in the quarters or semis of the U.S. Open. Hadn't won a slam at that point -- maybe 18 years old, or 19.

Anyway, it's a tight match, but Connors is on the ropes a bit, and Agassi is about to break. Connors bouncing the ball, it's real quiet . . . and someone shouts from the crowd: "He's a punk, you're a legend, Jimmy!"

Connors tries to ignore it for a second. He holds the ball. Then, he starts to giggle and has to step back. Which of course gets the whole crowd going. Laughing. At Andre.

And the camera cut to Andre for a moment -- to the long-haired, earring-wearing "rebel", the "punk" -- and the guy was just an open wound of pain. You could see it in his eyes. He was about to cry. He hated being called a punk in that context. He hated being on the other side of any spectrum from Connors. All he wanted was to be Connors. The legend. Not the punk. He ended up winning, of course, but it had to cut deep.

Here's the thing: the only reason Agassi got called out like that was because he'd been mishandled, mispackaged, sold as something he wasn't. He had the long hair, but so did everyone else at that time. His heart wasn't with the image, and the image burned him. It didn't have to be that way. He didn't have to be set up to fail his own image like that.

I didn't become an Agassi fan at that point, but it was the moment where I stopped hating him and wishing him (professional) ill. Last year, watching Andre put up one last ghost of a fight against Nadal, I found myself yelling at my screen as he was bouncing the ball, about to get broken, about to lose -- "HE'S A PUNK! YOU'RE A LEGEND, ANDRE!"

Because he deserved to hear it just once.

At 1/14/2008 10:46 PM, Blogger bernard snowy said...

wow. nothing to say except this piece gave me chills. echoes of the first time I ever read Freedarko.

At 1/14/2008 11:12 PM, Blogger Sweat of Ewing said...

Allow me to recant a bit, because I'll admit the Duncan analogy is a bit too easy and flawed. My point, though, is that Jordan's image is and always was hiding something. He is an interesting character because he is a particularly flawed one, no matter how pristine the numbers 2 and 3 are, and because it has always seemed to me as if his entire life is spent in service to that same flaw (ego, primarily). Meaning that Jordan would never give the public as much of his personality as the sports media would like, because he couldn't: if the truth was that MJ was almost pathologically unable to cede superiority, and would do most anything to avoid that, would he have been such a folk hero? (I'll admit, perhaps I have this wrong, because a great deal of my argument hinges on this point) To me, that's a truth that has always seemed particularly ugly rather than one to be worshiped. That bland image was deliberate, crafted almost to the point of deceit, and in his case that's why it worked so well.

Agassi I see as a somewhat different case, akin to the Reggie Millers and Jerome Bettises of the world (although on a vastly larger emotional and, more importantly, successful scale). You stick around long enough, you become the elder and the legend. Obviously you need to win for this to happen to the extent it did with Agassi. Hhe was never an icon like Jordan - this is tennis, after all, so that's understandable - but Agassi seems like a profoundly likable guy who quieted down as he got older. It's late so I'm drawing a blank - are there examples of this in other sports?

At 1/15/2008 1:26 AM, Blogger Leonardson Saratoga said...

look i understand and respect the whole FreeDarko ethos, i've been here a while, but seriously...CAN WE PLEASE TALK ABOUT BASKETBALL PLAYERS AND WHAT THEY MEAN/STAND FOR/FUCKING DO ON THE COURT

motherfuckers around the league is having breakout years and all the FD community can talk about is Andre fucking Agassi

At 1/15/2008 1:38 AM, Blogger Jack Brown said...

As I read this post, I kept thinking about how about a month ago, I saw Cliff Robinson dancing like he wasn't Cliff Robinson. This was at a Portland club where patrons are mostly under 25 and Asian, so he was sticking out a little. He danced on the floor amongst the people all night, got drunk, and whenever they threw on an old beat he recognized, he broke out the air-bass. Somehow, I left loving him more.

P.S., Andre Agassi.

At 1/15/2008 3:29 AM, Blogger The Other Van Gundy said...

The whole idea of athletes having personalities is preposterous to me. Frankly, I don't give a damn that Peyton Manning is a surprisingly good SNL host or that Tim Duncan is super funny if you get to know him! or any of that nonsense. What I care about is what I see on the court.

Take Sean Taylor. All the obits said he was a decent family man and a caring father in the months before he was killed. That's irrelevant to me, at least in the context that matters when it comes to Sean Taylor. All I need to know about him is he will knock a motherfucker out if he can, be it Week 7 against the Vikings or a punter in the Pro Bowl.

"The blanker the canvas (i.e., Duncan) the clearer the projection. "
That's a nice metaphor, but it's a little to facile. There's just nothing to project on the pristine canvas of The Big Fundamental - his game is simply too vanilla. Look at the players who we mythologize - Jordan, Rodman, J.R. Smith, Allen Iverson, etc. They all have remarkable, expressive games. Jordan was capable of feats past description, the kind of shit you had to see yourself to even comprehend, so we made... I dunno, the fundamental attribution error and assumed that man who's so gifted must be interesting.

But Duncan doesn't have that. He's got angles and putbacks and not much else. Myth's make mortals im-, but there has to be something there to start with. Duncan's way too prosaic to support any kind of mythology.

I don't know who I'm even talking to at this point, but I want to say there's been a ton of on-point stuff here. I especially like Jordan as Haley's comet, and as a Chicagoan raised in Church of Jordan, let me say that those sometimes awkward commercials really hammered home the point: This man is not human. He was made to play basketball.

I'd like to hear what you guys think about LeBron in regards to this topic. He's always been so careful to present a corporate-friendly, sanitized image to the public, but here we see him ogling some tits with his kid in tow, or pretty much laughing in the face of the reporter who asks him about his speeding ticket.

What to make of this?

At 1/15/2008 11:12 AM, Blogger MC Welk said...

If Duncan is vanilla he's a gnarly bean.

At 1/15/2008 2:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Sorry for the inappropriate threadjack in response to a provacative post

I don't know where Skeets got this quote from but he posted it in the Deadspin Closer

Said [Gerald] Wallace post-game: "Tell them Charlotte is free."

Is he sentient of his role in Shoals' microcosm?

At 1/15/2008 2:14 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

After reading the whole post maybe his comment does have a place here.

At 1/17/2008 10:28 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Two things:

1. This was an excellent post. Look forward to reading more from you.

2. The problem with athletes and personalizing them is that by nature, to the average person, they are superhuman.

The marketing machine rarely reminds many of us that, in our youth we could actually dunk a basketball fairly easily. It also rarely reminds us that we recently got owned by a 15 year old in a pick-up game at our local court. Our own personal experiences with basketball are irrelevant. The purity of The Game is what they push.

The Game is not our game, and likely never will be nor could have been. Leave that to the pros. Worship them.

This deification by proxy precludes humanizing our heroes. When a bit of humanity shines through, it is almost always negative. The fact that Marcus Camby reads to children is inevitably subjugated by the fact that JR Smith sprays champagne all over girls in clubs.

Even the postgame interviews merit awkward uncertainty about the human ability to connect. Kobe once stated after a game: "I felt like Geppetto out there." He did not mean this in any sort of Dadaist way. He was trying to make an allusion that was dead before it had a chance to live. As an intellectual, Kobe when sober ranks lower than most of my friends after 4 40s of Steel Reserve.

This I can only assess because postgame interviews give players a chance to be human, which most pass on. Most favor old stalwarts about giving 110% and things of that nature. These hackneyed lines preserve the facelessness of The Game, while still allowing for a face to worship.


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