Friday, November 11, 2011

Elvis Done Left the Building

Not necessity, not desire - no, the love of power is the demon of men. Let them have everything - health, food, a place to live, entertainment - they are and remain unhappy and low-spirited: for the demon waits and waits and will be satisfied.

Fame blurs reality, imbuing the famous with a public identity that may or may not accurately depict their private selves, but which is controlled by the audience’s perceptions and biases rather than anything internal. The fastest way to alienate your public is to undermine your persona, to let the mask slip and imply, through word or deed, that they believe in a lie. The bigger the gap between persona and self, the higher the need for discipline in public.

Michael Jordan has long been the gold standard for this. The man is an asshole, as has been clear for a couple decades now to anyone who cares to look closely. He fought teammates, gambles compulsively, and would rather burn your house down than lose to you at rocks, paper, scissors.1 But MJ, star of Space Jam, purveyor of underclothing, and silhouetted dunker extraordinaire, is American royalty. He turns on that 1000 watt smile, blandly plays the nice guy, and the world revolves around him. His anodyne persona is as distant as it is friendly, founded on his unimpeachable resume. He’s not famous because he’s good-looking, though he is, or because of his charm. He’s famous because he won everything ever, while selling you the shoes the cool kids have been wearing ever since.
1: It's not clear that this is an exaggeration if he thought he could get away with it.
The lack of substance to that persona is a fame judo trick that has served him perfectly since. At its core, the Airman fame isn’t about anything beyond cool. The Bulls were the coolest team ever, at least to the general public, because Count the Rings, and MJ was both the alpha dog and the coolest guy on the team. He transcended his entire sport, and invented the athlete as global celebrity. There are miles of distance in between MJ and the real Michael Jordan, but the cool distance built into the MJ persona keeps us at arm’s length, so it doesn’t matter.

The Jordan shoe brand is built on itself, at this point. It has successfully created a feedback loop wherein the coolest basketball players wear Jordans, so next year’s coolest basketball players feel the need to also wear Jordans.2 The LeBrons and Kobes of the world build their own mini-fiefdoms inside the Nike brand, but Jordan has Melo, DWade, CP3, and a bevy of other basketball, WNBA, baseball, football, and sundry athletes.3
2: There are exceptions, but the Derek Roses of the world wear Adidas because Adidas throws money at them to convince them to be those exceptions.)
3: Least explicable team Jordan athlete: Denny Hamlin, NASCAR driver extraordinaire!

Michael Jordan is playing a dangerous game with his brand. In a move that is less than surprising, he is at the front of the hawkish team owner pack in the NBA lockout. It’s a move that is the opposite of what he said as a player, but fully in line with his deeper strategy, then and now, of win everything always. Coffee is for closers, rings are for winners. But he isn’t just negotiating against his own Jordan “team”, he’s one of the handful of guys actively trying to screw them. There has been noise about free agent players being less inclined to sign with the teams of hawkish owners. Money being equal, this may happen some, but there are enough factors in play that I doubt you’ll see much such politics. But shoe deals? What if Nick Young is the tip of the iceberg?4 If there’s serious NBAPA resentment of the deal that gets made, or especially if we lose a season, couldn’t Jordan’s gleeful seat driving that bus poison the well of the Jordan brand? Any player good enough to be on the Jordan “team” is plenty good to take his talents to Nike proper, or to another brand. Nike can live without Jordan just fine these days, but what would happen to new Air Jordans if the league wasn’t wearing them?
4: Nick Young's twitter background is perfect.
Michael Jordan the executive has aged into the enemy of his current avatars. He almost certainly has the cultural capital for his brand to ride out the lockout and emerge slightly dented at worst, but what if things go nuclear? If owners and the NBAPA go scorched earth, do you have any doubt he’s willing to burn any and all bridges with current stars if he thinks he’s right? The Jordan brand seems monolithic, ossified into our cultural firmament, but such things are always more fragile than we think. In the trickle-down world of sportswear, if the tip of the basketball pyramid abandons the Jordan brand, especially if it’s because he’s publicly an asshole, could that kill Air Jordan? The fire that fueled his narratively perfect career is now painting him as a villainous owner, indeed it is what guarantees he must be at their forefront. Even if the season isn’t lost, his stance is a blow to the unassailability of his brand. Republicans buy shoes too, but only NBA players wear them on television. If he pushes against them too hard, too many times, he could start to erode the sway his brand holds over them. His brand’s strength lies in its purity. If he muddies those waters as an owner, could he eventually destroy himself?

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