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Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Dr. J, Air Jordan, Kobe, LeBron and William Goldman's Battle to the Death

Remember when Nike issued a T-shirt "explaining" Michael Jordan's hops? These words appeared in black, printed over a silhouette of Jordan skying above an image of Earth: "Air Jordan has overcome the acceleration of gravity by the application of muscle power applied in the vertical plane, thus producing a low altitude Earth orbit." I wore that T-shirt out back in the day, wore it until the fabric fell apart. I never once dunked while wearing it--at least not on a 10 foot rim--but I drained many three pointers. I liked Jordan's answer when an interviewer asked him if he really thought that he could fly. Jordan replied, "Yeah, for a little while. It may be a split second, but it's flying."

After Jordan averaged 37.1 ppg in 1986-87 to become the greatest single season scorer not named Wilt Chamberlain and then started stringing together championships a few years later, it would have been difficult to believe that any basketball player would become a bigger phenomenon on or off the court. Jordan was breaking records, making iconic commercials with Spike Lee and gazing in wonder at skyscraper-sized billboards portraying himself.

It is funny now to see so many Jordan fans get upset when LeBron James is compared favorably to Jordan; I know exactly how those Jordan fans feel, because that is how I felt in the mid-1980s when some people called Jordan the heir apparent--or Air Apparent--to Julius Erving. As a teenage fan of Erving, I resented the young Jordan. Jordan eventually became one of my favorite players but I'll never like Air Jordan more than I like Dr. J, just like the fans who grew up watching Jordan will never like King James more than they like His Airness.

William Goldman nailed it more than 25 years ago in Wait Till Next Year, the classic book that he co-authored with Mike Lupica: "The greatest struggle an athlete undergoes is the battle for our memories. It's gradual. It begins before you're aware it's begun and it ends with a terrible fall from grace. Stripped of medals, sent to Siberia...It really is a battle to the death." In 1976, no one would have thought it could happen to Dr. J but then Air Jordan showed up. In 1996, no one would have thought it could happen to Air Jordan but then Kobe Bryant and LeBron James showed up--and in 2013, no one thinks that it can happen to James but in 2023 someone else will show up. Goldman also correctly predicted that at least one athlete would escape that Siberian exile: Wilt Chamberlain. Chamberlain has not played in the NBA for 40 years and he passed away more than a decade ago but even casual fans still know his most famous numbers: 50 points per game for a season and 100 points in one game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:16 AM

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