Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Making of a Star OR Freekobe OR The Golden LeBron

A recent post over at FreeDarko got me thinking about the nature of stardom and the way that an athlete can become commodified and how such commidification stands in contrast to athletic performance. The genesis of this was thinking about the global nature of sport and the intersection of two fairly indisputable facts:

1. The most popular sport, globally, is soccer.
2. The most popular athlete, globally, is Michael Jordan.

That they are both true is anti-intuitive. Shouldn't the most popular athlete be one who participates in the most popular sport? Shouldn't the most popular athlete be someone who is actively playing? And if "no" to the latter, then shouldn't Pele stand on that column instead of Jordan?

The answer is that Jordan is the most popular athlete of all time, barring no national boundaries, because he was the first athlete to realize the potential of personal marketing*. Boosted by Nike, Jordan is/was everywhere, a benign figure who was very very good, won championships and sold a lot of shoes at a time when media was truly blossoming in a global sense. By being the first iconic figure to take that instantaneous global access and to turn into a marketing empire, Jordan indelibly stamped his now-unforgettable silhouette on the plaque of World's Most Important Superstar.

Except, how much do people, in the global sense, actually know about Jordan in the context of basketball? Of course, NBA fans will be able to tell you. However, will that kid wearing a Jordan shirt in Guatemala be able to tell you who Jordan beat to win those Championships, how much he averaged as a rookie or what position he played? (To be fair, how many American soccer fans could tell you similar facts regarding Pele?)

The answer being, of course not. And this doesn't really represent a problem so much for Jordan so much as it does for those who come after him. By creating a figure that's larger than sport, Jordan created a situation where star players are not only competing on the court, they are also competing with the concept of historical status, attempting to be the gods that throw over the titans, only it's another cosomology entirely and Jordan is YHWH-23, looking down on creations made in his own image and smiling that smirk that says "I've won, and there's nothing you can do about it".

The two figures that immediately come to mind, largely because of their so-far parallels with Icarus (throw that cosmology into reverse), are Kobe and LeBron.

Kobe, more than possibly any other NBA player, appears to be consumed with the problem of perception. His persona, as examined earlier in this blog, seems to be centered around the concept of controlling his public persona and therefore, controlling his reception from fans. He doesn't seem to realize that Jordan controlled his image through extreme restriction of access, in much the same way that Shaq has done more recently**, by reducing himself to a smiling, largely detail-less figure. Kobe is both too open and too dissembling, putting out enough of himself to create a complex persona and also too-obviously putting on an act for the cameras, creating a fascinating figure that is also extremely difficult to market outside of "he's very good at basketball".

And that seems to be the best way to describe the New Boss, LeBron James, defined by his seemingly-omniscient excellence at the sport. Like Jordan, LeBron has restricted access to whatever's real with him, creating a media image from an extremely early point in his career. An image that is (as has been gone over again previously here) defined not by what he has done; rather, it's about what he will have done, to the point that nobody feels particularly presumptous talking about multiple titles and multiple MVPs. They are, after all, his birthright. Horribly, it makes his astounding ability boring. It's too easy to be visceral and too preordained to be suspenseful. The only way his career could be staggering is if he fails somehow to reach the peaks that we all assume that he must.

Ultimately the game, their games, are obscured because they can never match up to the manufactured majesty of the Alpha and the Omega of sports marketing***. It's impossible for them, simply because He Has Become Before and now that we know that it can be done, there's no way that it can happen again.

* - This is almost assuredly untrue and should instead read "because he was the first athlete to realize the potential of personal marketing and have a mega-millions clothing company willing to throw all of their resources behind you and have enough personal high-profile success to make it seem like more of a coronation than an advertising campaign"; however, that isn't nearly as snappy.

** - Although in comparison, Shaq shows much more of a personality than Jordan, possibly because he actually has a sense of humor.

*** - And it should go without saying that to "fans of the game", their games will still burn bright, as will Chris Paul's as will the fact that John Salmons is leading the Kings in several statistical categories, alas poor Kobe/LeBron, they are playing a bigger game than basketball itself and I do think sometimes that they know that they can't win.

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