Going over Jordan and pop culture

Michael Jordan just placed No. 1 on a Forbes magazine list of the most powerful celebrities in the world. The ranking took into account both income and media buzz - mentions on the Web, magazine covers, TV and radio appearances, and newspaper clips.

When Mr. Jordan, the retired professional basketball player, attended a game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets last month, he received a 70-second standing ovation.

He had never played for either team, but somehow the fans wanted him to know how much pleasure he had given them during his career. It ended last spring on a perfect note when he hit the winning shot in Game 6 of the finals against the Utah Jazz to give his Chicago Bulls their sixth championship since he arrived.

None of this surprises David Halberstam in the least. He's the former newspaper journalist (a Pulitzer Prize-winner for his reporting on the Vietnam War) who writes books now. His next one is on a key battle in the Korean War.

But he also writes about America's love affair with sports, and his latest effort is "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made" (Random House).

In the book, and in an interview when he stopped by the Monitor for a chat last week, Mr. Halberstam tries to give proper scope to the impact that Jordan has had, not only on sports but on all of popular culture.

For example, when the Bulls went to France for a tournament, he writes, the newspaper France-Soir noted: "Michael Jordan is in Paris. That's better than the pope. It's God in person."

After Diana, Princess of Wales, died, Halberstam says, Jordan simply became "the most famous person on earth."

Well, then, why another book on him?

Halberstam looked at the coverage of Jordan and found it a bit like Nebraska's Platte River - a mile wide and an inch deep. TV, especially, had danced all over the tip of the Jordan iceberg but never cut into it. Lots of territory was unexplored, Halberstam concluded, for a reporter willing to travel many months and many miles, talk with scores of sources, and take 1,200 pages of notes.

So what is the Jordan story? Essentially, an extraordinarily gifted athlete is born into a family that instills a strong work ethic. He is spotted by one of the best college basketball programs in the country (North Carolina), which applies the final touches to his game and attitude. He enters a pro sport that is on the rise under a creative commissioner (David Stern) and suited perfectly to intense TV coverage. The result is the creation of the athlete "whom ordinary people throughout the world most wanted to see play."

And what is Jordan's legacy?

On fashion: "Jordan, shaved head and all, had given America nothing less than a new definition of beauty for a new age."

On money and sports: Today's NBA salaries are 2,500 percent higher than 20 years ago, and "Jordan was the poster boy" for the change. In 1978, the total salaries of all the players on all the teams in the NBA was about $40 million. Next year, the Los Angeles Lakers are expected to pay just three star players - Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Glen Rice - a total of $40 million for the season.

What will Jordan, the fierce competitor, do now that he's retired? Some black activists have criticized him for not taking up social causes.

"I'm not too hard on him," Halberstam says. "He's a basketball player. He wasn't raised to be an activist." Jordan was part of a new generation of black athletes who went to integrated schools and had white friends. Still, Halberstam allows, it'll be "interesting to see what emerges now that he has time" on his hands.

The passing of Joe DiMaggio just earned acres of newsprint and hours of TV time. Which sports star will be remembered as a bigger influence on his sport and his times, DiMaggio or Jordan?

Halberstam has to pause to think about that one. He grew up with white baseball players as his heroes and has written books on baseball.

"It's dead even," he finally concludes. But "Jordan's helped by how much [more] video there is of him."

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