You Can't Tell the Story of Michael Jordan Without Nike

The Basketball Hall of Fame shouldn't shy away from Jordan's corporate side

By Josh Alper
|  Tuesday, Aug 18, 2009  |  Updated 2:51 PM CDT
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You Can't Tell the Story of Michael Jordan Without Nike

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There's a new exhibit at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts called "Becoming Legendary: The Story of Michael Jordan." That makes sense. He's legendary, so had to become legendary at some point in time, and he's being inducted into the Hall on September 11th so it makes sense to highlight his on-court accomplishments. All in all, it sounds like exactly the type of exhibit that a sports museum/hall of fame should be featuring.

The reality is a bit different, though, as Richard Sandomir of the New York Times points out in a review. Jordan didn't donate or lend anything to the museum, instead it is Nike, via their Brand Jordan line, that came up with almost everything that's on display. That includes video screens playing commercials featuring Jordan, quotes about working with Nike and, naturally, a whole wall of Air Jordans. The sanitized survey of Jordan's career leaves Sandomir with a feeling that the "straight-out-of-Oregon exhibit feels so much less spectacular than its subject."

The problem isn't that Nike provided so many items or that there's corporate underwriting, it's that the Hall didn't do their jobs as curators. Frankly, there's something rotten in Springfield if they aren't able to come up with an exhibit showing Jordan's basketball career without the help of the swoosh. A rack of Air Jordans doesn't illuminate why Jordan was great any more than a bucket full of brushes would pass muster as part of an exhibit about Picasso.

What a rack of Air Jordans does illuminate is Jordan as a corporate and cultural icon, a role that is as interesting, if not more interesting, than the one of basketball superstar.

That part of his life would make a fine museum exhibit, as long as it is honest about what's being exhibited. Nike is a crucial part of what makes Jordan so much more than another great athlete. The commercials, posters and creation of a whole brand named after him show us how this athlete can capture the imagination of the United States like no one else before. All of that could lead to a discussion about whether there was something unique about Jordan, or if he was merely in the right place at the right time as commerce, sports and ingenuity came together to create something totally new.

That's a question worthy of a museum devoted to the history of basketball, much more than a cursory look at what made Jordan special through the lens of his corporate benefactors.

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