On Heroes

Image via Terry McCombs on Flickr

When it comes to hero worship, American sports fans are pretty well-versed. We like to lock onto certain images of heroes: a buzzer-beater, a touchdown pass, a penalty kick. We focus on the moments that make us warm inside, that instill us with pride. We know that what they did wasn’t done for us, but we were there when it happened, and it made us feel so good, so the least we can do is pay our hero back with some mild idolatry: posters, cards, youtube mixtapes. Anything will do, really, as long as it ties the moment to the hero and us to the moment.

Over the past few weeks, two of my (and everyone else’s) childhood basketball heroes have been prominent in the spotlight during this non-season. Two weeks ago was the 20th anniversary of Magic Johnson’s announcement that he had HIV and that he was retiring from the game of basketball. A lot of NBA writers have talked about where they were, how they felt at that moment, and how basketball and basketball stardom changed from that point forward. I was 6 years old. Most of my knowledge of Magic’s abilities comes from collecting cards and posters, playing video games, and vicariously idolizing what my older cousins idolized. I was aware of the Dream Team and his legacy of winning, but the most lasting effect of Magic’s retirement for me at the time wasn’t so much in relation to basketball, but to HIV awareness. As a first grader, I knew almost nothing about HIV/AIDS, but I was quickly forced to learn about it via Nickelodeon, where a kids news show I watched (“Nick News W5″) demonstrated how to put condoms on bananas. In the twenty years since his announcement, I’ve learned a lot more about HIV/AIDS, as has the rest of the world. I don’t think we’d be in the same place as a society if we weren’t forced to deal with this issue in such a public forum–forced to dispel fears and stereotypes of the unknown and really educate ourselves. In addition to helping build awareness on that front, Magic has been a presence around the NBA and television for years (we tend to highlight his commentating and overlook his poorly-executed TV show), and has been involved in lots of charity work.

The other childhood hero is, of course, Michael Jordan. He’s best known as being the (disputed) greatest player of all time. He hasn’t done much commentating and we’re not as privy to his post-playing charity work as we are to Magic’s, but we do tend to highlight his fantastic line of footwear, his flexible-fabric undergarments, and his golf-outings. He’s been in the press these past few weeks for a wholly different reason than Magic has. As one of the “hardline” owners in the NBA lockout, MJ has reportedly been pushing a very anti-player line; some say he’s being surprisingly hypocritical, while others contend he’s being consistently Michael. Either way, his harsh tone smacks firmly against all the heroic moments of his that we want to cherish, and instead bring to the fore all his negative traits like poor GM-ing abilities and prickly personality that make essays like this seem 100% plausible. I’ll let  @netw3rk take it from here:

He’s been trolling us all these long years; we just haven’t recognized it until now. First it was baseball and the sneaker-buying predilections of the GOP and its supporters. Then it was the Hitler ‘stache and acid wash mom jeans. Now it’s MJ’s role as a hardliner, pushing for the players to receive a 47 percent split of revenue and practically inviting the reference to his famous “sell your team” comment to Abe Pollin during the last lockout. But all of that is in character, you see, because Michael has never cared what anyone thinks; he knows you care and that’s what makes hitting the game-winner in your face that much sweeter. He becomes, arguably, the biggest winner in this morass with his Godfather to end all Godfather moves: putting the last fruitful years of Kobe’s career in jeopardy as he chases that sixth title and legitimate comparisons to MJ.

Jason Concepcion, NBA Lockout Winners and Losers (so far): Michael Jordan Rides Again

Now, it’s not to say that what MJ and MJ did after their playing days ended should influence how we perceive them as players. But hero worship works so much better when you have one set of images to build around. With Magic, it’s pretty easy these days: he’s no longer has a financial stake in an NBA team, and he’s a generally positive presence on Twitter. With Michael, I just hope it starts to get a little bit easier.

Amin Vafa

Amin grew up in Cleveland, lives in DC, and somehow still manages to love watching professional basketball.