So Much More Than a Game

Setting: The Great Western Forum. Lakers vs. Bulls. The bleachers are dark, almost lurid, the floor, shadowy and electric. Less fluorescent than radioactive. Players glide in slow motion across the key. Echoes of crowd roar, sneaker squeaks like car crashes at quarter-speed. A boy soprano begins to sing with castrato clarity. An inbound pass from half court.

Enter Jordan.

Cut to: Seven runners on seven treadmills. Televisions flicker overhead. The film is slow, fast, slow--the runners could complete an Olympic triple-jump in the time it takes for a single step. Close-up on a woman's face, mind-melded to the image on the screen. Next the camera is behind her elbow. Jordan's head rises on the monitor, blue, incandescent, transcendent. The most recognized pate in the world.

Cut to: A shirtless man with a mini-paunch, in two-thirds profile. He gapes at his TV screen, face coated white with Barbasol, razor slack in hand. In the background his sink gushes water. A close-up of the sink, full, flooding over.

Next: A pair of white sneakers dance over painted wood. The shot lasts a fraction of a second. This is the product: Nike shoes. Cut to: A dog shedding water from fur with wrenching torsional shakes. The camera pulls back to a profile shot: Mother and son seated on a couch in a plain California condo, enrapt, frozen. Jordan spins right, steps left. The one-boy children's choir chirps an evensong of secular awe.

Another kid stands in front of a cavernous garage, a TV glowing in the far background. In the sun-bright foreground his bicycle topples slowly on the driveway. When Jordan gets the ball, gravity takes a coffee break. Jordan to the net. Cyan-tinted flashbulbs explode courtside. A montage of faces, old men, boys, white, black, Latino. An overhead shot as Jordan rises above the net, slow, slow, slow. Then the film accelerates to fast-forward as ball speeds through hoop. A sensation of missing frames, a heartbeat skipped. A small, iconic Air Jordan profile, red on black.

Scorecard: Two points.

"The Jordan Moment" is an ad screening in Japan, South Korea, France, Germany, the U.K., and parts of Latin America. It cost something close to a million dollars to make; Jordan receives an estimated $20 million a year from Nike. A steep sticker-price, perhaps, but consider that since 1984, when Jordan was the NBA's Rookie of the Year, Nike's annual sales have ballooned from $500 million to $7 billion. "Michael Jordan is certainly part of that,"says Nike basketball spokeswoman Vizhier Corpuz. In fact, in the months after Jordan returned from his minor-league baseball exile in 1995, the six main corporations he represents (General Mills, Sarah Lee/Hanes, et al.) saw their stock values increase by some $3.8 billion.

This despite the fact that ads like "The Jordan Moment" may feature no explicit Nike logo, or even product identification. "Nike is a brand that's synonymous with sports," Corpuz says, adding that shoe sales are mostly a function of their design. Tacit, though, is this corollary: Jordan is a brand that's synonymous with Nike. The key to Jordan's commercial charisma may be the fluidity with which he shifts from pitchman to athlete to icon. The movie Space Jam, for instance, began several years ago as Nike's "Hare Jordan" ad campaign; both were made by director Joe Pytka. The products and media vehicles are interchangeable; Jordan is always Jordan; the shoes move themselves off the shelves.

Compare the seamlessness of the Jordan Industry to the self-awareness of the Shaquille O'Neal franchise (or that of a dozen other modestly articulate, prodigiously photogenic NBA players). "I'm just looking forward to wearing Reeboks, drinking Pepsi, and playing basketball," O'Neal bragged to The Washington Post after signing a 7-year, $124 million contract with the L.A. Lakers. Michael Jordan, however, is bigger than Reebok, Pepsi and, ultimately, basketball. Michael Jordan "looks forward" to being Michael Jordan; the rest follows.

"It seems there are a couple of athletes in any generation who have the power to really mesmerize people. I think that Michael Jordan is one of them." So explains Jamie Barrett, an associate creative director at Portland's Wieden & Kennedy ad agency and a collaborator on "The Jordan Moment" (see Culturata, below). "There's this phenomenon from a sports fan's perspective," Barrett continues, "that when Michael Jordan receives the ball, time feels like it stands still... Everybody is sort of joined in this collective experience of witnessing what Michael Jordan is going to do next."

When I first watched "The Jordan Moment," I too was mesmerized. The images bypassed any critical filter, imparting a deep and true sense of wonderment and awe. It wasn't until I'd re-lived "the moment" a half-dozen times that I connected this emotion to one inspired by a cinematic source: The opening sequence of Raging Bull.

There is Jake La Motta in tiger-skin robe floating over the ring, the canvas below silvery and luminescent, the action slowed so that the boxer seems to defy gravity, to flutter as if by magic in a world slowed. Our lives could be sublime, I've often thought, if we could slow ourselves to this pace--traffic lights taking days or weeks, the act of sex lasting a month. Each moment open to revision and re-creation. The possibility of perfection, so difficult to grasp when the stopwatch sweeps at full speed, suddenly attainable.

Soon after, La Motta betrays his talent by throwing a fight. He is consumed by suspicion; everyone, he now believes--wife and brother included--will betray him. He gets too fat to fight. His possibilities seem to have disappeared. Imagine playing a roulette wheel of all zeros.

But in "The Jordan Moment" there are no such consequences to face. Michael Jordan will score or he will not score. There will be a thousand more balletic, even heroic dunks ahead. And the viewer-fans are toddlers in an enormous crib, protected walls of Happy Meals, annually re-engineered sneakers, and durable cotton briefs. Nothing can go wrong. All roads lead to Jordan.

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