The Michael Jordan Paradox, Hype, and Hipsters: Why Everything Great Is Inherently Overrated
"The truth is overrated." - Paul Westerberg
The (Second) Best That Ever Was
So, Michal Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time, right? We all usually mindlessly accept this as fact rather than conjecture, and who can blame us? After all, the man won 6 championships, 5 Regular Season MVP awards, 4 separate NCAA Player of the Year awards, 3 All-Star Game MVPs, 2 Olympic Gold Medals, and 1 Defensive Player of the Year award. Nicknamed "Air Jordan," the man completely revolutionized the game, single-handedly transferring the emphasis from fundamentals to athleticism with his skill and will to win.
For most of his career, it seemed as though MJ was literally a man among boys on the basketball court. He possessed a flawless jump shot, clairvoyant court vision, and excellent on-ball defensive skills to go along with his trademark leaping ability. Jordan truly was the greatest basketball player that ever was; that is, until Lebron James signed a free agent contract with the Miami Heat three years ago and started tearing up every hardwood court from South Beach to Southern California against far superior talent than Michael ever had to contend with.
For the Sake of Argument
I'm not going to make some drawn out subjective argument here, because most people don't want to hear it, and the point of this piece isn't to compare the two players; I simply feel Lebron is more dominating, and that his overall offensive statistics outweigh those of his hero, Jordan. His defensive skills are still somewhat deficient, but he rebounds far better than Michael ever did, and his long reach allows him to be a formidable shot blocker. However, almost everyone that knows anything about shooty hoops vehemently refutes this notion - dismissing it as blasphemy and labeling me an idiot. Okay, that's fine, I may be wrong (and I may be an idiot), but I firmly believe the question is worth asking.
Aside from the actual act of comparing the two players' games, the truly fascinating part of this argument for me is that there exists an argument at all. When MJ retired, everyone was convinced that we had seen the best that there ever would be, and that was the end of the conversation. People stopped mentioning Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, and Bill Russel when the topic was mentioned, instead agreeing not to acknowledge anyone else in the same breath as Jordan. He was the best and that was that. No room for discussion, just go with it.
As it turns out, basketball was merely the means for Michael to become a living deity. McDonald's is indebted to the star power of Michael Jordan; Gatorade will forever be writing checks to Michael Jordan's offspring; and Nike might not even exist if it hadn't been for His Airness. He even starred in his own movie where the premise was (surprise, surprise) that he was the greatest basketball player who ever lived - a player so skilled that his talent was considered an unmatchable superpower. He transcended the sport and become one of the most iconic figures in the history of the planet; he was a globally recognized hero to billions of people around the world, and his name had become synonymous with athletic greatness. He became bigger than the game, which (partially) explains his inflated legacy.
Bursting the Bubble
The problem was (as the problem usually is when we claim that anything is "the greatest of all time") we only bothered to view Michael Jordan's performance within the context of his career. We observed Michael as if he had existed in an airtight vacuum that would never be penetrated by the sharp blade of time. Jordan, and all conversations regarding him, seem to exist in a bubble.
For those of you that don't choose to actively participate in the Jordan worship, or regularly communicate with anyone that does, bear in mind that it is alive and well in the realm of professional sports. In fact, various portions of this man's career were prominently featured in several segments that aired on Sportscenter just last month to celebrate the man's 50th birthday! I'm sorry, but who the Hell cares about Michael Jordan's birthday, other than Michael Jordan's mother? This is exactly the type of hero worship I'm talking about. We don't celebrate Larry Bird's birthday, or Julius Erving's. Why? Because we haven't all consciously engaged in branding them as being separate than the rest of us, despite their phenomenal skill on the basketball court.
Michael Jordan was easily the greatest player of his generation, and probably of every generation that came before him, but the world didn't end when he retired. So, here we sit, not even ten years after his second retirement, and it seems odd that we're even mentioning the mere possibility that another player may be better.
I'd Like a Side of Hype, Please
Michael Jordan was a tremendous basketball player, but was he so great that it's absurd to consider the idea that he may not have been the best? Most people think so, but they're confusing innovation (America is obsessed with trailblazing - see Manifest Destiny) for greatness. I refer to this as the Michael Jordan Paradox, and it can be applied to nearly any argument involving "the greatest ever" in any trade. At the root of this speculative cultural theory is my belief that it is impossible for any entity that is considered "the best" to not be overrated. Even if the universal consensus is that a certain thing is the absolute best, that thing will still be vastly overrated, probably even more so than the second or third best entity in its category. It's literally impossible for the genuine article to ever live up to the hype that we ascribe it, regardless of its superiority. Once we agree on the unequivocal excellence of any one concept, mechanism, or entity, anecdotes become embellished, rumors become fact, and, over time, nostalgia creeps in to cement said thing as "The Greatest."
So what makes someone or something overrated? Simple: The instant people stop debating a thing's absolute greatness and begin to accept it as a fact of life, that thing immediately becomes overrated. Even if they're right, even if something is definitely the greatest in its genre (sports, music, food, furniture, penmanship, lawn mowing, etc.), the thing could never be as good as we'd like it to be. If it were, there would be no need for any alternative.
People have a tendency to slip into this mind frame when they're presented with slanted rhetoric designed to trumpet the accomplishments of something. As highly advanced mammals, we possess a subconscious desire to follow the herd. So when someone we respect for reasons we don't even understand says something complimentary about anything we have even the slightest amount of interest in, we eagerly adopt those sentiments as our own. Over time, although usually quite quickly, a communal form of thinking begins to develop, and we all assume the hero worship position. Some people politely refer to this as word-of-mouth marketing, but it's actually much more akin to mindless conformity.
Not surprisingly, modern day hipsters are, ironically, the largest contingency of Michael Jordan Paradox purveyors. Although they claim to disdain the sheep/shepherd dynamic of the square community, they willingly enter into a similar social contract with their peers. How could they not? As the rest of us know, thinking for oneself can be exhausting! Therefore, the hipster struggles to contort their interests to force them into alignment with their borrowed world views, as they clumsily grasp at the splitting straws of their own vacant identity. To be a hipster is to engage in a series of cerebral double talk on a daily basis, to live in a self-contained universe of contrariness, as exhibited by the agonizing effort they undertake to appear as unkempt as humanly possible. This exercise in simultaneously defying and embracing conformity is made all the more difficult by their misplaced sense of superiority (as it is for all of us, I suppose). I discovered this firsthand thanks to a brief chance interaction in the commune that is my backyard last weekend.
My dog Wilbur was pleading with me to let him outside to do his business, so out into the elements we wandered. I was sitting on the the back stoop of my apartment watching intently (as most of us do for some reason) as my dog dropped a deuce near the back alley, not far from several scruffy humans practicing various forms of martial arts. I've noticed this sort of activity from them before, but I simply chalked it up to youthful drug experimentation. No harm, no foul. As long as those wildly swinging nun-chucks and bow staffs were nowhere near my face, or Wilbur's, I was content to observe their long, strange trip from a distance.
Naturally, it didn't take long for the ninjas to become infatuated by the rugged dogliness of Wilbur's silly little exterior. Feeling obligated to socialize as they rubbed my dog's head in delight, I slowly approached the group and, after introducing myself, began politely answering questions about minute details of what it probably means to be Wilbur. Somehow, the conversation took a surprising turn toward substance when we began talking about music.
Said Kung-Fu hipsters proceeded to rattle off a few dozen bands currently gigging within a 60 mile radius of Lansing, Michigan - only one of which I'd actually heard of (the sophisticatedly rustic Frontier Ruckus). Astonished at my musical stupidity, one of my new friends sprinted inside his apartment, only to emerge within mere seconds with a freshly burned copy of a CD by "the greatest band on the planet." Jokingly, I asked if his comment was simply an exercise in hyperbole, to which he respondended with a deadly serious "No." Although I'm well versed in the stupidity of swollen assessments (personally making them more often than most), I must admit that his passion ignited a strong desire within me to explore some of the local musical stylings of mid-Michigan.
The Greatest Band My Neighbor Has Ever Heard
As soon as the conversation reached its obligatory length, we all shook hands and went our separate ways - my neighbors to their 'shrooms and karate chops and me to my living room for what was to be one of the worst listening experiences of my life. At first, this band had me fooled. The first track opened with a pretty solid guitar riff, backed by a seemingly capable rhythm section, and even some funky brass. Then, all Hell broke loose. From out of a somewhat blissful clash of guitars and percussion came the sound of quasi-aggressive rapping. Not just any rapping, either. Here was an MC obviously weaned on far too many influences likely ranging as far back as Sly and the Family Stone to mid-90s Vanilla Ice. It's kind of hard to describe, but suffice it to say, it wasn't pretty. I skipped to the next track in auditory horror, only to discover that the first track hadn't been an anomaly. On each cut, jazz-rock fusion would splendidly spew forth from my speakers for roughly 30 seconds before this bastardized version of Kid Rock's incestuous offspring would begin approximately rhyming his way through utterly ridiculous lyrics about recycling, canaries, and sauerkraut.
Not only was this not "the greatest band on the planet," it was an appalling full frontal assault on my earholes. I'm still not really over it. My ninja hipster neighbor had peaked my curiosity, but since I don't live within the channel of his persuasion, my ears refused to accept the lie, which is really the only hope in resisting the Michael Jordan Paradox - integrity and subjectivity. The instant you buy into they hype, you've already lost.
This isn't to say that we aren't all influenced by communal trends, but every now and again, we need to step back and examine some of these casually accepted truths, despite our reluctance to do so. Was Michael Jordan the greatest basketball player ever? Is South Park the best show on television? Does my neighbor, Taylor, actually believe that his friends' band is the greatest of all time? Any answers to these questions would definitely be interesting and would likely elicit some primo debate, but, ultimately, answers are irrelevant because they're inextricably linked to the hype machine that we've been participating in our whole lives. The question itself is what is important because it defies the misconception that anything can ever be as objectively good as we would like it to be.
This includes the truth, which is never as good as we would like it to be - which, in turn, is precisely why we're so fond of embellishing our favorites and referring to them as "the greatest that have ever been."