Iverson vs. Kobe


The NBA Finals are a pressure situation for more than just those on the court. It’s the showcase event for everyone who lives off pro ball as commercialized entertainment—David Stern, sponsors, broadcasters, sports journalists, and talking heads. And since Michael Jordan’s departure, there’s been much handwringing about the game’s TV ratings (despite the happy Nielsen numbers you’ve been hearing of late, we’re nowhere close to MJ figures—why do you think NBC is trotting out U2 and Destiny’s Child at halftime?). So, in an on-court effort to ratchet up fan interest, the league has pulled out one of its old standbys: the morality play.

The formula was developed more than 20 years ago, when the league was in actual danger of losing its television contract. Under up-and-coming league exec Stern, the NBA repackaged itself as a melodrama driven by star power. These theatrics were mapped onto the political narrative of the day, mainly the breakdown of the New Deal coalition. Back then, the symbolically white Celtics were cast as the “blue collar” team—avatars of the methodical and unflashy, representing the East and its rust-belt “work ethic.” The Lakers were “Showtime”—West Coast glamorous, smooth, and flashy; between their players and their conspicuous Hollywood fan base they were cast as the hip rival comprised of a black/yuppie alliance.

In the early to mid ’90s, with the sudden retirements of first Bird, then Magic, and then—just as he had become the singularly iconic player of his era—Jordan, Stern hit the panic button again. The response was a campaign to anoint the next generation of NBA superstars. The athletic shoe and beverage purveyors—who depend on superstar endorsements to hawk their wares—happily colluded in this effort.

So Shaq, Chris Webber, Jason Kidd, Grant Hill, and Penny Hardaway (whose career has shown the folly of premature canonization—give us at least one miracle, please!) were touted as the pro game’s newmegastars before any of them had done anything in the league (later, after MJ’s second retirement, Jason Williams, Kobe Bryant, and Allen Iverson were added to this pantheon). Their personae were the templates for the league’s marketing iconography, and therefore the terms of the new morality play—one that’s less racially overcharged, at least superficially.

The main motif in the current morality play, shilled by Mike Wise in The New York Times before Game 3, is the contrast between Kobe—as the Jordan-style uncontroversial, clean-cut, pure corporate logo—and Iverson—as the hip-hop, inner-city Mr. Keeping It Real. This contrast is racialized—sort of. Both Iverson and Kobe are black, as is Jordan. The issue just beneath the surface, though, is which of the available images of blackness the NBA feels comfortable projecting (Wise had euphemized it as “streets” vs. “suburbia.”). We already know the answer.

So here we go again. And to some of us, whether Iverson can get his props without changing his sartorial and tonsorial style has become elevated to an issue of social justice and respect for diversity of black culture. Fact is, though, as Reebok’s ad campaigns have shown, Iverson also has his marketing niche. It seems that the much talked about season-long “rehabilitation” of Iverson is less about how he has changed and more about how sponsors and TV execs have found an effective way to package his image: he can be cast as the rebel, making his style of blackness just as palatable to the NBA and its fans as Kobe’s.

Of course, there are benefits for Iverson as well. As a market specialist interviewed on ESPN put it, Iverson’s new crossover appeal “could be worth a fortune.” His posture of “challenging corporate culture” appeals to edgy, hip, and hip-hop market niches.

Sure, it’s good that a black athlete may finally get to be a rebel instead of a thug, and it may loosen some of the unfair constraints that have hampered pro black athletes generally—especially the superstars. But the extent to which we get worked up about this issue, I fear, mainly expresses the desiccated landscape for progressive politics in the U.S.

Regarding basketball, what’s more insidious about this new hype is that it has ushered in the complete consolidation of the ideology of the superstar in the NBA. Mirroring the triumph of market individualism in the larger world, the new iconography evokes a sensibility too much like Friedrich Hayek or Ayn Rand. In contrast to the marriage of new-jack style and corporate superstar marketing imperatives that now drive the game, at least Michael Jordan helped to make household names of Will Perdue and John Paxson, and even sent B.J. Armstrong to an All-Star game.

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