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Ball Don't Lie dispatched our man Devine in Boston — an honest-to-God journalist most days, a fibbing-to-Shamgod blogger others — to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., to check out the HoF's much-discussed new exhibit on Michael Jordan. Here's his take and photos ...
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — There's a Bugs Bunny sneaker.
No joke, guys. Among the many mementos included in "Become Legendary: The Story of Michael Jordan," there's a Bugs Bunny sneaker. A big, black-and-gray "Air Bugs" kick (or was it "Hare Jordan?"), encased in Plexiglas and given prime real estate on a 40-foot-long timeline that traces MJ's rise to immortality.
Its inclusion in the "Become Legendary" exhibit, launched last month at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in advance of No. 23's impending induction, is contextualized by the fact that "Space Jam" was yet another marketing coup for Jordan, one that capped a 1996 chock full of top-shelf accomplishment: the Sherman's March to 72-10; the return to first-team All-Everything status; the sweep of All-Star, league and Finals MVPs; the fourth ring; and the all-time shhhhh to those who clucked after his comeback from baseball in Birmingham. (The copy accompanying the shoe includes the following text: "The film was a huge success, and was loosely based on events in Jordan's life." Mostly, the parts where he's tight bros with Wayne Knight.)
And yeah, that's all true. (Especially that thing about Newman.) "Space Jam" was a hit — with $90.4 million in domestic ticket sales, it's still the highest-grossing basketball movie of all time, according to Box Office Mojo. It entered theaters just before Thanksgiving, so it did end Jordan's year in a temporal sense, and sharing the screen with iconic pop culture figures like the "Looney Tunes" characters did represent another step in Jordan's expansion beyond "basketball player" and into something more akin to "all-purpose public entertainer." Fair enough, considering the exhibit's intent is to celebrate Jordan as not only the G.O.A.T., but also the nexus of modern-day athletic mythology.
But still, seeing that shoe — such an encroaching, goofy, reverence-draining element — share space on the same stretch of wall as Jordan's 1981 McDonald's All-American jersey and the University of North Carolina practice shorts he famously wore underneath his Bulls gear is jarring and, from a basketball fan's perspective, kind of insulting. Like, "You've got 15 years worth of the career of the greatest and most accomplished athlete of my lifetime to pull from, and you're giving us 'Space Jam?'" Really?
To be fair, some portions of the exhibit do explore and illuminate Jordan's actual life in basketball. Sections on UNC and the Bulls touch on his time in those formative locales and flesh out some of the key characters in his development, like Dean Smith and Phil Jackson. (The Chicago piece also includes a small, awkward statue, presented without comment, of Jordan in mid-dunk, sans tongue-wag.) Hanging from the rafters are jerseys from each step in his journey, starting with the blue-and-yellow of Emsley A. Laney High School in Wilmington, N.C., and stretching all the way to the Wizards' home whites.
A wall-sized tight shot of Jordan's back, name and number details his jaw-dropping resume of awards and honors. And when it's not pimping cartoon characters, the timeline does hit relevant on-court high points, like dropping 63 on Boston in '86, averaging 35 per on 53.5 percent shooting in '88, the dagger over Ehlo in '89, the Double Nickel at MSG in '95 (an event so tragic that it may or may not have led a 12-year-old Devine, rooting for Starks and Oak during a temporary break from "Golden Axe II" on Genesis, to cry big, fat, Hydrox-fueled tears).
Even cooler, an adjoining exhibit called "The Finals: Championship Moments" — a presentation of 30 images selected by NBA Senior Photographer Andrew D. Bernstein from the last 25 years of NBA championship series — shows off not only eight fantastic shots of Jordan in the Finals, but also the actual section of floor where Jordan hit the shot over Bryon Russell that put away Utah in 1998. Here's what the accompanying copy says: "The hardwood flooring on display here is the Delta Center flooring where Jordan broke the hearts of Jazz fans everywhere and cemented his place in history." (So, um, Jazz fans, maybe you'll want to think about avoiding that room.)
All things considered, though, "Become Legendary" isn't concerned with the fan's perspective — at least, not primarily. The press release announcing the exhibit's launch said the Hall of Fame "partnered with Jordan Brand, a division of NIKE, Inc. to create" the celebratory spread; as Richard Sandomir pointed out in The New York Times a couple of weeks back, what that really means is that the exhibit was "designed, installed, written, curated and paid for by the Jordan Brand" — an investment that Hall of Fame President and CEO John L. Doleva said in an interview with the Republican newspaper of Springfield cost the brand a cool $250,000. (Nike denied the quarter-mil figure in Sandomir's Times article.)
As a result, Nike's influence isn't limited to the constant theatrical loop of the four-minute "What is Love?" Jordan Brand commercial in a small seatless theater at the center of the exhibit, or the section displaying the 24-year evolution of the Air Jordan shoe, a visually compelling showcase of sneakers framed by promotional images of the early Jordan, sketches of designs, notes on production elements and the like. It permeates everything, from the reference to the Jumpman logo as "an international status symbol of aspiration and success" to the inclusion of a pro-Nike Spike Lee quote alongside a note on the 1988 debut of the "Mars Blackmon" commercials ("Never before in the history of American business has a company put a black individual as the face of a company, and what Phillip Knight did was revolutionary").
It also taints, to some degree, the items included in the shrine, as Sandomir reported: "Those six Chicago Bulls championship rings encased in plexiglass? He doesn't own any of them. The wall of Air Jordans that looks like a display at Foot Locker? Jordan didn't soar in any of them. ... Not a jersey, a ball or a sneaker came straight from Jordan," but were pulled instead from Nike's corporate stash. So when you look at the McDonald's All-American jersey or the UNC practice shorts, you're not really seeing Michael Jordan's history, but instead sort of a buffed-and-shined, not entirely authentic re-purposing. The effect is ... well, odd, and possibly grimy. Like the game itself — the game Jordan mastered, the reason he's being inducted this weekend — is ancillary to the story it created, to the way it can be shaped and presented.
For what it's worth, the presentation of "Become Legendary" caught the eye of Darcy St. Onge, a 23-year-old studying visual communication design at the University of Hartford. He was at the Hall last Friday as part of a class trip to study the way different exhibits were designed and what their compositions were intended to lead visitors to focus on. So what did the Jordan exhibit lead him to focus on?
"The way that Michael Jordan was not just a basketball player ... It's definitely more of an homage to his accomplishments," he said.
"That, and all the shoes."